Elom Akoto


Friday, April 12, 2024, Interview with Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation

I had the privilege to interview Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, the author of Beasts of No Nation, a novel that was adapted into a great movie, featuring Idris Elba.

Here is my conversation with the author.

Elom: Good morning, Dr. Iweala. How are you today?

Dr. Iweala: I’m good, thank you. How about you?

Elom: I’m doing well. Thank you for being so kind to allow me to interview you today.

Dr. Iweala: Oh, no problem!

Elom: Shall we begin?

Dr. Iweala: Yes, go ahead.

Elom: How did you become a writer?

Dr. Iweala: I always knew from a young age. I always wrote science fiction type stories. When I watched TV shows, things didn’t end up the way I wanted them too. So, I started writing about those. You become a teenager and you start writing long poetry, you know, that kind of stuff. In college, they offered creative writing classes through the English Department. I really wanted to take creative writing classes because I wanted to write. So, I became a creative writing major. I also read and learn. My senior thesis was what became my first novel.

Elom: I also learned that you are a medical doctor, is that true?

Dr. Iweala: Yes, that is true.

Elom: How did you make the decision to be a doctor and a writer at the same time?

Dr. Iweala: I always thought that was going to go to medical school. I published my first book before applying to medical school. So, I thought I could continue writing since I already had a book published, although it’s not always easy to do those two things at the same time. It has its challenges.

Elom: I watched the movie before reading the book. What drew you to write about child soldiers? I don’t recall any Nigerian Civil War or conflict that involved child soldiers. So, was it a Pan African spirit that drove you to writing that intense story.

Dr. Iweala: It’s both of those things. In the Nigerian Civil War, it’s not talked about a lot, but there were child soldiers involved. I’m talking about the Biafra War in 1967. But when I was writing, I was thinking more of Liberia and Sierra Leone and wanted to put it in a more geographical context when it came to the continent of Africa. I also drew heavily on the interviews I did with people who went through the Nigerian Civil War.

Elom: After reading your book and discovering your organization, African Center, I thought about you as not just a Nigerian but some who is more interested in the whole continent of African in his work. Am I write.

Dr. Iweala: Yeah, I think you’re right. Now, I feel very Nigerian, but I also see myself as a Pan Africanist in my thought process. So, yeah, I think you’re right.

Elom: How do you feel about having your book turned into a movie, hence being a famous author from African origin.

Dr. Iweala: I do not see myself that way. I’m very thrilled that my book was turned into a movie, and just the idea that you write something, and it inspires more creativity, more dialogue, and more discussions. That makes me feel good because that’s what you want as a writer, right! You want your work to be out there in the world, and not just to be there, but to be something that inspires further dialogue and further creativity. In term of being famous or important, I just want to make a living man! What I want to do is write these books; I want to get my ideas out there. I want to make this world a little better than it is right now.

Elom: How difficult was it for you to get where you are right now as a writer?

Dr. Iweala: I was difficult. But, for me it was much easier than for other people, because luckily somebody believed in my work and made a very big point of pushing the work. It was very kind of this person to see me and say hey listen, I’m here for you, let’s see what we can do. But even that doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to get published. The book was rejected by every single publisher that saw, until one person was like alright well, it looks interesting to me, and I’ll take a chance. That person taking that chance made all the difference. They didn’t make very much money at all, but they decided they were going to try to publish it. And because of that, I ended up in a different space than I would have been otherwise.

Elom: How did you decide about the style of writing that you chose in your novel: the use of present progressive, the deliberate omission of “s” at the end of words in plural forms.

Dr. Iweala: It was deliberate; every word was chosen carefully.

Elom: Is it true that writing is a lonely journey, or are you part of a writing community? Do you have connections with other writers?

Dr. Iweala: Yes, and no, I mean…My wife is a writer. It’s true in the sense that if write books, no one can write your book for you; it’s the issue. You’re really in your own space, your own world. When you’re sitting at your desk, it’s really you and it can be really isolating. And you don’t even know if what you’re writing is even going to work, right! Forget whether or not the book would sell, just like let think about whether the thing you’re writing is even going to be a story that’s going to even make any sense to you, before it makes sense to anybody else. And that can be very lonely and very terrifying. Because you spend all this time working, working, and you might end up having to throw the whole thing away. And if you’re thinking you need to eat, and you need to do whatever, this can be a tricky experience. But at the same time, writing is not entirely solitary, because once you get to a certain point, you get people who can edit your work and critic your work to help you make it better. That becomes very collaborative, and I really like it.

Elom: What advice would you give someone like me who is a few months from publication, but still feels like it a struggle, trying to get people to response to my email, scheduling events.

Dr. Iweala: First of all, congratulations. It’s not easy writing a book. Secondly, keep emailing people. I responded to your email, right! So, keep trying. Now the practical advice I’ll give you is to find the money to hire a publicist. I wish I had done that when I started. Your publisher can only help you to a certain point. Hiring a publicist can go a long way. I said earlier that writing is not easy, so you should celebrate your accomplishment. It’s not a small thing to write a book. When at one point you feel like you haven’t reached the level of attention you really wanted, just stop for a second and say, “Hey, I did this”, you know what I mean? How many people are able to do this?  How many people are able to say they sat down with nothing on page zero, there was nothing there and at the end there was something there.

Elom: Thank you very much for your time Dr. Iweala, and for answering all my questions.

Dr. Iweala: My pleasure. Before you go, I would like a copy of your book.

Elom: Absolutely! I would love to do that.

Dr. Iweala: Ok, I hope that it all goes well for you!