London Riots

Walking Characters To Life: In Conversation With Olumide Popoola

BY NIKI

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

R

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.

 

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!

 

 

Beyond The Silence: Olumide Popoola's When We Speak Of Nothing

BY NIKI

This copy of When We Speak Of Nothing was kindly sent by Cassava Republic, in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts expressed in this review are that of the writer.

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

T

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.


When We Speak Of Nothing is available to purchase online here.  Alternatively, purchase or rent a copy from us in Nigeria hereWatch Olumide Popoola speak about the novel here.


Notes

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.