o be young, a person of colour and in search of a concrete identity are major concerns of Olumide Popoola’s debut novel - When We Speak of Nothing. Set in a council estatea in the borough of Kings Cross in central London and simultaneously in the oil rich city of Port Harcourt, this novel is a story about two boys - best friends discovering that there is a distinct difference between having an individual voice and, making oneself heard.
A novel inspired by research into the Yoruba god, Esu, the characters repeatedly encounter crossroads; highlighting that, in life, nothing is linear. The most marked ways the reader encounters this is in the discussions about the 2011 London riots; an unavoidable discourse given that the events of the novel coincide with the riots. The reader also learns this through Karl’s sojourn to Nigeria - in search of his long-lost father - and inferences to sexual and gender identity.
On reading Elle Magazine’s review saying: it “captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London”, I assumed it would deeply explore LGBTQ issues from a black person’s perspective. I, however, discovered - upon reading it - that sexual identity, though important, was secondary to the actual story being told. Instead, When We Speak of Nothing focuses on the complexities of life and marginalised identity outside of sexual and gender identity.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ‘BRUV’ AND BROTHER
Abubakar (Abu) and Karl, growing up in a council estate, are in the heart of a working class community. As such, their speech is peppered with ‘slang’ reflective of London’s inner city youth and working class communities - both of which have always had a separate language from the ruling class. This language, or vernacular, has a performative aspect which makes Olumide Popoola’s writing style unconventional.
It, however, took till near mid-read to get really comfortable with the book and warm up to the characters; despite having grown up on the outskirts of London, and being familiar with the lingo used by the protagonists and their friends. This could be down to personal disassociation with their voices or the fact that there is just a strong difference in how language is received when it is spoken, as opposed to when written.
Thus, audiences wholly unfamiliar with inner city London dialects may find this form of ‘insider’ communication - though it somewhat enriches the novel - difficult to translate. This play on language and the unique writing style was, however, a risk Popoola was willing to take with When We Speak Of Nothing; owing to the need to capture a specific voice. The language, distinctly London, encapsulates the world of the characters, doing justice to their realities.
FRIENDS ARE THE FAMILY YOU CHOOSE
Another captivating factor is the friendship between the protagonists - Abu and Karl - who are introduced to the reader as being “like twins.” From the moment the reader encounters the boys till the end of the novel, there is a sweetness to this relationship. This may be because friendship between boys, especially teenage boys, is often not presented, in literature, with the tenderness that the author gives in fleshing out Karl and Abu’s relationship.
Popoola reiterates the tenders parts of this friendship by spotlighting the familial bonds the boys have been able to develop. By informing the reader that Abu’s “mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother”, the reader is made aware of all the ways that their friendship has been legitimised. That the father is complicit in accepting Karl to familial status shows just how much time Karl spends with Abu’s family.
Karl’s “more, in[s] than out[s]” of Abu’s flat, is later understood when the reader learns of his mother’s ailment, which leaves him in the care of a very on-hand social worker - Godfrey. His father, on the other hand, is unknown to him, as his mother never revealed his father’s identity to him. Despite the closeness that follows the two boys, the routine to their relationship is prominent.
For Abu, silence covers up the things that hurt whilst Karl favours speaking to mask the pain. These dynamics are exemplified when Karl takes the trip to Port Harcourt, Nigeria in the search of his father, without confronting or informing his mother. On arriving the Niger Delta, Karl encounters complexities, which compounded by his youthfulness and lack of experience facing difficult conversation, causes him to play conversation-coward. This, coupled with Abu’s brooding silence, leads to a communication breakdown that impacts the fluidity of their relationship.
As a metaphor for both silence and fuller conversation, the novel’s title When We Speak of Nothing encapsulates the positions both boys take to avoid dealing with weighty issues. The boys, through Blackberry Messages (BBM) and patchy international calls from make-shift phone booths, nonetheless, try to navigate the emotionally trying time in their relationship. Watching (or reading) this unfold, one is, quickly reminded that technology, in its wonder, is still unable to answer to the complexities of humanity.
NAVIGATING THE OIL CAPITAL
The Niger Delta proves a pivotal place in terms of personal development for Karl. It is also where Popoola chooses to make a statement about LGBTQ identities and societal relationships to them. Given the misconception - aided by the criminalisation of LGBTQ identity by Nigerian government- that Nigeria as a whole condemns these identities, this is an interesting space to explore this theme. It shows that there is a level of acceptance of identity, both gender and sexual, in Nigeria. This also highlights the fact that in any given space, there will always be people who are unconditional in their love.
