Birnbaum v.

Uzodinma Iweala

Politics can be dangerous in some parts of Africa, but childhood can be even more risky. A conversation with Uzodinma Iweala about what’s breaking the continent apart—and what’s holding it together.

Consider these comments on Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel by two accomplished novelists. Amitav Ghosh proclaims it a “work of visceral urgency…it heralds the arrival of a major talent.” And Ali Smith: “In the writing, Beasts of No Nation is totally and shockingly alive from its very first paragraph.” Agu, a young boy in an unidentified West African country, is conscripted into a rag-tag group of fighters in his nation’s civil war after fleeing his home—this before he witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of militants. The split between his harrowing reality and recollections of his former life underscores the darkness enveloping a young boy’s coming-of-age against the savage backdrop of war.

Uzodinma Iweala, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Lagos, Nigeria, studied at Harvard and has won a number of awards for his writing. He and I chat about Harvard, writing, Africa, his goals and intentions and his hopes:

So the thing that you can hope for is that those that are near and dear to you stay safe and that you manage to accomplish something for the world. That you are not just living for yourself. In the end, if I have the chance to do that, I will be pretty happy. I just don’t want to get into a situation that the only thing I am doing is take, take, take without putting anything out there for people that would better people. If I want to do anything in my life, that will be it.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum


Robert Birnbaum: Who edited your book?

Uzodinma Iweala: It was my senior thesis. Just because the language was so peculiar, I did it. And a lot of it was Jamaica Kincaid, who was my adviser [at Harvard], and then I had a really good friend of mine who spent a lot of time with all the manuscripts, all the chapters, editing line by line, word by word, just to make sure that everything was consistent. So a number of people helped edit it because it’s not the sort of text you can just hand to one person and say, “This is what I’ve written—can you help me out?”

RB: What would you call the language, pidgin English?

Uzodinma Iweala, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

UI: It’s not quite pidgin English. It’s based loosely on the way that people speak, or that I’ve heard people speak, in Nigeria. So it’s an adaptation of pidgin English. [When] pidgin English [is] spoken, a lot of the time, you can’t really understand what people are saying. It’s like a completely different language. This adaptation is designed to show how people speak day-to-day—more often adapted English filled with local expressions.

RB: Did you have a concern about rendering a specific language with total accuracy?

UI: With the language there wasn’t complete accuracy.

RB: Could there be?

UI: You could write a text if you follow—there are all sorts of pidgin-English dictionaries and whatnot that you could use and follow. The thing with pidgin English is that it is also an adaptable language. It’s one that changes with the times and situations. When I was writing, I wasn’t trying to be accurate and have my characters speak in pidgin English. I just wanted to put out a general idea of the way the language was structured.

RB: You were a writing student at Harvard?

UI: I was an English major and took a number of creative-writing classes. There isn’t any real writing program at Harvard. You can’t major in creative writing.

RB: And Jamaica teaches what?

UI: Writing and literature.

RB: There is a striking resemblance to her writing in your work—the emphasis on and repetition of words and phrases.

UI: Her writing has had an influence, and working with her would obviously have an influence. She is a wonderful person to work with and her writing is incredibly brilliant. And there are a number of other writers, African writers, who also use rhythm and repetition as part of the experience of reading. That’s one of those things that you don’t see as much in the Western novel but that is very characteristic of an African novel, where you have that oral tradition in the writing and you can imagine a griot standing up and telling a story, and how repetition is used—

RB: A griot is a—

UI: A storyteller. [Repetition is] used to get a point across, to keep people interested. And that was very important to me in trying to construct this novel. It’s something I find spectacular about the African novel. You see people like—there is Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa, where he—

RB: He was a political prisoner and hung in Nigeria?

UI: Executed in 1995. His novel is full of these things. People like Ben Okri and Chinua Achebe all have this oral element.

RB: I didn’t notice that so much in Okri’s The Famished Road.

UI: I mentioned Okri because you can see the more traditional things, like bringing in spirit elements, things you would see in traditional storytelling, and then people like Amos Tutuola, who basically write colloquially, translated into English directly. So you do get a lot of this repetition and a lot of the same sort of rhythm into the language.

RB: Between Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I haven’t noticed much attention being paid to African writers in the U.S. Have I missed it?

UI: Abroad, you are right. There was not very much that people were publishing here that was getting noted in the same way that Okri was. Recently, it seems there has been a lot of interest in art and literature from the continent again.

RB: Which continent?

UI: From Africa, sorry.

RB: [laughs]

UI: You find that there are more [writers] popping up in West Africa, and Nigeria has a number of novelists that have gotten international press. Chimamanda is one, Helen Oyeyemi, who lives in England, is another and Chris Abani with GraceLand. So there are a number of novelists. There is another book, Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta, who is another writer who is getting attention.

RB: Are you surprised that your book has gotten so many notices? A New York Times review and Entertainment Weekly—

UI: I am surprised. Pleasantly surprised, obviously. When you write, you are not necessarily writing to get attention. You are writing for people to read. You learn to tell a story, and it’s great if people want to read that story. It doesn’t always happen.

RB: [laughs]

UI: When someone does [pay attention] and you realize your book maybe has a broader scope than you could imagine, that’s a really good thing. You can really see it in the power of literature. Sometimes when you are writing, you are thinking, Well I am here in this closet and there is a chance that this will not mean anything to anybody except for me and maybe a person I forced to read it because I needed their help in editing. But when it has a broader appeal and when it’s picked up and people enjoy it and also get something else out of it, not just enjoyment but maybe a deeper message, that’s really wonderful.

Every so often in your life something happens and you say, “I can’t move on from this. This isn’t something I can just put to the side.”

RB: Where did you grow up?

UI: I actually grew up in the States.

RB: Reportedly you split your time between the States and Nigeria.

UI: I grew up in the States, but when we were younger my parents always made a point of taking us back to Nigeria for an extended period, usually a month or so during the summer.

RB: Did you want to be a writer from early on? When did this idea come to you?

UI: I have always wanted to write. When I was younger, in primary school, I would always write stories, science-fiction-type stories. That’s what interested me at the time. And through high school I kept on writing, not necessarily stories anymore. Really pretty bad.

RB: [laughs]

UI: And then essays that were probably a little bit better but not necessarily so good. But I always liked writing, liked using words, liked playing around with words and language. Writing—I have always really wanted to write. Fiction, I didn’t necessarily know. You read books and you say, “Did people do that?” And you don’t really know what to do. And you start writing and you lose interest because it’s really bad. So essays were a bit shorter, a bit more compact. I feel I write more about reality than those out-there things. What happens on a day-to-day level is what interests me. So essays were what I was trying to be about. And the I got to college and started writing fiction—took a creative-writing class and just really, really—

RB: Just to do it?

UI: I wanted to write and I took “Expository Writing,” which is a mandatory class, and really enjoyed it. And we read a lot of short stories and I think that really got me interested in trying to write short stories. For that class we would read short stories and write an essay about them. So I started to see if I could construct a short story in a way that was legitimate, as opposed to a two-page thing. Ah, I don’t think I was very good at it at the beginning. Writing a short story is very different from writing a longer work. It got me interested in the structure of stories and the structure of the novel. And even taking English classes and being an English major, you can’t help but pay attention to all that stuff. All of that, then, went into getting me really interested in writing.

RB: And your parents? What did they think about you taking up writing?

UI: My parents are very supportive. They are very happy about the book and very—

RB: What about before the book?

UI: When I started my parents were—and a lot of first-generation kids have the same experience—interested in having me get a profession, and making sure that I was stable. That’s what parents in any situation want you to do. I was also pre-med in college, so that helped a little bit.

RB: Samantha Chang, for example, was all those things—but she snuck her way back to writing.

UI: Right. Whichever way you do it. If you want to write, you are going to write regardless of what professional path you choose. Writing is a profession but it’s also so much more than that. It’s something that if you have caught the bug, it’s going to be in you no matter what happens. You’re always going to want to go back to it. It’s just a matter of being published. Writing something that will be published requires a lot more time than just writing. So that would be the pull. But my parents initially would have wanted me to do something more concrete. But when parents see that their kids love something, then they just have to—

RB: That’s loving, understanding parents—

UI: Right. That’s true. I guess I have very loving, understanding, and good parents.

RB: How do you split your time between Lagos ands the U.S.?

UI: In the last year I have been doing what you would call “splitting time.” Back and forth and back and forth. More time in Nigeria than here. I have been back here for the last two months to do the book-tour stuff. And I am deciding whether to stay here more permanently or go back.

RB: Isn’t it risky to be a writer in Nigeria?

UI: Risky, as in?

RB: Speaking out against the status quo?

