Sefi Atta highlights The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of America – Olukorede S Yishau
...A review of The Bad Immigrant
There is a writer named Osaron in Sefi Atta’s most recent novel, The Bad Immigrant.
He has a doctorate degree and was an academic in Nigeria before his relocation to America.
In America, he writes a memoir about his life in Nigeria. It details political persecution and injustices meted out to him.
Not long after the book’s release, Lukmon, one of his colleagues in Nigeria, relocates to the United States with his family: his wife, Moriam, their son, Taslim, and their daughter, Bashira.
The day Lukmon, who holds a doctorate degree in Literature, gets hold of Osaro’s book, he shudders at the lies in it. The book, he admits, is good; the only problem is that it is not non-fiction because almost all the details are made up by Osaro to buy the sympathy of the American establishment and he succeeds with a major award and speaking engagements.
Osaro’s story is just a sub-plot in Atta’s new book. The main plot is about the Ahmed-Karims: Lukmon, Moriam, Taslim and Bashira.
The Ahmed-Karims’ movement to America is made possible by winning a visa lottery before the American government kicked Nigeria out of the list of eligible nations.
The novel begins in 1999 shortly after AbdulSalami Abubakar handed power over to Olusegun Obasanjo and ends well after 2011.
As soon as the Ahmed-Karims settle in America, their lives begin to change. Lukmon is forced to take a job as a security officer in a store where shoplifters reign. Moriam studies to qualify to practise nursing and midwifery and their kids start to Americanise.
They acquire American accents They start speaking “gonna” and “wanna” and referring to their parents as “you guys”. They get unmoored from the cultural norms back home.
Lukmon, who sees himself as a “bad immigrant” because he is “not the kind who aspired to be honorary whites,” sticks to his old (Nigerian) ways.
The changes breed crises and how the family navigates one crisis after the other is a major plot-driving technique. We are treated to a dysfunctional family in which the father and mother argue a lot and the children are being changed by their new realities.
After Moriam starts working as a nurse, Lukmon is persuaded to become the househusband, a role strange to his Yoruba heritage. With time, he intensifies efforts to get a job as a Lecturer and when he first gets a temporary job and later a permanent one in Middlesex, tens of miles from their New Jersey base, the family has to confront the challenges of running without a father figure. When he returns on vacation he discovers new things about them and he worries.
Set in New York, New Jersey and Middlesex, The Bad Immigrant follows the Ahmed-Karims and America, through the eyes of Lukmon. It also follows Nigeria, pummelling it with blows over corruption, economic inequities and tribalism. The United Kingdom also receives some mention, especially because the narrator had his Master’s degree there.
Through Lukmon’s unfiltered voice, we hear acerbic views of male-female relations, race relations, American lifestyles and his fellow Nigerian immigrants. We glean race relations between blacks and whites, between Africans and African Americans. He entertains us with his journey to accept necessary changes. Racism, we see, is a reality, which many an American still deny but denial or not, it leaves the country divided.
We get so much insight into American lives, including how the people, at times, give so much personal information to strangers. We also see their ignorance, about things within their shores and about things outside their shores.
The craze for Ivy League degrees as pathways to success is also x-rayed.
The book brings to mind a number of major events in America’s history such as Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and The Pentagon, the 2008 recession, the emergence of Barack Obama as the first black president, the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb attempt and the killing of Amadou Diallo.
The novel equally spotlights parenting. While parents fret over the choices of their children the children stick to their guns and luckily, as time shows, the fretting could have been done without.
The book is also about literature. We come across so many books, especially American and African books, thanks to the narrator’s profession and the university setting in the latter part of the book. The literary and cultural allusions are a delight to read.
The novel also examines the conditions that predispose Nigerians to leave home for greener pasture abroad, even when they are aware of the challenges of assimilation in America and other developed nations.
Moriam was a nurse in the military hospital in Lagos, where her colleagues were ever disappearing abroad for better opportunities and Lukmon, after a stint as a Lecturer in the state university, became a public relations manager in a bank but soon got bored with the routine of issuing press releases and statements. Both of them were barely getting by and worried about the quality of the education their kids would have amid dwindling cash in government coffers and the corruption that kept universities’ workers on regular strikes.
In clever and compassionate prose laced with wit, Atta tears apart the American dream. She hides under humorous lines to deliver well timed punches about the elusive American dream.
The America that emerges from Atta’s exposition is a bully, a country that values comformity over merit, a country where an immigrant’s academic prowess is no guarantee of success, a self-appointed defender of the universe, a nation always looking for trouble overseas, a nation which runs away from race issues yet confronts it every day, a nation united and divided in equal measures and a nation that will always have to watch its back because of the enemies it has created for itself.
Atta seamlessly joins word to word to deliver a mansion that is only possible as a result of compromise, hope and determination.
This powerful tale convincingly delivers both joy and pain.
***Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales.