Uzodinma Iweala (The Bat Segundo Show)

Uzodinma Iweala is most recently the author of Our Kind of People.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking beyond.

Subjects Discussed: The advantages of hearing stories told to understand issues, the rhythms and tones of language, how to track down people to talk with in Nigeria, China Keiteski, the advantages of bus depots, the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria’s reticence to discuss AIDS and HIV, physical deterioration and moral stigma, the parallels between how HIV/AIDS is perceived in Nigeria and how it is perceived in the United States, prejudicial language (“dropping like flies”) and stereotypes in Western coverage of AIDS in Africa (as recent as 2006), hysterical headlines from The New York Times, the Joseph Conrad disease-ridden racist stereotype of AFrica, the difficulties of getting rid of stereotypical language in relation to minorities, how pushback in Africa has helped to improve language, why it’s important to remain unafraid of being corrected and correcting other people, regrettable posters equating Africa with AIDS, voices that have not been allowed to speak on the international stage, why AIDS needs to expand beyond the “woe is me” narrative, the “giving thanks” narrative, and the exotic narrative, journalism vs. creative nonfiction vs. personal crusading, issues pertaining to the journalist as outsider, illusory journalistic objectivity, responding to criticisms leveled by The Observer‘s David Smith, AIDS denialism in South Africa, the sheer number of books about AIDS, Philip Alcabes’s “The Ordinariness of AIDS,” needless fear and hysteria, AIDS and the Nigerian identity issue, the new normal, trying to sell people on normal, epidemic fatigue and fundraising, how the process of transformation relates to support and empathy, and the importance of nuanced understanding.


Correspondent: I know that with the novel you wrote, Beasts of No Nation, you started off to some degree not just with news articles, but you actually met a soldier for that particular work. And with this, of course, there’s a good deal of interviews you did with people who have HIV and who are living in Nigeria. Support activists and so forth. So my question to you is: Why do you need to hear stories in oral form before you work out how you’re going to tell the story? Whether it be fiction or, in this case, nonfiction?

Iweala: Well, for me, I’m very interested in the way that people speak. Both in the creative fiction that I do. And also the creative nonfiction. I mean, I like the rhythm of language. I like the sounds of voices. And I like how rhythm and tone really are so much a part of the storytelling itself as the words that you put down on the page. I mean, I think it’s both a result of having this oral tradition and listening to stories from the culture that I come from. And also I think there are a number of other writers that I think in the more Western literary tradition who pay a lot of attention to rhythm and flow. You can think of people like Beckett, who I love listening to when read because of that reason.

Correspondent: Did you transcribe the conversations and did you actually read them aloud to try and figure out…

Iweala: (nods head)

Correspondent: You did.

Iweala: It was a process. It was first doing interviews. Then I transcribed all the interviews — almost all of them — myself. Because I wanted to be in it. To hear the way that people spoke again. To really pick up where there were emotional stresses essentially in people’s voices. And I would take those interviews, sit down, and try to rejig them a little bit to make them flow better as stories. But I would read them aloud to myself over and over again. Just trying to get the right inflection or trying to get the right tone and trying to make sure that the language and the emotional state really coalesced.

Correspondent: So the finer details of these stories are there in the intonations of the sentences more than the actual biographical details and so forth?

Iweala: It’s nonfiction. So those details are also very on point. But there was a lot of attention paid to, yeah, just what it sounded like. And what it sounded like reflected who was speaking. So your health official of the government is going to sound and speak differently, and stress different things and have different emotional stresses, than, say, a woman living in a rural area. Each intonation, each way of speaking, is equally important and equally relevant to the larger picture of the epidemic, but definitely very different.

Correspondent: How do you track a child soldier down? Or many of the interesting people in this book? You can’t just hold up a sign while you’re walking around Lagos.

Iweala: Right. So for the first book, for Beasts of No Nation, I just got fortunate in the sense that the first person I spoke to — China Keiteski actually gave a talk at Harvard when I was an undergrad. And she just had a lot to say. And we had a very brief conversation. I didn’t really interview her. I just listened to her talk and her experiences, read her book, and it was a chat I had that really brought out what it was that I wanted to write about. And then, in Nigeria, there are a lot of people who lived through the Civil War that we had in the ’60s. A long time ago. But they still had many, many soldiers to tell and were very open with me about that. And then also we had Liberian refugees living in Nigeria at the time. Most have returned home now, I think. And where my family lives, they were doing a lot of construction. And these folks would be working on the construction crews. And so, during breaks, I would just take the time to chat with them. And that’s how I got a lot of those stories. Now for Our Kind of People, I really kind of did just do what you said. I just started walking around and asking questions. I mean, obviously a little bit more structured than that, right? You go to a health official and then they lead you to a treatment center. You speak with someone there. And then they lead you to a support group. Also walking down the street. I walked into bus depots. Just found who I could speak to. And we sat down. You buy a person a beer.

