Female Writers

Walking Characters To Life: In Conversation With Olumide Popoola


In conversation with Olumide Popoola on her new novel -  When We Speak Of Nothing.


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.



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.”



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.



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.



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.


Read Niki's review of When We Speak Of Nothing, and see pictures of Popoola and Niki below.

Purchase When We Speak Of Nothing here or from us in Nigeria here. You can also rent a copy from us!



Other Voices: Poetry of Three Nigerian Female Writers

This review, titled 'The Other Voices: The Poetry of Three Nigerian Female Writers' is by Ezenwa Ohaeto. The full piece was published by Taylor & Francis for the Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadianne des Études Africaines, Vol. 22 (3), 1988: pp.662-668. Image: Tolu Aliki.

Nigeria has produced few female poets, although some female writers have been publishing poems in various journals and anthologies. In contrast, female novelists have been geometrically increasing. The female poets thus deserve attention because they not only constitute some of the “unheard voices,” but they also possess significant insights into the realities of con- temporary times. Lloyd Brown feels: “the women writers of Africa are the other voices, the unheard voices, rarely discussed and seldom accorded space in the repetitive anthologies and the predictably male-oriented studies in the field” (198I, 3). Female poets could offer a complementary alternative to the poetic vision of Okigbo, Soyinka, Achebe, Clark, Okara, Udechukwu, Enekwe, Ofeimun, and Osundare.

In this piece, the author reviews three poems: The Spring's Last Drops by Obianuju Catherine Acholonu, The Cassava Song and Rice Song by Flora Nwapa and Sew The Old Days and Other Poems by Molara Ogundipe-Leslie; concluding that:

Artistically, Nigeria’s female poets still need to be adventurous. How- ever, the female poets should be commended for as Katherine Frank observes, “there are surely vast silences to be broken, silences of African women who have ceased to write or who have never written at all because they have felt there was no audience to hear their words (1984, 47). Never- theless, the fact that these faltering early steps are being taken indicates that this is the planting season of female poets in Nigerian poetry. In the harvest, we fervently hope to pluck the robust yam tubers and the fledgling seed- lings. The study of contemporary Nigerian poetry may never be complete without the assimilation of these feminine poetic impulses.
— Ezenwa Ohaeto

It is important to note that this review was originally published in 1988, since which a lot of notable Nigerian female poets (and writers) have emerged. These women continue to break vast silences, and are using various outlets - from spoken word to visual art - as a medium to branch out, sow seeds in the hearts of their readers and also render their voices to deconstruct certain constructs. This piece helps appreciate this growth, and calls on more to women to write - audience or no audience.


Revisiting Alkali


Image:  Lashifae

Image: Lashifae

Children should not be caged, he reasoned, for if the cage got broken by accident or design they would find the world too big too live in.
— - Zaynab Alkai in The Stillborn

Over the past 6 months, I have revisited a number of books from my childhood - from Ekwensi to Emecheta and, most recently, Zaynab Alkali. One of the reasons I loved - and still love - books is their ability to take you to places you have never been and may never be; to cause you to make friends with characters so well written, that you feel like you may bump into them on the street. These books have the ability to challenge one’s perception, and previously unquestioned acceptance of stereotypes or norms.

The first time I read Alkali’s books - ‘The Stillborn’ and ‘The Virtuous Woman’ - at 11 or 12, it was with some surprise at how the girls written about, barely older than I was at the time, thought about marriage and imagined themselves in love. Both books were set in Northern Nigeria, circa 1960s, and offered a glimpse at a different time, culture, and way of life. Alkali’s way of describing the villages in which these books are set are so profound that you almost feel the dust rising from the earth and settling on you

In the 6 months I lived in Bagauda, Kano, 6 years ago, some days brought back memories, as it felt like I was walking through the pages of some of my childhood books set in Northern Nigeria. Rereading Alkali now, who was one of the first female novelists to emerge from Northern Nigeria, I realise that she was not writing stories about ‘Northern life’ - it only happened to be the setting. Her books could have been about young girls anywhere. They are essentially about love and longing, youth and yearning for adulthood, dreams and how they play out.


