Uzodinma Iweala

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Uzodinma Iweala during a public reading at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 10/17/2008

Uzodinma Iweala (born November 5, 1982) is an American author and medical doctor of Nigerian descent.[1] His debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, is a formation of his thesis work (in creative writing) at Harvard. It depicts a child soldier in an unnamed African country. The book, published in 2005 and adapted as an award-winning film in 2015, was mentioned by Time Magazine, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Times,[2] and Rolling Stone. He later released a novel titled "Speak No Evil" in 2018 which highlighted the life of a gay Nigerian-American boy named Niru.

Family and education[edit]

The son of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Iweala attended St. Albans School in Washington D.C. and later Harvard College, from which he graduated with an A.B., magna cum laude, in English and American Literature and Language, in 2004.[3] While at Harvard, Iweala earned the Hoopes Prize and Dorothy Hicks Lee Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Thesis, 2004; Eager Prize for Best Undergraduate Short Story, 2003; and the Horman Prize for Excellence in Creative Writing, 2003.[3] He graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2011[4] and was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.[5]


Speak No Evil (2018)[edit]

In his second novel, Iweala explores the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality and the diaspora through the story of Niru, a Nigerian-American high school senior living in a middle-class suburb of Washington D.C., who comes out as gay to his white straight friend Meredith. The first two thirds of the book are narrated by Niru while the last third is narrated by Meredith. Niru must learn how to negotiate his many identities: being a Black man in America, being the child of Nigerian immigrants, coming from a middle-class background, as well as being gay. Niru is forced to confront the many ways in which he is privileged, as well as disenfranchised. Iweala also interweaves themes of religion, cultural dislocation, mental health, police brutality, and more, all of which further add to and further complicate Niru’s life and identities.

Niru comes out to his friend, Meredith, after rejecting her sexual advances. In an attempt to help him, Meredith downloads dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr on Niru’s phone and encourages him to set up a date with a guy named Ryan. When Niru misplaces his phone, his father discovers it and sees text messages from Ryan, thus outing Niru to his parents. His father responds by beating up Niru and taking him to Nigeria for “spiritual revival”, as he calls it. Niru resents his father for this punishment because he hates visiting Nigeria do to how uncomfortable he feels there due to the heat and lack of amenities.

In the second half of Speak No Evil, we continue to see the struggles of intersections that occur with Niru for being a gay, black man in America. His sexuality is difficult to manage because he did not "come out of the closet" on his own terms. As discussed in class, coming out is assumed heterosexuality to a queer identity and something is being hidden if there is no coming out of the closet. This assumed heterosexuality is problematic because it creates an environment for queer people that being yourself is wrong or looked down upon. There are already stigmas and discrimination for identifying as gay, but with the addition to being black, in my opinion, makes the process of coming out and living your true identity twice as difficult. Niru has to combat racism on top of dealing with homophobia.

Upon Niru’s return to America, he and his family attempt to go back to normal, as though nothing happened. Niru’s father takes his phone and gives him a Nokia phone that has no access to the internet and that can only be used to call. Niru is required to meet weekly with their church’s pastor, Reverend Olumide. Niru goes to a party after his first track meet and gets drunk, getting into a fight with Meredith and eventually being taken care of by a stranger (later revealed to be Damien). He eventually begins to form a romantic relationship with Damien, and tries to find a balance between the various worlds and spaces that he exists in: his home and school lives, where he must hide his sexual identity, and the space in which he exists with Damien. Niru begins to distance himself from everyone, including Meredith. During a somewhat sexual encounter with Damien, Niru pushes him away and leaves, leaving their relationship in a tense place. Shortly after Niru makes up with his friend Meredith. Everything comes to a head after Niru's last track meet of the summer. Niru runs away from his father, and eventually ends up going to a club with Meredith, which ends up with him getting shot by the police and dying. The second half of the novel is then told from the perspective of Meredith, and illustrates her struggles, as well as the struggles of Niru's father, to grapple with and comes to terms with the aftermath of Niru's death.

