By Michael Jimoh
There is no written code of conduct between immigrants and citizens of their host countries. There is no legislation which specifies how immigrants, having reached their destination, should be treated by the natives. But there sure is a tacit understanding that as long as immigrants keep within the limits of the law and behave themselves, their hosts might just be tolerant or welcoming enough. That is seldom the case, however, especially if the immigrant is black, poor and uneducated, especially if he/she is migrating from the southern to the northern hemisphere, say, from Nigeria to any country in Europe or America.
At no time during their stay, however briefly or lengthy, do immigrants enjoy the same privileges as citizens of those countries. Whether black or yellow or brown, they are made to know their place in very clear terms, sometimes by government officials at formal invitations or plain John citizens at informal interactions, sometimes through carefully calculated put-downs or unspoken, scornful actions.
Last April, in a well researched and compelling piece entitled “The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” for the New Yorker, Ben Taub followed the traumatic journey of Blessing, a teenage girl from Benin City in Nigeria through Agadez in the Sahara desert to Libya and then Italy, the girl’s final destination. Rescued by Italian Coast Guards, hungry and desperate, Blessing and one other trafficked girl, with the white journalist, went to a restaurant for nourishment. The Italian proprietress not only denied them a badly needed meal but ordered them to give her premises a wide berth. Before then, on the streets of Palermo in southern Italy, natives held their hands to their noses as the African migrants passed by. Many African wayfarers looking to ‘making it’ have been subjected to worse indignities by resident citizens in America, Asia or Europe. And yet, the exodus continues in search of economic emancipation abroad because of perceived economic deprivation at home. Is the continental crossover worth it or even necessary considering the inhuman treatment – physical and psychological – meted out to African migrants?
The author of this book does not attempt to answer that question. Still, the unbearable burden of being an immigrant is one of the major themes in this fascinating novel by the Nigerian novelist, Julie Iromuanya, whose parents themselves are immigrants in the United States. She currently teaches creative writing and African literature at Northeastern Illinois University. Iromuanya has always wanted to be a writer from way back, from her pre-teen years. Now in her mid- to late thirties, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is Iromuanya’s first novel. It is a great start. From this, it is clear she is destined for greatness as a novelist, and one that will delight readers with her inimitable storytelling and audacious portrayal of characters living their complex existence. It is to Iromuanya’s credit that the story begins and ends in a hotel, the first in Port Harcourt and the last in Nebraska. It not only gives the story a certain roundness or completeness, but that the whole story has come full circle. It marks the protagonist’s gradual degeneration from a swank suite in Nigeria where he consummates his union with his virginal wife to a seedy room in America where he copulates with an ageing prostitute whose crumbling features the best of mascaras cannot completely conceal.
With a more than generous paunch, unimportant-looking but bushy eyebrows and a deep sleeper on account of keeping two jobs (Job is at the centre of this charming novel from start to finish), the protagonist is one of the most insecure characters to have emerged from the fertile imagination of a writer in contemporary Nigerian fiction. Right from age 7, Job had always lived other people’s lives. He had never, it would seem, been his own man or himself: Job secretly donning his elder brother’s clothes after Samuel’s demise until he is surprised by his mother; Job deferring his father wish for him to read medicine; Job in an arranged marriage to an American to obtain his green card; Job disguising as a doctor – complete with stets and lab coat – while in fact he is a mere nurse; Job cross-dressing on two different occasions; Job buying an ersatz fur coat for his spouse because his friend’s wife has one – the real thing, though. It is this lack of confidence, of self worth that feeds Job’s fantasies and self delusion. In one astonishing make-over, Job insists he is a prince, the son of a king in Nigeria while, at that very moment, he is bent over performing the un-princely task of wiping his listener’s ass clean. The irony is telling.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is Job’s story, but in telling it, Iromuanya paints a broader and often hilarious picture of the uncertain existence of immigrants in another country: How they coexist with one another, on the one hand, and their hosts, on the other; their laughable affectation of speech mannerisms (“Okie” for “Okay,” for instance) and palpable fear and suspicion of their hosts whose intentions and actions they can never quite predict. Job’s ex-wife, chain-smoking Cheryl, needles him for cash and sundry assistance. Though reluctant at first, Job complies because refusing can earn him instant deportation. Out to buy gas at a filling station, Job and his friend are sold leaded petrol by a white attendant contrary to their request. Rather than complain, Job’s pal offers an unusually large tip. Disdainful African American teenage street muggers corner Job, beat him, carve him and steal his car but he is treated as a suspect and offender by the police when he reports. A superior officer threatens him with sack from the hospital he works for no reason other than his status as an immigrant. The humiliations are never-ending, and they come in all guises. Incredulous about his experiences and contrary to his expectations, Job thinks aloud: “It is supposed to be easy here. In this America. Everything is supposed to fall into place. Opportunity is a ripe melon swinging from a tree…A knock on the tree, and opportunity would fall into your hands and split open. No effort. You would take its seeds, its juice, its marrow, and eat as you pleased.”
Even Job’s supposed best friend and countryman who ought to be a dependable ally, is anything but one. Emeka takes perverse pleasure in taking down on his “friend” at the slightest opportunity, even in the presence of respectable companies. Making a veiled allusion to Job’s spurious claims to being a doctor, Emeka adlibs to Ifi, Job’s newly arrived wife from Nigeria, that “not everything is at it seems.”
The subject of falsehood runs through the entire book, and Ifi discovers that soon enough.
She realises that, according to the author, “Job had seduced her through dreams he made possible.” To sustain the euphoria of that dream, Ifi plays along, dispatching exulting epistles to a bedazzled Aunty in Nigeria about their fanciful existence in America. Her interest piqued at this utopian world, the Aunty visits them in the U.S. and sees through their decrepitude but she, too, gets caught in their web of deceit. It gets so bad that when Ifi later confesses to Aunty that Job is not a doctor, the Aunty damns her.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is a rollicking tale of deceit, treachery and uncertainty, particularly for Job, a “simpleton” trying to be a smart man. This is the novel’s special appeal, creating in the reader’s mind an edgy excitement that makes him/her keep turning the pages until the very last.
One darkly disturbing observation about Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is the author’s merciless portrait of nearly all the characters – major and minor. From the author’s perspective which, one suspects, is Western, there is no redeeming quality whatsoever.
Mercifully free of that is Ifi who manages to detach herself from the bubble of falsehood swirling around the Ogbonnayas. She leaves Job for an uncertain but more realistic future as a hotel maid and not as Mrs. Doctor. But to the end, Job remains incorrigible.