Uzodinma Iweala (U-zod-din-ma EE-wall-a), a 23-year-old Harvard graduate who grew up in Washington, D.C., has written an extraordinary debut novel, Beasts of No Nation (HarperCollins), that is basking in critical acclaim. The book tells the story of Agu, a child soldier in an unnamed country in Western Africa, who has been recruited by a unit of guerrilla fighters after watching his own father being slaughtered. The author visited Nigeria, where his mother is currently the finance minister, frequently when he was growing up, and lived there last year, working with refugees. We chatted with Iweala by phone.
Galley Girl: Did you have to turn yourself inside out to write this book? It must have been very emotionally painful.
Uzodinma Iweala: It was not a fun subject to deal with. Primarily because you're reading about tons and tons of atrocities committed, and the people who are doing them are younger than you. To spend so much time with violence in generalI was not very happy for the majority of time I was trying to write this.
GG: How did you come to write this book?
UI: My senior year of high school, I read a Newsweek article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. It was a new topic to me, and I wanted to find out more. So I sat down after reading the article and wrote a really short story, more like just a sketch of a really brutal and violent scene. I [thought], how can this little kid be killing people? It doesn't really make any sense to me, but I wanted to see if I could capture that. I put it aside for the next four or five years, until my junior year of college. The Harvard African Students' Association invited China Keitetsa, who is a former Ugandan child soldier. She spoke, and was basically just telling about her life. She was about 26 at the time she spoke. She'd been abducted at age 9, and forced to fight. She went through her life story, and how she started campaigning against the use of child soldiers, how she escaped from the fighting forces. Afterwards, I had the chance to sit and talk with her. In the conversation, she asked me what I was studying. I said I was studying English, but my parents really want me to study medicine. I was English and pre-med at the same time. She said, Oh, I have no parents. After that, it was kind of like, yeah, well, I can't really say anything at all anymore. I went home for Thanksgiving break, and started turning it over, and really tried to understand what she was talking about. I pulled out the short storyI tend to keep everythingand the three pages became a 50-page short story. [It then became his senior honors thesis at Harvard, then grew into a novel.]
GG: How did you research the book? Did you talk with former child soldiers?
UI: China was the only person I spoke to who was a former child soldier. Of course, I read her autobiography, which is called Child Soldier: Fighting for My Life. Then I read a lot of other autobiographies of child soldiers and people who had been through conflicts, and read all of these Amnesty International Human Rights Watch-UN reports on children in conflict and child combatants. I read child psychology textbooks, to look at development, and how violence affects development, and how children perceive death, and punishment and reward. Additionally, I talked with [my own] family members and other Nigerians about the Nigerian civil war and their experience back in the '60s, dealing with how violence affects the way you live, and what it does to your community.
GG: Tell me about Agu, the narrator.
UI: Agu, in essence, would probably be a composite of a number of different people and their experiences that I encountered while doing the research for the book. I guess that's in the basic sense. He's obviously much more than that. But that's where the genesis of his character is. This person might have been in Uganda and this person might have been in Sierra Leone, and this person might have been in Sri Lanka, and this person might have been in Cambodia, but I'm trying to put all of these experiences into one character that will at least speak to the reader.
GG: How old is he and what country do you imagine him to be in?
UI: He's anywhere from 9 to 12. The landscape of the book is Nigeria, but the country is not Nigeria. The country is specifically unnamed. He's supposed to be from a West African country.
GG: Can these kids ever function normally again?
UI: That's probably more for an expert to answer. A lot of the evidence and reports say that they're scarred permanently. I don't think you can go through something like this and just come out ready to work and ready to operate. One of the problems that the communities face is that sometimes the kids who are forced to fight are forced to commit atrocities against their own community members, to disconnect them from their communities, and make it impossible for them to go back. So they have nothing to do but fight, because they have nowhere to go. So then the war is ended, and now you have this kid who's gone and killed people in his own community. Is that community just supposed to accept him back, without any problems?
GG: You have received enormous acclaim for this book, which is unusual for a debut novelist. What has that been like?
UI: Obviously, it's been pretty cool to see that people are really interested in what you've written about, and think that you've written about it in an effective way. But then at the same time, I had the chance to meet Salman Rushdie, which was really a strange experience. He has the same agents that I have. I walked into the office in London and he was just kind of there. I was just, ha ha, you're not supposed to be here. It's not every day that you just see Salman Rushdie sitting around. And we were talking, and he said, "So has the criticism started coming in?" "Yeah." He's like, "What's it been like?" I was, like, "It's been pretty good." "Well, let me just let you know that if you believe them when they say you're good, then you have to believe them when they say you're bad. So just keep that in mind." I was like, "That's actually really good advice." It's good to see that people are really interested in this book, and that it has made the topic more accessible, but at the same time, there are other books that I want to write, and they might not go so well. But I guess each book at a time.