"Speak No Evil" by Uzodinma Iweala
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
TITLE: Speak No Evil
AUTHOR: Uzodinma Iweala
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins Publishers
PUBLISHED DATE: 03/16/2018
*Hype Lit Book Club Selection June 2018
This was my first time reading Iweala's work, and it certainly won't be my last. His character development, writing style and pacing really worked for me, even if I found a majority of the plot to be predictable and the validated self hatred of the main character to be disappointing.
Niru is a Harvard bound Nigerian-American senior at a prestigious D.C. prep school where he runs track and finds solace in his best friend Meredith. His lack of arousal towards his best friend prompts him to come out to her as a gay young man, and she becomes a sort of guide helping him to transition into his new life. Namely, she downloads the Tinder app on his cell phone and encourages him to explore his budding sexuality. One eventful day Niru is accosted by police. When narrowly avoids being shot by police, she come home only to be attacked by his conservative image-conscious father who will not tolerate a gay son. On one day, two major pieces of Niru's identity puzzle collide spiraling Niru into a depression and causing his mother to fear he'll take his own life. Niru's mother, the more compassionate parent, tries to steer Niru in the direction of religion and into the counsel of a charismatic pastor. The pastor's advice seem to propel Niru deeper towards his homosexual lifestyle, and farther away from the rigid Christian principles of his parents. After a night of binge drinking, Niru finds himself wasted in front of a handsome African American, notable for his attendance at Howard University, and his light skin and green eyes. As Niru explores this new relationship, he also is sent to Nigeria by his father, and the depth of his hatred toward the country of his ancestors and his own ethnic identity is fully realized. His hatred of Nigeria seem to culminate in the rocky relationship he has with his father.
The first half of the book far exceeds the second half. The second half of the book seemed largely inspired by The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and the story is carried on through the point of view of Meredith, Niru's supposed best friend. Through Meredith we learn that Niru has been wrong about white people not having problems, because Meredith's parents are not without faults though they provide her with connection, a high standard of living, and a desire for their daughter to be successful....you know, typical first world 1% problems. Meredith and Niru's relationship is also complex, with Meredith feeling resentment that Niru was accepted to Harvard and she wasn't, and Niru feeling that Meredith outed his sexuality to their wannabe frat-bo classmates. a fateful night ends Niru and Meredith's relationship permanently.
This is a solid novel that leaves so much on the table for discussion. Iweala's writing style is distinctive and strong, and I was drawn in from the first page all the way through until the final word. Books discussing colorism and struggles with identity have a fine line to balance. It's very difficult to write candidly about disappointments one may have with their race/ethnicity without it veering into a tool of subtle white supremacy where everything black, African, dark skinned is negative, and everything light skinned, light eyed and hued, Western culture and ideas are seen as better are a celebrated theme. In a particularly brutal passage, Niru states:
"But no matter how many times we came "home", everything was so uncomfortable for me. My father never seemed to notice that his shirt stuck to his back with sweat, or if he noticed he didn't care. I hated the fact that everyone walked around in a cloud of body odor so thick it almost formed a visible aura around them. I hated the discomfort sitting in traffic, discomfort sitting in the darkness when the power went out--it was always going out--the constant vibration of the generators and their exhaust fumes. I hated the forever-uneasy feeling in my stomach after each meal that sent me to bathrooms that however spotless always carried a whiff of sewage. This was not home, not to me even if I secretly loved the thunderstorms and the smell of wet red earth after the rains. I wanted to ask how I should really feel about streets packed with potholes and gutters full to the brim with trash and sludge. I wanted to know how to relax when the cars beside you drove so close that you could see the red veins in the drivers' eyes because everyone treated the lane dividers as suggestions. It was almost too confusing to see the old and decrepit so close to the new and shiny, the jalopies held together by string and prayer next to brand-new Mercedes SUVs, the straw, palm leaf and plywood squatter settlements next to white walls protecting the large sparkling glass windows of unreasonably sized mansions that would have looked more comfortable in Hollywood. And everywhere there were people, some going places, some unmoving and happy to let the world happen around them, but covering every free space with a visible sense of entitlement no matter how tattered or well-kept their clothing. I had the irrational fear that I would disappear into the mess of all these people an never be seen or heard from again."
In this passage reader's are introduced to Niru's complicated feelings about Nigeria. His disgust with how people smell and his critique of hygienic standards and wealth disparities which boils over into him not wanting to "disappear into the mess of all these people..." Had these very words come from a white protagonist, no doubt people would be calling for the book to be removed from shelves. Are anti-black sentiments held by black literary characters honest when coming from a black voice? Are they beyond critique? Is it too sensitive to reject it? Am I dishonest if I can't lend my full support? Do I even have a right to feel offended?
There are so many topics to discuss stemming from this book. I can't wait for the book club meeting to flesh them all out. We'll be meeting at Asher Amens African Cafe, the only Nigerian restaurant in Tampa, and I hope it doesn't disappoint.
Barnes & Noble: Uzo Iweala talks with us about his new novel SPEAK NO EVIL!
Recommendation: I would recommend this book, even though I took issue with some of the character's views on Nigerian culture and blackness. It's a very interesting and necessary thing to discuss how individuals negatively view themselves and how that is both mirrored and reflected within society. There are layers of issues pertaining to identity that can be dissected here, and I appreciate this novel for that.
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