DK Nnuro’s novel ‘What Napoleon Could Not Do’ explores a family’s immigration saga

DK Nnuro’s novel “What Napoleon Could Not Do” opens with a divorce ceremony, which, in Ghana, is a custom when two families dissolve the marriage bond.

But neither half of the fracturing couple, Jacob and Patricia, are there. The couple, whose relationship had been limited to letters, FaceTime and other modern communications have never even met – Patricia has been working in the United States for years and Jacob has been unable to gain entry there, a source of frustration and shame. When they’d married, Patricia was represented by a relative holding a photo.

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Though she lacks a green card, Jacob’s sister, Belinda, lives in Houston and is the family’s star, having fulfilled her destiny by conquering a foreign land – the book’s title comes from her widowed father’s acclaim for her achievement. She married into great wealth and supplies the family, which includes another brother Robert and his family, with much of what they have. 

Belinda’s husband, Wilder Thomas, is a generation older than her; raised with wealth and education in Texas, he came of age in the Jim Crow era and spent years in Vietnam and Laos during the war. Despite his worldly successes, he is openly bitter about America – or more specifically, White America. 

Nnuro, who spoke recently by video, was born in Ghana but came to America as a boy and graduated from Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He still lives in Iowa City.

The novel is filled with richly described incidents: a fabulously ostentatious Washington D.C. wedding, American attacks on Laos from the point-of-view of the Laotians, and a tragic car crash in Ghana. But it’s also a character study of Jacob, Belinda and Wilder, exploring the impact of heartbreak, shame and guilt that works on each of them. And it’s about their differing views of America and how each contrasts with the reality confronting them. 

The book is big-hearted but unflinching toward its characters. “Oh my god, I love my characters,” Nnuro says. In fact, when referring to Robert saying, “Jacob was begotten feckless,” Nnuro says, with a chuckle, “Of course, he would put it that way,” as if discussing an old friend, not a fictional character he created.

“Your characters will tell you what should become of them,” he says. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. The characters have certain dreams about and expectations of America. Do Americans understand our country’s cultural and political influence and how it shapes potential immigrants? 

I don’t think Americans really understand fully how the culture influences the rest of the world and creates the myth of what America is. There’s a way America occupies the imagination.

Ghanians have a certain appreciation of the US because of the ambassadorial nature of US movies and goods – compared to what we have in Ghana, it’s just excellence. There’s a sense of the U.S. as almost heaven-like, and that creates a perception of a more welcoming place because only a welcoming place would be so generous with spreading the best of its culture all over the world. That’s how Africans interpret it. But in truth, it’s not always like that, so a lot of us Africans think of America as more welcoming than it really is. 

Q. For all their struggles here, Belinda and Patricia aren’t as negative about America as Wilder. Some of that is age and geography — he’s a generation older and grew up in the South — but some of that is being a Black American versus being an immigrant. Was that difference an inspiration for your writing?

Yes. I always refer to this quote from the writer Jelani Cobb, where he quibbles with the term “African-American” and says the hyphen should be replaced with an ellipsis because of the enduring tensions between immigrants from Africa and Black Americans. 

In Ghana, there’s persistent inconvenience; you can’t get anything done. The mere fact that in America you’re guaranteed something as simple as electricity all day is enough for African immigrants to overlook the enduring racism that exists in this country. At the end of the day, there is light … literally. 

Q. You came here in 1998 at age 11. Would your own perceptions have been different if you’d come as an adult?

My experience was complicated by the fact that I am a mama’s boy and my mother stayed in Ghana. So I came here with a great deal of pain and it took me a few years to overcome that. It was then that I really started to experience all the other pains America could possibly inflict on Black bodies. 

I didn’t have the term “microaggressions” then, but later I realized I’d experienced a great deal of them. I couldn’t have survived America if I had not kept one foot firmly placed in Ghana, which meant going back often. But there, I was constantly exposed to the inconveniences. This cognitive dissonance was always at play in me. America is a racist nation, but we have light all the time. There’s also that luxury of being able to go home – let the Americans be mean to you, but when Christmas rolls around you can go home and escape.

Had I come at a much older age, I don’t know if I would have paid enough attention to the racism to be able to write about it. Ghanian immigrants who come later are coming for survival, to make money and that is their focus. If they experience microaggressions or racism, then so be it. As Patricia tells Belinda, she doesn’t have time to pay attention and to intellectualize things. 

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For a lot of African immigrants, 2020 [George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed] was as much a revelation for them as it was for White Americans.

Q. Wilder is the one American-born Black character and his section is much longer than Jacob’s and Belinda’s. Were you planning that or did it happen in the aftermath of 2020? 

As much as 2020 was an inflection point for America, for me as a novelist, it was Donald Trump and Charlottesville. I finished the first draft in 2019 and it was 550 pages so when I cut, a lot was from Belinda’s section and I barely cut from Wilder’s. The inherent racism and the way that, unfortunately, the sense that when this country takes a step forward, it takes two steps back, that dance has always been there. When I started this in 2016, it was Trump and then Charlottesville that informed Wilder’s section and the complexities of his character and his grievances against America. 

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