Uzodinma Iweala

Defining Culture

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Iweala describes why pigeon-holing identity can be dangerous.

Uzodinma Iweala

Uzodinma (Uzo) Iweala is the author of Beasts of No Nation. The novel, his debut, came out of his undergraduate thesis work at Harvard and was conducted under the supervision of writer Jamaica Kincaid. Iweala, born in 1982, hails from Washington, D.C. and Nigeria. Beasts of No Nation, which depicts a child soldier in an unnamed African country,was published in 2005 to considerable critical acclaim. In 2007, Iweala was named one of Granta magazine's 20 best young American novelists. Iweala's mother, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is the former Finance Minister and Foreign Minister of Nigeria. Iweala is now a medical student at Columbia University.

Uzodinma Iweala: You know I think the funny thing is at one point and time, I would have really sought a definition. I would have really sought to say that I identify with these set of people more, or that identi . . . And what has always happened when I tried to do that has been . . . you know being essentially slapped in the face. And look it’s not that simple, and it shouldn’t be that simple. And if you do try to simplify it, you’re doing great harm to yourself and your understanding of the world. So you know at this point and time, I sort of put that to the side and said you know what? The characterizations, the definitions are gonna come. And whoever it is that’s going to . . . to . . . to want you to fall into a particular line, whether . . . for whatever purpose is gonna . . . they’re gonna do that regardless of what you say. So for you, you have to create that own space for yourself. And that space is not one or the other. It will never be one or the other. It’s a space that’s infused with so many things. But I think what’s great about that as well is that, you know, being . . . Being Nigerian and being American, right, you understand . . . I mean like you begin to understand that it gets really, really absurd. Because being American, right, is being influenced by so many different cultures, and so many different traditions that have come into this country from . . . you know whether they were here to start with, or whether they have come in through immigrants, right? Being Nigerian is very much the same because the idea of being a Nigerian is influenced by all the different groups, and cultures, and subcultures that go on. And then you add to the fact that there’s a whole relation between Nigeria and, for example, the UK which colonized Nigeria; and now growing connections between Nigeria and the United States, right? And American culture through . . . whether it’s through hip hop music, movies, films, whatever, have come in and are now starting to influence the way that people think. So the idea of what it means to be Nigerian is actually . . . it’s a very . . . it’s a very fractured thing. It’s a mélange of things. And it seems different, okay, because everybody in Nigeria tends to have brown skin, right? That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s the same. Here you see the differences more, right? But at the same time people like to . . . to . . . to sort of smooth over that with, “Oh, we’re American.” But you know American, again, is so many different things. And you know in the end if I say I’m American, what does that mean that I am? That means I’ve taken bits and pieces from this, I’ve taken bits and pieces from that and put it into this identity. So I just, you know, say like for purposes of travel and characterization, right, if I have to show a passport, I’ll show which passport is most necessary, right? But when it comes down to what I think I am and how I perceive myself, I think, you know, acknowledging that it’s a whole . . . like a multiplicity of things allows me to better relate to myself and to other people, and to better deal with the world, you know, as whole I think.

Recorded on: 10/7/07