The Extraordinary Path of Novelist, Medical Doctor, and Africa Center CEO Uzodinma Iweala
Uzodinma Iweala’s journey to becoming the CEO of the Africa Center, a culture and policy institution located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan at the northeast corner of Central Park, defies expectations. Prior to the role, which he began in early 2018, he had zero nonprofit experience. And though the Washington, D.C., native had co-founded a small media start-up in Lagos, Nigeria, he had never lead an organization of this scale or ambition. What Iweala did understand, though, is the power of storytelling—specifically, storytelling about the African diaspora.
Today, at 36, Iweala is confident that by harnessing storytelling he can, and will, reorient the organization, which was founded in 1984 as the Museum for African Art and saw its fair share of setbacks prior to his arrival. If Iweala’s diverse background and track record is any indication, the Africa Center is poised to grow into a high-impact hub for pushing conversations and greater understandings about the continent forward.
Iweala’s path has been circuitous to say the least: He wrote the novel Beasts of No Nation, which was adopted into a 2015 Netflix film directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba. He completed a multi-year study of HIV/AIDS in Africa, the result of which became his second book, Our Kind of People. He received an M.D. from Columbia University in 2011, co-founded and launched Ventures Africa magazine, and wrote another novel, Speak No Evil, released last year. On this episode of Time Sensitive, Iweala shares with Spencer Bailey his exceptional experiences as a writer, researcher, doctor, entrepreneur—and now, CEO.
Iweala discusses his path to medical school at Columbia University, including how he went to work on Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project and to later research, report, and write Our Kind of People, a book about AIDS/HIV in Africa.
Iweala shares how Beasts of No Nation opened up his eyes—and mind—to new cultural worlds and opportunities. He tells the story of how the book came about, and how it eventually, in 2015, became a Cary Fukunaga–directed Netflix film.
Bailey mentions the void that has been filled by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Iweala offers a personal (and D.C. native) take on the building and elaborates on his youth in D.C. and Lagos, Nigeria.
The two discuss Iweala’s role as the CEO of the Africa Center. “I don’t know the least about running a museum,” Iweala says, “but I figure, if they’re going to hire me, that’s really not their concern. We’re not really building a museum. We’re building something different.”
SPENCER BAILEY: Uzo, welcome. I’m glad to have you here today.
UZODINMA IWEALA: Thank you for having me, Spencer.
SB: I wanted to start the conversation going back fifteen years ago, to 2004. You’re graduating Harvard. You have this book come out a year later, at the age of twenty-three. The book, Beasts of No Nation, is the story of Agu, a child soldier who fights in a civil war of an unnamed West African country. You get huge acclaim, glowing reviews, Salman Rushdie blurbs the book. That’s a lot to go through at age twenty-three. By age twenty-five, just a couple years later, you’re named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.
I find this fascinating, though: In the rush of all of this, you decide to go study medicine [at Columbia University]. Tell me about that. Why this “little detour” to medical school?
UI: I was pre-med in college [at Harvard]. I had always thought that I was going to study medicine. The thing is, I think I was pre-med because I didn’t know what else people did. My father is a doctor, I’m a Nigerian, the kid of Nigerian immigrants, there’s this idea that there are certain professions that [Nigerian] people do. I think I’d always been on that track, but the truth was that I was a terrible science student. And not that science and medicine necessarily have all that much to do with each other. We can talk about that, but the screening process is, you get really good grades as a pre-med student, you go on to some really fabulous medical school, you become some sort of surgeon, and your life is set.
After Beasts of No Nation was published, my whole world was shifted, perspectives opened, because not only did I get a taste of something that I’d always dreamed of—which was being able to publish—but also you get to see the whole of possibilities of people in the arts. Being published and getting some attention for it just opens up doors to the whole artistic world.
I went through a lot of turmoil and confusion, but ultimately the Nigerian-ness wins out in all those situations. I was trying to decide, “How do you really have an impact on the world?” And as much as I love writing, the thing with writing is, you don’t necessarily see the immediacy of your impact. Back then, it was all so much harder, because you didn’t any of the social-media tools in the same way as you them have now, where you can literally get direct feedback. With the book I’ve most recently published, Speak No Evil, people will just reach out to me. I’m not really that public on Instagram, but people will find me. So you can see the impact it has on a one-to-one level. But with writing, you don’t have that, you’re not sure.
With medicine, you walk into a room, someone’s not feeling well, you can provide instant relief. For me, it’s like when you’re thinking about macro-level health issues. My family is from Nigeria, I was born here [in the U.S.], and I’ve spent a lot of time when we were growing up there. I could see my dad, for example, go back and run a free clinic in the village that we’re from. And you could just see people come in. Like, lines of people. Lines. He would start at 6 a.m. in the morning and wouldn’t finish until midnight. And this was vacation. I could see directly what studying medicine could do in terms of this inner mission or desire to help people.
SB: It’s hard to see your readers, right?
UI: Exactly, and the thing is, medicine is not quite that. So I went to med school. There’s a lot that happened during that time—I’m happy that I went. But I think I also understood that it wasn’t the way that I wanted to have an impact. And actually, I’ve been blessed with a certain amount of ability when it comes to writing and using words to be able to impact people.
Those years of life, especially the lead up to medical school, I didn’t want to go, I’ll be honest with you. I deferred for a year. I applied to medical school hoping that I would get rejected. I was pretty certain that I’d get rejected, and I’d just be able to say, “Listen, Mom, Dad, I got rejected, it’s done.” It didn’t happen that way.
SB: In early 2006, about a year and a half after Harvard, you began working on health-policy issues in sub-Saharan Africa [with] the Millennium Villages Project. Talk about that experience.
UI: I guess that was my first job—well, not quite my first job—out of college. And Jeff Sachs and I happened to have the same book agents. We were at an event. I was wowed by what he was doing, and went up to him afterward and said to him, “Listen, I would really love to work on this project with you.” He was just starting at that time—he had been at Columbia for a couple years. The Earth Institute was just starting, the Millennium Villages Project was picking up steam. He was a special advisor on the [U.N.’s] Millenium Development Goals. And I was some punk kid who was just like, “Yo, I want to do that.” To his credit, he was very kind, and was like, “Okay, why don’t you come see me?”
So I came up to New York—I was in D.C. at the time. I was actually dating someone here in New York, so that was also probably some of the motivation. I came up and had an hour-long chat with him. He was like, “Listen, if you’d like to work with us, why don’t you come up to New York and do so?” So that’s how I got into this world of health policy, as opposed to medicine as medicine.
It was fabulous. What an incredible experience to have as a twenty-three, twenty-four-year-old, where you’re helping to compile a health-policy document that will set up the whole Millennium Villages Project, to be sent off to Nigeria to go and work with people in the field who are trying to put together programs around access to health care, infectious diseases, all that sort of stuff. It was mind-boggling and mind-opening. I was pretty lucky to get that glimpse from the beginning. I got to see the positives of what a broad and intensely dynamic vision can do in terms of unsticking peoples’ entrenched beliefs about how health policy should be done. But I also got to see the problems inherent in having health policy driven by folks from outside of an environment—a lot of that Western “This is what you should do!” versus what’s happening on the ground, and the realities of trying to provide care for people in resource-strapped countries.
SB: Yeah, the intricacies of that. I read your book Our Kind of People, which came out in 2012—a really incredible project.
UI: Thank you.
SB: It took four years or …?
UI: Five years.
SB: Five years. Talk about that process of going through the writing of this book, because the way you write it, I like that you insert yourself into it in a way that makes the reader realize that you also were unfolding these ideas happening in your head [while writing it].
UI: I think all books are kind of insane experiences. The idea that you sit down and go, “I’m going to tell this story.” I think that’s why, for the most part, writers are kind of crazy individuals.
SB: And research.
UI: Right, and research. I could only hope to write a book like that. I think that [time-and-research approach] is part of Our Kind of People. I spent five years going back and forth to Nigeria interviewing people about HIV. I wanted to understand not what the health-policy people were saying, although there was some of that; not what government officials were saying, although there was some of that; but really, what are the narratives that people spin about HIV locally?
The best example is that I was in a nightclub in Lagos once, and I just remember overhearing a conversation between two men. One man was asking his friend, “If the man has HIV, but the wife does not have HIV, does that not mean that the baby will get HIV? Because it’s hereditary, it’s passed on to the wife.” These [were] ideas of how these people are thinking about this disease, based off of bits of information they’ve gotten and local knowledge, etc. That’s what fascinated me, because, in a lot of ways, your response to HIV is not necessarily what’s concocted in some conference room. You can do that, but in reality, how that plays out on the ground is based off of the narratives that people have of themselves as sexual beings, in their own relationships, in their own government. Traditions, culture, religion—all of those things impact the way we talk about health, the way that we talk about disease. More importantly, that we talk about a disease [HIV/AIDS] that is so related to something that is absolutely necessary, wanted, and, at the same time, taboo—and that’s sex.
I got to travel all over Nigeria. It was also a way for me to explore a country that I grew up going to every summer, but I didn’t live in until after I graduated from medical school. Before medical school and during it, I would travel to Nigeria and go to random areas and be exposed to parts of the country I’d never been to before. My family is from southeastern Nigeria, but it’s a different country from northern Nigeria, it’s a different country from western Nigeria. Understanding what Nigeria was, and how different it was [than I thought], and really falling in love with these different parts of Nigeria, was an amazing experience
SB: Yeah, I loved a few lines you had in the book that show the diversity of place, not just Nigeria but Africa as a continent. One of them is: “HIV/AIDS is part of the human experience and part of our cultural experience. AIDS is everywhere.” And later in the book, you add, “It is a major cultural event of the modern era that has reshaped the relationship that individuals, countries, and even whole continents have with one another.”
UI: I mean—
SB: You begin to think about this on such a deeper level when you read your book, and, not surprisingly, I saw that Bono had blurbed it. He’s someone who obviously has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues.
As a Westerner, someone living in New York and not deeply understanding the intricacies of both HIV/AIDS and also certain cultural things having to do with Africa, it was amazing to me to read your book. Which is relatively slim, it’s two hundred pages, but has so much depth in it and layers that make you realize you can’t understand this thing as something that is super-simple. You can’t oversimplify it, and you can’t sensationalize it.
In the context of thinking about your work as a writer, what I thought was really interesting, too, was how you thought about linguistics and language, and these ideas about how [HIV/AIDS] is mediated. You were critical in the book, in a few different places, [of various media outlets]: Christiane Amanpour from CNN. The New York Times. The New Yorker.
I find it interesting that you were able to weave this really personal narrative while also exposing these larger cultural and social forces happening around our understanding of Western Africa, as well as this virus in Africa.
