Q&A: Author DK Nnuro talks joy, misery and debut novel ‘What Napoleon Could Not Do’

DK Nnuro in conversation with Dr. Tameka Cage Conley

Prairie Lights at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8

DK Nnuro poses for a portrait at the Stanley Museum of Art in Iowa City on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Nnuro is a writer, educator and the curator of special projects at the Stanley. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

Opportunity and struggle, promise and disappointment, joy and misery. DK Nnuro’s debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do, explores these dualities through the eyes of Jacob and Belinda Nti, Ghanaian-born siblings who aspire to move to the U.S. but have vastly different experiences with the process.

What Napoleon Could Not Do comes out on Feb. 7. DK Nnuro will give a reading at Prairie Lights at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8, followed by a conversation with friend and fellow writer Tameka Cage Conley.

Nnuro, a Writers’ Workshop alum, sat down with Little Village to chat about the book and the joys and miseries of writing it.

You’re about to become a published author. How does it feel?

It’s nerve racking. You know, one of my mentors told me this would be, in addition to it being a very exciting time, this will probably be one of the worst times of my life. Because there’s so much anticipation. There’s so much nervousness. There is… it’s out of your hands. Whether or not people are going to love the book is out of my control. Whether or not the book is gonna get reviewed is out of my control. Where the book is going to go in the world is out of my control, and I’m such a control freak. So, it’s, you know, as much as it is a proud time, I have to say that it is more of a nerve wracking, and also, I have to be honest, miserable time.

Why miserable?

There is a kind of misery that is inherent with trying to write a novel, right? I think every writer will admit to this, which is that it’s not fun. It’s not fun. It’s tedious, and it’s painful. Especially because you have to go through multiple iterations of the work … So, there’s a kind of misery that comes with it. Of course, there’s also a kind of joy … We only keep going because the days are more good than they are bad. But this is a very special kind of misery. Because it came with my having control over the book. But there is a special kind of misery that I am feeling now that is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t have control over it.

Paint me a picture of your journey with this book. How did it come to be?

It partly began in response to one of my favorite novels. It’s called Atonement by Ian McEwan. In 2015, I read it again for the umpteenth time, and after that read, I finally realized that there was something about that novel that would not work in a Ghanaian setting. The conceit of the novel is there’s this 13-year-old girl … she observes something. And, you know, she tells adults what she has observed. And not only is she listened to, but she’s believed. And I just thought, There’s no way this conceit will work in a novel set in Ghana. Because in Ghana, not only are children not to be listened to, but [they’re] certainly not to be believed. And I thought, as much as I love this novel, to some degree, I need to challenge it. I really believe this: you challenge that which you feel passionately about. And I feel passionately about that novel.

So, I was doing a thought experiment. I thought, All right, what are the factors, if you will, that will allow a Ghanaian child to not only be listened to, but be believed? And that’s where the novel really started.

I finished a draft of it in the spring of 2019, a draft that was 500-plus pages. And one of the joys of this process has been having two women in particular in my life. Margot Livesey — who is a fiction writer, a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and also my dear mentor — saw me essentially cradling this stack in the halls of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was meekly cradling this draft. She’s like, “Give it here. Give it here.” And she read five drafts of that book. She would give me wonderful feedback. We’d go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. She was so committed. And to just have her in my life is among the greatest joys I will ever experience in my life.

And this is also true of Tameka [Cage Conley]. She did the same thing. She went as far as to cook me food every time we met to discuss a new draft of the novel. She would cook me these sumptuous meals and I was just like, “Oh my god.” You know, their commitment, their care, their love, is a joy … It’s such a particular joy. I don’t know how anybody would be able to let me feel that ever again. That part of the journey constantly brings so much joy to me.

Joy and misery is a duality that you have encountered in your writing process, but there are similar dualities — opportunity and struggle, promise and disappointment — in the book. Was it a conscious choice to explore those?

What I wanted to do in this novel, as far as the characters are concerned, was to render them as human as possible because they are … because all of these characters are based on people, real life stories I have heard, real life people that I know. I wanted to do justice to them by rendering them as human as possible … These are all dualities that I’ve experienced in my life. Right? So, I could employ them and have the characters experience them. Because that is the reality of life where, you know, joy and misery are next door neighbors … Joy can easily slip into misery’s house, and misery can easily slip into joy’s house. They are permanent next-door neighbors. So, it was … in the effort to render these characters as human as possible. Of course, I had to make sure that I was having them experience real life, dualities.


There are many wonderful, complex characters in this book. Which character resonates with you the most?

There is one character named Patricia. She is the wife of one of the main character’s, but they have never met. They have been married for five years, but they have never met, which I find such an interesting and a very true dynamic actually, because of immigration. I mean, I am married, and my wife lives in Ghana, and I live here in the U.S.

The novel opens during the traditional divorce ceremony of Jacob and Patricia, after five years of marriage where they’ve never met each other. And that is as a result of their living in different countries, and Patricia’s inability to come to Ghana, and Jacob’s inability to travel to the U.S. So, why does Patricia resonate with me? I just love her fucking commitment. She is such a committed and resilient woman, something that I wish I had. I wish I had her capacity for love. You know, she only decides to divorce Jacob because she has tried everything. Five years, five years of staying committed to this man. She has tried everything and she’s at her wit’s end.

But her commitment, her resilience, and her capacity for love is something that I think everyone should aspire to. As foolish as it may make her seem, as foolish as it may make her … Because I think sometimes that level of commitment, her level of commitment, can be objectively viewed as foolishness. It really can. But at the same time, I think it is a level of commitment that we can all aspire to. And can also, not just aspire to, but can achieve.

So, there’s things to aspire to in this book. What do you want readers to take away from What Napoleon Could Not Do?

There are three main characters, each of them uniquely pursuing their American dream. And because of the conditions of their lives, their pursuit of the American dream is very unique. So, you get these three different perspectives … What do I want readers to take with regard to the American dream? It’s hard, it’s hard to achieve it. It’s very hard. It’s very hard. And as sappy as this sounds, I think, you know … we are in a country where the topic of immigration is so controversial, the topic of, “Who is American?”

All of these characters are based on people I know, their toil and their struggle in pursuit of the American [Dream], right? And as ugly as sometimes people have to get to pursue the American dream, I want people to remember that … these are first and foremost human beings, who just want a better life. That includes happiness, rich love … and there’s a way that they, rightly so, decided that an association with America is going to give them all of these things. Sometimes they make not-so-kosher choices. Sometimes they make certain illegal choices. But there’s a desperation there. Desperation drives people into certain choices that they otherwise would not make.

I want readers to read my novel, and at the very least, cultivate some kind of compassion for people who don’t have immediate access to the American dream and are just trying to get a little bit. Just a little bit … [The] people behind these stories of pursuing the American dream … they’re human beings and really all they want is fucking happiness.

It’s safe to say the publishing of this book is a dream achieved for you. What’s the next dream, what’s next for you?

I don’t know. I don’t know what the next thing is. I just, I am ready for this — again, to employ your word — this dual ride of misery and hopefully lots and lots and lots of joy. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what’s to come, because as I said, it’s completely out of my control. Completely out of my control. And I just have no idea. But I am ready for the ride. I am ready for the ride. I hope it’s more joy than misery. I do. I will say that. I sure do hope it’s more joy than misery. But I am ready for whatever the world has for me with regard to What Napoleon Could Not Do.