Et Tu, Brother?
The One with Enyeribe Ibegwam — On Brotherhood and Literature
I first met Enyeribe in 2009 while we were undertaking a compulsory paramilitary training called the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Jigawa State, located in northern Nigeria. We became fast friends and managed to keep in touch since then, albeit sporadically.
Enyeribe Ibegwam was brought up in Lagos, Nigeria but now resides in the US. A writer, he has been awarded a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He has received grants from the Vermont Studio Center and The Elizabeth George Foundation. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in PEN America Best Debut Stories 2019, Prairie Schooner, The Southampton Review, and The Georgia Review. He’s a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
It was while in the US that Enyeribe was first labeled as a “Black man.” New to the culture of solidarity among Black people in the US, he found it strange when he got nods and looks from other Black people who expected him to reciprocate their gestures and call them “brother” too. Coming from Nigeria, where everyone was Black, there had not been any need to identify himself as being Black. He was thus thrown into an identity crisis.
His epiphany came after he read about the struggles Black-Americans had gone through in the fight for equality; he realized that he was a beneficiary of their protests. It was then that he boldly began to identify himself as a Black person.
From our discussion, we agreed that Africans need to do more in connecting with African-Americans by giving them orientations about the culture and the Motherland. A lot can be achieved by having conversations with them, inviting them over, or even creating cultural exchange programs to provide learning opportunities about their ancestral home.
As a budding writer, Enyeribe faced numerous rejections for his first short story, which was inspired by his home-sickness at that time. The story was finally accepted and published by the Urban Avenue Journal and went on to win the Robert J. Dau Prize for Short Stories. His story, along with 11 others, was published in the PEN America Best Debut Stories 2019.
I found the plot of the story very nostalgic as it reminded me of the years growing up in Nigeria in the 90s. Enyeribe had drawn his inspiration from the experiences he had witnessed people go through with relatives who, after traveling out of the country, seemed to disappear into thin air. As one who is excellent at eavesdropping, Enyeribe mostly draws his ideas from listening to older people talk. Typical of the behavior of great writers, he didn’t give a predictable conclusion to the story but instead left it to the imagination of the reader.
Life is often like the end of Enyeribe’s book, where there are several possibilities to choose from. Whatever your choice is, make sure you remain true to your values and identity. If you want to have a taste of Enyeribe’s work, then click here.
To learn more about my conversation with Enyeribe: