Book Title: Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
Author: Julie Iromuanya
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication year: 2016
Reviewer: Terh Agbedeh
The Nigerian Diaspora is a huge animal that covers a vast expanse with America just one of its many components. Most, if not all the Nigerians who make up this animal, are in search of the proverbial Greener Pastures.
But are the pastures truly green out there?
Not according to Julie Iromuanya’s compelling narrative in her debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, whose main characters, most of them Nigerians, are as damaged as their American counterparts. Many of them ‘dreamers’ as the Americans like to say, but one wonders; has the American dream not passed them by? Makes you want to ask like the American poet Langston Hughes not so long ago; what happens to a dream deferred? For certainly, whether the characters are white Americans like Mrs. Janik, Cheryl, Sheryl, strippers or their black and brown counterparts like Mary, Jamal, the Mexicans and Somalis who work menial jobs at the meatpacking factory, their dreams are far beyond their reach. This is a nightmare they live in endless shifts and two or three jobs just to get by. Of roach infested households, crime riddled neighbourhoods, school skipping kids, police brutality and even racism. It is a place where everyone has something to hide. A place to “marry quick-quick, divorce quick-quick and citizen”, where not everything is as it seems and time is money. Much like everywhere else in the world. This is not the America that loomed large in their dreams long before they set sail towards liberty’s open arms and bright burning torch.
Take Job Ogbonnaya around whom Iromuanya’s book revolves for instance, who comes to America in his teens to become a doctor but for some reason, this becomes a lifelong desire. Not all the money his father has sent him over the years, nor the old man’s desire, or that of his whole clan that he become a doctor brings him any closer to that goal. So, like many of the other characters in this 292-page book published by the independent non-profit Coffee House Press, he tells one lie in his arrangement with Cheryl, which builds unto a tapestry of lies until it is too late to turn back. He is Mr. Doctor.
Perhaps it is too late for everyone in this neighbourhood who – in their desire to make it – tends to fake it, as if the very water they drink is sprinkled with a lie-inducing chemical. Ifi, Job’s arranged marriage wife from Nigeria quickly jumps on the bandwagon as soon as she touches down in America with her highly exaggerated letters to her foster aunty. Job neither leads her around the apartment nor shows her the ins and outs but she hits the ground running like a natural knowing where the holes are to be plugged, where the pots can catch the rain and where the mousetraps should go. A perfect Mrs. Doctor.
But there are also glimpses of ‘that’ other America in Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. Emeka, who says “these Americans are happy with nothing” has more or less bought into that other America, with his engineering career and conforming wiles. Nevertheless, even here there is disquiet. There is Gladys, who will do anything to get a male child even if Emeka has settled down to the fate of their having only girl children. Six of them already.
Like the many parts of the aforementioned animal there is no denying that Nigerian Diaspora literature comes in many forms. But I dare say that there have been few voices as clear and concise as Iromuanya’s peep into the American segment of this animal (the Nigerian Diaspora). Many writers before her have tended to normalise immigrant life dwelling mostly on the theme of race but not Iromuanya who has gone to the very detritus to tell it as it is.
There is indeed an America of the Hollywood movies and skyscrapers but there is also the America of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, which seems to be no different from the countries of the immigrants’ departure. In this way, they are neither here nor there, neither departed nor arrived and they fall into the gaping cracks of the very fence they settle on, their dreams perpetually deferred. Perhaps Emeka of the curt overenunciated English he reserves for the Americans illustrates this perfectly; that even in everyday speech the immigrant straddles a fence beseeching one side to belong while holding on to the other not to forget. But there is so much to forget and a lot more to embrace.
Iromuanya’s writing isn’t just words strewn together but the brush strokes of an artist bringing words to life, painting moving pictures with suspense, irony, satire and more. Reading Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is much like binge watching a very interesting soap opera, every word is there for a reason, opening the door to more words, every tool in its place, a scalpel for a surgeon and a knife for a butcher.
Who would have believed that Nebraska has such a convoluted underbelly? Who would think that there is such a place in America but for this moving tale of unrealised dreams, loss and yet more dreams crafted in words that not only lead to understanding but also engender empathy.
*Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is one of the books Shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016