“My next book is non-fiction, about HIV/AIDS, so I need to mature as a writer before I tackle something more difficult,” he said. Iweala’s first novel, “Beasts of No Nation,” is the fictional story of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country.
After receiving nearly 200 submissions from publishers and agents around the country, six judges in the Granta magazine office narrowed the list of “America’s Best Young Novelists”—published in the magazine’s April edition—down to 21 authors under age 35, wrote Ian Jack, editor of the quarterly magazine and chair of the judging committee, in an e-mail.
“Making a list of this kind is never a perfect art and every judge would have regrets about the omission of personal favorites,” Jack wrote. “I guess we were looking for something above and beyond the ‘well-made book’ of which the U.S. has so many.”
According to Jack, Iweala’s “persuasive way” of writing about a difficult subject was a major draw for the judges.
“Of course it’s a risk—he has published only one short book—but we thought it worth taking,” Jack wrote.
Iweala’s novel was inspired in part by China Keitetsi, a Ugandan child soldier who addressed the Harvard African Students Association in Iweala’s junior year, according to a Crimson article.
The book began as Iweala’s creative thesis and has since been translated into 11 languages and won numerous awards, including the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.
“It feels real good to be honored, especially since this is only the second time they’ve done this,” Iweala said, referring to the recognition from Granta magazine.
As an undergraduate, Iweala considered studying both biological chemistry and economics. But he decided to concentrate in English and American language and literature after attending a lecture by Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt in English 10a, “Major British Writers,” an introductory class in British literature from the Anglo-Saxon era to John Milton.
“I think he was discussing ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ and reading with him as the teacher changed the whole thing. I realized I want to do this, I want to read about this tradition. And reading and writing go hand in hand,” Iweala said.
Iweala said he had been interested in creative writing since high school. When he came to Harvard as a freshman, he applied to creative writing courses—and got rejected. He re-applied sophomore year and got into a course taught by then-lecturer Patricia E. Powell.
“Being in a writing class and being able to write consistently told me that this is what I wanted. I said, I’m going to try and do this,” Iweala said.
Visiting Lecturer Jamaica Kincaid, who currently teaches English Cvr, “Fiction Writing,” was Iweala’s thesis adviser. “I’m very proud of him,” Kincaid said. “You never know how these things work, you know. I knew that what he was writing was special, but I didn’t know the world would take it seriously. I’m very, very happy that it’s been met with such acceptance.”