The depiction of minorities in the media and the struggles of raising money for a film production were some of the topics discussed Monday in the Pavilion, when award-winning author Uzodinma Iweala spoke with students and faculty in the latest installment of the College’s Readings at Ramapo discussion series.
Professor of Creative Writing James Hoch began the evening by introducing Iweala, whose critically-acclaimed “Beasts of No Nation” – a novel following the life of an African child-soldier named Agu – was adapted to film last year by Netflix.
Iweala shared the stage with professors Hugh Sheehy and David Colman, who served as the moderators of the event. After thanking Iweala for coming out, Sheehy and Colman asked the writer to read a selection of “Beasts.”
Iweala obliged, reading passages from the second chapter of the book, which describes Agu’s first killing: his hand forced by the brutal Commandant, the young boy drives a machete into the skull of a defenseless prisoner.
Sheehy asked Iweala to discuss the unique voice of his protagonist Agu, who narrates the story in a form of broken English.
Iweala responded he decided to write “Beasts” from a first-person perspective when he realized a third-person narrative placed emphasis upon the violence of the story, not the characters within it: in literature and film, “There’s a tendency to focus on the violence itself, a voyeuristic quality to the detriment of characterization,” Iweala said.
“You’re dealing with how the history of Africa is portrayed,” Colman told Iweala, before posing a question: “How’d you take that into account while writing this book?”
“A shorthand has developed in the past 500-600 years to describe African bodies, Black bodies, African structures,” Iweala replied, referencing the depiction of Africa in popular culture as a land populated solely by savage warlords and helpless victims.
Iweala tries to dispel myths and highlight social issues facing Africa in his writing, but he is quick to point out one must be thoughtful when writing on the problems of people in a different country: “It’s patronizing to assume you have to be a voice for any one place – amplify the voices already there,” he said.
When audience members asked Iweala to detail his own involvement during the making of the Cary Joji Fukunaga-directed “Beasts of No Nation” film, the author said, “I had a different experience than most authors. I got to know Cary Fukunaga and his work very well.”
“I was on set for two days. I spent most of my time asking people for money to fund the movie,” Iweala said. He continued, “I got to participate a little bit…an adapted movie is like a grandchild: something you recognize as deeply connected to you, but you have zero responsibility for any of the bad stuff.”
Hayley Bruning, a literature major and junior, walked away from the event impressed with Iweala.
“I think he is a really down-to-earth author and person, and I admire him for writing about political issues, so I’m really looking forward to reading his book,” she said, referring to the writer’s upcoming novel on police brutality, “Speak No Evil.”
Iweala’s opinions on writing were appreciated by senior Matt Buechel – a communication arts major with a concentration in writing – who said, “It definitely resonated, I took some notes, definitely his process of trying to keep all of the interweaving narratives without getting lost [spoke to me]. Also his talk on research: I understand completely what he’s going for, I’ve done one non-fiction thing, and I know about the boxes and boxes of research that don’t even get used.”