Book Review: ‘Speak No Evil’, by Uzodinma Iweala

arlon James said that ‘Speak No Evil is the rarest of novels: the one you start out just to read, then end up sinking so deeply into it, seeing yourself so clearly in it, that the novel starts reading you.’ James certainly hit the nail on the head with that description and accurately articulated my feelings about it. The New Yorker summarises the plot, which spins around the protagonist Niru’s life, as the story of a well-to-do young adult who ‘is the child of affluent Nigerians, and lives in a posh Washington, D.C., suburb. Niru’s father drives a Range Rover, wears a Rolex, and likes to tell people that Ted Koppel is one of their neighbors. Niru goes to the sort of private school where the kids have a dress code and make big plans. A dutiful son, even if he feels permanently eclipsed by his older brother, he gets good grades, runs track, and attends church every Sunday. His is, at the novel’s beginning, “an uncomplicated life with my Harvard early admission and two proud parents.” By the end of the first chapter, however, he’s rebuffed a pass from his best friend, Meredith, and confessed that he thinks he’s gay.’

Coming of Age and Coming Out

‘Speak No Evil’ is more than the classic ‘coming out-story’, it is a short yet multi-layered book that touches upon a variety of the most pertinent and prevalent issues of our time. One of them is, of course, homosexuality and the consequences people can face within African, and religious families. This book painfully depicts the already distant relationship Niru has with his father, a relationship that is effectively broken once Niru involuntarily comes out to his parents through his father’s discovery of implicating texts and notifications on his phone.

Africans in the Diaspora

Through Niru’s relationship with his father and his mother, Iweala explores the problems many Diasporans face outside of their native countries. While Niru’s parents’ generation is still very much attached to their country of origin, it has given birth to a new generation of Africans who identify as much, if not more, with their American (or Western) homes as with their African ones. ‘Speak No Evil’ accurately and painstakingly depicts how a generation can drift away from the next due to apparently insurmountable cultural differences.

If homophobia and cultural clashes were not enough, racism, race relations, police brutality, and the stark differences in life experience between white young adults and their black counterparts are also mentioned, explored, and used to punch a searing, aching hole into the narrative.

This book packs more than just one punch, and it’s almost too short for all its greatness and varied facets. It’s a manifesto for our times, relevant to both black and white readers, pertinent to Diasporans and Africans at home, and an important read for a whole panoply of readers of all ages, races, and nationalities across the world.


SPOILER and a personal note:

Reading this book reminded me of the importance of awareness.

If you are white and have black friends, spouses, family members, acquaintances please remember this:

When you, as a white person, are around black people, especially in public, that there are some things you just cannot do without putting their lives at risk. 

Their innocent acts may be misconstrued, regular actions may be seen as threats, funny moments can be perceived as the opposite. Black people are not afforded the benefit of the doubt by white societies or law enforcement. Please, remember that and be aware of not putting them into a position in which their actions can be misunderstood.

What happened between Meredith and Niru did not need police action, two friends were having a squabble – but Niru was perceived as a threat. If he had been white, I can assure you that the situation would have ended differently. Meredith put him in that situation. (I said what I said)

So please, be aware of the fact that not everyone is treated equally, and try not to put black people in danger by assuming that they are afforded the same rights and treatment as you are. 

I work on this every single day.