UI: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting place to sit where I am, being firmly ensconced in both of these places [Africa and the U.S.]. And the point you make about the simplicity of narratives that people have had about the continent is something that I see very much now, and that I saw then. Which is frustrating. It’s like if someone tried to distill New York into a sentence, like a tagline. New Yorkers would be like, “What are you talkin’ about? Forget about it!” New York is so many things. It’s the skyscrapers, it’s the grittiness, it’s the immigrant communities, it’s the Wall Street bankers, it’s the artists, all of which are in tension with each other. There’s a dynamism to this city, and the same is true about a country like Nigeria, about a city like Lagos, about the village that my family is from.
I think that when you understand that, your understanding of how something as culturally important and seismic as HIV/AIDS will necessarily have to change. Disease is never just a clinical thing; it’s always interpreted and reinterpreted, and has so much to do with how culture is shaped and how language is used to describe things. That’s so important in how we talk about the disease, and how we talk about people who are impacted by the disease.
SB: In one part in the book, you point out the phrase “dropping like flies.” My heart sank [reading that].
SB: You ask, “Is this how Africans are considered, as insects, animals, not human?” I felt so gross, almost, as a Western person [reading that], thinking, This is how a lot of people here think.
UI: I feel kind of gross when I think about it, too. We don’t really think about the terms that we use. Not to get too deep into it—some of these things are just turns of phrase—but they all have origins, and they also have implications when you use them to describe people. The more you use terms like “collateral damage,” the more you use all these phrases that we’ve developed to sanitize or help shorthand things, the more you lose sight of the people behind them.
That’s not to be persnickety about everything, because then no one would speak. But I think it is interesting. The book came out in 2012, and I had started thinking about writing it in 2006. The dialogue about how we refer to things has come so far now that we’re in 2019. People are a lot more conscious, and it’s hard to be a lot more conscious about the phrasing you use. It’s hard to be careful about the words you use, and sometimes you just want to speak. But speech is power. I think that became very clear to me, especially in the health-policy realm, where you saw who was allowed to speak and the terms they used and who didn’t get to speak and how that impacted the way that they lived.
SB: And the silence. That was one of the other things you write about—that HIV/AIDS is a silent virus. And that its power is in what is not said about it.
UI: Right. It’s a silent virus in the way that it operates, and it’s a silent virus in the way that societies don’t want to speak about it. Again, that idea that speech is power. Speech gives you power over this thing. It gives you power to deal with this thing. And the less you speak about it, the more likely it is to control you, whether you’re an individual, or you’re a society. I think it’s really interesting to see how many campaigns, to deal with the virus, talk about speaking up, or empowering people, or giving people the space to speak about what they are going through. And not just, again, the clinical aspects of the disease, but what it means to be physically isolated from people because you have a disease.
That, in and of itself, is a silencing. Societies need to come to terms with that because it’s what allows for not just the silencing, but the fear of being isolated; leads to a silence that further leads to issues with the spread of HIV/AIDS. I think, again, in Nigeria, which is where the book takes place, but all across the continent—and also here in societies that have had HIV present—dealing with that silence and the idea of isolation and being ostracized was a huge part of being able to tackle how do you actually deal with HIV itself.
SB: One of the things that I thought in your book that you did with great care—which must have been really difficult—was to be open and honest about the discomfort you felt about being around a lot of the people [with HIV/AIDS] you interacted with. On being on the AIDS care team at Columbia, you described that you would often find it hard to observe the physical deterioration of some of the patients, and that you had this desire to recoil or protect yourself. In particular, you pointed out how thin this line is between what your role and responsibility was as a professional but also fear.
UI: As a writer, it was important to acknowledge fear, and to acknowledge, in this exploration, I was not coming from any position of authority. Because, in large part, I don’t know that people are. I think that anyone who claims to come from a position of absolute authority—that’s how we got to some of the nonsense around Africans and HIV/AIDS, and initially in the States, about how people approached the disease. But I think for me, those emotions, those human emotions, and being very honest, and digging deep about what it is you’re really feeling was really important to me as a writer being able to access the stories that I wanted to. Because it is a real part of life. It is a real part of treatment. That’s one of the things that made being a practicing physician hard for me: I was in med school at the time, but I was constantly asking not just what is the patient feeling, but what are we feeling as care providers?
SB: There’s one harrowing scene in the book, where you’re about to board a flight—or you’ve just boarded a flight—and there’s a text or an email telling you that one of the subjects that you had met had just died of the disease. I’m just going to read a portion from the book, because I had to pause after it. It was so powerful. “I sat there staring out the window at the large body of the plane I was about to board, stunned. A living, breathing someone who was once here was now not. The connection that we had started to form—suddenly cut short.”
SB: I don’t think anyone could read that and not pause.
UI: I know. I remember that moment, and it actually comes from some of the work, or the shadowing, I did of people in northern Nigeria in a particular state, in Niger state. There was a whole community of people living with HIV and AIDS that was extremely strong and really supportive. I remember getting that call from this activist whose name is Samaila Garba. He was updating me on some of the people that I had met during that time. And yeah, it does—you have to stop. You just live your life, right? You just go, “I’m a writing a book, that’s what I’m doing.” And then you’re like, “Oh wait, no, take it a step back, slow it down, this is life.” This is what life is. It is death. Death is part of our existence, it’s part of life. It’s also the pain and suffering that comes after it for the people who are left behind, and also in the lead up to it. And that’s what the book was trying to get at: all of these things are what make our lives complicated, and what makes this disease both fascinating and also devastating.
SB: Toward the end of the book, you really stress the importance of both human connection and conversation. Talking about human connection, of course, there’s the ostracization that happens when someone comes out as being HIV positive. What power ultimately, after writing this book, after having several years to reflect on it, do you think human connection has over helping alleviate or shift perceptions of this disease?
