Reading Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press, 2015), feels like watching an autopsy performed on a living man. That man, Job, is a Nigerian immigrant in small-town Nebraska, trying to live the American dream. The problem is that as Job’s dreams outreach his reality, he plasters over the gap in lies—lies to his few Nigerian American friends, lies to his family back home, and lies to his future wife, Ifi. When Ifi joins him in Nebraska, she expects to live the life she had read about in glossy magazines—a doctor’s wife fluttering about an idyllic mansion. Job, however, is a nurse’s aid, lives in a barely furnished, roach-infested apartment, and has little to offer but promises. As Job’s lies begin to be exposed, we see the raw viscera of the American dream—flickers of hope navigating the racism, class discrimination and bleak employment opportunities in a crumbling small town. Job and Ifi are in some sense “invisible sojourners,” African migrants trying to navigate the complex racial fabric of the United States, subsumed into Black culture, and yet also rejected by it. Julie Iromuanya spoke with CultureStrike [through an email exchange] about her novel, recently shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, her youth in Lincoln, Nebraska, the complex role of gender in traditional Igbo society, and how the American landscape can be either a springboard or a trap for immigrants. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
John Washington: How have your own experiences, being the daughter of Nigerian immigrants in the Midwest shaped your view of American culture and of the immigrant experience?
Julie Iromuanya: As the child of immigrants, I grew up having a sort of insider-outsider perspective about both American and Nigerian culture, and it made me wide-eyed and suspicious of the world. I’ve always closely observed social situations and interactions. Perhaps, as a result, I may even be a little bit more perceptive of human foible. By default I also tend to question how and why systems operate in the ways that they do. I suspect this aspect of my design has been crucial to my development as a writer.
JW: Job and Emeka, his one Nigerian-American friend, are obsessed with America (Job once chanting "A-ah! A-mer-eeka!") and yet they never really fully belong, feeling relegated to "foreign Americans." You capture a bleak picture of semi-rural Nebraska, with run-down neighborhoods, stinking meat-packing plants, and isolated lives. Most American don't often think of Nebraska as a place of much diversity (though Job works with Somalis, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Sudanese, and Bosnians, thanks to massive Latino immigration in recent years and extensive networks for refugee resettlement. What is the American dream like for immigrants in Nebraska? How does the rural experience change the immigrant experience?
JI: Job and Emeka are exasperated by America, yet allured by it. They want the trophies—success, wealth, and power. At the same time, some aspects of America beat against their conscience. For Job, in particular, the color line, gender roles, social class, and familial strata are all aspects of America that he struggles to negotiate with negligible success.
Their story is familiar to me because the Jobs and Emekas, as well as the Ifis and Gladyses of Nebraska were prominent features in my life growing up in Nebraska. Most of the diversity, I think, exists in pockets. Everyone knows who will do the best braids or cornrows. Each time a new international foodstuffs store pops up, people find their way there by word of mouth, and immigrants populate certain industries.
When I was growing up, most of the immigrants we knew came to Nebraska to pursue their education—some moved on, others flourished, and still others sank. My parents, who were students, lived in off- campus university housing for non-traditional students, mostly made up of international students, and then later we moved to working class neighborhoods made up mostly of African Americans, immigrants, and refugees, some in subsidized housing and on public assistance. The neighborhoods were usually very diverse. In fact, in my earliest memories my friends were refugees or children of refugees from Latin America, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, and many other places. Lincoln, Nebraska is a national refugee resettlement city because of the relatively low cost of living and unemployment.
Major tectonic global shifts found their way into little Lincoln, Nebraska, but I didn’t know that as a child. All I knew was that my friend Vinh was teaching me how to play Vietnamese jump rope, that Abbas had learned his first swear word—and was swiftly punished for using it, and that Andres was teaching me how to count in Spanish.
JW: Philip Roth describes the American immigration experience of the 20th Century as an "immigrant rocket"--one generation propelling the next, which propels the next, ever higher into the social/economic stratosphere. Nothing is more important to Job or Ifi than achieving this dream, yet it's repeatedly not realized. Does the vision of the "immigrant rocket" still exist? Did it ever?
JI: I love the notion of an “immigrant rocket,” and I believe in it as a possibility for all, but as a reality for only some. I also suspect that to some degree most immigrants come to America with that vision—they certainly wouldn’t come here if they felt that a future was unrealizable! To be clear, I'm drawing on a particular distinction between the designations “immigrant” versus “refugee” or “asylee”—immigrants, having some agency, come by choice (or perhaps coercion), as opposed to refugees, who often have little control over why they must journey and where they end up. That being said, as immigrants life presents situations and complications that test the “immigrant rocket” vision. For Job and Ifi, the success or failure of the American Dream becomes a part of their constitution. They’ve come a long way and endured and invested a lot in both surviving and thriving in America—it becomes a way to root them to their landscape, and so they ultimately become trapped by it.
JW: Your first chapter is such a riot, delving right away into the sharp gender divide and expectations between Job and Ifi? How much does Job's masculinity affect his inability to come clean about his struggles in America to Ifi, to his family, and even to himself?
