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Especially for a young person coming of age, life can exert a lot of pressures. For young Niru, the son of affluent and staunchly conservative Nigerian parents living in Georgetown, the pressures are even more significant. He feels the weight of many things: his parents’ need to see him succeed in life, the pressures of his costly private education, the shadow of his popular and high-achieving older brother, the tendency of law enforcement to see only his color, the tenets of a conservative Christian church, and the great weight of the secret he hides from everyone–his sexuality. Niru is different in a world and a heritage that doesn’t always prize difference, at least when that thing that sets you apart is being gay.
Award-winning author of Beasts of no Nation, Uzodinma Iweala stirringly brings to life a young man at war with himself in this moving new novel. A child who, no matter where he turns, finds doors closed as he tries to come to terms with what and who he is. Everything looks good from the outside–an affluent DC neighborhood, star of the track team, a beautiful home with parents who are nothing if not high achievers themselves. It’s the American Dream, but a dream that becomes, for Niru, only a prison. He finds some solace in his de facto girlfriend Meredith. Everyone wants them to be a couple, but after an awkward attempt at intimacy, he confides his secret to her. Ultimately, even she doesn’t understand.
Early on in the book, Iweala creates a scene that is an all too typical experience and fear for young black men, regardless of background. When being pulled over for speeding, Niru thinks of a friend who simply fled, “He was going too fast for even the police to catch up and turned into the first available side street into the first available driveway then quickly turned off his car. The police drove right by. But George Gilvert Monson Jr. has blond hair, blue eyes and a wealthy father who can afford his foolishness. I only have a wealthy father who won’t subsidize me.” Niru’s father is an authoritarian with a rigid moral code. It’s a code that won’t budge when he learns of his son’s sexuality, not an inch.
Not only won’t his father accept his son’s being gay—he considers it an unclean sinful practice—he decides he must be cured of it. Iweala compellingly illustrates how traditional Nigerian, Christian values abhor homosexuality: it’s just not an option. He brings to life how painful this journey is for a family, how it rips a family apart when there is bigotry and intolerance woven into their relationships. We root for young Niru, but there is no safe harbor for him. His mother seems more tolerant, but her disgust with her son eventually comes to the surface. Iweala writes not only of a teenager in crisis, but of a family falling apart due to intolerance and hate.
Iweala vividly recounts the story of a young man set apart. He does so with clarity and depth, making you feel Niru’s pain—understand how it is to be rejected by everyone and everything you love—to be an outsider. Most coming out stories are difficult, it’s never an easy process, but when faced with a culture and a church that sometimes reject you outright, and in no uncertain terms, it’s even lonelier. There aren’t always happy endings and the author gives us that experience with great emotion and sensitivity. Speak No Evil isn’t an easy read. It is, however, compelling, sensitively told, and satisfying.
Speak No Evil
By Uzodinma Iweala
Hardcover, 978006128492, 214p