UI: Oh, I think it’s all-powerful. I think an idea of reaching out—the idea of physical connection or emotional connection, this idea of “I see you”—is so important. And I think the realization that you are seen is also incredible.
If you talk with someone like Samaila Garba, the activist and former police officer in northern Nigeria, that was what he was about. When he came out to say “I have HIV/AIDS,” it was all about saying, “Look at me, I’m human, just like you.” And then reaching out and providing support to people who also had HIV/AIDS. But also encouraging people to reach across that divide. And those divides that we erect, the very real ones that I talk about, created by fear—you can get beyond that and show people you have the ability to get beyond it. Whether it’s that you’re from the United States and you can’t really understand this environment, but you try. Whether it’s that you’re from Nigeria, and you’ve never seen or met anybody with HIV/AIDS and it comes to you, but you try. I think that act of reaching out and reaching across is what has transformed the trajectory of the disease. I can’t stress that enough, because I know that for all the medication and science that is absolutely important. It is also a very human thing to be able to say, “I see you, and I want to help you” or “Here I am. Let’s do this together.” I think that’s what I was trying to get at.
SB: If you were to add an appendix chapter to the book now, what type of story do you think you would find or have after the last seven years?
UI: Oh wow, I think there’s a lot over the last seven years that one could speak about. From the fact that treatment has improved so much in terms of what people need to do to get treated, so it’s just a pill. That changes so many things. Your life expectancy goes virtually back to normal if you’re consistent with medication. I think that’s one. Two, if you’ve got treatment in that form, it really is a cash game. We’ve moved away from a lot of the stuff that was putting blame on people who had contracted HIV—from “Oh, it’s your promiscuous sexual habits” to “That’s really not our business; our business is, can we get you treatment?” That changes the whole game. I think there would be a lot around that.
And then I think there would be a lot around, have we lost sight of how powerful a cultural shaper this epidemic actually was in light of so many other challenges we now see? This is the thing about a lot of these big, global issues, is that, in a time when you now have climate change that everyone is focused on, you’ve got this return of populism. Are you then losing sight of how important and impactful this actually is? And is that going to create issues in the long run?
SB: I want to circle back to your first book, Beasts of No Nation, which, in more recent years, people may recognize as a Netflix film starring Idris Elba. Over the past fifteen years, what would you say, in addition to this Netflix film, has been its reception? And how has this book influenced your path forward?
UI: To this day, I still feel lucky for the experience of Beasts of No Nation, right down to the former child soldier that I happened to have a conversation with that prompted me to write the initial short story.
SB: When you were running the—
UI: African Students Association at Harvard, yeah. I spoke with a former child soldier from Uganda. She’d given her talk, and our interaction was very brief. But that just—it hit something in me. From that, to being able to work with someone like [my Harvard thesis advisor] Jamaica Kincaid. I mean, I shouldn’t say this, because it would probably make my parents not happy, but I don’t know that my time at Harvard was worthwhile until having that experience with her. That year, working on this book with her, literally transformed my life. There’s that, and having it set me on a path that was so important to me, which is writing. Just to go back to this idea of writing, to be able to right out the gate to live your wildest dreams as a writer. What is it to go sit down with Salman Rushdie, and have a conversation where he’s like “I like your book”?
SB: Simply having [the support of] someone like Jamaica Kincaid, who loved your writing so much that she introduced you to her agents.
UI: When I think about it now, for fifteen years I’ve been with my agents, who she introduced me to. That’s longer than a lot of marriages. [Laughs] All of that has been so wonderful.
You then get to this idea of the film, and how many books get optioned, how many books get made into films. To have someone like Cary Fukunaga, who is a super-intense, masterful storyteller, have this be a part of his own career growth and trajectory is an amazing thing. Because, when we started, he had just produced his first film—this was 2007, 2008—Sin Nombre. Beasts of No Nation [the book] had come out a couple years before, but, you know, you’re starting at the beginning. And being able to really trust that someone was going treat this project—and treat the adaptation of this—with all the care in the world. And to see that happen, to see that ten years after it’s published, it transformed into a totally different project. It’s just a totally amazing experience. I’m very grateful to him, and to all the producers, and all those folks for really believing in it over that period of time. A lot of people had just been like, “Screw this, I have other things I want to do.” But he really really wanted to make this particular film.
SB: And you, I imagine, must have had a strong connection with Cary to feel like he could shepherd this project forward.
UI: Yeah, I remember seeing Sin Nombre. At the end [of the film], I just sat in stunned silence. And I was like, “This man can make a film.” And what do I know, I’m not a filmmaker, I just know I was super-moved by his storytelling. Then, to watch him work on [Beasts of No Nation], from the first adaptation to actually shooting, some of the conversations that really made me feel very good about his work is that he was like, “Look, people are going to tell me that I should shoot this in Kenya or South Africa because there’s more infrastructure,” but he’s like, “No, this film feels like a West African film. I need to shoot it in West Africa.” That was something that he pushed for, and that we had talked about, and that I have so much admiration for. The casting of the kids in that film—you could have gone with other people, but [he went with] the idea that, no, we’re going to make this as close to the imagined realm that we can. I think that speaks to a remarkable level of insight and perseverance and dedication to storytelling.
Now, obviously, there’s the roll-out afterwards, and that’s having it be Netflix’s first feature experience. If not for that, I don’t know if the film would have been seen by as many people. How many millions of people have seen it, and I know it’s in the millions, because Netflix keeps those numbers. That’s an amazing experience. You say Beasts of No Nation, and people know the film. And then they go and read the book. But having had that be a part of this book’s life and trajectory, I think, is a really amazing thing. It certainly feels amazing for me, and I hope that it also does shed light on the way that stories can humanize and illuminate people in certain situations, which was the original point of writing the book itself.
