The best place to be you – Guest Post by Olumide Popoola

The blurb for Olumide Popoola’s new novel When We Speak of Nothing says:

Best mates Karl and Abu who are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local “wannabe” thugs just for being different. When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known. Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.

My review will be up in a few weeks along with an interview with Popoola. In the meantime, do check out Eric’s excellent review over on Lonesome Reader.

To kick off a week long blog tour for the book (details of which are below), Popoola explains her reasons for setting a novel looking at legal and societal acceptance of LGBT people in both the UK and Nigeria.

The best place to be you

A few years ago the BBC ran a programme called ‘The world’s worst place to be gay?’. The programme presenter travelled to Uganda which was on the brink of passing a new law that could have introduced the death penalty for being gay, the so called Kill The Gays Bill. In the end an amended version was approved, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2014. Nigeria has its own version and introduced the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in January 2014. The BBC programme looked in detail at the reasons that made the Kill The Gays Bill possible, especially the connection to right-wing, fundamentalist evangelists from the US, who are using Uganda (and other places) as their playground for playing god.

I found the framing of the narrative unnecessary, difficult, especially with the title. It is too close to the self-congratulating notion that the West is progressive – ‘see, all the marriage equality laws we have now?’ – while in this assumption the global South is portrayed as archaic, queerphobic by nature, and the worst place to be when you live your life outside the heteronormative status quo. No mistaking, these anti-LGBT laws are horrible and do real life threatening damage. They legitimise queer- and transphobic attacks and criminalise sexuality and gender. They need to be contested and fought because they infringe on human rights.

On the other hand they do not tell you who will accept you, or where you might feel safe in your day to day life. And laws are not always a reflection of the cultural possibilities.

This type of framing – The Worst Place To Be Gay – also erases cultural histories and opportunities.

Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads was my writing patron for When we Speak of Nothing. Esu is widely accepted to be androgynous, simultaneously a beautiful woman and a potent man. If you thought through the mythology from a contemporary standpoint, with current discussions around gender in mind, it is easy to see Esu as a possible patron for trans persons.

In When We Speak of Nothing I reverse the notion that law equals acceptance. Karl, the trans protagonist, has a much harder time finding widespread acceptance in London, than in Nigeria. In Nigeria Mena, the cook at the bottom of the apartment complex Karl stays in, makes links to other Nigerians who have openly lived gender as the continuum it is. She references Charly Boy, a musician and entertainer who wore women’s makeup and hairstyles. And Area Scatter, a 1960s musician widely described as cross-dressing but  who allegedly, by his own accounts, went into the wilderness to return seven month later as a woman.

When we look at how far we have come in the UK, celebrating 50 years of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is good to look at the whole picture: hate crimes do exists, even in cool urban places like London. And Nigeria, like Uganda, has a thriving LGBT scene. Perhaps underground but nonetheless. There is activism and advocacy, scholarly work and artist expression.

It was important for me to show in When We Speak of Nothing that understanding can come easily, despite horrible laws. To show how complex it is, understanding and love, how we cannot know who will embrace us the most. Even if on paper we are in the wrong place.

5 Graphic novels for International Women’s Day

Giveaway now closed.

iwd-logo-landscapeeps

Happy International Women’s Day. Hurrah for all the brilliant women out there, yes, that includes you. To help celebrate the day, I’ve gone against convention and invited a man on the blog. I know, it’s outrageous. What happened was this: Will Rycroft, the brilliant Community Manager at Vintage Books, who some of you will know from the Vintage Vlog, suggested we do a vlog for International Women’s Day. So we did and you can watch it here. On it, I recommend to Will five fantastic books by women writers from marginalised backgrounds. In return, I asked Will for a recommendation or two as well…

Before we even start, this post isn’t ‘Will mansplains graphic novels’! When I was chatting with Naomi about International Women’s Day she pointed out that in her reading of female authors she had a small blind spot: graphic novels and this got me excited. I love graphic novels and if there’s one thing worth celebrating in the world of graphic novels it’s the fact that female writers are producing some of the most fantastic work and that the UK in particular has several female artists worth getting very excited about. Choosing just five books to put before you today was tough, there are so many that I’d like to mention, but I hope this selection gives a nice variety of tone and style and will introduce you to authors you may not have read before. It goes without saying (although here I am saying it) that Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel classic that would fit the bill here but after Emma Watson chose it for Our Shared Shelf, her feminist book club, I figured it’s one you may have read already. But if you haven’t, then you must, it’s brilliant.

Heathcote

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Bryan Talbot, Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Bryan Talbot is the godfather of the British graphic novel scene and, working together with his wife, Mary, has been producing graphic biographies or histories to tell the stories of lesser-known figures. Sally Heathcote may be fictional but she meets plenty of the real figures from the Suffragette movement in this book which puts you right in the entre of women’s fight for equality. You can hear the authors talking about the book in this edition of the Vintage Podcast.

Fun Home

Fun Home
Alison Bechdel

You may recognise the name Bechdel from the Bechdel Test, which a movie only passes if it features two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man – as featured in her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For below.

Bechdel Test

Given that, it may seem strange to highlight this graphic memoir about her father but Fun Home is a brilliant exploration of family dynamics, homosexuality and the literature that makes us. For anyone struggling to tell their family or others about their own sexuality this is a must read. And if you love it then there’s her follow-up, Are You My Mother?, to enjoy afterwards, telling the other side of the family story.

Hero

The One Hundred Nights of Hero
Isabel Greenberg

There is nothing not to like about this wonderful feminist fairy tale. Beautifully illustrated and featuring the story of two women united in their love for each other, for storytelling, and their resilience against the plotting of dastardly men, it’s a joy from first page to last. Absolutely perfect for YA readers too; it takes its inspiration from Scheherazade and the storytelling of 1001 Nights to weave a patchwork that involves love in many forms but perhaps most strongly that of female friendship.

Modan

The Property
Rutu Modan (trans. Jessica Cohen)

Some people don’t like the term graphic novel, it sounds a bit pretentious, but sometimes a graphic work contains exactly the kind of complexity that you would expect to find in a traditional novel. This book does exactly that whilst also retaining a simplicity of style that makes it easy to enjoy. A woman travels to Warsaw with her grandmother to reclaim a property lost during WWII. There’s humour to be had with officious bureaucracy and meddlesome relatives but there is also a touching secret from the past, as well as a burgeoning relationship for our young narrator. To bring such a light touch to important themes and history marks Modan out as a uniquely skilful artist and writer.

Thesis

Notes on a Thesis
Tiphaine Rivière (trans, Francesca Barrie)

If you have ever struggled to hand in an assignment, dissertation or even just your tax return on time then you are going to cringe in recognition when reading this hilarious and painful tale of one woman aiming for a PhD. Beginning with enthusiasm but slowly bending under the weight, the labour and the obstacles of modern academia, we follow our heroine as she desperately tries to complete her work on Kafka. Almost everyone will recognise their own struggles here and it’s the kind of book that may make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

All five of these books feature in this article, which also highlights five more classic feminist texts.

A huge thanks to Will for introducing me – and maybe you too – to these five graphic novels. I’ve been reading my way through them and they’re absolutely wonderful. Although, Notes on A Thesis is so accurate, I had to have a lie down in a darkened room after reading it.

But that’s not all…Vintage have kindly given me a copy of each of these five graphic novels to give away. To win, all you have to do is leave a comment below saying which graphic novel you’d like to win and why. You can enter for more than one book if you wish. The giveaway is U.K. only (sorry) and will close at 5pm U.K. time on Sunday 12th March. Winners will be chosen at random and notified via email.

Giveaway winners

I allocated everyone a number, in order of posting, for each book they asked to be considered for and put them through a random number generator, which came up with the following winners:

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette – Anarmchairbythesea
Fun House – yatiekates
The One Hundred Nights of Hero – snoakes7001
The Property – Rebecca Foster
Notes on a Thesis – Joseph

Congratulations to all the winners; check your email for what to do next. Thank you to everyone who entered, I hope you discovered something new and wonderful to read regardless.

Thanks to Will and Vintage Books for the guest post and the giveaway.