UI: Before, in the mid ‘90s, we had [Gen.] Sonny Abacha, who was a military dictator, the same guy who executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, yes, it would have been. Now Nigeria is very democratic. Obviously with its problems—it’s a fledgling democracy, but freedom of speech is not one of its problems. If you go to Nigeria and see the number of newspaper articles that are anti-government you wonder, for example, what America is doing.

RB: What caused the shift?

UI: Sonny Abacha died and we went into an interim government and then held elections and elected a president. People in Nigeria are very pro-democracy and very pro-freedom-of-speech, and that right is exercised a lot—I would say a lot more than here, to be honest with you. [both laugh]

RB: Let’s talk about Beasts of No Nation. Why did you want to write this book?

UI: I guess it was really wanting to understand what the experiences of being a child soldier—which is an odd thing to say because you can’t really understand it unless you have been one. But wanting to have deeper understanding and not just—you read newspaper articles and you hear things on the news and see pictures and [say], “Oh, wow, that’s sad.” And then you move on, you know? Every so often in your life something happens and you say, “I can’t move on from this. This isn’t something I can just put to the side and say, ‘This is happening to people and I have other things to do in my existence.’” It doesn’t work like that sometimes. Those people who really contribute to society are the ones who do that all the time. They say, “This is a problem and we are not going to brush this problem aside.” So I guess, for me it was just a small step in saying, “OK, I have seen this and I can’t brush this aside. So let me take this small step to learn more and more about it.”

RB: What did you do to familiarize yourself with child soldiers?

UI: I read a lot of autobiographies. Read a lot of interviews.

RB: There are a lot of autobiographies?

UI: Books like First They Killed My Father [by Loung Ung] or Child Soldier: Fighting for My Life by China Keitetsi. And there are other books by Sudanese lost boys that chronicle the lives of kids who lived in conflict, not necessarily as a soldier but who experienced conflict and violence and whose life has been dramatically affected by it. Then Human Rights Watch reports and Amnesty International reports, those all have interviews and a lot of information about the lives that child soldiers live and the things they are forced to do and their experiences and how that changes their lives. So reading a lot of those was very important, and then also talking to people who had been through conflicts. I spent time in Nigeria and a lot of time interviewing people who had been through the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s, which was a very gruesome affair.

RB: The Biafran War?

UI: Yes. And talking to them about how violence had changed their outlook and affected their lives and the world around them. All that went into creating the situation and the characters and the context for the book.

If you neglect anyone, it is suggestive that they don’t matter. And that in and of itself is a form of prejudice and racism.

RB: Do you know of Russell Banks‘s The Darling?

UI: I have a copy that I started but haven’t finished.

RB: Any sense of American reaction to the child soldier issue? Is it a problem?

UI: It’s a problem if you have the numbers. The last I checked, it’s about 300,000 kids involved in combat.

RB: What’s the age range?

UI: Anywhere from six to 16—

RB: Wow!

UI: The thing is that the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child says that no one below the age of 16—I’m probably getting this wrong but we can check—but you have to look at cultural context. [A clause of the U.N. convention says there is to be no forced conscription below age 18; conscription or voluntary enlistment of children under age 15 is a war crime.—eds.] In some places—in America—people are children up until the age of 20, whereas in other places a kid might find themselves in adulthood at the age of 14. But that creates problems in deciding who should be allowed to fight and who shouldn’t. The generally accepted age is above age 18. So the 300,000 is a problem, and the issue here is that people aren’t as focused on that as need to be because there are other issues that get more attention.

RB: Regarding Africa, hasn’t there been an amazing indifference?

UI: That’s a problem. It’s problematic for me to say, having written this book, which isn’t the most pleasant book, when it comes to Africa, the majority of what people know is suffering, if they know anything at all. I firmly believe that you have to tell the good and the bad together, which in the United States isn’t always told. Especially with the way the media operates now, you get more of what people like to hear than what they should be hearing. To be honest, in media you need to have everything and you need to put it all out there, which is why this book is written. There needs to be more information about Africa available to the public in the Western world, and it’s not like the information isn’t there. It’s just that people don’t have Africa on their radar, which takes us back to racism and colonialism. It’s like these people don’t matter except for what we can take from them.

RB: I don’t have any science to back this up, but I’m sure that people were upset with events in Uganda and Rwanda and are even upset about Darfur but they are just upset and then—

UI:—it stops there.

RB: It’s an odd hybrid of racism.

UI: When I say racism, it’s not active “I hate you.” It does have elements of that colonial sentiment. Which is, “These people,” in a sense, “are subhuman. They don’t matter.” If you neglect anyone, it is suggestive that they don’t matter. And that in and of itself is a form of prejudice and racism. If you pay more attention to a certain area, it’s because some people are not on your radar screen. It’s not necessary to say that people in this country are saying, “We hate you. We don’t think you are human.” It’s the neglect that suggests that. and that’s what people feel. Also, you have to look at the way countries operate. Countries look out for their own interests and in these situations, it seem like it’s in the best interest of the people who can do something about it. If you look at the Middle East, because of the economic ties and the need for stability in that region, you see a lot of attention and action there. For Africa, what has happened is, because the policy has been extraction regardless of stability, a lot of countries have adopted extracting even when there isn’t stability, and for that reason don’t necessarily pay attention. There is no economic imperative that stability exist in the region for them to get what they need.

RB: How do you rate the concern about AIDS in Africa? There is a lot of attention—is it because of the disease’s virulence and the fear that it easily hops borders?

UI: Kofi Annan made this point, now with any disease, now the world is so connected that you think it’s over there but really, let’s be honest, someone can get on a plane and it will be here in less than seven hours. The time from South Africa to New York—I think South Africa has the highest prevalence rate—is 12 hours. Anything can jump, then. That has people very worried and paying a lot of attention. If you think about it, in the next—I don’t know how long—a lot of the people with HIV in places, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the worst-hit regions, are going to die and this is going to create a huge humanitarian catastrophe. If you are going to lose 25 percent of your population to an illness, that’s a problem, a big problem.

RB: Not if you subscribe to Malthus. Some people might argue that Africa is overcrowded and overpopulated, and this is one of those divine interventions.

UI: And some argue you get AIDS as a punishment for sexual indiscretions, so you can say whatever you want, but the bottom line is that it’s still a problem and if something isn’t done and those people do die and in the quantities that could happen, then there is going to be a problem for the world. And it’s not just Africa—if you look at the other countries, China has an issue with HIV. The thing that’s good about countries in Africa that is not necessarily so good about other countries is that Africa has really realized the problem. Resources-wise, they don’t have the means to deal with the problem effectively, but it’s out there that there is a problem and we are not ashamed to admit there is a problem. Whereas other places are covering it up—India, China—where there is a growing problem, a catastrophe if something isn’t done soon.

RB: How large is the African expatriate community in the U.S.?

UI: I couldn’t tell you.

RB: How about Nigerians?

UI: There are lots in the U.S.

RB: And what is their relationship to Nigeria? Are they viewed differently in Nigeria?

Uzodinma Iweala, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

UI: As a clan apart? I don’t think so. Once a Nigerian, always a Nigerian. You can’t ever escape being a Nigerian. I don’t think people in Nigeria would ever look down upon them. People who leave, who have gone abroad to find opportunity, have such strong ties and have so much family and connection there. There is never any real separation there. Never any chance for a schism, for people to say. “You guys aren’t really us.” In fact, it’s really the opposite. If you try to say, “No, I am not Nigerian,” people say, “What are you talking about? I know where your father is from. I know the village. There is no way that you can tell me you are not Nigerian.” In fact, if you don’t come back and maintain the ties, people start asking questions. It’s not as if when you leave you are looked down upon for leaving your country. Most Nigerians that you speak to here expect to return to Nigeria at some point in time—whether or not that will actually happen is not important. It’s the mentality. Even Nigerians who have been in London for ages, you ask them and they are Nigerian first, almost before anything else.

RB: Is Nigerian an identity or is more local, tribal?

UI: When you are abroad there is more of a Nigerian identity than when you’re in the country. In Nigeria—a super-complex country, we have about 300 different ethnic groups and as many different languages—everybody is aware of the three main ethnic groups, Ibo, Yoruba, and the Hausa, which comprise the majority of Nigeria. But people are ethnically one or the other, an Ibo man is an Ibo man and so on. Those distinctions come up more in Nigeria than outside, but it’s important to know that in a sense that these sets of people—between Yoruba and Ibo and Hausa, there aren’t any common anything, not even the language. It’s not like the languages have the same root. They are not mutually intelligible. Things like that suggest that these are very separate peoples with very different customs lumped together in one country.

RB: English becomes the unifying language?

UI: Everyone speaks English, for the most part.

RB: When did you finish Beasts of No Nation?

UI: March 2004.

RB: Looking back now, are you totally satisfied with it?

