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Uzodinma C. Iweala '04

A young novelist balances craft with a career in medicine

By Rebecca J. Levitan, Crimson Staff Writer

Jamaica Kincaid sees writing as an “accompaniment” to the rest of one’s life.

“You can do anything and still be devoted to writing,” the visiting lecturer in English says.

Her thesis advisee Uzodinma C. Iweala ’04 is living proof of that belief—Iweala’s creative senior thesis was published as the well-received novel “Beasts of No Nation.” And if writing a novel during college isn’t impressive enough, he did it all while fulfilling his pre-med requirements.

As a freshman, Iweala planned to concentrate in economics. But after some time in his first Economics 10 lecture, a thoroughly bored Iweala walked out to catch the last 20 minutes of another course on his shopping list. It was led by English Professor Steven Greenblatt. Iweala had no idea who the renowned theorist and Shakespeare scholar was, but the way he talked about Chaucer made it “seem like the most incredible thing to read on the earth.” Iweala was hooked.

After switching to English, Iweala stuck it out as a pre-med to fulfill a desire to study something “practical.” Doing so meant a heavy workload, but writing a creative thesis let him focus on something he loved.

“My last year at Harvard made going to Harvard really, really worth it, which corresponded to writing a thesis,” Iweala says.

During his junior year, Iweala had had the chance to meet former child soldier China Keitetsi when she came to give a talk to the Harvard African Students Association. While Iweala had already written a rough short story about a child soldier, Keitetsi inspired him to write something larger in scope.

Iweala decided to set his novel in a fictional country in West Africa, but he felt that he had to understand the world of a child soldier before he could begin writing. He began reading texts on the subject and interviews with former child soldiers, as well as talking to survivors of the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s.

“You can’t write about it unless you know the rules and regulations of the world you are creating,” Iweala says.

Writing his thesis wasn’t any less of an uphill battle once his research was done. Professor Kincaid gave Iweala the key to her office so that he could write whenever he wished. Iweala remembers spending many nights on the floor of the office, writing and rewriting.

One of the most difficult things about the story was finding its voice.

“He’s very interested in the voices we speak with and the voices we have in our own head,” says Ian R. MacKenzie ’04, Iweala’s friend and fellow thesis-writer. “Beasts of No Nation” is written in a vernacular inspired by the Nigerian English Iweala had heard during his summers in Nigeria.

“He took a long time to find that voice,” MacKenzie says. “But once he found it, he knew he found something that was really special.”

Kincaid found the thesis exceptional enough to send it to her agent. HarperCollins then picked it up and published it in 2005. But according to Iweala, having this early success hasn’t made his career choice any more clear.

“I remember walking into a bookstore and seeing it and thinking, ‘What do I do now?’” he says.

Currently a student at Columbia University Medical School, the 26-year-old works on a book about HIV/AIDS in between classes and writes stories on his BlackBerry while on the train. Although he is still unsure about being a doctor, Kincaid, at least, is sure about one thing: “He will still write.”

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