The Child Soldier Narrator and the (De) construction of Community in Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation
Description: Criticism on child soldiers in Africa has tended to focus on reader response theories in which Western readers “take up” the plight of the child soldier as a way to validate their own privileged positions as humanitarians and as human rights advocates. While this criticism provides a useful way of understanding problems related to circulation of these texts outside of Africa, it fails to account for a more detailed understanding of how child soldier narrators use their tales as a way to attempt to make sense of the horrors of war. Analyzing the construction and deconstruction of community in Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation reveals that community is a key lens through Iweala’s child soldier narrator reads his own wartime experience. This focus on community acts as way to highlight the individual child soldier-as-subject, thus serving as a protestation of typified and reductive literary interpretations of child soldier narrators. The critical questions I will explore in my essay are: How do the use of both flashbacks and linear narration operate as ways to reveal how community functions in the novel? How does the narrator read forms of “imposed” or “forced” community? How does the construction and deconstruction of community in Beasts constitute a critique of generalized, typified readings of child soldier narrators?
Coundouriotis, Eleni. “The Child Soldier Narrative and the Problem of Arrested Historicization.” Journal of Human Rights 9 (2010): 191-206. Web. 26 March 2016.
Coundouriotis claims that the problem with recent child soldier narratives is that they have often been framed and read within the confines of a human rights discourse in which the child narrator becomes a victim rather than a subject who possesses agency. Unlike older African war novels, which have an engagement with history that allows subjects to engage in political resistance and social activism, child soldier narratives suffer from an “arrested historicization” that inhibits the possibility of future political action for the narrator. In the child soldier narrative, the narrator is reduced to mere victim who can only recover agency through healing. Coundouritis shows the need for a return to history within child soldier narratives through an analysis of recent African texts that critique the arrested historicization of the child soldier.
Harris, Aisha and Uzodinma Iweala. “Beasts of No Nation Author Uzodinma Iweala on Storytelling and Netflix’s Daring Release Plan.” Slate. 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 1 April 2016.
In this interview with Aisha Harris, Uzodinma Iweala discusses both the process of writing his 2005 novel Beasts of No Nation and the adaptation of Beasts into a 2015 feature film by Cary Fukunaga. The interview includes Iweala’s thoughts on the debate over who has the “right” to tell a specific story. Harris also questions Iweala on Netflix’s distribution of the film. The interview reveals two important things about media circulation in Africa: 1) Viewing media at movie theatres is not as common in Africa as in the US, and 2) Netflix, the platform through which the film version of Beasts is being released, is not available in any African country. Harris reports that Netflix will offer services in South Africa in 2016.
Honwana, Alcinda. Child Soldiers in Africa. Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2007. Print.
Honwana’s book is a case study of the experiences of children’s involvement in armed conflict in Mozambique and Angola. Honwana reaches beyond studying only children engaged in open combat to include children impacted by warfare in other ways, such as those orphaned by war, sexually victimized by combatants, and those whose villages and communities have been destroyed due to war. Honwana argues that that while child soldiers have existed for a long time, child soldiering has been treated as a new phenomenon only because of changed understandings of warfare and childhood. She also makes the claim that child soldiers are not a “homogenous” group of helpless victims, but are capable of expressing their own agency (4). Finally, Honwana examines the gendered and sexualized aspects of warfare and the importance of both social development and local practices in developing strategies to reintegrate children of war back into civilian society (4).
Iweala, Uzodinma. Beasts of No Nation. New York and London: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
Mackey, Allison. “Troubling Humanitarian Consumption: Reframing Relationality in African Child Soldier Narratives.” Research in African Literatures 44.4 (Winter 2013): 99-122. Web. 25 March 2016.
Mackey states that child soldier narratives participate in transnational discourses that use indirect strategies to implicate readers into the web of responsibility for human rights injustice. Mackey’s main claim is that although these narratives participate in a “humanitarian consumption” framework that often causes Western readers to empathize with child soldier narrators, it is these indirect strategies that allow the authors to develop a connection or relation with the reader that exceeds a simple humanitarian framework. Instead, these strategies are used to get the reader to think about their own position as a consumer of these texts. This can lead to moving beyond an empathetic response and into political action, or, what Mackey calls “an engaged form of global ethics” (119).
Moynagh, Maureen. “Human Rights, Child-Soldier Narratives, and the Problem of Form.” Research in African Literatures 42.4: (Winter 2011). 39-59. 26 March 2016.
Moynagh posits that child soldier memoirs and novels make an important intervention in human rights discourse. Human rights discourse sets up a binary between “the politics of life,” represented by the human rights activist and the “politics” of death, represented by the war machines that the child soldiers fight for. Moynagh claims that the child soldier figure challenges and disrupts this binary, making the child soldier text a useful genre in the negotiation and protestation of debates on human rights discourse.
Schultheis, Alexandra. “African Child Soldiers and Humanitarian Consumption.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 20.1 (2008): 31–40. Web. 31 March 2016.
Schulteis’s argument is that Western consumption of African child soldier narratives is implicated in a politics of “humanitarian consumption.” In such a politics, the consumer’s responses to the text construct the child soldier as a “social and military aberration[n]” whose only hope for reintegration into society is through humanitarian help (par.5). Such a politics refuses to see child soldiers as victims of a system of inequalities that must be addressed on a more broad-scale “structural” level (par.5). Schulteis shows how the documentary film Invisible Children: Rough Cut and Ismael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, two non-fictional child soldier narratives, reinforce a Western politics of humanitarian consumption. Two novels, Chris Abani’s Song for Night and Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation , serve as examples that contest both the humanitarian consumption narrative and its constructions of the African child soldier.