Uzodinma Iweala was born in 1982. He graduated from Harvard University, where he was a Mellon Mays Scholar and received a number of prizes for his writing, including the Eager Prize, the Horman Prize, the Le Baron Briggs Prize, and the Hoopes Prize, awarded for outstanding undergraduate thesis. He lives in Washington, D.C., and Lagos, Nigeria.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Iweala:
"I'm really very silly, and also probably very easily amused -- though I may not seem that way when you meet me."
"I design clothes as a hobby. I started designing Nigerian-inspired formalwear because of a date I took to my junior prom in high school, who proceeded to tell me that she was going to hang out with an ex-boyfriend at a club after the dance instead of with me. She left me with all of her bags and didn't even call to say thank you when I dropped them off at her house. I spent $120 renting a tux for the night -- and after that I said, never again will I rent a tux. Now I design my own formal wear and other stuff. I also design dresses as well. I have them made in Nigeria."
"I like to fall asleep on the floor -- as long as it's carpeted. This is probably because I tend to read and write on the floor. A comfortable bed is also a wonderful thing, but wow, can a nap on the floor do wonders for your back, your day, your creativity!"
"I have two great parents and three incredible siblings -- an older sister who's in med school, and two younger brothers in college -- they put out a rap album when they were 14 and 11. Demolition was the name of the group, and the album was called TNT."
"I play jazz piano and the saxophone. I really love photography and like to take pictures. Good ways to unwind: listening to really good music of any genre in the dark -- either alone or in good company."
"I like to take Milo -- my family's the-year-old basenji and the greatest dog alive -- for walks along the C&O Canal and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., which is really beautiful at any time of the year. I occasionally go for runs -- and by occasionally, I mean almost never. "
"I would like at some point in time to be a doctor involved in health in the developing world."
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In the winter of 2006, Uzodinma Iweala took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei Armah. First, I'm just going to say that this question is a bit unfair because there are multiple books and I give different answers based on my mood. But if pressed right now, I would say that this book had a great impact on my life. First of all, the story -- Armah basically tells the story of the African colonial experience, but he starts with Arabs invading from the north, in an epic style with language that is wonderfully poetic. He tells the story in a style that pays tribute to the tradition of the griot in a narrative voice that some would call overbearing but that really captures the theatrical language of a live storyteller. As I am thoroughly interested in language as it is spoken -- and how one captures that essence in the written word -- this text has had a huge influence on my writing.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei Armah -- See above.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson -- I have had debates with friends about this book. Some really hate it, and others really love it. I love it because the language is so poetic -- it's almost like reading a dream. A creative writing teacher suggested that we read it for class, and I remember devouring it. I really love the simultaneous existence of intricate details and a strange spacey-ness to the text. It makes one all the more aware of the emotional environment of the characters!
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald -- This is an incredible text; dense prose, but super-captivating. About the countryside of England, and the author's walking through it. I'm amazed at the fact that he can take something that would appear so remarkably boring, and turn it into a living reading experience with his attention to the intimate details of the people he meets and the stories they tell. Brilliance.
The Famished Road by Ben Okri -- It won the 1991 Booker. Everybody has to read this book! It's probably the first 500-page book I've read -- and I'm still trying to figure out how Okri did it -- but basically, it's African magic realism. It takes into its structure a cultural belief in the world of spirits and ancestors, couples it with the modern reality of the Nigerian political and economic situation, and does so in language that reads like a song (again, language). I think his integration of this spirit world of Ju-Ju and folk tales is something that brings the sing-songiness to the text -- you can't help but hear it.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – I love the language; Faulkner's characters speaking in the vernacular are so hard to understand, really. But it's so worth it. I like how people take risks like this -- I like when the language of a text becomes as much a character as the characters themselves.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee -- Of all of his books, I like this one the best. He doesn't waste words. His images are so succinctly described, and the lack of flourish in his language is an art in and of itself. It makes the emotional state of his characters, of his settings, of the mindset of the colonizer all the more poignant and tangible. The way he addresses the absurdity of violence and how that can seriously change a person's mindset -- incredible.
Black Skin White Masks by Franz Fanon – The wretched of the earth deals with the mind-set of the colonized man. I think that all people -- regardless of race or culture -- would benefit from reading this book about the psychological impact colonialism had and still has on the mind of the oppressed person. It's particularly remarkable because it isn't a scientific or academic paper -- it reads like a poetic essay, and yet he still manages to have a scientific structure. That is, he uses case studies the way a medical doctor (and he was one) would. He uses books, personal experience, and interviews and creates this text that doesn't put up the wall that many academic papers do.
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih -- A novel about a Sudanese man returned from his schooling in England. It is at once a murder mystery and a postcolonial novel with a political message. I read the translation from the original Arabic, but still it has such depth and beauty to it. I like how it addresses the idea of the black male/African sexuality as viewed by white men -- this association of blackness with a primal sexual longing. I also like how it addresses gender roles in Sudanese society. Probably one of the most disturbing endings ever in a novel.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras -- An incredibly short novel about a young woman and her Chinese lover in French-ruled Vietnam. I really like it because it tackles such a huge issue (love and romantic attachment) in such a short space. No nonsense or fluffiness -- the emotions and acts of love and loving are naked and as violent and disturbing as they can be. Also, the descriptions of her characters are quite awesome -- so vivid.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe -- I wouldn't be a real Nigerian if I didn't say this book. It's what made African writers like me possible -- Achebe's success, and his push to adapt the novel to a more African structure, one that allows for the irregularities of the oral expression to shape the structure, not to mention his fearlessness in tackling colonial misconceptions of Africa as a "dark continent" without social structure.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?City of God -- The story is great, the cinematography is great, and the subject matter is also quite captivating. I like the idea of having people from the actual favelas acting in the movie -- somehow it seems more authentic.
