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.