SB: Not only did Netflix offer access to people in Africa to be able to watch this film, but the film itself offered the West a deeper understanding of the complexities, contradictions, and challenges that a country has faced, a nation has faced, and that a nation still faces.
UI: You say complexities, and I think that’s what it really is. In a similar vein as Our Kind of People, [it’s] this idea that people are complicated. Let’s explore the complicated nature of what it means to exist as a human, whether you’re talking about a little boy who is turned into a child soldier or you’re talking about an adult who has HIV/AIDS. It’s the idea that you only do someone justice when you try. And I’m not saying we always succeed. But when you try to depict the multidimensional nature of a person’s personality, that’s what writing for me is about, that’s what character development is about, and that’s what translated from the book onto the screen and has translated into the way that people think about certain events that have happened in our lifetimes. I think it’s a dream come true.
SB: How do you feel about this in the context of the last few years, where more black actors, more African American actors, directors, costume designers are getting long-overdue recognition? Or even a blockbuster like Black Panther? That’s stemming from a culture that this film also came out of.
UI: Really amazing and remarkable. I watched a little bit of the Oscars a couple nights ago. To see Black Panther win in categories, for costume design—I think that speaks to a couple of things. One is that people are waking up and recognizing that there is a desire to depict blackness, which has traditionally been a monolithic thing, in all of its different dimensions and whatnot.
It’s just not a people screaming out into the world like, “We are here!” It’s the world also realizing, Look, these people are here, and they are people. People doesn’t just mean you’re talking about a rapper or a basketball player; it’s like, There are [black] people who sit down and do costume design and who geek out, saying, how can I depict this thing as incredibly as I possibly can? That a black actor, a black director, and a whole black cast can create a billion dollar film where everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s just a niche market,” forgetting that most of popular culture, the billions upon trillions of dollars that are popular culture, are actually what? Black culture just turned or adapted for people who don’t want to believe that that’s the case.
In a way, it’s making obvious what black people have always known: that we are precious. And that’s both in a real human sense, but also in a commodity sense, which, if black people weren’t precious, why were people trading us all over the place? I think it’s really weird to have a price tag, especially in the context of talking about black bodies. To say, “Look at all of these black bodies that grossed about two billion dollars on the big screen,” that feels weird. But it’s one of those weird things that’s both disgusting and also in some crazy way—
UI: Yeah, and validation. I think you have to be very careful about how you speak about it. But, at the same time, I think we need to get up and own the fact that so much of what is popular in the world black people drive. It’s just that now people are recognizing “Oh, wait, yeah, that’s what black people do.”
SB: I’m remembering back to a couple years ago, when the—it’s a mouthful to say this but—the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., opened. And visiting that space, not only was I, as a white man, in the minority in this building—which was such an amazing experience—but to see the breadth of culture on display and to understand the massive void that that building and its contents were filling, things that had never had a home, was really profound.
UI: Yeah, D.C. is my city. It’s where I grew up. I think there are so many things about that museum. One, that if you look at all the buildings around it, they are all white.
SB: [Laughs] The colonnades.
UI: Exactly. Just classical architecture, or our American interpretation of classical architecture. This odalisque, which I guess you could say is an interpretation of an Egyptian whatever, that is the Washington Monument. And then there is this [NMAAHC] building that is dark. In a strange way, it’s almost an inverted version of the monument. But just the brilliance behind that structure and its placement—wonderful. Then, like you said, stepping inside and being transported. It’s a lot to take in. You need a lot of time to go through that museum.
SB: At least four hours.
UI: Try days.
SB: Four days.
UI: You need to go back, and go back. But I think that that speaks to something about how you have to understand the role that black people have played in the United States of America. This is not a month’s worth of history, this is not a year’s worth of history, this is something you have to keep coming back to all the time, to really and truly understand the impact that black people have made on the United States of America. There is no United States of America if there are no black people. Period. And that museum proves that point. I think it’s a national treasure. All the stuff inside of it was a national treasure before, but the collection of it makes it a profoundly important national treasure.
To have it in a city that is a black city, or at least was a black city, Washington, D.C., that a lot of people didn’t think about as black city. All you see, again, are these white buildings of government and the predominately white representation in government. Forgetting that Washington, D.C., at one point in time was close to eighty percent black. That has driven a lot of cultural life in the city, and because of these things, like the relationship with the federal government to blackness, D.C. has had a very entrenched and profound middle class and upper middle class because the government was essentially one of the only things that could guarantee somewhat equal treatment. That’s how you develop, and it builds.
I think that the importance of these monumental forms to show the presence of blackness can’t be understated. It can’t be understated because it’s what everyone does. It’s like, again, why are we talking about confederate statues? Because people understand the importance of the symbols in terms of driving narratives. And there’s a whole lot to talk about there, which we could do.
SB: Yeah, I do want to stay in Washington, D.C. and talk about your latest book, Speak No Evil, which has this protagonist, Niru, who is raised in that city by two parents of Nigerian descent, like you. A top student and a track star at his high school, he’s bound for Harvard in the fall. Some similarities to you. Were you a track star?
UI: No. God, no. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] And Niru has a secret: he’s gay. Which is a sin to his parents. How did you conceive of this book, and how did this book become your next one after writing the first two? Connected to that, why did you choose Washington, D.C., as the place to [set it]?
