In a March 13 op-ed in The Guardian, SiliconAfrica.com editor Mawuna Remarque Koutonin posed the question, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” Indeed, while the definitions of the two words might appear relatively interchangeable, Westerners tend to reserve the word “expat” (short for “expatriate”) almost exclusively in reference to white Europeans or North Americans living and working abroad, while most expatriate Africans, Asians, Latinos and Arabs are termed “immigrants” in their adopted countries of residence.
Some of the most compelling insights into the differences between “immigrant” and “expat” experiences come from novels. Classic immigrant novels abound, ranging from Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep to James T. Farrell’s A World I Never Made to Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents to Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. These novels tend to reflect dislocation, frustration, poverty and discrimination.
The 20th century arguably gave us three genre-defining expat novels: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s roman à clef of Lost Generation Americans in Paris and Pamplona; The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy’s raucous tale of feckless American roguery in mid-century Ireland; and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s psycho-thriller of murder and impersonation in Italy and Greece. Perhaps Ripley best exemplifies how far the expat gets simply by looking the part.
Julie Iromuanya’s alternately wrenching and riotous first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, lands inexorably in the “immigrant novel” category. The book chronicles the fumblings and failures of Job Obgannaya, the titular “Mr. Doctor,” whose financially declining Nigerian family has sent him to America to study medicine and become a doctor.
By the time Job brings his new wife, Ifi, from Nigeria to Nebraska in an arranged marriage, he’s made a spectacular mess of things. Years earlier, he paid an exorbitant sum to establish U.S. citizenship through a sham marriage to a crass, chain-smoking white woman—a woman who’s still shaking him down years after their quickie divorce. He flunked out of college soon after his arrival, but continued to accept his parents’ annual tuition check. Years after taking low-paying day and night jobs as a meat-packer and a nurse’s assistant, he’s continued to drive to work in a white lab coat, carrying a stethoscope and an imitation leather briefcase.
Having presented himself to Ifi’s family in Nigeria as a doctor with a thriving practice in America, Job keeps up the pretense after they meet and marry, promising to someday return with her to Nigeria to open a clinic where he’ll be the doctor and she’ll be the nurse. Ifi sees through his ruse fairly soon after moving into his vermin-infested one-bedroom apartment and finding herself cleaning up extant animal parts he’s washed off in the shower. Even though Job is comically inept at impersonating a doctor (not to mention incongruently poor), Ifi continues to keep his secret, both to neighbors and friends in Nebraska and in her letters home.
Job and Ifi struggle to meet expectations mostly not their own, including two disparate cultures’ ideas of what it means to be a husband and a wife, neither of which aligns particularly well with the lives they’re living. This difficulty comes to the fore immediately in Mr. and Mrs. Doctor’s stunning and harshly comic first scene. Job, honoring tradition by returning home to marry a Nigerian woman, attempts to consummate the marriage by recreating a scene from American porn, slamming his new wife to the wall and shouting “You-are-the-dirty-slut-girl!” Ifi punches him in the gut with a sandal, and decks him with a haymaker to the ear.
Job’s Nigerian friend Emeka and his wife, Gladys, provide a fascinating counterpoint to Job and Ifi. A few years older than Job, Emeka has followed a completely different trajectory in America, and probably imagines himself more expat than immigrant. He’s earned multiple degrees and is thriving as an engineer, while Gladys works as a CPA. Job observes, “Always there was a look in her eyes that complemented that of Emeka’s, a look that said, This is the American Dream.”
When the two couples have their first dinner together after Ifi’s arrival in America, Job presents Gladys to Ifi as a model of how to become a “queen of Africa and America.” Ifi never fully accepts that characterization, particularly as she recognizes the extent to which Emeka and Gladys are haunted by their failure to produce a male heir—something Ifi and Job achieve in the first year of their marriage.
Job and Ifi share a sort of worship of American opportunity, and a sense of self-worth contingent on their ability to measure up to the “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor” mantle. Yet they retain a high-minded disdain for American garishness, crudity and bigotry. Job takes great pains to distinguish himself from black Americans, although only one white person he encounters in the book (an annoying neighbor who says that she too comes from “good immigrant stock”) acknowledges that distinction.
For all the indignities of his thoroughly (but secretly) failed life, Job remains quixotically fixated on maintaining his dignity, and his sense of himself as a scion of Nigerian aristocracy in America. He recoils with disgust at the lengths to which his much more successful friend Emeka debases himself to accommodate white American prejudice.
Emeka encapsulates the ambivalence and expectations with which both he and Job contend in his “unrelenting, unsolicited advice” to Job: “There are three things a man must do in his native land: marry, bury and retire. America is the stepping stone. If you cannot make it here, then go home a joke.”
That Job will eventually “go home a joke” seems inevitable almost from the outset. In fact, much of the cumulative impact of the book, up to and including its heartbreaking tragedy, comes from Iromuanya’s technique of introducing many of Job’s failures and disappointments to the reader when they’re fairly well along, as if to underscore the inevitability of it all.
Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is Ifi’s book and Ifi’s triumph, as she endeavors with increasing conviction to cast off any pretense of being “Mrs. Doctor” and live a more authentic life. Surrounded by Nigerians and Americans stunted by self-delusion—and deeply susceptible to it herself—Ifi ultimately resolves to accept that she’s shipwrecked in a strange and often hostile land with a deeply flawed and limited man. She determines to identify what matters to her, apart from what she’s been taught to value, and to make this world her own.
From the physical knockout punch Ifi lands on Job at the beginning of the book to the magnificent verbal one she delivers at the end, Iromuanya establishes Ifi’s place among the indelible characters of immigrant novels. While it takes Ifi the full duration of the book to come into her own, Iromuanya, by contrast, snaps readers to attention with the first paragraph of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, announcing the arrival of a mature, distinctive and commanding voice.