Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Iweala's Debut Novel

IwealaJournalist and novelist Dinitia Smith writes in today's New York Times about 23-year-old Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala's (photo at left, Obande, New York Times) highly praised debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, which tracks in first-person perspective the experiences of a child soldier in an unnamed African country. Smith describes it as "brutal" and "filled with the stink of violence," before devoting most of her article to the author's biography and the novel's genesis (Ms. Smith [regrettably? thankfully?] hasn't set foot in a literary studies classroom since the advent of Derrida, Althusser and Foucault, it seems.) Iweala is the son of a Nigerian diplomat and a Washington-based doctor, attended one of the capital's élite prep schools, and was a student of acclaimed fiction writer Jamaica Kincaid's. She worked with him to develop the narrative voice in what became his senior thesis, which in turn became this novel. As Smith notes, though Iweala drew heavily on his familiarity with his parents' native Nigeria, his subject matter was sparked by the story of a Ugandan former child soldier and fermented by his imagination, not personal experience.

Janet Maslin
, in her November 17 New York Times review, lauded the book, making special mention of some of Iweala's narrative choices and devices, such as the kidnapped and pressed child narrator's consistent, idiosyncratic voice. Yet she also criticizes what she views as its failings, such as occasional lack of subtlety, as well as predictability, which she attributes to the author's youth and desire to underscore the moral themes of the work. Her final paragraph struck a beautiful note:

Beasts of No Nation leaves the reader with one resonant, beautiful sentence that captures everything the author has set out to say. That sentence deserves to be read in the full context of this universal soldier's story.

Both articles, as well as the novel's subject matter, make me want to read Iweala's first book, and I intend to add it to my reading queue as soon as I can. One unsurprising aspect of both of the Times pieces was the fetishization of Iweala's Harvard education, which absolutely had to be cited; but then, the Times has never gotten treatment for its Harvard fever, whose most recent symptom was a snotty, snobbish article on a small cadre of students' enrollment in the Harvard Extension School bachelors' degree program last week--it was as if they'd happened upon a strange and unmapped clearing in the Brazilian rain forest....


  1. I'd be interested in your thoughts once you've had a chance to read it. Iweala was here in Toronto a few weeks ago for the International Festival of Authors - spellbinding.

  2. Hmm, interesting, so my "foreign" credential won't be enough to get me published; now I need an Ivy League degree as well?


    Another plan derailed.

  3. I'm very happy to say that Pratt Library in Baltimore has booked him for a reading/signing next year (and, no, this time I had nothing to do with it!)

  4. Zun, I can't wait to read Iweala's book. I'm also hoping I can bring him to the university.

    Keguro, you can work "foreign" with a bit of something else thrown in! Now as to what that would be...LOL

    Reggie, that's exciting that he's coming to read.