UI: When I started Beasts of No Nation, I knew I very much wanted to write about child soldiers, and I knew that from the beginning. With Speak No Evil, it was a whole bunch of different books before it was this book. And the only thing that I know was core to this book was wanting to write about Washington, D.C. Precisely because a lot of literature, or film, or television about the city really doesn’t treat the city as a place where real people live. You know, it’s “Warshington”—the politics and the high drama of that. I wanted to really try and construct the city that I knew and that you don’t see in many books. The city is very much a living thing, but I wanted to try and add my own flavor to that.
Now, in terms of the characters, when you start thinking about the immigrant story, what does that look like now? There are some fault lines that you will continuously have, but what are the issues that come up that are specific to the time we’re living in that can illuminate what it means to have to make these global journeys? I think one of the issues is around sexuality, or sexual identification, and that’s how Niru ends up being a gay character, because it’s one of those things that you can take parents that have come over, they are trying to make it, they are successful in all of these other ways, but there are certain thing that they are not grasping. There are certain things that they can’t speak about across lines of having a kid that was born here and socialized very differently from how they were. That doesn’t mean, in any context, that anyone is bad; it just means that there is a lot of communication that doesn’t happen, or can’t happen because people lack words, the vocabulary, or the emotional ability. You have to grow into that, and that growth can be very, very painful, and it may not happen. For me, that’s what Speak No Evil is about. It’s an imperfect book in some ways. It’s my attempt to say, how do we tell this particular story, or reimagine this story, in this modern age?
SB: Separate from the book, what was your childhood in D.C. like? I know you spent your summers going back to Nigeria, too. Tell me a little bit about that.
UI: My childhood in D.C. was very normal. I was just the kid of immigrants, but, like, an upper-middle class Washington, D.C., experience. My dad is a doctor and is now retired. My mom worked for the World Bank for a while, and then became Minister of Finance in Nigeria—but that wasn’t until we were in college.
I grew up first in northwest D.C., and then in the northern suburbs of D.C., which were very white environments. But [I was] in a very Nigerian household. So I didn’t ever really feel—I think you sense the frustration—when you’re really young, you don’t necessarily have the words to put to what you see, and what you’re feeling, and the ways that people react to you as a black person, or an African person, in this world. At the same time, my parents were excellent at making sure we understood who we were and that we were supported, and that they would always be there for us.
The best example is going to a pretty much predominantly white Catholic primary school, and realizing it was always me and my brothers who were always singled out for being “too wild.” And my parents were just like, “Oh hell no. No, no, you’re not going to do that to my kid.” My parents would come and make sure that, no matter what happens, my kid is going to be in the honors classes, because otherwise you’re just going to look at my kid and say, “Oh, they don’t have these abilities.” No, that’s not going to happen. You need to have that in order to survive and thrive in those worlds. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for exactly that.
Beyond that, [my youth was] just being a kid. Playing basketball in the summers, video games, all the stuff that kids—not really video games, I’m not going to lie. I stopped at Nintendo 64. But yeah, all the things that you do just with extra awareness of what it means to be different. And how being different is both a drag in some ways, because as a high school kid, as a teenager, you just want everything to be easy. But knowing that the way that you are exposed to an understanding of your difference can provide you with a richness in your life beyond. What I feel I have now is that: somebody, communities that have helped me understand what it means to be me. As a black man. As an African immigrant. As a Nigerian. And as a somewhat nerdy kid who couldn’t really run track.
SB: As a kid, what was your Lagos? What was your Nigeria experience like?
UI: Interesting and complicated. I think you go through phases. When you’re really young, it’s just a place you get to run around and see grandma and granddad and all your grandparents. It’s just all fun. My dad’s parents have now passed, but I got to know them while we were growing up, and my mom’s parents, thankfully, are still alive. But going to their different houses and just being able to run around these compounds, be in the village, go to the stream, that sort of thing. It’s just very visceral, being in touch with this space.
But as you get older, you begin to realize you’re only here every so often, and things change while you’re here. You change. And then having a more complicated understanding of who you are. Realizing when your mom is packing, she’s packing six suitcases, and you’re like, “There aren’t that many of us.” And it’s like, “Oh, these gifts aren’t for you—it’s that we need to bring gifts for everybody when we come.” That’s a realization. Realizing that your mom is also putting all the food that you guys—I have three siblings, an older sister and two younger brothers. My mom would pack boxes of Frosted Flakes and peanut butter and all of those things that we couldn’t get in Nigeria at the time because she was like, “I want my kids to be comfortable.” I’m realizing, Oh, that sets me apart. The conversations you have with your cousins as you become a high school student, you recognize your cousins have a totally different lived experience of what it means to be a high school student than you do.
It gets more complicated the older you get, and the narratives that are given to you as kids by your parents or whoever, they don’t work anymore. There comes a point where you have to decide what kind narrative you’re going to construct for yourself, and I think that creates a lot of tension. I would have conversations with my dad [about this]. There is something like that replicated in the book, where Niru talks to his father about the fact that he doesn’t feel Nigerian. I remember having those conversations with my siblings, with my parents, about what does it actually mean to be from this place? And then, for me, being so fascinated by that question that, after I graduated from college, I was there for a year and a half. And then after I finished medical school, I couldn’t wait to get back to Nigeria, because you answer this question in different ways, depending on how you have matured as a person. I think that will be a question I will continuously have to come back to.
I moved back here [to New York] from Lagos a year ago [after spending] six years in Nigeria—a couple in Abuja, the rest in Lagos. Coming to Lagos as a twenty-nine-year-old and being like—when I graduated from college, we had a house in Abuja, I was living there. It was a different thing than saying “I’m going to start my own business, I’m going to see what it’s like being a professional, and I’m going to find my own apartment,” do all of these things in this context.
