esidents of a certain London borough would have had the unknown pleasure of walking past Olumide Popoola taking her “character for a walk” whilst composing her novel When We Speak of Nothing. This, as with many other quirky and amusing anecdotes, Popoola shared with me over tea and cake on one of the last true sunny days of the British summer.
Other than scrumptious treats, we shared a wonderful conversation led by my admiration for When We Speak of Nothing. This novel, set in a council estate in the borough of Kings Cross in central London and oil rich city of Port Harcourt, is a story about two boys - Karl and Abu - discovering the distinct difference between having an individual voice, and making oneself heard. The theme of crossroads - unmissable throughout the book - is both a testament to the author’s research on the Yoruba God, Esu, and a metaphor for the many difficult decisions the characters come up against all through the novel.
The concept of taking characters for a walk was explained by the revelation that, amongst her many academic accolades, Popoola is also a graduate of theatre school. Doing this allows one to observe public response to the character. Specifically she says “if you put a big hoodie on, hair scraped back, no makeup, everything changes and I remember that from theatre school.” The focus then, for Popoola, is not only finding out the character identity but also situating the character in a believable environment: “the response tells you a lot about the world.” It is key that she write realistically about environments and issues tackled.
ON REPORTING AND VISIBILITY
The locations of the novel: inner city London with its issues regarding race and class as well as the Niger Delta - an ecological site of human rights crisis - are very realistically constructed. This is because of Popoola’s experiences in a Youth centre and a trip to the Niger Delta. Describing her trip to the Niger Delta as “great, scary and sad – mind blowing in a bad way”, the author noted this opportunity as a great way to personally “see the fumes and smell the gas and flaring” rather than through the pages of “The Guardian or National geographic.” By having an Ogoni Activist act as guide, she could also ask questions, and in turn, create the character - Nakale - whose friendship with Karl is an invaluable contribution to the novel.
Having had an experience navigating Lagos, Nigeria with a British accent and lighter complexion, myself, I was curious as to the author’s experience navigating the Niger Delta region as a visibly foreign individual. This curiosity stemmed from the freedom her protagonist, Karl, seems to have as a mixed-race, British born boy navigating Port Harcourt for the first time at age 17. Like myself, Popoola recounts that she “was very aware of being very visible, being mixed heritage and light skinned”, owing to the attention she garnered.
However, when writing Karl’s experience, she was conscious of making it “a reflection of the way you can be” and determined to show that “kidnapping and all these things happen but not all the time,” as reflected by media reporting. Popoola also explained that “as a man,” Karl’s experiences would be different from that of a woman. This is a decision she came to after comparing the treatment her brothers receive when visiting Nigeria against what she receives: “a woman could never have gone to Nigeria and walked around that free because nobody would let her.”
WRITING THAT EXHUMES
In London, where the focal community is working class, Popoola touches on the impact of gentrification on inner city London. Her writing on this is informed by time spent volunteering “in a Youth centre, a few streets from the location of the narrative.” The disappointment in Popoola’s voice was impossible to miss as she discussed the contrast between the “the huge gentrification project” underway in Kings Cross and the long-term residents - many of whom are forced from their home, in order to make way for capitalism.
Being able to organically observe the indigenes of these communities, and the resultant impact of gentrification, allowed for the author to strengthen her chosen plot. Popoola shares that, as of the time of our interview, “these youth centres were mostly shut down because funding was cut”, or otherwise said, reallocated to the desires of urbanism and a more prominent social class. Thus, for Popoola, writing When We Speak of Nothing provided the chance to tell “the forgotten stories.” That is, the stories that lie beneath the shiny developments and appearances of wealth.
That her time at the Youth centres was used well, not just as service to the community but as fodder for her novel, is evident in the friendship between the protagonists - Karl and Abu. In When We Speak of Nothing, there is a beautiful portrayal of male, adolescent friendship. So much that first reactions to the novel have often been regarding the friendship shared by these two teenagers, Popoola notes. Citing the novel’s copy editor, Lisa Smith as an example, Popoola reveals that Smith was so inspired by the characters’ resilience in not giving up on their friendship that she had to “reach out to an old friend.”
