It wasn’t so long ago that Uzodinma Iweala ’04, RI ’12 walked the streets of Cambridge as a Harvard undergraduate. In fact, while strolling through Harvard Square last fall, this time as a Radcliffe Institute fellow, he was offered help by a stranger who assumed he was a freshman in need of direction. Iweala recalls thinking, “Yeah, 11 years ago.”
And what productive years they’ve been.
Iweala, who was an English and American literature and language concentrator as an undergraduate, began writing a novel for his thesis, under the tutelage of the celebrated Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid. “I would go to her house and work on my book,” he says. “You couldn’t have asked for a better and more dedicated advisor.” That thesis—which would become the novel Beasts of No Nation (HarperCollins, 2005)—garnered him a Hoopes Prize and the Dorothy Hicks Lee Prize for most outstanding thesis concerning African or African American literature. They would be the first in a long string of impressive awards for the novel.
But Iweala has accomplished much more than writing a book in the eight years since his graduation. Originally from Nigeria, he has volunteered for a refugee office in the country’s Bauchi State; worked on public health issues in sub-Saharan Africa; advised the likes of Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Nelson Mandela as part of Virgin Unite’s Elders initiative; served as executive editor of Nigeria-based Farafina Magazine; and cofounded TSG Biofuels, a Nigerian alternative-energy company. He also earned a medical degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and wrote a nonfiction book about Nigeria’s HIV/AIDS crisis, Our Kind of People: A Continent’s Challenge, A Country’s Hope (HarperCollins, 2012). With his uncle, Iweala will soon launch Ventures, the first pan-African business magazine.
For right now, though, Iweala is consumed with creative writing and ways of adapting it for a new media age. To that end, he is working on his next novel—set in Washington, DC, in the months leading up to a terrorist attack—and on two multimedia projects, one about Timbuktu and one about narratives of violence in post-conflict sub-Saharan Africa. “The way people approach information and the creative narrative is changing,” he says. “So the challenge for me became how to create narratives that appeal to people in this new paradigm.”
He is also still pushing his nonfiction writing, playing with a style he likes to call “aggressively subjective nonfiction,” which emphasizes perspective or plays with time and memory. “As long as you’re clear about the subjectivity in your telling,” he says, “I think it gives more leeway to move the writing.”
Asked what drives him to do so much at once, Iweala good-naturedly jokes, “It’s all procrastination. I should be finishing the book.” Of course, if the writing thing doesn’t work out, he has that medicine gig as a fallback.