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In grade school, he wrote science fiction. In high school, he wrote a three-page short story about child soldiers. For his senior thesis at Harvard University, Uzodinma Iweala expanded that story into a novel, which his adviser, Jamaica Kincaid, sent to her agent. HarperCollins published the book, Beasts of No Nation, and released it this month, within days of the author’s 23rd birthday.
“Is writing one book—does that make you a writer?” asks Iweala. “Does writing six books make you a writer? Is it when you’ve been published? I’ve been writing for—I don’t know how long, just writing and writing and writing and writing. So this is the first book I’ve published—does that make me a writer?”
Beasts of No Nation follows the young soldier Agu through a civil war in an anonymous country based loosely on Nigeria, where Iweala’s parents are from and where he spent time during his summers growing up. The rest of the time he spent in Potomac, Md.
“It’s hard, obviously, since I grew up in Washington, D.C., and have had a very nice life compared to a lot of people—especially a child soldier—it’s hard in that sense to say that I can really truly identify with a person in that situation,” he says. “But in terms of identifying with one’s character…They become people that you do understand in a way.” To better understand his protagonist, Iweala read interviews with child soldiers, studied child-psychology textbooks, and spent time absorbing the landscape of Nigeria.
But he remained mindful of the distance he maintained from his character and story. “If you think that you know completely what you’re talking about when you’re trying to describe a situation that’s in a sense alien to you, I think that’s problematic,” he says. “People always say it’s very hard to write about yourself because you feel like you know so many things…and they’re plain and simple to you—and it means that you don’t necessarily do the work that you need to do to make them plain and simple to other people.”
But it was important to Iweala to keep the country unnamed. “The idea that child soldiers are used—it’s not just one country’s problem,” he says. “They’re used in many places throughout the world.” He also struggled with “issues of authenticity.” “I know about where I come from in Nigeria, but I don’t necessarily know about Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, or Sri Lanka—wherever child soldiers are used.”
For his next novel, Iweala plans to return to that other place he knows well: the District. “The next novel…will probably be a love story,” he says. He wants to avoid the common threads he sees in novels about Washington, such as politics. “I want to write about D.C. in a different way, with a different slant—almost in the way Baldwin…wrote about New York.”
Though Iweala does, in fact, consider himself a writer, he hasn’t yet ruled out other career choices. There’s med school, or grad school, or returning to Nigeria, where he spent the last year doing “a number of different things,” including working with internal refugees and on an HIV/AIDS/TB/malaria project. As for his love story, it will be “written wherever I find myself at the time.” —Rebecca Corvino