Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

This book is so disturbing that I could only read it in short chunks. Like 10-20 page chunks, and even though it is only about 120 pages long, that meant it took me awhile to get through, as I had to keep getting up, finding something else to read, or just going to sleep. The book tells the story of a child soldier in an unnamed African country- his dad is killed and his mother and sister are not around. His life starts out picturesquely- he goes to school, he is literate, he goes to church, his parents are educated and Christian. And then war comes with its GWBMEN! GWBEMS! and he becomes a killing machine trained by the Commandant to kill and rape and pillage.

Uzodinma Iweala's writing is fabulous. You can hear the unnamed narrator's voice as he moves from trauma and tragedy to hunger, etc. I have to admit, I was a little disarmed when I read the back cover of the book, about 2/3 of the way through the book and learned that Izweala was born in the US, is a little younger than me, and went to Harvard. The writing and the plot are imaginary- which, of course is fine, and wouldn't have bothered me, if I hadn't been so convinced, and if I hadn't just read a New Yorker article about African voices in modern literature (After Empire, May 26, 2008.) Ruth Franklin writes:

By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses—“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”—have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”


Iweala does this well, but he does it from afar, based on his "About the Author" section in the back. I rarely read these sections, but reading this article about a week before this book made the wonderful narrative of "Beasts" and the history of its author sit awkwardly with me, so I read it. Who am I to discount Iweala's history as a Nigerian American, though he writes that he grew up on Connecticut Avenue in DC and in Bethesda, Maryland, with trips home to visit Nigeria? What would the postcolonial African writers quoted in Franklin's article say about this book? A little internet searching makes it sound like Jamaica Kincaid, renowned author, helped get this book published. I sound a little cynical- I don't mean to be. But somehow I feel like this book can't operate fully as the anti-colonial, anti-war, humanistic cry that it appears on face value with out a disclosure as authored by an American child of privilege. This doesn't make it any less of a disturbing book.

What *would* Achebe say?

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