Book Bag: ‘The Bad Immigrant’ by Sefi Atta; ‘Unfinished Lives’ by Michael Miller

Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2021

The Bad Immigrant by Sefi Atta; Interlink Publishing


Nigerian-American fiction writer and playwright Sefi Atta, whose work is published by Interlink Publishing of Northampton, has written a number of novels that plumb the experiences of Nigerian women, the modern history of the country (including the civil war of the early 1970s), and the efforts of women to navigate a patriarchal society overseen by unstable governments.

In her newest book, “The Bad Immigrant,” Atta offers her first male protagonist in Lukom Ahmed-Karim, a former Nigerian professor and bank communications writer who comes to America in the late 1990s with his wife, Moriam, and their two teenage children after the family wins a coveted green card.

In his first-person narrative, Lukmon evinces no great love for Nigeria, as he criticizes its corruption, economic inequities and tribalism. But neither is he ready immediately to embrace the notion that the U.S. is the golden land of opportunity for all. It’s Moriam, a nurse, who pushes hardest to come to America, in large part because she believes their children will have better educational opportunities there.

With “The Bad Immigrant,” Atta, who lives in Mississippi and divides her time between the U.S., Nigeria, and Great Britain, has created a satire and a comedy of manners, as well as a nuanced look at race relations — not just between blacks and whites but between Africans and African Americans. The novel also probes the challenges Lukmon and his family face in a new country, and how a younger generation finds it easier to adapt to a different culture.

Lukmon gets a less-than-ideal introduction to America when his family initially stays with his cousin, Ismail, in northern New Jersey. Ismail, a financial planner who fervently believes in the American dream of hard work leading to prosperity, is separated from his African-American wife, Sondra, and bitter about how their teenage son is embracing hip hop music and working as an MC in clubs.

Sondra “looks down on Africans,” says Ismail. “She even looks down her nose on other African Americans and calls them ghetto…. Listen, let them not fool you with their ‘black this, black that’ business. They’re just as divided as we are. Ours is by tribe and class. Theirs is by class and skin shade.”

Unable to find a job as a professor or writer, Lukmon takes a position as a security guard in an upscale cosmetics store in Manhattan, where he suspects his supervisor, a white woman who’s superficially friendly, is a racist. Yet it’s an African-American man who takes offense with Lukmon after the store detective tells Lukmon to detain the man because he’s suspected (wrongly) of shoplifting an item.

“Goddamned African,” the man says to Lukmon as he leaves the store, threatening a lawsuit. “You’re lucky you didn’t mess with me.”

Yet Lukmon understands something about what American blacks face in the U.S. “You watched breaking news about an innocent suspect shot to death by the police, well, you could easily misconstrue that black people were inferior,” he says.

Moriam gets a nursing job, so Lukmon becomes a reluctant house husband, something that feels unmanly to him. He’s also alternately disturbed and bewildered to see how quickly his son, Taslim, and daughter, Bashira, seem to be picking up American slang and habits, especially Bashira’s habit of talking back to her parents.

“I could understand teenagers wanting to fit in, but I couldn’t imagine American teenagers adopting a pitch-perfect Nigerian accent within a year,” he says.

In part because he feels Moriam is not performing her “wifely duties” in the bedroom, Lukmon eventually takes a teaching job at a university in Mississippi, living apart from the family during the academic year. He also begins to develop a broader sense of the new country he’s in, as well as a recognition that he needs to change some of his views: “America constantly challenged my perceptions and opinions, even when I lapsed into my old ways of thinking.”

Indeed, one of the pleasures of “The Bad Immigrant” is listening to Lukmon’s unfiltered voice and his often acerbic views of male-female relations, race relations, American lifestyles and his fellow Nigerian immigrants. He has much to overcome in finding his way in the U.S. and accepting that his kids and wife have to find their own ways, too, but it’s entertaining to watch him make that journey.

Unfinished Lives by Michael Miller; Pinyon Publishing

Amherst poet Michael Miller has had a productive run over the past decade or so, publishing 11 collections and winning considerable recognition. His third book, “Darkening the Grass,” was a “Must Read” selection for the 2013 Massachusetts Book Awards, and his work has been published in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The Yale Review and several other journals.

In his newest collection, “Unfinished Lives,” Miller, born in 1940, presents more of his trademark free verse poems, the lean lines examining love and aging, the beauty of the natural world, and family memories.

“Shallows at Dusk” recounts a trip to a pond in a “quiet New England town” that the narrator, his wife, and young son have just moved to from an unnamed city. As daylight fades, a heron descends to the water in search of food, and a kind of hushed magic settles over the scene, taking the family to “[a] place beyond definition.”

“How naturally we surrendered / To the heron’s grace, / This long-billed wader / Ignoring us in the silence / Of its routine— / High-stepping into the water / To hunt the carp. / Captivated by this ritual / We waited for the catch, / The calm water shattering, / The flame-colored carp / Wriggling in air, / Ensnared in a scissor of bill.”

In “A Long Way from Ireland,” an extended poem made up of 19 short sections, Miller tells the story of an aging Irishman, now in America, looking back on the losses in his life: the death of his twin sister at age 11, the end of his marriage, the passing of his mother and father.

“He has managed,” Miller writes, “Managed to make the wrong choices, / The right choices, and find / The uneven road between, / His Mother’s words / Embedded in him.”

And in “Shadows On The Rug,” an elderly man leans back in a chair late at night and thinks of his late wife, gone two years, his sexual desire now “buried in the cemetery / Without a gravestone. / Wanting to live for her / He is not ready to die, / Knowing the bottom of love / Can never be reached.”

“No other poet I know writes so beautifully about seasoned love,” one reviewer writes of Miller. “His poems value clarity, understatement, love in the context of its turbulence, and the accuracy of each detail.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.