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WFIU Book Club: Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation

Maria Hamilton Abegunde reads Iweala's Beasts of No Nation.

The WFIU Book Club invites readers in our community to share their reading choices with our audience.  Post-doc fellow and lecturer Maria Hamilton Abegunde selects Beasts of No Nation, by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala graduated from  Harvard, where he was a Mellon Mays scholar, and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier in West Africa, Beasts of No Nation has been made into a film to be released in fall 2015.

A postdoctoral fellow at the University Graduate School, Director of the Graduate Mentoring Center, and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies , Abegunde is the first person to have received a Ph.D. within the department. Although the book is short, Abegunde claims she has picked it up and put it down several times over the last couple years. This book left such an impression on her that she temporarily had to discontinue the other reading she does for her work on the subjects of memory, trauma, and healing.

I am some kind of beast or devil. I am all of this thing, but I am also having mother once and she is loving me.

"It is a very disturbing book," Abegunde concedes, "but it also is also is for me a book about love. This book made me stop reading for a while because I was so overwhelmed by it. It is a terribly violent book. His experience does critique the state of child soldiers, but again it is a story of how love sustains us."

I am not bad boy. I am not bad boy. I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he's killing. I'm telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing killing killing. I am singing song to myself because I am hearing too many voice in my head telling me I am bad boy.  They are choking my heart and making my stomach to turn. So, I am singing 'Soldier soldier kill kill.' That is how you live, that is how die. So I am thinking, how can I be bad boy? Me bad boy? Somebody who is having life like I am having and fearing God the whole time. I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother. I am liking to read so much is calling me 'professor'. I was always sitting in her laps on our favorite chair and we are staring at the small small letter on the page. She is reading to me about how Cain is killing his brother Abel. She was also reading about how God is making Job to suffer very much but how he is rewarding him at the end and how David is killing Goliath. I am seeing all of these thing when she is reading and thinking that I am wanting to be a warrior.  When my mother is not there I was going to the shelf to be reading the Bible myself and soon when my father was coming back from work he is smiling saying ok, and the next day we are going to the primary school.

Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation

"He very early on moves into this space of letting us know that he had a family and this was his life," Abegunde explains. "He's captured and we're able to see what grounds him. The first chapter of the book begins, I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and... air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing. And then air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing. The sound of truck grumbling like a kind of animal. And then sound of somebody shouting take your position right now in voice that is just touching my body like knife.'

The protagonist escapes near the the end of the war, but his mental struggle persists

I am not having to worry about anything from war like bombing and shelling or dying. Anything we are wanting we are having. Sometime I am eating even if I am not hungry too much. Because I'm fearing that the food is finishing and I will not be eating any for the next day....There is priest who was coming every Wednesday and Sunday in his black clothes and white collar. He is saying 'Turn to God. Pray to the almighty so you can be forgiven you.' Confession and forgiveness and resurrection. They are not making any sense to me anytime he is saying them. The only thing that is making sense to me is memory that I am having on the sound of people coughing and screaming and the smell of going to the toilet and dead body everywhere. Even if I am not understand all the thing he is saying, I am still listening because he is saying God is still in this place. I don't know if I am believing him but I am liking to hear it.

Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation

Abegunde's work is in trauma and healingand the importance within that process of focusing one's attention on one's memories. The protagonist of Iweala's novel seems to be retelling himself the story of his childhood. Is it possible to tell yourself a story that isn't actually the truth but keeps you going?  Could that be one way to heal?

"You can switch the narrative you come to believe or [that] gives us at least access to a different vision of ourselves," explains Abegunde. "Stories we tell ourselves become very important because we come to believe the stories. And we come to live the story, the story has become a reality of sort. It's hard to reclaim that time before because you have to be able to move forward, but the time before helps you to find another point of origin for who you are.  But it helps you to really understand that your experiences don't start with that point of origin."

And every day I'm talking to Amy, woman from America who was coming here to be helping people like me. She is telling me to speak speak speak. And thinking that my not speaking is because I am like a baby. I am saying to her sometimes I am not saying many things because I am knowing too many things terrible thing to be saying to you. I am doing more terrible thing than 20,000 men. So if I am saying these thing then it will be making you too sadding too much in this life. I am just wanting to be happy. When I am saying all of this she is just looking at me and I'm seeing water in her eye. So I am saying to her, if I am telling it to you, it will be making you to think that I am some kind of beast or devil. I am all of this thing. I am all of this thing, but I am also having mother once and she is loving me.

Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation

Abegunde says everyone understands the importance of community. However a book like Beasts of No Nation compels us to consider the meaning of community regardless of geography.

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