UZODINMA IWEALA at a round table with TASH AW , JOSH EMMONS and JIM LYNCH , moderated by SANDRA MARTIN , Tuesday (October 25), 7 pm, at the Lakeside Terrace; and reading with NEIL BISSOoNDATH , RABINDRAnaTH MAHARAJ and ANDREW MILLER October 28, 8 pm, at the Premiere Dance Theatre.
When I tell Uzodinma Iweala that reading Beasts Of No Nation was one of the most upsetting literary experiences I've ever had, he's fine with that.
"I wanted to give a person pause," he says on the phone from his home in Nigeria.
He doesn't say this like someone happy to be exercising his ego. At 23, soft-spoken, almost hesitant in conversation, he's a little surprised that his knockout first novel has made such an impact.
He's just someone with a ton of talent who's found a subject he's passionate about. It comes through in crystallized, compact prose that puts you in the muck with a young boy, his gun and his fear. It doesn't just give you pause; it almost stops your mind.
"When you do the research and read all of the material, you still don't really understand how a life can be like this," says Iweala (pronouned koala).
"It's beyond reason."
How does a young, sensitive boy who loves his books and has big dreams turn into a killing monster in a roaming army? Iweala coins the term "forced choice" in order to get a grip on the situation.
"When I looked at countries that use child soldiers - Chechnya, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia - I found similarities.
"Many of the children were abducted, for example. But others had to make what I call a forced choice. In other words, they were forced to make a decision even though no one put a gun to their heads."
In the case of Iweala's protagonist, Agu, the child was given a choice between staying in the village, sick and alone, or joining the troops.
"In Sierra Leone, the children are put into situations where they have to commit violence against someone close to them or someone in their community," Iweala explains. "Then they can never go back home, and the army is their only choice."
Iweala has lived part of his life in Nigeria, where his mother is currently minister of finance, but grew up with his parents in Washington, DC. He entered Harvard as a pre-med student but eventually moved to the English department and the creative writing program.
It was his own unease with his privilege that drove him to create Beasts Of No Nation. He read an article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone that prompted him to write a three-page story. Then, while co-president of the African Students Association at Harvard, he invited a former child soldier from Uganda - a young woman of 26, though only eight years old when she fought - to speak at the university. He was awestruck by her story and how she survived her ordeal.
When he mentioned to her that his parents wanted him to study medicine, she bluntly told him: "I have no parents." This sent him reeling back to the theme of child soldiers and awakened his desire to shed light on these children's desperate situations.
The story, told from the perspective of a child soldier, is unremitting in its brutality, yet weirdly beautiful. That's because, as Iweala explains, he found a style that echoes some of the poetic syntax and cadence of Nigerian language. He flips adjectives into verbs - "I am sadding in my heart," for example - in ways that create a completely original cadence and give emotions a different kind of drive.
He says explicitly, though, that this experiment with language shouldn't be confused with pidgin English.
"The story is not set in any particular country - that's where the title Beasts Of No Nation comes from. Though I didn't intend the action to unfold in Nigeria, you can recognize the country in the landscape.
"But I wanted to emulate the way Nigerians speak. Even when they're talking about bad things, they find a way to lighten the situation."
It's Iweala's discovery of this language that saves the book from being simply a brutal gore-fest; it elevates the prose to the level of poetic art.
He still thinks about studying medicine and doing something meaningful about the issue that's so preoccupied him - like working in the area of international development.
Looking back on his college years, he recalls that the course requirements were too restrictive.
"I realized that I wasn't reading what I wanted to read. There were African writers I wanted to know more about, a plurality of voices that I wasn't getting to hear."
When he moved to the English department, he got the chance to connect to Antiguan-born, American-based writer Jamaica Kincaid, who shared his experience of having two homes. Kincaid eventually became his senior thesis adviser on what eventually became Beasts Of No Nation.
When I suggest to Iweala that she must have felt really lucky to have discovered him, he's typically modest.
"Actually, I was lucky to find her. She's the one who helped me figure out what works."
He has mixed feelings about his debut. Beasts Of No Nation came about almost by accident, he says, and he admits that it wouldn't have been his first choice as a first novel.
"I want the next story to be well thought out and well put together, something I can focus on and finish. But I need a cooling-down period," he admits.
This is a writer who you hope will not chill too much. It's the passion that gives his work its power.