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