“To listen to the words, to hear their musicality.” A conversation with Julie Iromuanya
Annually, when his father sent him tuition money, Job stored it in a savings bond. Even as his father’s business in Nigeria began their decline, somehow, faithfully, he managed to send Job the money to educate him abroad. His father even bragged to his friends that is was the duty of the old to care for the young, so the young could care for the old one day.
At first Job thought about returning the money. After all, his family needed it. His father would never admit it, but his mother wore less jewelry with every annual visit. But there would be too many questions. What had he been doing in America all this time? How could he possibly have failed his classes? His father’s face would be hard, the look Job saw when Samuel disappointed them all by dying.
There was also no sense in giving Emeka fodder for gossip or his unrelenting unsolicited advice—You know, my friend, there are three things a man must do in his native land: marry, bury, and retire. America is the steppingstone. If you cannot make it here, then go home a joke.”
–Excerpt from Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press)
CORINNE GOULD: Dishonesty and false identity play integral roles in the unfolding lives of Job and Ifi Ogbonnaya. After their arranged marriage and Ifi’s immigration to join Job in Nebraska, Ifi experiences snow for the first time. At first, the falling flakes amaze her, but by the end of the chapter, the “snow fell outside, a dressed-up rain.” I love the way this scene frames snow as fraudulent rain, as though nature has the capacity to lie. Was this a theme that you knew you wanted to write about? How did consideration of an unreliable narrator influence your choice to write in shifting third person points of view?
JULIE IROMUANYA: I didn’t begin writing that scene with the intention for the setting to be deceptive. I knew that the characters would be unreliable, but I hadn’t yet thought about how the setting could conspire against them. It was something that emerged as I sank deeper and deeper into the levels of that scene. I knew that Ifi would be experiencing snow for the first time, that her ideas of America would come from television, movies, magazines, and novels. Perhaps she would be schooled to expect the snow to be magnificent, and clean, and bright, and cold, but what she would suddenly learn is that she had already experienced snow in different form, a disguise.
The unreliability of the narrators was something I was interested in conveying from the outset. Their viewpoints are so limited and sharpened by their worldview and expectations. I derived great pleasure in finding ways to expose the tensions that come about from the contradictions in what they understand of situations. For most of the book the point-of-view shifts from Job to Ifi, but the third point-of-view, ever present from the first moment, is the point-of-view of the reader. And it’s this perspective that acts as a gauge, measuring their actions against their words and their perceptions.
CG: It is an effective gauge! Your story predominantly follows the marriages and domestic traumas of Job and Ifi, and Emeka and Gladys, all Nigerian immigrants. I love the way you have incorporated Igbo diction into the characters’ dialogue. I noticed that the Igbo terms are rarely set off in italics from the rest of the body text. To me, this seems to resist the alienation of non-English speech in the novel. Was this your choice, or that of the book designers? What was your process for creating authentic Igbo-English dialogue that conveyed dialect?
JI: I’m aware of the politics behind the choice to italicize or not to, but admittedly I don’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. Igbo is both familiar and strange to me. My parents spoke it to one another, but they didn’t teach it to us, so growing up it always felt like something private that belonged to the adults. Strangely, I would sometimes dream in Igbo, so I’ve always been certain that if I find the right hypnotist I’ll wake up speaking fluently! Until then, I’ve gone about it the old fashioned way. I study the language and practice with my mother. This is sometimes a challenge because, while she speaks it, she does not read or write it. On the other hand, I only remember things when I’m able to write them down. Somehow we’re able to meet in the middle.
For my personal reasons and for my characters, I had to expand my knowledge of the language. For the voice of the characters and the tone to resonate, I felt that Igbo was essential. I think that there’s a special character to the way that Nigerians, in general, speak English, a slightly formal British influence with a cadence and styling that is full of inflections and exclamations that are full of verve and life. Igbo is such a diverse language with many different regional dialects and there are influences from other ethnic groups’ languages, so sometimes the words that I used weren’t even Igbo, but were in fact Yoruba. Igbo, itself, is a beautiful language. Take, for example, the word “green”: “akwụkwọ ndụ” literally means “leaves of life.” Isn’t that a beautiful way of describing the color green? It tells a story. And to listen to the words, to hear their musicality—Igbo is a tonal language—is a way of engaging the senses. I’m someone who savors the sounds of words and appreciates visual imagery. I often have to reign myself in.
CG: You may be familiar with the We Need Diverse Books campaign promoting increases in the diversity of literary characters, active author, literary critics, and publishing professionals in the American book industry. How, if at all, do you see your work participating in this mission?
JI: I do think we need more diverse books, but I’m not familiar with this style of initiative. I only know that when I went out on the market with my book, I found that some publishers weren’t interested in the book because they had already published an African writer. And some weren’t interested because they would have preferred an exotic African landscape instead of landscape that was exotic to my characters—Nebraska! I’m aware that by publishing my book I am participating in the marketplace of ideas—and I hope I lend a compelling perspective—but I began writing the book with the simple task of writing about an experience and characters who feel familiar to me.
