Uzodinma Iweala’s “Speak No Evil” follows the story of a gay, Nigerian-American high-school student coming of age in a world not of his own making.
“Speak No Evil”
by Uzodinma Iweala
Harper, 214 pp., $26.99
Uzodinma Iweala delivers a searing take on the notion of home, and the struggle to be at home with oneself, in his sophomore novel “Speak No Evil,” the story of a gay, Nigerian-American high-school student coming of age in a world not of his own making.
Niru is an academically gifted track star growing up in Washington, D.C., with a world of possibilities ahead of him, the son of loving, churchgoing Nigerian parents who are as proper and upright as they come, poster children for immigrants doing everything they can for their family in the land of opportunity.
This veneer of upper-middle-class bliss shatters when Niru’s dad discovers the gay-dating app on his phone and reads some of his text exchanges with men. Suddenly, Niru goes from beloved son to abomination, at least in the eyes of his father, who physically attacks Niru.
Just as Niru’s beginning to discover himself as a young man, he must grapple with the tug of traditional ideas about sexual identity and his father’s rage and disappointment.
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It is a war of wills between father and son but also a war within.
This isn’t the fist time Iweala, a medical doctor as well as an author, has explored father-son dynamics or the nature of conflict.
In Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, “Beasts of No Nation,” which was adapted into a Netflix original film directed by Cary Fukunaga, the author follows a young boy in a nameless West African country torn by civil war who is recruited as a child soldier after his father is killed by militants.
“Speak No Evil” deals with less epic subject matter, but there’s subtle power in its intimacy and in its depictions of the violence we do to each other and to ourselves.
Niru’s fictional story contains elements that parallel Iweala’s own. The protagonist, like the author, is Nigerian American; he’s an affluent senior at a mostly white private high school in Washington, D.C., where Iweala attended high school; and he’s just been accepted to Harvard, which is Iweala’s alma mater.
There’s even a sly reference in the novel to the acclaimed Nigerian-American author and photographer Teju Cole (”Open City,” “Every Day is for the Thief”), who is one of Iweala’s peers in a dazzling new generation of writers who either have African backgrounds or who were born on the continent, such as the masterful, Nigerian-born novelist and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (”Americanah”).
A defining feature of works by many of these writers is a view of American identity through the lens of the contemporary African diaspora, stories about modern concerns with roots that reach deep into both continents.
When Niru’s stern, guarded and conservative father discovers his attraction to men, his impulse is to pray his son’s gay away.
He forces Niru to travel to the family’s economically depressed, ancestral homeland in Nigeria, where a Christian priest leads an impassioned seance over the young man that has all of the fire and brimstone of an exorcism. Just visiting Nigeria feels like a punishment to Niru.
“I wonder if dragging us to this village and the nearby town where he spent his childhood is a way of sinking us all into his own personal hell so that we can see how this strange combination of poverty and opportunity, these broken and muddy roads, these crumbling houses, these overburdened men and women walking slowly in these streets singing praise songs to keep themselves going, created the strange combination of love and anger and pride and fear that is my father,” Niru muses during the trip.
The novel would have been well served by a deeper exploration of Niru’s ambivalence toward Nigeria, his resentment over his father’s trying to make Nigeria mean something to Niru and his brother OJ that it simply cannot, given that they weren’t born there.
The passages that demonstrate the suffocating sense of Niru being trapped in his father’s expectations for him, of a young man simultaneously rebelling against the ways of his elders while struggling to embrace his true self, show Iweala at his best.
Niru’s a complicated young man, smart and athletic but also infuriatingly uptight, to the point that even going on dates with a beautiful male store clerk he meets while shopping for running shoes becomes an exercise in tentative touches and furtive glances. He has deliberately distanced himself from his homophobic father yet the man looms large in spirit, leaving Niru addled by guilt over causing his dad so much pain.
It is a lonely coming of age as a gay man, one made all the more isolating by the fact that he’s estranged from his white best friend and classmate, Meredith, who narrates the last section of the novel.
Early on, Niru clumsily rebuffs Meredith’s sexual advances and in the process outs himself. She doesn’t judge.
He needs her now more than ever, but the two grow apart. Their attempt to be friends again sends the story into a spiral of tragedy.
In the mind of Niru’s father, family honor is everything. His ideas about respectability form a prison around his son, but also around himself.