- Speak No Evil
- Uzodinma Iweala
A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I took our niece to see an evening viewing of A Wrinkle in Time. During the previews, the theatre ran the trailer for Love, Simon, a film about a closeted gay teen whose e-mail conversations with a male admirer are intercepted by the school bully. After Simon confessed his orientation to his onscreen mother, a young white boy seated behind us asked his own mother what "gay" means. She replied that Simon is a boy who likes boys and yes, sometimes boys like boys. That brief conversation, ending with the child's satisfied "Oh, okay" hung in the air as other families seated nearby had likely found a proxy for the conversations they would doubtless have had with their own curious children.
But the process of coming out to one's family and social circles rarely fits within the confines of a PG-rated movie. Especially so within the households of diasporic Africans, where there is no single cultural identity, but rather a multilayered history that can include religious homophobia. These identities are sometimes created through the pressures of religious hegemony (as with the Family Life Network's outsized influence on Uganda's anti-homosexuality act, where the crime of homosexuality carries a life sentence), other times forcibly applied through historical atrocity (as with the French military's Faucher-d'Alexis affair in Gabon). A world where pastors disrupt funerals to remove pictures of same-sex couples and where trans people are misgendered even in death, doesn't often lend itself to tidy narratives about the coming-out process.
This is the fraught space – culture, family, religiosity, sexuality – which Uzodinma Iweala illustrates with his sophomore novel Speak No Evil. Iweala's first book, Beasts of No Nation, received wide acclaim (as well as a highly praised Netflix adaptation) for its visceral account of civil war in Africa, as seen through the eyes of a child soldier named Agu. With that taut and compelling read, Iweala demonstrated a narrative aptitude that bordered on audacious for a debut novelist, capturing the horrific scope of modern tribal warfare, while grounding the story in Agu's unravelling psyche. Iweala has certainly retained his dexterity in the 15 years since Beasts of No Nation was published, but in contrast to its predecessor, Speak No Evil is less broad and less bold for a writer of his calibre.
Niru, the story's narrator, is an American-born son of Nigerian immigrants living in Washington. By all appearances, his family is the sort that Beltway politicians are eager to invite to town hall meetings, gather for the cameras and lovingly refer to as an immigrant success story. His father is a CEO, his mother is a doctor and his older brother, OJ, has gone off to college with dreams of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Niru is popular in school, an accomplished track athlete and his classmate Meredith (who "looks like a younger Anne Hathaway") harbours an obvious crush on him. But beneath the appearances lies an unspoken truth that Niru is forced to affirm when Meredith tries to initiate a sexual encounter: Niru is gay.
The secret doesn't hold for long. Niru loses his phone, which is brimming with messages from Grindr, the gay dating app that Meredith installed and insisted he use. His father finds the phone (and all of the lock-screen notifications) and proceeds to beat Niru during a heated confrontation at home. His mother, while fending off that physical assault, later takes Niru to church where he is subjected to a spiritual and emotional assault by the local reverend. When Niru's neck proves too stiff for the yoke, his father drags him back to Nigeria in a last-ditch effort to cast out the abomination and redeem his soul.
Iweala's ability to not only comfortably inhabit the mind of his teenage narrator, but speak to the precarious social location of a gay diasporic African in America is at times a blessing and at other times a stumbling block in this novel's construction. After Niru returns from Nigeria, he and Meredith begin to drift apart, but neither seems to have any real motivation for the strain in their friendship – the rift simply becomes so. Niru affirms his sexuality early in the novel and bucks against his parents' efforts at conversion therapy, yet spends far more of the story in an agonized state over his sexual longing than he does acceding to any of its impulses. The final third of the novel introduces a tragedy and a viewpoint that seem almost borrowed from another story – one that might have worked if Meredith's perspectives had been introduced earlier, and if Niru hadn't repeatedly observed that the world his white classmates inhabit is one in which his black skin prevents him from ever residing.
That may be the most frustrating aspect of Speak No Evil. While brutal, Beasts of No Nation could not abide that its reader flinch from the grisly experiences of a forgotten child soldier in an unknown country. Yet, in a story mostly concerned with the sexual awakening of a relatively privileged Nigerian-American teenager, Iweala himself looks away, handing off its resolution to the dependable violences of systemic racism and white privilege.
At a time when members of the black LGBTQ community have publicly moved to the front ranks of the black liberation movement, and a film such as Moonlight resonated deeply enough to win an Oscar, there's plenty of room to grapple with the religious and cultural orthodoxies that force diasporic Africans into the closet. Speak No Evil is a beautifully written novel. But underneath its style lies a story that ultimately does too much topically, while falling short of the subject matter it attempts to challenge.
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and activist.