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DK Nnuro on his debut novel 'What Napoleon Could Not Do'


Jacob Nti envies his sister, Belinda, because she's done - as their father puts it - what Napoleon could not do. She went to college and law school in the United States and married a wealthy man, Wilder, who was Black and from Texas, while Jacob longs to come to Virginia and join his wife, Patricia. But green cards are hard to come by. "What Napoleon Could Not Do" is the title of DK Nnuro's debut novel. He was born in Ghana, has taught novel writing at the University of Iowa and is currently curator of special projects at the university's Stanley Museum of Art. Mr. Nnuro joins us now from Iowa City.

Thank you so much for being with us.

DK NNURO: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You have this trio, Jacob, Belinda - brother and sister - and then Wilder. What does living in the U.S. mean to Jacob and Belinda, growing up in Ghana?

NNURO: You know, when I first conceived of these three characters, I thought about the writer Jelani Cobb, who says that there is a fundamental dissonance in the term African-American. The term represents two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen. And he suggests that perhaps the two words, African and American, be separated by an ellipsis to signify enduring tensions between Black people with immediate African ancestry and those without. I very much believe that my novel resides in the ellipsis. And so for Jacob, being in America is the ultimate goal. The same is true for his sister, Belinda. She has arrived in America, but America has not fully embraced her yet.

SIMON: She keeps getting turned away, turned down for a green card.

NNURO: And despite her best efforts, despite the efforts of her husband, Wilder Thomas, who is 30 years her senior, a Black Vietnam War vet, they keep getting turned down. Now, ultimately, she has to make certain decisions when she comes to a crossroads. She asks herself, how long can I really endure this fight when this - you know, the most powerful nation in the world keeps saying no to me?

SIMON: Wilder - whom, by the way, I found a totally enthralling character - a Texan in all ways, including a vast gun collection - he sees his country differently, doesn't he?

NNURO: He does. You know, his experience with racism in this country has been both literal and, I guess to some degree, paranormal. It has shaped him in a way that very much contradicts the desires of his wife and the desires of his wife's brother. He really doesn't understand Belinda's desperation to be accepted in America because for him, America will never fully embrace Black bodies.

SIMON: I have to ask the author a blunt question. Do Wilder and Belinda love each other? Or is it something else?

NNURO: I do think they grow to love each other. There are two marriages in my novel that began as marriages of convenience, but I do very much believe that they evolve into marriages of real love.

SIMON: Belinda tells Wilder - I made a point of writing down the phrase - at one point that being American means being able. What does she mean by that?

NNURO: There is a certain level of inconvenience in Ghana, and I can speak to this because since having relocated to the U.S. in 1998 at the age of 11, I've had one foot firmly placed in Ghana and one foot firmly placed in the U.S., and that's because my mother has always lived in Ghana. I am still very much a Ghanaian. And I'm also very much tuned into one particular desire of a lot of Ghanaians, which is that they see this inconvenience that is persistent in Ghana. It is difficult to get anything done because it is just an inconvenient place, and America is heaven. And this - while Belinda has also spent a great deal of time in the U.S., she's still very much a Ghanaian woman in certain respects. So when she says being American means being able, really what she's talking about is the ability to rid herself of that inconvenience.

SIMON: Teaching in Iowa, what do you tell a student who comes up to you and says, Professor Nnuro, how do I write a novel?

NNURO: (Laughter) You know, funny you should ask. I'm actually teaching a class on homages, and my novel really started as an exercise in appropriation in response to Ian McEwan's masterful novel, "Atonement." And "Atonement's" conceit is that there's a 13-year-old girl, and she observes something between her sister and a young man which she misinterprets as something more troubling than it really is.

SIMON: Yes, it has real human consequences.

NNURO: It has real human consequences. But what is interesting - this conceit would not work in Ghana because in Ghana, not only are children not supposed to be listened to, they're certainly not supposed to be believed. So my novel really began in response to that. The questions I was asking myself were, what will the conditions have to be for this conceit to work in Ghana? And that gave rise to a character named Alfred, who is an 8-year-old boy who, by necessity - he serves as the interpreter between his deaf and mute parents and the rest of the household. So by necessity, Alfred has to be heard. Alfred has to be believed. And that is where the novel began.

So when students ask me - because I'm teaching this course on homages - I ask them, what is your favorite novel, or what is your favorite short story? Why? What about it do you love? I unearth these answers out of them. Then we begin to conceive of how they might be able to respond to this beloved story or beloved novel of theirs.

SIMON: Totally personal question. You like Iowa?

NNURO: You know, Iowa City has been so good to me. I don't think I would have been able to complete this novel anywhere else in the world. You know, it's the only place in the world where you walk down the street, you tell somebody you are a writer, and they just believe you. They don't ask you, what have you published? They don't interrogate you. They make you feel legitimate. I could step out of my house and encounter people who made me feel like a legitimate writer without having a single publication to my name - truly kept me going. And that is why Iowa City will always, and continues to, have a very special place in my - I mean, I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm still here.

SIMON: DK Nnuro's debut novel, "What Napoleon Could Not Do."

Thank you so much for being with us.

NNURO: Thank you so much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURS AND 9TH WONDER SONG, "THE ANIMAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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