Imagining the child fighters of Africa

Barely two years out of college, 24-year-old author Uzodinma Iweala is busy collecting awards for his searing debut novel about Africa's youngest soldiers.

uzodinma iweala 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
uzodinma iweala 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An author who spent his college years writing about unspeakable atrocities might be tempted to discuss his own psychological battle scars when reflecting on his debut novel. But Uzodinma Iweala - the 24-year-old, Washington, D.C.-raised son of Nigeria's finance minister - doesn't wax sentimental about the mental cost of writing Beasts of No Nation, a critically acclaimed war novel told from the perspective of an African child soldier. "Living through that violence is something that no one could ever imagine," he told The Jerusalem Post. "It's almost absurd to talk about the emotional toll [on] someone who writes about it." Released barely a year after its author graduated from college, Beasts of No Nation is the first-person account of Agu, a bookish nine-year-old conscripted at gunpoint into the rebel outfit that murdered his father. Written mostly while Iweala was still an undergraduate at Harvard University, Agu's restless, present-tense voice captures with striking realism the mindset of a child participating in depravity beyond his comprehension. "We are just beating him and cutting him while everybody is laughing," Beasts' young protagonist reports at one point. "It is like the world is moving so slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there." Sparked by a Time magazine article on child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Beasts of No Nation originated as a three-page sketch that Iweala wrote at his American high school. He resurrected the story several years later as a student at Harvard after attending a talk by a former Ugandan child soldier. Though its narrative isn't based on any of Iweala's personal experiences, the story has a special resonance for the author because of his own strong ties to Africa and the political and social challenges still faced by his parents' homeland. Iweala's mother, a former World Bank economist, and father, a physician, raised their children to consider their Nigerian origins the dominant strand of their identity, and Iweala returned to Nigeria while writing Beasts of No Nation to interview relatives about their experiences in the country's 1967-1970 civil war. Yet as its title implies, the country of the novel remains unidentified. "It didn't make any sense to ground it," Iweala says. Child soldiers were never recruited in Nigeria, he notes, and the country has seen relative peace since the end of General Sani Abacha's dictatorship in 1998. Iweala - known to some of his Harvard friends as Uzo - says he began writing Beasts in the third-person, but switched to a first-person voice to enhance the novel's emotional power. "The third-person voice was too distant and made the action way too voyeuristic," he says. His main character's narration was strongly influenced by the West African tradition of the griot, or oral bards, Iweala says. "Post-colonial African texts are a hybrid of that oral storytelling tradition and this new, more Western written tradition. The idea was to make it seem like Agu is speaking to you," Iweala says. Iweala says he was inspired to expand his high school jottings into what became Beasts of No Nation after attending the Harvard talk by the former child soldier. The story became his creative writing thesis, and was the product of supervision by Caribbean novelist and visiting Afro-American studies lecturer Jamaica Kincaid (Annie John, A Small Place). At one point, Iweala grew so frustrated with the voice of Agu that he abandoned it to write a loosely connected novel told by a white rescue worker. "I thought that maybe it would be easier to understand that Western context because that voice is the one that I speak," he says. But Kincaid steered him back to Agu. "She said, 'We've started on this one project. You have this idea and this voice, which you're getting towards. Why don't you really try to flesh that out and bring that into being?'" Iweala recalls. He's pleased he followed her advice. When Beasts of No Nation was complete, Kincaid sent the novel to her agent, who in turn sold it to HarperCollins. The book quickly gained the attention of critics at places like The New Yorker and The New York Times, with Iweala earning praise for the book's narrative power and the acuity of its descriptions. The book has gone on to win a number of awards, among them first fiction prizes from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Los Angeles Times. After finishing the novel, Iweala worked as a researcher on a study concerning the reintegration of former child soldiers into society. Agu, who dreams of surviving to become an engineer or doctor, was nicknamed "Professor" by his mother before the war because of his passion for reading. With Agu's fictional story now in print, Iweala says he was struck by how many real-life former child fighters were preoccupied, above all else, with returning to their education. "The idea that you could go through so much torment and turmoil, and still think 'education, education, education' speaks for the power of education and how dear people hold it," Iweala says. An aspiring doctor, like his protagonist, Iweala's literary success hasn't displaced his ambition to provide health care in the developing world. "When you are creating, there's a state that you are in that is incredible," he says. "You feel like, 'Wow, this is what you should be doing with your life.' At the same time, writing does take you away from people and the world. For me, it's hard to exist in that bubble that sometimes the writer has to be in, in a permanent way. The [world's] problems are so pressing and the issues need a lot of immediate attention, but there are ways to impact other than through words. But being a doctor and a writer is a tough call. So we'll see which one wins or if they both can co-exist."