Of Stillborn Dreams

The Stillborn explores - and subtly questions - the quest for modern life and an assimilation of foreign ideals - a thing sweeping through the village and eagerly adopted by Li’s father. In this novel, Li, the main character, is a reminder of my teenage self. At 14, she is keen to reject the order of life her father is desperate to keep his children within. She looks, sometimes with contempt, upon her parents’ rules: questioning her father’s strictness and his label of traditional practices as ‘heathen’. Li has big dreams, and longs to break free so she can live the perfect life she imagines. 

Told in vignettes, The Stillborn moves through time to show how dreams are built and can crumble, or shapes shift as life happens to them. For Li, who falls in love and marries as a teen, a foray into her dreams is marked by descent into chaos as her husband takes another wife in the city and treats her with derision. Yet, despite the tragedy that dogs her 20s, Li rebuilds herself, her life, and her dreams.

One of the most striking moments for me - encapsulating the essence of the book and how events change people - is a conversation between Li and her older sister, Awa, towards the end of the book.

“You have gone incredibly soft,” Awa shook her head.

“And you big sister, surprisingly hard.”
“It is the way of life,” Awa said sadly. “Do you remember when we were girls? Our dreams? None of our dreams seem to have come true…”


Finding Self

Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman, on the other hand, is another coming of age story, set in the early 1960s in Zuma - a multi-ethnic Northern community. It is about the lives of Laila, Hajjo and Nana Ai, 16- and 17-year old students. Mostly one long road trip, it follows the three girls as they leave the comfort of the familiar for the unknown.

Laila, with the exuberance of teenage-hood, is flighty and has no sense of danger, while Hajjo is stuck between familial obligations to her niece, Laila, and a friendship she desires to have with Nana Ai. Nana Ai, wiser than her 17 years, is at once certain and uncertain of herself in that place of crisis that dogs teenagers just discovering their identities. It is beautiful to watch her admit her insecurities about self, including body insecurities, and then shed them.

Soon after we meet Nana Ai, it is said of her: 

“It never occurred to her that it was in her to be whatever she wanted to be.” 

But as one moves through the pages, Nana Ai blooms - embracing herself, her family history, and falling in love for the first time.


A Refreshing View on Women

Alkali loves to tell stories within stories; it’s her way of filling her books with colourful characters like Li’s Grandmother, who often boasted that she had been married 14 times; Li’s Grandfather, Kaka, who had divorced her 3 times in spite of her refusal to leave; and Nana Ai’s herbalist Grandfather, Baba Sani.

Through her characters, Zaynab Alkali touches on the need for female education and equality, in such an organic way, you almost miss it. Without delving into actual politics of the newly independent Nigeria and the continuing influence of the British in those years, she also shows the reality of the times through the description of the European Quarters in The Stillborn and Her Majesty’s College in The Virtuous Woman.

In such a time as now when I have grown weary of the portrayal of female characters in African writing, especially by male authors, Alkali’s writing feels refreshing. While a lot of the literature that include characters from the predominantly Muslim North, portrays them as one dimensional characters who are uneducated and restricted by both culture and religion from making decisions for themselves, Alkali’s books have none of this stereotypical portrayal of Northern women as subservient and non-autonomous characters. 

There is no doubt that Nigeria, largely, remains a patriarchal society, and so it is with surprise that I find that these books, set in the 1960s and published in 1984 and 1987, deviate from the single story and, contain strong female characters who are not content with doing things the way they have always been done. These women can be seen finding themselves and owning both the good and the bad consequences unapologetically.

They are women who want an education, and a future that does not just revolve around a man. They are a reminder that there is always multiplicity of ways of living, even in the same geographic location. They reflect an importance of literature that deviates from the lazy low-hanging stereotypes about any set of people.

Ever read any of Zaynab Alkali's books? Which was your favourite?