This friendship, evident from the outset of the novel, is strengthened by the amount of time the protagonists spend together, particularly in Abu’s familial residence - where Karl, due to his mother’s health issues, spends a lot of his time, and is accepted. The setup of this friendship is such that Popoola was able to highlight male friendship as “intimate, tender and loving” - adjectives rarely used in a discourse on adolescent male friendship. It also gave Popoola the space to question our perceptions of ‘normal’ familial structures.
Through the novel, Abu silently struggles through issues like racial profiling and the emotional drama that comes with first crushes. Reading his story, I was rather drawn to his character and thus, was keen to further uncover his character with Popoola. The author, interestingly, succinctly mirrored my feelings, stating that “Abu always gets forgotten.” Explaining this, she says: “I think it was because of Karl’s family structure, so everyone always felt that he needed looking after, where Abu has more of a publicly accepted family structure.” This encapsulation of familial dynamics would have one rethinking the pity, by default, heaped on Karl.
LOVE BEYOND BORDERS
The way LGBTQ chracters are represented in the Niger Delta in When We Speak Of Nothing will undoubtedly challenge perspectives on Nigerian reception to LGBTQ issues. Going by the media, one may be forced to believe that LGBTQ individuals in Nigeria are the scourge of society and unacceptable by the general populace. Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, however, paints a different picture. For Popoola, exploring this theme gave her “a chance to make a point” — the point not being “that Nigeria as a society is more LGBTQ friendly than the UK, but that within any society you will find people that are accepting and do not really give a s--- but like you for who you are.”
Essentially, her writing is reflective of the LGBTQ activists and supporters present in any society, who are helping to fight discriminatory practices. Specifically, she says: “I find sometimes, we are very self-congratulatory in the UK or in the West. We think we have all these laws hence we are accepting, but any LGBTQ person will also tell you: ‘I get harassed sometimes; I am scared sometimes; I might not reveal myself because physically or emotionally, I might be scared.’” When We Speak of Nothing thus provides a narrative showing that the safety of LGBTQ individuals in any space is down to the people occupying that space with them, regardless of country.
Asked if she is worried about any backlash from this portrayal of LGBTQ discourse, specifically from the Nigerian audience, Popoola expresses more of a “curiosity.” She admits that living in the UK separates her from the reality of LGBTQ conversations on ground. A smile in her voice, however, surfaces as she shares her suspicions that many of the Facebook requests she has received of late are from “queer young guys.”
Rather, if anything, her interpretation of the Yoruba God, Esu, is something that she worries may receive backlash. Referred to as the god of crossroads, the author draws inspiration from Esu for references to crossroads the characters encounters in the novel. Where Popoola worries she will face condemnation is in her interpretation of Esu as “an androgynous and a very beautiful woman.” She believes this description could be “the Yoruba way of talking about queerness” - a position that could be interpreted as sacrilegious by some Nigerian readers.
CURIOSITY FED THE CAT
Unable to shake my curiosity, I made a point of inquiring about her decision to situate her novel in two disparate places at such pivotal times. The answer? Coincidence and necessity. “It was a point for me that the boys were not together if they were to develop their individualism,” Popoola candidly stated. The separation was also necessary, she explained, for the boys to learn to maintain the tenderness of their relationship when apart. The setting for them to do this came about naturally because “the riots happened just as I began writing and I wanted to learn about the Niger Delta, not just write about it but visit. So, I created a reason to visit.”
Things, however, took a turn for the weird as “we had all the burning here [with the riots] and the burning in the Niger Delta [from the oil rigs], so it would have been odd not to write about both.” The amalgamation of personal interest, research and kismet: aided, of course, by man-made violence, came together to create a thought-provoking and lyrical novel that challenges not just personal perspectives, but also the way literature is presented. If nothing else, one will remember When We Speak of Nothing for the language - one reminiscent of inner city London yet avoiding the trap of being a cheap imitation, masterfully.