SB: This is when you were working on Ventures Africa magazine?
UI: Yes, which is a publication my uncle and I founded. That was insane, to think you could start a magazine. But why the hell not? To a certain extent, one has to recognize privilege, and I come from a real position of privilege in Nigeria, for sure. I mean, if your mother is the Minister of Finance, I’m also—you’re already coming from the United States with that earning power of the U.S. dollar. It does mean that it’s a different society that you are living in. And it’s hard.
I’ve had friends come and be like, “Woah, dude, I didn’t know your life was like this.” And you’re like, “I didn’t know my life was like this until I got here.” That’s all the paraphernalia that can come with being in the top of the top percentile in a country that’s not necessarily my life here in the United States of America. That has to be acknowledged. And there is a lot that has been afforded to me because of that. On the flip side, it’s also about, how do you really take the time to immerse yourself in a place, and not be afraid to be of that place, and make mistakes in your learning how to be in that place? That’s one of the gifts Nigeria gives me and a lot of “re-pats,” as people call us. We come back with a real, undeserved sense of “I got this.” And Nigeria will just smack you in the face and ask you, “Who are you?!” That is so important. It just helps you recalibrate how you think about yourself and how you relate to people of all types.
SB: This reminds me of an essay you wrote for The Guardian three years ago, titled “I Dream of a Utopian Lagos.” You open it up by showing this place there where you go to clear your head. There’s some private land nearby that someone wealthy owns, and the security guards are telling you, “What are you doing here? Go away.” It’s actually public land that you’re on. I’m sure that must be a surreal experience being on public land but feel—
UI: This is what happens in a fundamentally libertarian society, let’s put it that way. It’s funny, we talk about it: I love Nigeria to death, but also, for all the folks here who want to live in a libertarian world, come and visit me, I can tell you you won’t like it that much. Because, what happens is, whoever is strongest wins. Certain things, the things we enjoy here, the fact that Central Park is here is an amazing thing, and yes, we know that certain villages and places were cleared to put it [there], but with that very much in mind, let’s also talk about how this is public property. That anyone—if you don’t have money, or if you live on Fifth Avenue and you’ve got a gazillion dollars—cannot own Central Park. For that reason, we all have access, and it creates an interesting sense of ownership over the city. Same is true for Prospect Park. These public spaces create something, a sense of belonging, a sense of presence, in a place that can be somewhat transient.
I think one of the biggest issues that I had with Lagos is that it is such a beautiful city, and it’s a city like New York. It’s on the water, it’s a city of islands, all of that, but there isn’t much space people feel that the public owns. Certainly, private individuals can roll in and grab: “This is my jetty.” I just want a space where I can feel like I’m amongst people, and amongst the beauty of the natural surroundings. For me, that was one of the really tough things.
But I think Lagos is a city that is constantly changing, and I think this is one of the things that’s being addressed. Even over the last few years, you’ve started to see the emergence of more public parks or green spaces because people realize they want that. And what’s interesting, I think, if you go back and take a look at the fact that, especially in a city like Lagos, a lot of life happened in the streets, happened in public places. Just this idea of public and private ownership was maybe a little bit different. Versus when you have the British come in and start creating these spaces, these zones, where you could go to do this, you couldn’t go to do that, chopping up the way people normally moved. Which is an intent; it’s not a byproduct. It’s an intent of colonialism and colonial presence. And then you get to where we are in the modern day, where the society has to reconstitute itself and reimagine itself around some of this stuff that’s been brought in. That is tragic, but it’s also the story of Lagos.
So how do we reimagine ourselves? And how do we reimagine civic space and public space and what it means to build a society and a sense of community in a land that has been chopped up and parcelled out and privatized? It’s also not unique to Lagos. I mean, they complain about it. The innovations the Brits brought to us are now cannibalizing themselves. This idea of [a city like] London, a city where you have all of these private and public spaces, you can’t actually be a citizen in them because HSBC technically owns it, that kind of thing. I just find it fascinating, troubling. It’s something that is really interesting and part of what it means to be a Nigerian today.
SB: You have all of this rich experience that we’ve been discussing, from the books, to your studies in medicine and public health, to your deep understanding of these two worlds that you’ve lived between your whole life. As the CEO of the Africa Center, what are your hopes you’d like to bring to bear there? I know its primary focus is culture, policy, and business.
UI: The Africa Center—that’s like another kind of detour. Like, what is a doctor doing running a—
UI: A not-for-profit museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I wake up in the morning and I’m like, “What are you doing?!”
To give a little history, I started with the Africa Center just under a year ago. For me, it was a number of things. I had been in Nigeria for about six years at that point in time. I had just finished writing Speak No Evil. I had been thinking, Do I want to come back to the United States? Do I want to stay here? What’s the next step? And this opportunity came along to work at—and run and lead—the Africa Center through a transition. I was like, “Why not?”
What I’m about is storytelling, and what I think cultural institutions are about, just in a more physical structure, in a sense, should be storytelling. I don’t know the least about running a museum, but I figure, if they’re going to hire me, that’s really not their concern. We’re not really building a museum. We’re building something different. So I was like, “Alright, I’ll come back to New York.”
The Africa Center has been through a lot. It started off as a museum for African art [in Queens]. Later, we acquired a seventy-thousand-square-foot space on Fifth Avenue, and then, of course, the financial crisis hit, and it became a bit difficult to finish the space. I can say now that, finally, we have started to phase the opening. We have a space open with a wonderful café in it. And an exhibition on. And more coming over the course of the year.