CG: I really admire that mission. In this novel, what is familiar to you becomes engaging and edifying for readers. Before reading Mr. and Mr. Doctor, I didn’t think much about the differences in identity for immigrant Americans. When Job is reporting his mugging at the police station, he describes his attackers as “three black Americans,” and goes on to assert that he is African and an American citizen, but not African American. The white officer continues to pressure Job to admit the attackers were “black like him,” and it struck me how although Job has a distinctive ethnicity, his race is inescapable and dictated by others. For me, your novel seems to uniquely align with African literature, African American literature, and American literature. What are some examples of novels that you admire or often return to?
JI: I do think of my work as straddling the traditions of African Anglophone literature, African American literature, and American literature, so I naturally gravitate toward literature in all three areas. Among my favorites are Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Flannery O’Connor, Junot Díaz, J.M. Coetzee, and Chinua Achebe.
CG: Those are some of my favorites too. Can you imagine the lively conversation if Morrison, O’Connor, and Díaz were all chatting over lunch? You are currently a professor and have published scholarship about African literature, and yet your novel avoids the self-awareness of effortful writing. At no point did I consciously think, Oh! I see what Julie is doing here. How very artful. Instead, the dexterous dialogue, nonlinear plot, shifting perspectives, and visual motifs all move earnestly. How directly has your experience with literary criticism and scholarship informed your writing?
JI: My literary criticism and scholarship have helped me to be more cognizant of how my work fits into multiple literary traditions. It has also allowed me to recognize and articulate aspects of the African Diaspora that I have taken for granted. For example, I know many Nigerians who have held firm to their identity as a Nigerian (Igbo, or Yoruba, etc.) in spite of spending most of their life in America. I didn’t understand it philosophically until I began to research immigrant studies literature. My research gave me a vocabulary for describing and seeing the nuance in “sojourner” as opposed to “immigrant,” for example. It made me more intentional about creating scenes where Job’s philosophical positioning would be most challenged. Where might he feel most tempted? And how much trouble would his steadfastness bring him?
CG: The penultimate chapter seems to offer hope for the possibility of Job and Ifi to start fresh, but the final chapter, however brief, illustrates that Job is still furiously spending money to prove his worth, and depending on his fictitious identity. In an interview with the Rumpus Book Club, you said you had started this novel with a vision for the beginning and for the end. I am curious what the conclusion means for you, and what you hoped it could mean for the reader. Of the major characters in the novel, Ifi and the neighbor boy, Jamal, seem uniquely capable of adapting— what sets them apart from the others?
JI: I wanted Job to learn a lesson, but I didn’t want it to be the lesson we would presume he should learn. Job has an epiphany but it is quite different from Ifi’s. While Ifi learns to stand on her own two feet, to be an individualist, what I consider very American traits, Job learns about how much his family has invested in him, not only monetarily, but also psychically. He learns about how much his family’s honor, dignity, and self-worth are tied to the notion of his success in America. They’ve never healed from the trauma of their first son’s death or their dashed Biafran dreams. In the beginning, Job is only pretending for himself, and he doesn’t recognize the truth about his family’s investment in him until he returns to Nigeria after the tragedy. When he’s alone in that motel in the final chapter, there’s a parallel that I wanted to establish with the opening scene of the novel. He’s doing the same thing, performing in a disguise, but it means something entirely different now. He’s chosen this fate. He makes a conscious choice to jump in with both feet and as a result he is completely subsumed by the ruse. It is self-immolation. I find him, in an odd way, to be quite heroic.
Ifi and Jamal are better suited for adaptation because they’re both orphans. Ifi’s parents have passed away and Jamal’s are peripheral. Ifi has already tried things her Aunty’s way and they haven’t worked for her. As a result her disillusionment instigates her desire to reinvent. America provides her that opportunity. Her aloneness, like Jamal’s, enables her to embrace the possibilities of new beginnings and of taking chances.
CG: I would love to know more about what you are currently working on or hope to work on in the future. If you do not want tell us about a specific project, maybe you can describe a bit about your process?
JI: I’m working on a second book dealing with Nigerian immigrants, but I’m interested in focusing on the children of immigrants this time. That’s all I’ll say about the content. (I’m a little superstitious.) In terms of my process, I’m usually inspired by a sudden image or a line of prose. I have a notepad on my nightstand where I jot down lines that pop at me in the middle of the night. I write an entire draft—I try to write for big blocks of time if I can—and then I go through the draft and select the areas that have the right energy. The prose doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect. I’m just looking for the pockets of life. I copy and paste only those selections into a new document and dump the rest into another document. Then I start to build up and around and through the lively sections. I think of myself as a sculptor, cutting away at excess clay in order to shape the narrative. I repeat the process as many times as necessary.
Purchase a copy of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor here: http://latenightlibrary.org/mr-and-mrs-doctor
Julie Iromuanya has short stories and novel excerpts appearing or forthcoming in the Kenyon Review , Passages North, the Cream City Review , and the Tampa Review , among other journals. Her writing has been shortlisted for several awards, including the Glimmer Train Family Matters and Very Short Fiction prizes, the Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She earned her PhD from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and was the inaugural Herbert W. Martin Post-Graduate Fellow at the University of Dayton. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing and African and American studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is her first novel.
Corinne Gould is a student in the Book Publishing M.A. program at Portland State University. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne is a publicity intern with Hawthorne Books and volunteers in the Bonny Slope Elementary’s Library.