Correspondent: What else are they doing while they’re waiting for a bus, right?

Iweala: You’re either waiting for a bus you’re driving to leave or you’re waiting for the bus you’re going to take to leave. What do you have to do but sit and talk and drink? And so that’s what we would do. And then they would be like, “Well, you should contact this person,” and you’d get a phone number and go from there.

Correspondent: So you built up a network based off of these peregrinations and you finally tracked down the appropriate people. You mentioned the Civil War, which I wanted to talk with you about. Because the Civil War doesn’t really come up in this book so much. And in light of what you have to say about Nigeria’s reticence to discuss HIV and AIDS, I was wondering if you could get into why they’re reluctant to talk about it. Aside from the AIDS support groups, the efforts to spread safe sex messages among the young, and so forth.

Iweala: I think for a number of reasons. And for the same reasons that people are reluctant to discuss it here. It has been a taboo subject. It’s much less so now. But HIV, AIDS, the epidemic — especially the way that it spreads, mostly through sex — is something that I think makes people profoundly uncomfortable. And we tend to avoid speaking about it. If you can think about how many tough conversations that you put off and put off and put off, we tend to avoid speaking about those things we find really uncomfortable. That’s changing — in large part because people have decided — the federal government and also activist groups and people living with HIV have decided to make a lot of noise and make sure that we have those uncomfortable conversations and really try to bring this thing out so that we can deal with it. I mean, I think in general Nigeria is a relatively, at least outwardly, conservative country. And we’re loud people for a number of different things. But there are certain things that I think, it would be safe to say, are considered more private: sex being one of them. It’s not a place where you see sex sold on billboards or used to sell products as much as you do here or in other countries in Europe or whatever. So that definitely has impacted the way that we talk about the epidemic.

Correspondent: In the Stigma section, you describe how physical deterioration is, of course, a major part of AIDS. And there is, of course, this moral idea attached to it. That people are being punished for their sins. What’s some of the crossover? The book goes into a lot of dichotomies where there are intersections and where there are not. But in terms of grasping the idea of people who are physically deteriorating and who are suffering, why does this have to be so sinful among certain moralists in Nigeria? I was very curious about that.

Iweala: Again, I think we should also say that that also happened here as well. It’s mainly a question of absolutes, I think, in a situation where you don’t have access to treatment and being diagnosed with this disease is, in essence, an absolute thing. Like “you will die” is what people message. And I think it’s complex in some senses because its message is “you will die,” but you can still be healthy for some years before you start to deteriorate without treatment. But that absolute, it seems like a final judgment. And so people then map all kinds of anxieties, religious beliefs, cultural whatever onto that. And then you get this idea of this being judgment for something. That definitely came up a number of times. Of how initially people would say “If you get HIV, then you’re being judged for some kind of practice.” Whether that practice is some kind of immoral sex. Whether, in this country, homosexuality was considered an immoral thing and HIV was punishment for that. IV drug use was considered an immoral thing and it was punishment for that. Now in Nigeria, it’s more heterosexual sex. Much less in terms of IV drug use or anything like that. And we’re very outwardly strongly religious societies, where the prohibitions on sex before marriage are at least spoken about all over the place. And so it becomes very easy for people to make that leap. You have sex before marriage or you have some kind of immoral, by whoever’s standards, sex. And punishment comes through this disease. I found that to be a very interesting connection. I mean, it’s ages old. There are other sexually transmitted diseases, which have always been considered judgement in some way for immoral sexual practice. But I think the stories around HIV/AIDS, and then also the way that people generate stories about their relationships and their sexual encounters to moralize them in the face of this epidemic, so that you can say, “Well, I might be having sex before marriage. But my relationship, my sexual practice, is somehow not like this.” This being sinful sex. People construct all kinds of things. And I find that to be really interesting. It’s something that we should look at and spend more time with.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting is that Nigeria is essentially applying the same moral codex to HIV and AIDS that America is, but that they’re really just only a few years behind where we are. Is that safe to say? What distinguishes Nigeria from the States along a similar sort of trajectory?

Iweala: I think one of the things the book is trying to say is that, while the nature of the HIV epidemic differs depending on the society it appears in, I think there are many similarities in that what people did originally was suggest that there was something very different about the Africa AIDS epidemic than in other countries. And there is a difference. But the difference isn’t necessarily some cultural whatever or some moral feeling on the part of Africans. And I hate using the term “Africans.” So I’ll go with “specifically in Nigeria.” The issue in a lot of senses is resources. And in the United States, the difference was people recognizing a problem and then also having the resources to apply to dealing with the problem very quickly. In Nigeria, the problem was recognized at a certain point in time. But the resources weren’t necessarily as forthcoming. And that creates a huge difference. It’s just very apparent.

The Bat Segundo Show #473: Uzodinma Iweala (Download MP3)

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