I think I would not have taken this job if it had been something that was more established. What I really love is the art of creating. Whether you’re sitting down writing a book or you’re saying, “Okay, we essentially have this blank canvas of an institution, with an idea that what we really want to do is represent Africa to New York City, to our community in Harlem, and then to the wider world. What is this story you’re going to tell?” That is what really fascinated me about the Africa Center.
On paper, yeah, we focus on business, culture, and policy. But the idea is really about transforming narratives. It’s really about, how do you provide the wider public with new narratives about the continent? And if we can do that by having a fabulous new installation by Victor Ekpuk, this Nigerian-American artist, or by having an orchestra come play in our space, or by hosting a film screening, that’s all part and parcel of projecting a new narrative. As we build up the space, I hope we do get to do more of that. But I’m not going to lie, it’s not a joke, there’s a lot of stuff about running a cultural institution, especially here in New York City—there’s a huge learning curve.
SB: I’m sure it has tested your leadership, because it’s one thing to sit down and write a novel, but—
UI: Oh yeah, it’s a totally different thing to work with a team of people, to work with people who have more expertise and more knowledge than you. I’ve managed a construction project in Nigeria. Working on a construction project in New York is a whole other thing. And there are people who—this is their life. So being able to say, “I have a vision,” but also humble enough to know that this person really knows how it is, how you actually build a building, that’s something you have to learn. I think working on a start-up magazine in Nigeria, and having that experience of coming back and being smacked in the face by what it means to operate something in Nigeria, helps a lot. You know when to be quiet. You know when to just sit down and say, “Let me just listen for a second.”
Having to work with a board—obviously, the board is the major support for the institution, but there are also multiple voices. And people have different ideas of what they want to do. So it’s like, how do you learn to build consensus? How do you learn to take all of these ideas into account? And [how do you] take someone’s vision and make it into a reality? That, again, is a learned skill.
SB: I’m sure your experience of research, reporting, and writing about AIDS has really informed some of this work.
UI: Funnily enough, going to medical school and being able to sit down and really listen to someone, being something of a reporter or a journalist, I think, is super important. And it’s not just what are they saying to me. How are they saying what they’re saying to me is equally important. And how does that then translate into actions that I’m going to take? All of that has been extremely helpful. In that sense, nothing is lost. You could say that I wasted four years in medical school because I don’t practice, or you could say that was an educational experience—including the failures I had in medical school, which were preparations for being able to deal with a task as enormous as this. I failed a lot in medical school.
SB: I want to close with this idea of storytelling. It’s the thing that’s woven through all of your practices. And, of course, oral storytelling goes very far back into African tradition. In Our Kind of People, you write, “Africans revel in the sound of our voices.” How do you plan to do some of this revelling beyond the programming at the Africa Center? What do you hope can be the sort of megaphone, so to speak, of what you’re doing, beyond just this specific programming?
UI: There’s so much. As much as we want to talk about storytelling, the real thing with storytelling is about creating a sense of community. And it’s about trying to figure out who that community is. So this is what I was saying about just having, for example, Instagram, to show you that the people who you reach maybe go way further away than you actually know. So when you talk about that, do you mean just specifically for the Africa Center or just in general? There are a lot of questions in there.
SB: Maybe both. What do you hope is the big message the Africa Center sends out? And more generally, too, what’s the message of your own body of work?
UI: For the Africa Center, it’s probably easier [to answer]. Core to its personality is [the fact that] that Africa is incredibly fun, incredibly dynamic, and incredibly complicated—but it’s not scary. I think that’s what we want to project, that this is a place that can show you so much about the whole world, about the universe, if you let it. And that’s the story we want the Africa Center to put out, whether it’s through exhibitions or a policy dinner. That’s what we’re trying to put out, is that all you have to do is just have to step in and you’ll see a totally different world than what all the newspapers have told you. And that world is exciting, that world is dynamic, and that world will set you free.
Personally, for me, it’s this intense competition between wanting the freedom to tell all kinds of stories and feeling that I need to do something that is impactful and transformative in the world. “Balance” is the wrong word, but I think it’s more, how do you live those desires, which are equally strong in me? Does one win out over the other? I don’t know. Or do they inform each other in such a way that you can project and amplify stories, and be exposed to stories, and then tell stories you didn’t even think that you would see? That’s what I’m always on the lookout for, is what can I write, what can I create, what can I tell that will both satisfy this need to be an artist but at the same time have that profound, socially transformative impact? I don’t know. If you’ve got ideas, tell me, because I think it is both a blessing and a struggle.
SB: Have you figured out your next story, your next book?
UI: I have two ideas that are kind of spinning around. But right now [my time and focus] is mostly about the Africa Center. You start a new project, and it necessarily consumes you until you figure you have a footing. And then you can start saying, “Okay, what is the next creative thing?”
I finished Speak No Evil in 2017. It was published in 2018. You just need a little bit of calm time. Because writing a book sucks. You always forget. When you finish, there is this euphoria—you’re on cloud nine, it’s the best thing in the world. Then you sit down to start writing again, and you’re just like, “Why does anyone do this? What is the point?”
SB: It’s like a hangover or something.
UI: Yeah, exactly. I’m now in that period where I’ve come out of the euphoria, and I’m not quite ready to have to start banging my head against the wall. I’m just going to try and coast a bit.
SB: Well, Uzo, this was great. Thanks for joining us today.
UI: Thank you so much for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Feb. 26, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.