During his time in Nigeria, Karl works through the core issues experienced with his father and mother. By discovering the truth of his Nigerian heritage, Karl is able to cement his black identity. His journey of self-discovery is, however, met with familial conflicts which work to his advantage and allows him spend most of his time exploring his native land, accompanied by Nakale and a host of other Ogoni activists.
Karl, aided by his father’s driver - John - and public transport, is shown to navigate the streets of Port Harcourt. When considered vis a vis my personal experience navigating Lagos with a foreign accent, a level of scepticism regarding the absence of (communication) barriers. Taking into account, also, the high level of insecurity and kidnapping of foreign workers, the freedom with which Karl navigates the region is somewhat less believable.
Admittedly, Karl does encounter local thugs who ironically see his possession of a foreign accent as proof of his wealth. This moment is, however, written in an almost throwaway manner that implies his safety is in no way at stake. Perhaps, considering gender dynamics, and comparing the experiences I have had with my freedom of movement in Nigeria against that of my brother, Karl’s freedom of navigation may be more believable.
The payout of this freedom of movement, nonetheless, is that it allows for the reader to have a peek at the detrimental effects the oil industry has on the ecology and health of the Niger Delta people. For Karl, this experience allows him to see the world as bigger than the block on which he grew up. It also provides a distraction from the familial conflicts on ground, and draws a learning curve much different from anything offered at college - from which he took leave of absence to make this trip.
KISMET: EXHUMED HISTORIES MEET MODERN MOB RESISTANCE
In making the decision to skip the last few weeks of college for Nigeria, Karl misses a series of lessons regarding Britain and the slave trade - a topic that ignites a fire in Abu. The timing of these lessons coincide with the beginnings of what will come to be known as the 2011 London riots: inspired initially by the murder of Mark Duggan by London police, and amplified by the spread of crippling recession.
The discovery of Mary Prince’s story, and how close to home it is, has Abu questioning his education. It also gives him a reason to connect with his long-time crush - Nalini. This representation of young love in inner-city London, which blossoms from intellectual discourse, is a unique take in literature. Popoola creates well-rounded characters that are more than hormonal teenagers grasping for hidden sexual encounters away from the prying eyes of parents. This relationship is wholesome, as we see the two challenge one another, particularly when it comes to the London riots.
Through this relationship, Popoola presents multiple views about the London riots that contradict the single narrative presented in the media. Abu and Nalini, ironically, engage in nuanced - though sometimes flawed discourse - about the pros and cons of engaging in the London riots. The reader sees, for example, a discourse weighing the anger of those incited by the racial factor of Mark Duggan’s murder, against the immorality of opportunists that caused property damage on undeserving small business owners. Without taking a stance on the riots, Popoola encourages the reader to look at the event from multiple angles.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER
Post-riot incidents force conversations that are pushed aside for a huge chunk of the novel. These events also bring the worlds of London and Nigeria together as Abu encounters a tragedy that compels Karl to return. This point in their relationship signifies a turn in tables: in which Karl, who previously had a monopoly on any physical support the boys deigned to express towards one another, is now on the other end. Abu’s tragedy is the beginning of emotional growth in Karl.
For the most part of When We Speak About Nothing, there is a tidiness to the narrative that I generally detest in literature. This tidiness is, however, relegated to the affairs of now, rather than an encapsulation of the future. The novel, till the end, is grounded in reality rather than the fairy tale of “happily ever after.” The constant conversation on the sustenance of healthy relationships is iterated throughout the novel.
So also, Popoola's portrayal of Esu and his relationship to crossroads is maintained till the end. The author shows - through her characters - that the sum of our lives is dependent on the choices made. By having both boys uncover monumental human rights issues at the same time but on different continents, Popoola highlights how no one issue is empirically greater than another. When We Speak of Nothing is indeed a well written narrative that refreshingly explores - with a respect for depth - friendship, masculinity, race and socio-economic issues that span London and Port Harcourt.
a A socio-political answer to the disparity between the cost of living and the reality of wages in the UK, council estates are a multi-national, multi-ethnic collection of apartments. Its residents are working class individuals likely to be living paycheck to paycheck, or on subsidiaries from the government.
Council estates were initially integrated into middle and upper class neighbourhoods as a means - mainly - of ensuring equal educational opportunities. However, the rise in gentrification has led council estates to thrive in predominantly working-class areas. The contrast between the realities of council estate life and the commercial developments in the Kings Cross area allows for the novel to also be a discussion about gentrification and racism in London.