Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Okay. So one of my reading goals this year is to read more works by women, LGBTQ authors, and authors of color. Part of this is acknowledging my own privilege in that I frequently see people who are at least somewhat like me presented as authors and as characters by those authors. By trying to read authors who are dissimilar to me I'm attempting to broaden my perspective and hear stories from people who have had very different lives than mine. Which is why I'm slightly uncomfortable with the author-subject relationship in Beasts of no Nation. Uzodinma Iweala is an American-born, Harvard-educated man of Nigerian descent who was inspired by a Newsweek article to write a novel about child soldiers in an unspecified African country. In the author interview section at the end of my copy of the book Iweala states that he didn't want to set his novel specifically in Nigeria because he didn't want to reinforce stereotypes about the violence in that country. My question is "how is making the violence generally African any better than making the violence specifically Nigerian?" This seems to be perpetuating the "Africa is a country" attitude seen so frequently in Western film and literature. More problematically Iweala is the son of a wealthy family from a wealthy and generally safe country, and though he has spent time in Nigeria with family and researched his novel by speaking to child soldiers he is as far removed from his main character's history and experience as it is possible to be while still sharing some background experience and vocabulary. I just felt like that needed to be pointed out.
That being said, Beasts of no Nation is an excellent, if horrifying, novel. It tells the story of Agu's recruitment into an army of child soldiers and the horrors he experiences (and becomes nearly numb to) between losing his family and finding himself on a dusty road, starving and scared, near the end of the story. The violence of the story is disconcerting while never seeming unnecessary to communicate the novel's central message (a somewhat on-the-nose point that children who commit atrocities are still children). Agu's isolation, his confusion at the world around him, his memories of his family and the safety of his village, and his clinging to symbols of strength and power are well-crafted and subtle elements of his character that warm you to empathy for the character while holding a hand over your mouth in disgust. Agu's language in particular is an impressive example of craft, a dialect of subject-verb quarrels and repetition mated with pidgin slang and not-quite-right sentence structure keeps the character's immaturity and drifting state in the forefront of the reader's mind.
It's a short novel, so this is going to be a short write-up to keep from utterly spoiling the thing. I was entranced by it, and had trouble putting it down (I read the last 100 pages at a sprint so I could finish it without having to wait for tomorrow); the characters were almost all a fascinating combination of sinister and sympathetic, and the story as a whole brings up some troubling questions about humanity and the terrible things we're capable of. Overall I would recommend Beasts of no Nation, but I'd also like to find some narratives about child soldiers written by people who themselves have experienced the terror and exhaustion of living through a war without the polish of earning multiple degrees from Ivy League universities instead.
Iweala, Uzodinma. Beasts of no Nation. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2015. (2005).