When you are gay and in the closet, damage is different. Pain doesn’t destroy you all at once. It leaks out like an oil spill. The clean-up can take a long time, the wreckage can be everlasting. Help can sometimes make matters worse. For Niru, the primary narrator of Uzodinma Iweala’s new novel Speak No Evil, his coming out is a gay-teen nightmare. Plenty of books have been written about teens coming out, but few to my knowledge deal with a protagonist who is both black and gay. Niru is not only a pioneer of the emerging black-LGBTQ-teen genre, but a martyr to the cause.
Yet when we first meet Niru we learn he is from a relatively affluent family living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., goes to a private school and is Harvard-bound. Iweala, whose Beasts of No Nation followed child soldiers in West Africa, operates best within the tumultuous battleground of adolescence and his prose takes Niru’s developing psyche to new depths, turning the dopey chants of Niru’s high school counterparts — “Drink, drink, drink” — into traumatic reminders for his central character.
“There are kids smoking weed in the basement of someone’s parents’ house and there are kids fucking in the bathroom… And then there is me, black, sober and scared to death by locker room banter from an epic asshole.” It is the simplicity of the scene — a setting many readers are probably familiar with — that make Iweala’s attention to the naive teenage rationale that follows a gut-wrenching example in voice: “I will have the rest of my life to be constricted and I will have the rest of my life to make amends.” Or so we all seem to think.
Niru believes in a brighter tomorrow and is chasing it with unwavering passion, but his dreams are stunted when his father learns he is gay. A Nigerian immigrant turned American corporate success story, Niru’s father expects the best. “Appearances matter to him. That’s why he drives a Range Rover and wears a Rolex with his tailored suits and Ferragamos,” Niru tells us. “You have to pay attention to these things, my father says, don’t give the world any reason to doubt you.” Though an immigrant, Niru’s father is the quintessential American. He leaves no room for error, only success.
Iweala plays close attention to the racial dynamics in our contemporary society, using them to problematize Niru’s homosexuality. Race becomes an added hurdle in his quest for absolute parental approval. Being gay is hard enough, but for black gay men, or any LGBTQ-identifying person of color for that matter, you are often expected to ascribe to one thing: to be either black or gay, as if, even in 2018, the two are mutually exclusive. Niru, who devotes so much energy to navigating his burgeoning sexuality often forgets being black (and a teenager boy) is tricky too.
The first 50 pages of Speak No Evil move quite fast. We discover Niru’s sexual preferences through his father, who finds Grindr installed on his son’s phone and Tinder message notifications on the lock screen. For his father, homosexuality is an American-born illness, so he takes his son back to Nigeria for a cleansing.
“We live such different lives with such different worries,” Niru posits during their trip back. Like the American teen he is, Niru has no idea how to behave around the younger Nigerian kids who crowd his father, accepting money in exchange for services. “Who has time to think about sexual orientation,” he bemoans, “when there is no food to eat, no money for school fees, no doctor in sight when you get sick.” Overcoming naivety is a huge part of coming into your own, and Iweala plays into that heavily. Sometimes long stretches of Niru’s interior monologues will make readers cringe, like listening to a teenager often can.
Above all else, Iweala’s choice to write about a black gay teen is commendable. 2016 brought us Moonlight, the Oscar-award winning film about a black gay man’s coming of age story in inner-city Miami. Speak No Evil marks another step forward in exploring the previously taboo topic of homosexuality within the larger black community. This is not a young adult novel, rather it is a masterwork in the too-young-to-know-better genre as Niru struggles with how to navigate a world that is designed to suppress his desires.
Speak No Evil
By Uzodinma Iweala
Illustration by Naomi Ushiyama.