What Napoleon Could Not Do, a literary novel written by Derek (DK) Nnuro, curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, recently received a unique honor when President Barack Obama named it to his 2023 summer reading list.
Nnuro, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who also teaches writing at Iowa, shares more about being named to the list, what brought him to the university, and why he stays.
Q: What was your reaction to being named to this list?
A: Let me put it this way: The day it was announced, my mother received a call from one of the principals of the elementary school I went to in Ghana. They were looking to congratulate me and wanted my phone number. That’s Barack Obama’s reach! I wrote a literary novel that demands a lot from the reader. But I think it rewards the patient reader. To know that the ultimate reader felt rewarded enough to tell the world about it—what greater joy is there for a writer?
Q: How did you find out?
A: Instagram, believe it or not. I was in a Zoom meeting when I spied an alert on my phone. I immediately threw decorum to the wind, interrupted whoever was speaking, and came out with it. My colleagues are incredibly supportive. Lauren Lessing, my boss, came out of her chair like she had just won the lottery.
Q: Did you speak with President Obama?
A: I wish! I have been shameless about letting some important people know that if it is a matter of giving up a limb, I am game. Give me some time with him.
Q: Have you read any of President Obama’s books?
A: All of them! Anything less would be the height of negligence, considering how much I admire him.
Q: What is your assessment of President Obama’s ability as a writer?
A: He’s a superb prose stylist. He strikes me as someone who meditates on his sentences in pursuit of a spiritual elegance. Spiritual elegance. Is that tautology? See, the man is so good that to match his excellence I find myself questioning my own wording. 😊
Q: Are you working on a next book?
A: I am. And I am a writer who is not afraid to share: It is set in Clayton County, Iowa! I have it in my mind that there is a great Iowa novel to be written by an African immigrant living in the state. I desperately want that person to be me.
Q: What brought you to the University of Iowa?
A: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in 2014. Best decision I have ever made!
Q: What is special about the university that differs from others you have studied or worked at?
A: The arts ecosystem on this campus is peerless. Other places will tout this or that, but we can always one-up them. You have a great creative writing program? Well, we have several. You have a great art school? Fine, but was yours conferring degrees to the likes of Elizabeth Catlett, a Black woman and the first person to receive an MFA in sculpture, in 1940?!?! And don’t even get me started on the new Stanley Museum of Art. Let’s just say the evidence speaks for itself.
Q: Talk a little about the opportunity to be involved in both writing and art at Iowa …
A: I am the embodiment of this arts ecosystem; specifically, the intersection of the literary and visual arts. One of the greatest honors of my life is the opportunity I have been given at the Stanley to bring this to bear as the editor In A Time of Witness, the collection catalogue we are publishing on Sept. 22 (you can preorder here: https://uipress.uiowa.edu/books/time-witness). It features 31 writers—alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, International Writing Program, and Literary Translation Program—who contributed original literary responses to artworks they chose from the Stanley’s permanent collection.