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.

 

My Second Blogiversary and #TBR20 with a Twist

Today, The Writes of Woman is two years old. Like all anniversaries, it’s made me reflect on what’s gone well over the last two years and what I’d like to do next with the blog.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who’ve read, commented on and shared blog posts. The number of hits on the site quadrupled in 2014, which is huge, and I’m grateful to you all for taking the time to visit.

In 2014, I read 136 books, 97% of which were by women. It wasn’t my intention to only read books by women when I began the blog but they certainly dominated my reading last year!

When I began the blog, I wrote about my reasons for doing so. One of them was that every weekend the writer Linda Grant would tweet the number of reviews of books by women in the broadsheets. It was always significantly fewer than those reviewed that were written by men. I didn’t state it at the time, but I always intended that this blog should be for all women writers.

Over Christmas and the New Year, as people were writing about their year in reading, the writer Nikesh Shukla commented:

While it was nice to see how #readwomen2014 made people reflect on how many books by women they read last year, I did notice that no one was analysing how many books by non-white authors they read. They probably didn’t dare. 

I calculated mine – an appalling 10%.

I then started to wonder about other groups. I’d focused on women in translation, surely that would be better: 11%. LGBTQIA? 6%.

It was then that I started to consider why I was excluding these groups of people. I wasn’t doing it intentionally, I’ve always considered my feminism to be inclusive – I’m a working class woman (yes, you could argue that my education puts me in the middle class category but as Caitlin Moran and Barbara Ellen have argued, I don’t see why the middle class should claim me just because I’m university educated), why would I want to exclude anyone else?

Then I decided to look at the books I read and see how many would be considered working class literature: 25%. And there were my unconscious biases writ large.

Three things happened in quick succession: the first was Nikesh Shukla’s comment; the second was that one of the consequences of losing my last bit of regular paid work was that I realised I couldn’t afford to spend money on books until June, and the third was that Celeste Ng wrote an article for Salon about ‘our female Asian American writer blind spot’.

Losing my book budget meant that I began to consider doing #TBR20. If you haven’t come across this idea, have a read of the post by Eva Stalker which kicked it off. The idea is that you read twenty books from your to be read pile before buying any more. It’s enough to bring a book buying addict out in hives. In that post, Eva confesses that her book buying is a result of existential angst:

Like all anxieties it had mortality at its root. Aside from the instant gratification of buying something new, what I bought had a certain intent. I was buying what I wanted to have read. I was always looking for the next thing, the next great thing that would mean everything.  

A conversation about this on Twitter led me to consider why I buy so many books.

I know how many books I own, I catalogue them, but I’ve refused to work out how many are unread for several years now. Last week, I made an educated estimate based on a sample of one bookcase; at the speed I read last year, it would take me approximately twenty-three years to read all the unread books in the house. That’s insane.

So why do I own so many books? Because I grew up in a working class family and was – still am – the only person in my family to have attended university. At school, where I was in the top set for all subjects that were set by ability, I was continually told that when I applied for university, I would be competing against people who were better educated than me. How do you educate yourself? The only way I knew was to read. So I began to buy (and read some of them, at least) books that were nominated for prizes; books that appeared on university reading lists; books that were recommended by writers in interviews; books that were written about in the likes of the LRB and the TLS. And I still do. I have double width bookcases stacked full of them.

I thought that books would make me more intelligent. And they have, to a point.

But how can I consider myself well read or well-educated if I’m practically ignoring the experiences, thoughts and ideas of the majority of the world’s population?

Then I saw Celeste Ng’s article. In it, she talks about doing an event to promote her novel Everything I Never Told You at an American university.

I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me.  He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.      

Ng goes on to prove that there are a lot of female Asian American writers with a huge list of names at the bottom of the article.

As I read through the list, I realised how many books I owned by the writers named there. Combined with Roxane Gay’s writers of colour list published on The Rumpus in 2012, I was interested to see how many unread books I had in the house written by women of colour: 85. It’s a fraction of the total of unread books I own, but it’s far from insignificant.

So, three things came together, the conclusion of which is this: I’m taking part in #TBR20 but with a twist; the books I read – and review – will be ones written by women of colour. You can see my choices in the photographs below.

image1

image2

I included review copies I was sent last year in the unread books by women of colour tally. I thought I’d been sent fewer books by women of colour than white women and I had, but it was also apparent that when there were several books due to be published around the same time, I’d chosen to read those by white women over those by women of colour. I’ve already checked the paperback publication dates for these books and they will take precedent over anything else.

I’ve also added two menu tabs to the blog – one for women of colour and one for LGBTQIA women. These menus, like the women in translation one that I added last year, are there to highlight, not segregate; all of the authors also appear on the fiction/non-fiction menus, as appropriate. They are also there to remind me to address my bias and that once I’ve finished my #TBR20 pile, there needs to be another for LGBTQIA women and then another for women in translation until I reach a stage where my unconscious bias is to choose to read books by all women.

2015 then will be about making this blog, and my reading, diverse and inclusive. I will continue to read and review books by white, heterosexual cis women but I will do so alongside those by women of colour, those who identify as LGBTQIA and those by women whose work has been translated into English. Here’s to reading books by all women writers.