Sexuality

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.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi outdid all my expectations of a novel. Through the distilled and poignant stories of 9 families across 9 generations, it charts the course of history from 18th Century Ghana to present-day USA in two branches, rooted in Maame, and belonging to half sisters Effia Otcher and Esi Asare. Effia’s branch goes through the estate of the Cape Coast Castle to the years of Transatlantic Slave trade, the Asante-Fante and the Anglo-Asante wars, the introduction of Christianity to West Africa by the British, British colonisation, and African migration to the US in the late 20th century.

Esi’s branch of the story goes from the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle to the plantations of the South, the American Civil War, the Great Migration, the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama; to the jazz clubs and dope houses of late 20th century Harlem. A concise family tree is included at the beginning of the novel which makes it easy to follow this saga.

Storytelling As Travel

One of the fears with which I approached the novel was the fear that the storyteller would erase the agency of her characters and would, instead, impose her assumptions on the characters. When I approach such stories, I always wonder: “How do you know though? Are you just here to tell us what they looked like to you, as opposed to what they actually were, particularly to themselves?”.

It is a version of the mistrust that Willie, an African American cleaner working at a white men’s club in the novel, felt when she saw what was meant to be portrayal of the South, and could tell that none of the white men had ever stepped a foot in the South. However, in the case of Homegoing, the characters were so generously clothed in dignity that it made it hard for me, at any point, to doubt the integrity of Gyasi’s storytelling.

There were parts of the book that felt so real due to the depth and comprehensiveness of the storytelling. The narrator’s assertiveness made me wonder how the author could possibly have known the particulars of 15-year-old Fante women’s sexual desires in 1862. Are these facts archived or is she so in tune with her craft that her imagination could brilliantly break through centuries that existed before her?

I found myself in instances where I lived with and beside the characters in a way that felt so natural and showed me that one does not have to experience a certain thing to feel it: that good storytelling is effectively travel. This book, unlike most other books I have read, allowed me to connect with the pre-colonial African as human, and not an Other. The historical insight from it was deeply grounding as it echoed that famous quote by Terence: “I am human, nothing human is alien to me” - be it kindness, brutishness, genius or hubris.

Freedom, Bondage; Repeat

This multifaceted business of living and being as a human was explored in various ways with each story in the novel. On their own, each of them stands as a complete short story on blackness and relationships on all levels of human interaction. Collectively, they form a cohesive body of work that explore the cycles of freedom and bondage in both blackness and relationships simultaneously.

They explored a cocktail of issues on mental health (Akua), racism (Marjorie and Marcus), religion (Willie, Akua), homosexuality (Quey), migration and immigration (all characters, Yaw and Marjorie especially), colonialism and post-colonialism (all characters after Abena), - and my favourites to follow - beauty and the Other (both explored intricately in all the stories). For the first time ever, I encountered pre-colonial black West African girls that I could admire, respect and even envy.

It was not an envy born of a romantic view of their lives but from the realisation that this was an entire world with its own ideologies and culture that I have - until now - had no access to. I also loved following how different groups in different societies have othered each other, and used this othering as justification for dehumanising treatment.

This calls to home how easy it has always been for people to legitimise discrimination and oppression on grounds of race, wealth, gender, religion and nationality. Particularly in countries like Nigeria that have very little regard for its citizens - especially its poorer, female, non-heterosexual and uneducated citizens - the novel illustrates how systems of violence reproduce a culture of violence across generations, and continue to affect us individually and communally.

Slavery As Collective Responsibility

While my favourite themes in the novel were beauty and the Other, I found the exploration of mental illnesses and their intersection with colonialism and Christianity the most fascinating. Drawing from conversations recently had, most readers attest that the story of Akua, which encompasses these themes, is one that leaves the reader most entangled. I cried, cursed and screamed while reading her story in a coffee shop!

The lines come back to me: “She used to tell him that the more she learned about God from the missionary, the more questions she had.” It seems like an innocuous and even encouraging comment until we see what these questions did to Akua, and how the biblical metaphor of putting new wine in old wineskin came alive in West Africa’s colonial history.

In its political and intellectual endeavours, I found Homegoing to be ambitious, nuanced and deeply insightful. One of the characters remarked “Everyone was responsible. We all were, we all are…” and this summarises how the novel does not excuse the complicity of Africans in the slave trade. It also speaks to the collective responsibility I believe we always owe to humanity, and to the earth.

This duty we owe to our community and culture (used here to mean the product of all our social and artistic efforts) was exemplified when a character cried that “war was what they knew but if a white man took the Golden Stool, the spirit of the Asante would surely die, and that, they could not bear.” Reading that sentence in context opened my eyes even more to just how monumental and deeply violent diminishing of a people’s culture must have felt for those who experienced slavery and colonisation.

It is things like this that the book does to you the whole time you are reading it. It shows you how significant - and significantly connected - a lot of themes and events are, especially in the modern history of black people. By situating the novel around the transatlantic slavery, Gyasi showed how consequential slave trade has been in the lives of black people in the Americas and on the continent.

History: Dead Or Alive?

Telling the stories from the two branches alternately was very useful in contrasting the aftermath of that monumental period between West Africa and the diaspora. The most striking contrast was how significant slavery was to the African American while for the African there was a wide gap of ignorance. This gap is still seen today in how the common narrative of slavery absolves black people and denies their agency, if at all the History is even taught.

While she was at Daunt Books during her UK book tour in January 2017, Yaa Gyasi talked about how the novel was as much a learning process for her as it was for her mother who had grown up in Ghana. Today, for a young Nigerian like me with ties abroad (be it where I am schooling or what other passports I have), it appears that across the Atlantic, pandora’s box was just let open.

In the West (particularly the USA), it looks like a rise of ‘alternative facts’, fascism and political hyper-polarisation. In Nigeria, it looks like a bad recession and a series of unreliable leaders. On either side, the narratives appear grim and because there is only so much of our history and humanity we see regularly, it feels like it has never been grimmer. Homegoing reminded me that the world has been depressing all this while and I am just a little more woke.

It was a subtle reminder that amid the chaos of living, love (in its many forms) can and has always been found to help us deal with these harsh realities of life. That love is, in fact, the node from which all growth stems from. I mean, why else would the narrator choose to anchor this saga on the definitive points in generations where love gave birth to something new? Incidentally, the novel’s handling of romantic love was my least favourite part.

LIVING LESSON

Though some of the romantic relationships rang true (like Crazy Woman and Unlucky, H and Ethe), I found myself doubting the authenticity of few others (like Willie and Robert, Quey and Nana Yaa). This was mostly due to the fact that the characters themselves were not given as much space and time as I would have liked. I like to think that in this miracle of a novel, some things had to be brushed over, and this collateral damage happened to be on the individual level.

I left with the same feeling which must have motivated Rilke to write his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ which he ended with “You must change your life.” You know, that baptism-like feeling you get when you have been ushered into a new world, illuminated, and you must do something, about something - about anything.

It is one of those novels from which you get more intelligent just by looking at the page. As a compilation of stories, Homegoing takes you through an experience of carrying a living lesson on the vastness of life, history and humanity. This book is so brilliant that I am positive it will take a canonical position in literary studies of black history, and studies of the development of black identity across continents.