Yes, he’s another twentysomething Ivy League prodigy lauded for his debut novel. But Uzodinma Iweala, whose mother is Nigeria’s Finance minister, is receiving not just hype but praise from reviewers for the frighteningly convincing voice of the preteen soldier—equal parts victim and monster—who narrates his Beasts of No Nation. Iweala spoke with New York.
So this book was your Harvard thesis. How did that happen?
I started with a short story, after reading an article about a Sierra Leonean child soldier in Newsweek. My junior year, we invited China Keitetsi, who’s a former Ugandan child soldier, to come and speak, and I was fortunate to have a one-on-one conversation with her. Then I spent a year working with Jamaica Kincaid. Jamaica’s probably one of the best advisers anybody could have, ever.
How did you come up with Agu’s voice?
What I wanted to do with that voice was get how Nigerian sounds, or how I think—and it’s important to say “how I think”—Nigerian sounds. Because it’s not pidgin English, it’s not proper English; it’s just sort of the way I hear people speak.
It couldn’t have been easy writing the most violent sections of the book.
Yeah. I mean, trying to write about how a little boy gets raped—it’s not cool. I can’t even come close to trying to understand what they experienced.
Why fictionalize it at all? Some would say that horrors like that shouldn’t even be turned into art.
Sometimes you have to stick to the facts, and sometimes you have to imagine, at least for me. In nonfiction, there’s still that distance: “This is not happening to me.” And maybe this is total bullshit, because I’m not a professor, but in fiction, it allows you to transport yourself in the way that nonfiction doesn’t.
You also had to make a murdering child sympathetic. How did you pull it off?
I don’t know if it was pulled off. But it’s not like [the characters] were psychopathic—they were doing what they had to do. Extreme circumstances force extreme behaviors. You’re thrust into a situation and it’s like, “Okay, survive now.” I think everybody has the capacity to do terrible things but also has the capacity to do wonderful things. It’s all there.
You’ve said before that your privileged background gives you a complicated relationship to this work.
I’m not gonna lie—it’s pretty strange. I’ve never tried to claim that I know that life. One of the biggest problems was authenticity. But I come from a family that is very interested in making sure things improve in Nigeria, and I think that does away with some of the oddness. Because you feel like you’re coming into a place not just to take and consume.
What do your parents make of all this?
They would rather that I went to medical school. But they’re very happy with [the book]. My dad has read it; my mom is pretty much too busy to read. Maybe I should give you my dad’s number and you can call him.
So are you going to medical school?
Well, I’m applying. Am I going? That’s for the medical school to decide. I would really, really like to pursue writing, but it’s not the only thing that I want to do. Through medicine, you do have a more immediate impact.