In Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation, Agu’s diction immediately sticks out. While foreign at first, Agu’s narration quickly becomes easy to understand. The voice Iweala has created for Agu, though critical in order to convey the tragedies felt by African child soldiers, is unrealistically profound for a young boy. Thus, while Iweala has done a fantastic job of showing readers the emotions a child like Agu would feel, while doing so, he has forced Agu to think and make revelations that feel artificial. Iweala therefore included the diction as a necessary method to make Agu’s character seem more authentic; without it, the book would become too disingenuous for readers.
Agu’s storytelling, especially given his age and educational background, is unreasonably advanced and eloquent. From page one, Agu utilizes descriptive prose and similes flawlessly: “I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin… feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on. (1)” This sort of account is too advanced for an approximately seven-year-old boy, especially considering the high-stress nature of the situations Agu recounts. While it’s natural to use some metaphors organically, the frequency with which Agu perfectly describes his emotions with universally understood analogies is, frankly, jarringly inauthentic. Metaphorical devices aside, the incredible detail with which Agu describes his experiences, especially those from the past, is dubious. For example, when Agu thinks back to the few days leading up to the start of the war, he details the scenes very carefully. He remembers laying down and having trouble falling asleep because “everywhere was itching too much like ant is biting me. (67).” While it’s understandable to vividly remember some specific aspects of a tragic or life-changing event, this scene is just one example of many in which Agu recalls a minute, almost irrelevant detail, and is able to come up with a relatable way to describe the feeling; even when Agu is killing a man, he’s able to “[hear] the bird flapping their wing… [and hear] the mosquito buzzing in [his] ear. (21)” Agu is quite literally killing a man for the first time at around age seven, yet he’s able to flesh out details such as the sounds the surrounding birds and bugs are making. This attentiveness, again, would certainly surprise readers.
Extending further, Agu frequently makes profound conclusions—far outstripping what a typical grown human, let alone an adolescent, could come to. While Agu is no typical child, there are several occasions in which his thinking far exceeds normalcy. After Commandant dies, Agu makes a realization: “I am wanting to be throwing gun away, but if I am throwing gun away, then Rambo will be throwing me away because gun is more important than me. (129)” At age seven, considering how slowly male brains grow, Agu would likely not have stopped to consider the worth of the gun, especially in comparison to his own self-worth. This cause-and-effect thinking Agu displays shows tremendous maturity—perhaps too much, as psychology dictates that a young man’s brain require at least a dozen more years to consistently avoid rash decisions. In addition, Agu wrestles with his own morality early in the book, justifying himself internally: “If I am doing all of this good thing and now only doing what soldier is supposed to be doing, then how can I be bad boy? (31)” Again, for a young child to be deep in self-reflection about his own morality feels inauthentic. While it’s plausible for a child to briefly consider whether or not his actions were right or wrong, it’s harder to believe that Agu would truly have pondered whether, at his core, he’s a good boy or not. Lastly, some of Agu’s musings are deeply profound: “You can be walking on road and finding that you are swimming in river. Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing. (57)” This level of thinking is akin to a philosopher, not a seven year old. To readers, statements like these spur skepticism—would Agu really think like that?
The diction and syntax Iweala implements are critical to maintaining am authentic feel in the novel. Agu is young and uneducated beyond elementary school, but he acts and thinks like someone far older. Regardless of how many horrors Agu has experienced, the level of thinking he displays is simply disingenuous. To alleviate these issues, Iweala selected a diction that showcased Agu’s inability to speak perfect English. This sort of childish syntax has, in the novel Beasts of No Nation, made it clear throughout the story that despite what Agu says, he’s still a young boy. For example, when describing Strika stepping on glass, Agu states: “Strika is stepping on piece of breaking-up bottle glass. (130)” This feels very authentic to a reader; an uneducated boy should have trouble with articles and verbs, and Agu’s struggles humanize him. In addition, Agu’s failure to say broken instead of breaking-up adds a credible feel to Agu’s character. In fact, on first glance, the way Agu speaks and thinks make it easy to pass over the wonderful prose he presents within his narration. Thus, Agu’s grammatical errors make it more believable when he describes and thinks about his life just like a full-grown novelist would (comparing an itch to a fire ant, for example). Certainly, the diction with which Agu speaks and thinks somewhat effectively obscures the advanced way he thinks and acts; without Agu’s struggles with English, readers might be too incredulous.
All in all, Iweala has created a complicated character in Agu. While Agu is, on one hand, a young child who has trouble with grammar, Agu is also a profound, mature solider. This duality is certainly hard to internalize at parts, but Iweala has done a good job with the balance. While the diction is unique and helps make Agu’s voice feel more authentic, it certainly isn’t a perfect solution; Agu’s character is simply too profound and makes revelations far beyond the abilities of any young child. However, when considering Iweala’s motivations for writing this novel – to share the accounts of child soldiers and therefore raise awareness and spread empathy – Agu’s voice becomes necessary. Iweala wanted to include as much as he could in order to encompass as broad of an experience as he could. And, though the kids likely didn’t state it outright, Iweala could see the pain in their eyes and through their body language and could therefore transfer the emotions he felt into revelations Agu made. Thus, the inclusion of discerning prose and insightful conclusions was critical to the message Iweala wanted to convey. And, in order to balance the startlingly adult-like thinking of Agu, Iweala was forced to adjust his syntax and diction—ensuring that readers remember that although Agu is only a child, his narration should be taken seriously.