JI: One of the places I began the story was thinking about how my gender has shaped my role in my family. The oldest daughter in Igbo families is referred to as ada which is a point of pride and privilege for me, but with it also comes a great deal of responsibility and sacrifice. As the first son, Job is opara in his family—it’s also a role that is defined by both gender and seniority. In Igbo families the first son usually inherits the family’s wealth, land, and legacy, but he also assumes a great deal of responsibility for the maintenance of the family and the proper burial of his father.
However, in the novel one of the challenges that Job faces is his insecurity in his role. He is actually the second-born son, but when his older brother dies during the Nigerian Civil War, he inherits the role of first son; thus he struggles to fit in the role, like an ill-fitting costume.
Ifi, on the other hand, learns that through marriage her identity becomes subsumed by her husband’s. She gains status in terms of wealth, privilege, and comfort—if in name alone—and by taking up the ruse herself, she protects her own assets. This is to say that she does have agency because she chooses to protect her own status, but it’s a complicated and troubling position for her, just as it is for Job.
JW: The guiding theme in the novel seems to be exaggeration. Everybody exaggerates their success, their happiness. And yet your own writing is so controlled, tempered--although sometimes quite funny, with some scenes approaching slapstick. Was this a conscious decision, seeking to emphasize the character's deliberate misrepresentation of their reality?
JI: I tried to find ways to magnify and exaggerate microscopic aspects of character and situation in order to illuminate the aspects that are the most obscured to both my reader and character. What is revealed is often the very thing my characters are most afraid of encountering. I think that’s one of the most powerful aspects of humor. Humor approaches extremes—incongruities or distortions, for instance—that may lead to slapstick, irony, or the grotesque.
I always let myself go during the drafting process, writing without boundaries and then during revision, I would read over and decide if I needed to reign that section in. Some of it was about adjusting the scale to match that of the character’s internal arc. The tone and the registers of this book are unlike anything that I’ve written before.
JW: How is the Nigerian immigrant's experience unique among other ethnicity's immigration experiences in the US?
JI: What is most familiar to me about Nigerians, generally speaking, is the high value on education. You will encounter many Nigerian cab drivers, nurses’ aides, and custodians who hold advanced degrees. They take great pride in their academic achievement even if there is little likelihood that it will amount to any monetary advancement. Often education and family lineage, rather than wealth, are held in greater esteem—I see this as a distinct difference between Nigeria and the U.S. Nigerians also have the reputation for being go-getters and high-achievers, sometimes with a negative or positive connotation.
When I wrote Job, I thought it would be interesting to invert that paradigm. What about the Nigerian immigrant who isn’t high-achieving, who isn’t a go-getter, who isn’t a degree holder? How does he exist within a cultural space that has conditioned him for a very specific kind of excellence?
JW: You tackle so many ideas and situations in this novel, exploring issues of class, inter-minority tensions, poverty, white privilege, police violence, but one of the most illuminating for me was how foreignness is a state of vulnerability among white Americans (as Job experiences at work) but it is a protection when black Americans are harassed by the police (Job and Ifi enunciate their foreignness—distancing themselves from black Americans—in a tense encounter with local cops. How does the complex relationship with black American (what the characters refer to as akata) culture complicate an African immigrant's story?
JI: In the early stages of developing my novel, I did a great deal of immigration studies research. One of the areas that I was particularly interested in was exploring the ways ethnicity is understood differently in the context of race in America. There is a kind of heterogeneity that whiteness allows, opening it up to encompass whites of various ethnic backgrounds that has not always been the case for blacks. Immigration studies scholar John Arthur calls African immigrants “invisible sojourners” partly because of the notion that Africans are subsumed by black identity when they immigrate to this country. And in a nation that has historically polarized whiteness and blackness in such a way that blackness has come to be stigmatized, for immigrants of color, blackness is a precarious position.
I was fascinated by this situation, but also interested in complicating this premise by thinking about the ways that accenting or muting various aspects of one’s multifaceted identity could provide agency in certain situations; thus, when Job and Ifi are coming home after a party, they accentuate their foreignness to create distance from blackness and it protects them. When Job is at the police station, he finds in that particular context that his social position is immutable and inescapable. I think that this mirrors the experience of many immigrants. Sometimes foreignness offers valuable cachet, but sometimes it means nothing at all.
JW: What are you reading now? Do you read a lot of American-immigrant fiction?
JI: I do read a lot of immigrant fiction, but this year I decided to catch up on my African writers. Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful things that Heaven Bears is a book about a refugee of the Ethiopian communist revolution—I read it years ago—but when I came across Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze I had to read it because, in a way, I saw it is a prequel to Mengestu’s novel. I just finished that and now I’ve shifted gears and I’m on to James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. I’m absolutely enthralled by his work at the level of the sentence.
JW: You recently moved to Tucson, to teach at the University of Arizona, a state notorious for its hostility to immigrants. Do you find the political climate starkly different than that of Nebraska? Do you have hope for the future of the immigration debate?
JI: Nebraska is conservative as is Arizona, but the brand of conservatism seems quite different, though I can’t put my finger on the difference yet. I suspect that with Arizona existing at the crux of three separate worlds—Native America, Mexican, and American—anxieties are heightened in a way that they are not in the middle of the country. I fall somewhere in between hope and cynicism. I hope that the immigration debates will become less dehumanizing, but I have to admit that I don’t have much faith that it will change just yet.
Learn more about Julie Iromuanya at her website.