NEW YORK - When Uzodinma Iweala's debut novel, "Beasts of No Nation," was published in 2005, book critics jostled for room at the literary altar to offer praise.
They called the book, about a child soldier in an unnamed African country, "brilliant," "astonishing," "riveting," "extraordinary," "searing," "electrifying" and "powerful." Salman Rushdie wrote, "It's one of those rare occasions when you see a first novel and you think, 'This guy is going to be very, very good."'
For Iweala, a 24-year-old graduate of Harvard University, much has happened since then. He has won numerous literary awards, moved to his parents' native Nigeria and relocated to New York City to work for an anti-poverty organization.
He also recently signed a two-book deal with publisher HarperCollins. This month, he plans to return to Nigeria, complete the first book by the end of the summer and begin medical school in the fall at Columbia University.
"I don't think the two are mutually exclusive," Iweala said of writing books and attending medical school as he sat in a coffee shop the day after he returned from an African writers' conference in Italy. "Will it be hard to do the two together? Oh, yeah, it will be very hard. I'm not kidding myself."
Iweala grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the second child and first son of Ikemba, an emergency-room doctor, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated economist, and former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank vice president.
Sound off on the important issues at
Iweala's older sister is studying to be a doctor at Harvard Medical School and his two younger brothers are Harvard undergraduates.
Iweala's novella began as a short story he wrote after reading an article about child soldiers when he was a student at St. Albans School in Washington. He put the story away but later retrieved and expanded it after hearing a former child soldier speak at Harvard. He spent a summer in Nigeria researching the subject before submitting the expanded story - narrated by a boy in language similar to Pidgin English spoken in Nigeria - as his senior English thesis.
The boy, Agu, loves to read and wants to be a doctor or engineer until he witnesses his father's murder during a raging civil war and is forced to fight in the conflict.
Writer Jamaica Kincaid, who was Iweala's thesis adviser, later gave the work to her agent, who showed it to HarperCollins executive editor Tim Duggan.
"It was unlike anything I'd read before," said Duggan, who will edit Iweala's next two books. "The diction, voice and writing style were very unique. It was an emotionally heart-pounding story. It made me look at things that were happening in Africa in a different way.
"I think he's going to be one of the best literary writers this country has. In each book, I think he will break new ground in terms of style and voice. He's a rare talent and he has great range and versatility. I think whatever he does is going to be unusual and fascinating. I want to be there to help cultivate him in his career as a writer."
Iweala's next book is nonfiction and is about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. After that, he plans to return to fiction.
Last February, Iweala, who has also written book reviews and nonfiction pieces for The New York Times and other publications, moved to New York City to work on health issues for the Millennium Villages Project. Based at Columbia University, the project tries to reduce extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This month, Iweala will leave the project and return to Nigeria, a country he has visited constantly since he was a boy and where he also has citizenship. It's a place where his family is "very interested" in seeing conditions improve, he said. He lived there before moving to New York, helping build homes for victims of religious conflict.
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.