By Samuel Oluwatobi Olatunji
It is 2am. My eyes are sleep-starved. I feel like reading a book so I begin reading Julie Iromuanya’s Mr and Mrs Doctor. This novel is an ebullient depiction of deferred dreams. Langston Hughes’ poem “What happens to a dream deferred” is explicated in this nostalgic narrative. Dreams and desire for the ideal culminate into deception, a survival mask for social acceptance – we claim to be who we are not or who we aspire to be because we want people to value us and accept us. Amongst many thematic preoccupations, the novel revolves around the themes of dreams, particularly deferred dreams, and deception (as a necessary tool for social survival).
It is the first sentence of the novel that casts a spell on me to read further (by the way, I can be discouraged from reading a book without an interesting first sentence or first paragraph): “Everything Job Ogbonnaya knew about sex he learned from American pornography.” Then I find Job “splitting his wife’s thin body against the papered wall of their lavish honeymoon suite at the presidential hotel in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.” At first, I thought maybe I’m about to read a man’s obsession with and exploration of sex. Well, the novel is beyond sex; it is more of a narration of the broken lives of African immigrants.
This is memorable novel for me, and it reminds me of other things. When the wife of Job, Ifi, tells him “you are ugly,” I remember an expression from Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood: “A man is never ugly.” Then I remember the marriage between Adams Oshiomhole and his Cape Verdean wife, and I laugh. When the wife says “I married a beast,” I remember “Beauty and the Beast” from the fairy tale to the Nollywood version of it. The wife’s comments arise during a humorous attempt at sex by two persons involved in an arranged marriage. This awkward first sexual encounter foreshadows the awkwardness of their togetherness afterwards.
Joe is a US-based college dropout and a nurse assistant, who pretends to have a degree in Medicine and pretends to be a doctor. This pretention, or deception, is necessary for him to maintain an acceptable social status. Ifi is an orphan, who lost her parents at a very young age; she is raised by her aunty and uncle. They are the ones that advised her to marry Joe, who will push her up the social ladder: she will not only be an American citizen by marriage with Joe, she will also be called “Mrs Doctor”. With the marriage done, “she reminded herself that she was a big woman now, a doctor’s wife, Mrs Doctor, no longer the skinny house girl in Aunty’s home. So she held her head up high.”
However, when dreams are built on the foundation of deception and illusion, they tend to crumble at one’s feet. This is what happens to this couple. Even Ifi soon realises it: “Ifi saw her dream begin to blur”. This is partly because “everything had a fakeness to it.” Job too feels the “disappointment and finally anxiety” that comes with the “lies, boldfaced lies.” But the lies are necessary for him to maintain a form of dignity, which Job believes every man should have. According to him, “what is a man if he can have no dignity?” The desire for dignity to maintain a dream-like existence makes them employ deceit. The deception becomes a foundation to uphold a good reputation. Sadly, both of them drown in “the ugly reality of life in America.”
When the couple’s (Job and Ifi) dreams seem too impossible to achieve, they begin to hope that their child, Victor, will live their dream: he will be the doctor his father cannot be – “my son will be the doctor instead of me.” But Victor does not live long enough to achieve his father’s dream. Probably because “to Victor, adulthood was equated with displeasure and disagreeableness.” His death makes his parents to move “from hope to dashed dreams.”
If there is one thing to be noted in this novel, it is that it rends the illusionary utopian imagination of America. America, where “everything is supposed to fall into place” becomes the place everything falls apart. The American dream becomes an illusion. At the end of the novel, Ifi seems to rise above this illusion, but Job is so submerged into it that he seems to be nothing without it.
This absorbing debut novel is imbued with lively, indelible characters. Aside Job and Ifi, this is another Nigerian couple – the jovial Emeka and the sophisticated Gladys. Emeka and Gladys are well-to-do and live a fairly comfortable life in America. They are the kind of couple Job and Ifi want to be. There is also Job’s cunning and scheming American ex-wife – Cheryl. He married her to become an American citizen, after he dropped out of college. Cheryl never stops intruding Job’s life (and Ifi’s life as well) and disrupting a lot of things with her constant demands. There is the judgmental gossip neighbour, Mrs Janik, and many other characters that can hardly be forgotten even when one is done reading the novel.
The novel is a delightful as well as a distressful read. There is humour, strong enough to crack ribs. But the humour is not unadulterated; it is alloyed with gloom that comes when one is disappointed or depressed in life. Iromuanya has masterfully explored the struggles (racial, cultural and class struggles) of Africans in America. The novel breeds a disturbing realism that shreds the façade of idealism, exploring the absurdism of who we want to be, pretend to be and who we truly are. If you want to know what happens to a dream deferred, this novel is a must-read.