À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Godard -- I have no idea why I like this film. It's old, and it's French, and it's black-and-white, but it's really, really good. Very stylized. You know, I can't answer the question -- it's just good.
La Haine (Hate) -- This is a French film about three guys: one Jewish, one black, and one Arab, in a French banlieu. It's about the tensions of growing up in a minority in this European society. It's especially relevant, considering the latest riots in France. Great for anyone who likes hip-hop -- the soundtrack is great. Also a black-and-white film.
Requiem for a Dream -- Wow. I first watched this movie alone in my parents' basement -- a room with a large-screen TV and no windows. I have never been so traumatized in my life. Such a good movie, but so disturbing! It's about addiction of all sorts -- and really effective with its split-screen shots. Marlon Wayans and Jared Leto are great as the main characters. Do not watch it alone -- I think I must have sat in the dark shaking for, like, an hour after the credits stopped running.
Syriana -- My close friends will laugh at me -- I was obsessed with seeing this movie because I wanted really badly to see it and couldn't find anyone to go with me. So I eventually went alone (by the way, occasionally going to the movies by yourself is a really fun thing). But I really liked it. I thought it might have been a bit obvious in the connections it makes and the plot, but the cinematography is great. And it will really make you think hard about the intersection of political and business interests, development and globalization. If you are from an oil producing country (as I am) then you will have an intrinsic understanding of how grimy the movies' characters are with regards to the black stuff. I went to the same high school as Jeffery Wright.
Beckett on Film -- Anybody who likes Samuel Beckett's plays and prose will like this collection of all of his plays done as films. My two favorites are the performances of "Play" and "Ohio Impromptu."
Any Star Trek: The Next Generation film -- Because it's Star Trek. That's all that needs be said!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I really like jazz, hip-hop (underground and older hip-hop -- as in, nothing put out by the more prominent rap artists today), R&B (again, generally not by the more current or popular artists), rock, and alternative (Radiohead, Broken Social Scene, the Walkmen, Block Party, the Doves). I also like techno lounge stuff -- my youngest brother calls it "wannabe cool New York type music" -- Thievery Corporation and stuff like that. Oh, and of course, Afro-beat/hi-life. And classical music -- by that I mean Beethoven and Chopin.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I always generally read one nonfiction book and one fiction book at the same time. I just finished Lenin's Tomb. Awesome book. Incredible book. I like history books that are more narrative, that lend a personal twist to the history being discussed. It makes it more fun, and all the more affecting. For example, we all learn that Stalin was a terrible guy, but it becomes more apparent when you understand this through the words of those who lost relatives, or they themselves survived his evil.
For fiction, Portnoy's Complaint -- I think this book by Philip Roth is incredible. Very different from anything I would write about or generally read, but that's why we read, isn't it? To get an eye into a different world. I like his boldness, I like his lack of inhibition, and most of all, I like how he makes it believable through his characters voice. I mean, okay, Philip Roth is Philip Roth, so it's expected that the novel will be amazing, but when you're a 23-year-old African/African-American male who came of age in the late '90s and the early part of the 21st century, and you find yourself so hooked on the story of a Jewish man from the 1940s-'50s, you have to just step back and acknowledge greatness.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I generally don't give books as gifts, and if I do, I give one book out and that is generally Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. Otherwise, I will attempt to read whatever you put in front of me for the most part.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Well, first I write everything by hand.
I write on unlined paper -- lines are distracting and ugly. I have journals -- they are sketchbooks, really -- either spiral bound or just bound, sometimes moleskins, but only if I'm traveling, otherwise my journal is large and unwieldy. I will only write in my journal with two specific Lamy fountain pens given to me by an ex-girlfriend. One is black ink, the other is blue ink. I alternate pages -- one page is black and the facing page is blue.
I try to write at least two hours a day (have not been so successful at that recently because of traveling, etc., but will get back to it). And I generally write late at night or early in the morning unless for some reason I hit a groove and write through the day.
After having written the story by hand, I then type up all I've written, print it out, and completely rewrite between the lines. When I'm finally ready to revise to a final draft it becomes an affair involving colored pens, highlighters, stickies, and sometimes even scissors. I also like to read what I've written aloud to people.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My path was surprisingly easy. I wrote Beasts of No Nation for my senior thesis, and my adviser (Jamaica Kincaid) put me in touch with her agent. The rest, of course, is pretty standard. I've been lucky. I've been writing for a while -- though nothing I would have considered publishable. Although I think one of the editors who looked at and rejected the manuscript said that he/she didn't understand why my characters were speaking English if the story was set in Africa. Hmmm... I wish I had something witty to say about that, but it's okay.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Ian MacKenzie -- he's a young novelist and Harvard grad like me. At age 23, he has already written three novels (hopefully the first will be published soon). But he writes like a much older man, with such maturity. His work reminds me of J. M. Coetzee or Ian McEwan. I really think the world needs to know about this guy!
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Something Jamaica Kincaid told me: Write. Write. Write. Don't worry so much about being published or discovered. Worry about writing what you have to write -- what you need to say, and how you're going to say it. The rest will come.
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