Uzodinma Iweala has been putting pen to paper since childhood, scribbling sci-fi stories in homemade notebooks. Thirteen years after publishing his debut novel Beasts of No Nation as a Harvard undergrad, he’s finished Speak No Evil, about a closeted Nigerian-American teen who’s outed by his white friend. We chatted before Iweala stops at Harvard Book Store on March 22 to present the recently released book.
What’s the inspiration behind Speak No Evil? I don’t think it was any one thing. I’m from Washington D.C. and I was really interested in writing about Washington D.C. as a living city. If you grow up in the city or around the city, then you know that politics is the town business, but at the same time, it’s a city with real people who live real lives that are touched by, but not entirely in, the political space.
Do you have a set plan before you start writing? I tend to be more of a scribbler when there’s an idea in my head I want to address. I scribble sometimes for years. There’s a period of time when all the scribbles have to become something, and that’s when I map. I’m pretty psycho about mapping out my work. I like to write by hand and do pages of outlines that don’t make sense to anybody—even me. I tend to work on blank 8-by-11 sheets of printer paper because lines really bother me. I will then use index cards. My poor editor had to sit down with me once for four hours with 300 index cards with everything from characters to setting to plot organization.
Characters coming of age are common in your novels. why is that? I’m really interested in the idea of transition periods. I think that those fissures hold a lot of tension, and that’s what propels characters to try and discover who they are. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail.