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.