The author of Beast of No Nation, opens up on the business of storytelling
They say men can’t multitask but Uzodinma Iweala is a writer, entrepreneur, medical doctor, publisher and art curator of sorts – a quintessential polymath.
When I meet him at his offices of his business magazine Ventures Africa, he is prepping for a contemporary art exhibition. He has just completed his third book, a second novel and his afro is growing out (he said that happens when he writes). Clearly doing many different things at once is a way of life.
We are here to get an insight into the mind of the Beast of No Nation (BNN) writer who admits he stays pretty much below the radar in Nigeria. “I keep to myself. I don’t really go out, I just focus on the work that I want to do.”
Although many saw and know the film of the same name, not so many people know him in Nigeria as you might assume. He is famous internationally in the literary community and although he has done many interviews overseas since BNN was published, he pretty much leaves the Nigerian stage to that of his more famous relative, his mother Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister.
Visually the first thing that I notice is of course the afro. Iweala always looks very preppy in his photos online. A sort of ageless college kid, smartly dressed down, comfortably awkward and confidently retiring. Although he achieved fame as a young man just out of his teens, there are no photos of him in lurid T-shirts, baggy jeans or self-conscious labels, so this fluffy, rising a couple of inches around his head and a little unkempt look is new and interesting. But no, it’s not a midlife crisis, his inner rockstar coming out or step five of his natural hair journey. Uzo explains: “I have this thing when I’m writing or editing to not cut my hair until I’m finished.” He is talking about the first draft of his new novel.
“It’s the whole Samson thing,” he says with a rueful laugh recalling the biblical warrior renowned for the prodigious strength that he derived from his uncut hair. “All writers or creative people have their games or traditions. I don’t really cut my hair that often. When I’m working on something, all the excess stuff, I cut it away. No-one’s looking at you when you’re spending all your time in a cave. You’re trying to focus on the work. Samson had long hair and that’s the source of his strength.”
And the cave is where?
“New York,” he says laughing again knowing another explanation is in order. The city that never sleeps sounds scarcely like the kind of place you would go to get away from it all. But then we are in Lagos, one of the densest and noisiest cities in the world, where you’re never far from the chug of a generator, beeping is life and the cacophony of daily frustrations rise like the smog in Harmattan. Almost any city feels restful after this place.
The business of storytelling
Iweala has just arrived back in Lagos after a family break in America where he pretty much grew up. He is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Ventures Africa, an online and print magazine focusing on business and entrepreneurship.
It seems like a world away from his American life of literary fame (BNN won many awards), famous friends (Caribbean-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid and Chimamanda Adichie are like family) and Hollywood film deals (BNN starred Idris Elba) but for him it fits in perfectly.
“You have to make a living,” he says. But not like the rest of us, I assume when one is from an aristocratic family, releases a bestselling, award-winning novel, gets a Hollywood film deal and then a groundbreaking Netflix deal. And actually, it turns out Ventures which he runs with his uncle, a financial consultant Chi Chi Okonjo, is about more than just a living, it’s finding another way to express himself.
“It’s an idea, maybe an SME or innovative startup, a cultural experiment, a painting, something created to change how we think and operate. A lot of it is business and innovation but in reality, it’s about telling stories.”
Iweala says his uncle is more about finance and growth while he is more about the narrative. Together they have positioned Ventures as a popular and well-respected magazine rivaling Forbes Africa with its eye-catching headlines and drawing attention to African business in a positive way.
But back to the writing. Iweala is now working on his second novel, his third book. Following up to BNN he wrote a non-fiction book about AIDS. Our kind of people. A continent’s challenge, a country’s hope aimed to challenge the narrative on AIDS as it concerns Africa while educating on the struggle and local attitudes to the disease. There’s not a lot about it online. BNN left big shoes to fill and there doesn’t seem to have been the same level of interest. While it may have further established Iweala as an intellectual and something of an activist it didn’t have the same impact.
But now Iweala is working on a second work of fiction trying to establish a new narrative about police brutality in America.
Many artists from the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) to singer Solange Knowles (A Seat at the Table) have tried to reinterpret civil rights struggle in America in the light of the growing awareness of police brutality largely targeted at black people in the United States.
The brutality is not new but there’s a new contemporary consciousness of it thanks to social media that has led to movements like Black Lives Matter, the resurgence of more radical black movements such as the New Black Panther Party and a crossover into popular culture.
“This is a very American novel set in Washington DC dealing with some of the issues you might expect,” says Iweala. “The characters are of different races but centred around the crisis of who has the right to full citizenship and who has the right to safety in that space. It’s not necessarily about killings and protest but how people focus and deal with the inner trauma those experiences create.”
Iweala is no stranger to trauma. BNN is a particularly disturbing story of child soldiers in Liberia. The rape of the central character Agu is told in graphic detail and haunts you long after you finish reading. The book and film have variously been described as harrowing, terrifying, traumatic and brutal by critics.
“I’ve always been interested in the way that people process trauma,” Iweala explains. “This one deals with, in vague terms, police brutality – how individuals and societies process the trauma around them. It’s fascinating to me both in the creative work and in the work that we try to do at Ventures.”
American or Americanah?
But is Iweala looking at America as an American or an African as Chimamanda Adichie did in Americanah or both and does it matter? I give him my perspective as a black Brit that some Nigerians I have met in Lagos feel disconnected from the race issues happening in America or don’t really understand racism at all, believing media reports that African Americans are at fault for their predicament.
“[Those] people don’t understand the context where this is happening,” he replies. “I grew up in the context. There isn’t a black person in the US who hasn’t had some kind of interaction with the police. It’s hard for people who don’t grow up in that context to understand […]If you’re black you can be a person looking at a toy gun in a Walmart, sitting in a car with your girlfriend and child, be an upstanding citizen, everybody’s parents say you’re the nicest guy they’ve ever met, Henry Louis B Gates trying to get into your own house and they will arrest you. That’s what [they] have to understand.”
Iweala splits his time between the US and Nigeria. Given the subject matter of his recent nove,l it sounds like choosing between the US and Nigeria is like choosing between a rock and a hard place. Where does he lay his hat?
“I grew up in the US,” he says by way of explanation. “If you grow up between two places the gap is a blessing and also an inner torment. You want so badly to be of a place but that’s not your lot. When people talk about Nigeria being a difficult place we all complain about it. Listening to the sound of generator, stuck in traffic, suffering inconveniences doesn’t make you feel good. If something happens to me will I get the medical help I need? Every Nigerian is acutely aware of that but other things make it wonderful to live here. You’re around your family. There’s extended family and a sense of community. You’re in a place where you see people hustling and pushing. That gives you energy.