Speak No Evil is an example of The New Black Aesthetic. The New Black Aesthetic is a term coined by Trey Ellis. An essential part of The New Black Aesthetic talks about defying African American stereotypes. This is something that the character, Niru, from Speak No Evil is able to do well. Niru is an African-American male, yet he is Harvard bound, proving that he is wildly intelligent. He is a homosexual who is not ready to lose his virginity, proving that all black men are not hyper-sexual. When his friend, Meredith, takes him to a club and he is approached by men who want to fight, he exits the situation. This proves that he is not a violet man. Although Niru used his entire life to prove that he is not a black stereotype, he is eventually gunned down by police who then tell the public that Niru was a violent man attempting to assault a white woman. Although Niru fought hard not to become a stereotype, he eventually failed, suggesting that this is an inevitable fate for all African Americans.

Speak No Evil and the 90s Black Sports Hero[edit]

White Boy Shuffle[6] was published in 1996. In the 1990s and 1980s black entertainers and, athletes more specifically, were acquiring exponential levels of fame. By the 1980s, America began to publicly “embrace” the black athlete, rewarding stars with multimillion-dollar contracts, movie deals, lucrative shoe endorsements and mansions in all-white areas. Given that they were in this state state of high-visibility, there was an overall expectation of activism from said athletes on behalf of the black community. This is exemplified in White Boy Shuffle[6] as the main character, Gunnar achieves athletic success putting him in a vulnerable position in which he is expected to be a leader in the Black community. In the summary on the back of the book, it says "[Gunnar transforms] eventually to a reluctant messiah of a 'divided, downtrodden people,'" referring to black people. Gunnar is extremely reluctant to take on said title. As said by sociologist Harry Edwards,  “The mold of the public activist — the person who is willing to lead but also willing to lose everything for a cause — doesn’t fit everyone.”[7] And it doesn’t fit for Gunnar. I think often when we think about activism, we think about large sacrifice. An obvious recent example is in the NFL, in regards to Colin Kaepernick, who put his career on the line for his beliefs. But I think we should think about how we define activism. The idea of activism can be subjective. Many athletes during the time of Gunnar’s story were involved in their communities yet not in traditional ways, as we see with Gunnar. Everyone around him propels him as this “black figurehead”, but Gunnar does not know how to or want to know how to fit the mold of a Black leader. His form of 'activism' can be seen in his unwillingness to be complacent and accept oppressive forces.

This form of activism is reminiscent of Trey Ellis' New Black Aesthetic (NBA).[8] In Ellis' essay, he describes a new era (80s/90s) in cultural interaction for Black Americans. The emergence of the NBA opens up an aesthetic realm that was, until recently, closed to blacks, including aesthetic possibilities for Black people beyond as he says, "Africa and jazz." Ellis also talks about the concept of the "cultural mulatto," or someone who can access both white and Black cultural formations, yet maintains rooted in Black identity. Gunnar's story represents that of a "cultural mullato" whose expression of Blackness differs from what is considered to be "traditional." Additionally his expression of activism is divergent from the "traditional". His activism aligns with Ellis’ NBA in many ways given that he does not embody the traditional “black” or “black activist” persona, but still does not remain complicit in the cases of injustice.

Writing Awards[edit]

In 2006, he won the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. In 2007, he was named as one of Granta magazine's 20 best young American novelists.[9]


  1. ^ "Uzodinma Iweala | Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  2. ^ "The Sunday Times". 5 May 2013. Archived from the original on 5 May 2013.
  3. ^ a b "Barnes & - Uzodinma Iweala - Books: Meet the Writers". 1 September 2007.
  4. ^ Franklin, Marcus (February 11, 2007). "Young Author Iweala Set for Med School". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  5. ^ "Uzodinma Iweala | Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  6. ^ a b Beatty, Paul (1996). White Boy Shuffle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Picador.
  7. ^ "Harry Edwards's Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved 2019-03-23.
  8. ^ "Trey Ellis", Wikipedia, 2019-03-23, retrieved 2019-03-23
  9. ^ "Uzodinma Iweala - Granta Best of Young American Novelists 2". 30 April 2007.

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