UI: I would say I am satisfied. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. I feel like the story I had to tell, I told it. The thing that one has to be careful about is if you have told the story that you need to tell, that’s when you stop. Not necessarily how someone else reads it, saying “Oh, well, you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that.” I feel I got to the point where the story I had to tell came out. I haven’t reread the book cover-to-cover in a while. I spent so much time rereading every single word and comma, so it will take a little bit of time before I can go through it and read it as a book. I lost my train of thought—

RB: Many English books are taken into translation. How will this book be translated?

UI: I’m wondering, too, to be honest with you. But it will be. There are a number of foreign translations that will happen. Italian, French, Dutch, and Portuguese. Certain languages, for example, Portuguese might be—it’s being done in Brazil, so it will be Brazilian Portuguese—that might be easier than French because of the melding of cultures. Some of these languages—French, especially, because there is a huge immigrant population, French is affected by how those people speak French. There is a book called Allah n’est pas Oblige [God Is Not Obligated, by Amadou Kourouma—eds.], which is about a child soldier written in this irreverent style, in a very colloquial French. These things have been done before. Who’s going to do it? I don’t know. [laughs] Like, good luck to them.

RB: So here you are, what’s next?

UI: For the last year I haven’t necessarily been pushing, finishing, moving another novel or anything. I have just been writing and trying to write about what I have been doing. And just things I see in the world. I have been writing a lot, not necessarily toward anything. Now I am starting to turn my attention towards another novel, which will be set in D.C. and probably a bit of a love story. But other than that, I am just trying to write as much as possible, different things. Essays, short stories—

RB: It strikes me that you would be as comfortable writing nonfiction as fiction. You would do journalism?

UI: I would really love to have that chance to do that—to do creative nonfiction writing. The kind of stuff you see in Harper’s and/or the New Yorker—I really like that sort of writing. Not necessarily the subject matter of the New Yorker but I really like the style. There is lot to learn. That’s one of the things I have been doing. Reading those magazines just to understand how pieces in them are constructed—the same way you would read books to understand how different people go about writing different stories.

RB: I just read George Packer‘s The Assassins’ Gate, his account of his experience of occupied Iraq. Much of it was published in one form in the New Yorker, but he is also a once and future novelist—his prose is fluid and accurate, and his choices of advancing the narrative are quite deft. Maybe it’s a cliché but it does seem that storytelling is storytelling, fact or fiction.

UI: Right.

RB: Anyway, you don’t have a big manuscript in your desk drawer?

UI: It’s not to say I don’t have a manuscript.

RB: [laughs]

UI: I have stuff that I have been working on. I’ll say I haven’t been working on it the way someone who wants to finish a novel in three months’ time has been working on it.

RB: Does your apparent success and attention on this book create pressure from book people, your agent, editor, and whatnot?

UI: The majority of the pressure would probably come from me. My agent and editors have been very good. My agent has said, “Look, this is your first novel. The thing you should do is enjoy this feeling, because it’s not going to happen again.”

RB: [laughs]

UI: Everybody has been very supportive and very good with advice—which is “Don’t get stressed out about producing. The thing you need to do now is step back: You finished a novel and things have been going well with it, and just take that. Obviously, don’t get too high on that, but understand that you have done something.” The next step, as opposed to feeling pressure to write another novel, which happens to a lot of people, [is to] put pressure on yourself to write, and to have experiences to write about, but don’t put pressure on yourself to publish something. You don’t want to put something out that is substandard.

RB: Or that you feel obliged to because the publishing monster is hungry.

UI: I only signed [a contract] for one book. I don’t have the pressure of someone saying, “You have a deadline.” I think that’s been good. Though deadlines can help you write and speed the creative process along. For the past year, for me, what it’s been has been more a year of exploration in terms of what I have read and what I have written. Just playing around, essentially. That is as important for a period of time, as actually writing to finish something.

RB: Do you have a long-term view of your life?

UI: [chuckles] Other than hopefully—

RB: Living a long time? [laughs]

UI: Yeah. Not necessarily. At one point in time, when I was a bit younger, one would have said by this age I need to be in this place. In the last year, speaking to people, and especially—like, anything can happen to you. So the thing that you can hope for is that those that are near and dear to you stay safe and that you manage to accomplish something for the world. That you are not just living for yourself. In the end, if I have the chance to do that, I will be pretty happy. I just don’t want to get into a situation that the only thing I am doing is take, take, take without putting anything out there for people that would better people. If I want to do anything in my life, that will be it. Obviously, very idealistic—I haven’t had kids yet, so—

RB: Well, good, thanks very much.