When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.

 

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.