In his debut novel, Dido Kotile brings the loneliness of the immigrant experience to life. It reveals itself in the simple fact of being far from home, and in the absence of family – particularly when a loved one is in trouble or need. But it also might show up in a lack of acceptance in a new land, or an inability to land a job matching your skills.
The most important thing, he says, is to persevere.
Dido’s career path in the United States has been in academia and in the charter school system. He is director of New Century School, a STEM charter institution based in St. Paul. But he had always dreamed of publishing a novel, so for years he wrote fiction on the side.
His first novel, which he has just self-published, was more than 10 years in the making, a period during which he wrote it, changed the plot and rewrote it, worked full time, earned a doctorate, and raised a family. It had to be about loneliness, he said.
The Lonely Path, tells the story of Sami, who is like Dido, a Kenyan immigrant in the United States. He has a master’s degree, but when he applies for jobs all he gets is rejection letters.
“I felt that I needed to write a novel about that loneliness,” Dido said in a Zoom interview from his home in Woodbury. “I thought that could be an interesting novel that most of the immigrant communities can relate to.”
“The main character, as an immigrant, came from a large family and community, where the needs of the individuals are addressed collectively,” Dido said. Facing the “unknown” in his daily life, at school, and in job situations, Sami doesn’t feel accepted in the U.S.
The feeling is compounded when Sami learns that his mother is dying in Kenya, and that in addition to his wife and family in the U.S., he needs to earn more money in order to support his family back home.
In the beginning of the story, he works as a dishwasher at a restaurant. There, he doesn’t even have a name, as far as many of his co-workers are concerned. He’s simply “Dishwasher.” A colleague who is originally from India suggests he go to work at a meat-packing plant, where the money is better.
But Sami is overwhelmed by the chemical smells at the plant, and an environment with many undocumented immigrants. They include the night manager, Moses, who comes from Malawi. Moses has two degrees, but never could get a job that reflected his level of education because of his citizenship status.
Dido’s daughter, Lokho Kotile, who is a teaching assistant at New Century Charter School, said she was struck by the way her father reveals the experiences of immigrants who are highly educated but lack opportunities in their field. Lokho said she had never known about the environment of meat-packing plants. “The chemicals and the smell and the cold. It felt very foreign to me,” she said.
The experience of reading her father’s book brought them closer together, according to Lokho. It inspired discussions about her father’s love of literature and stories from his childhood.
“The main character is a reflection of my father,” Lokho said. “It’s loosely based on his life. It was really cool to read, and read the things that he experienced as a child.”
Dido grew up in a nomadic family in northern Kenya, where many in his community raised cows, sheep, goats and camels. It was there Dido first learned his storytelling skills.
“When you come home after looking after the animals when you’re in elementary school, there’s just storytelling,” Dido said. “My parents were not educated, so there were no books. But good storytelling about religion, the culture, about the tribe, about the monsters, animals, and all those things inspired me to love storytelling.”
Dido got a scholarship to go to a missionary school. From there, he continued his studies in high school, eventually getting a government scholarship to study in Russia, where earned his undergraduate degree. Three years later, he moved to the United States with his wife, with whom he lived in Iowa for three years before moving to Minnesota in 2003.
Dido’s degrees are in education and also agriculture. He has taught agricultural courses at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the University of Minnesota. He earned his doctorate in agriculture extension education from Iowa State. He has been at New Century since 2016.
While there are elements in the novel that relate to his own story, Dido said “The Lonely Path” is not biographical. “It’s an experience that I can relate to, and most of the immigrants who have gone through school and through life and job search could relate to,” he said.
That includes the temptation to take shortcuts to reach your dream. Unable to obtain a green card, Sami is tempted to divorce his wife and marry a different woman in a sham marriage in order to become a citizen. Things, as you might expect, go terribly wrong.
Seeing the American dream (with a clear eye)
If the theme of the book is loneliness, Dido says, the take-away is to look at the American Dream with a clear eye. There will be loneliness, and there will be financial hardships. “Some people have a fantasy dream of, you go to America, everything you get is free. Yes, you can get what you want, but you have to take specific steps,” Dido said.
“Persevere, and course, don’t lose hope, is the final argument that I’m getting to,” Dido said. The story ultimately has a hopeful outlook, both for Dido and for African immigrants generally.
The book itself is the result of perseverance in the extreme. Fitting in time to write with a full-time job has been a challenge, Dido said. Mostly working on weekends, he often wrote at Rondo Library. When his children were young and he first started writing, he had time after dropping them off at Sunday school.
Dido finished the book in 2017, but didn’t publish it until this year. Part of the delay was a search for a traditional agent. That didn’t pan out, so he ultimately published it himself. Recently, he hosted a reading at New Century School, featuring local Somali artists Ifrah Mansour, Safy Hallan Farah, and Hajji Ahmed. Ifrah recommended it as a “powerful book.”
The Lonely Path is available as a print or e-book through various online booksellers.