AiW note: This conversation follows on from our cast back to last March (2019) and Chelsea Haith’s review of the Q&A’s main text, Popoola’s 2017 novel, When We Speak of Nothing: ‘Experimental…Representative and Complex’ – #PastAndPresent .
AiW Guests: René Bahar, Megan Ratcliffe, and Jade Gallat-Opoku
Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian-German writer and speaker who presents internationally. Her writing takes an intersectional approach to decentre the static notions of place and belonging. She amalgamates different cross-cultural social realities to investigate the links between race, class and gender.
Her novella, this is not about sadness, was published by Unrast Verlag in 2010. Her play Also by Mail was published in 2013 by Witnessed (edition assemblage), and the short story collection, breach, which she co-authored with Annie Holmes, in 2016 by Peirene Press. Her debut novel, When We Speak of Nothing, was published in 2017. She has written a range of critical essays, which focus particularly on her practice-led research.
Olumide holds a PhD in Creative Writing, a MA in Creative Writing and a BSc in Ayurvedic Medicine and lectures in Creative Writing. Not only has she received many grants, fellowships and residencies, but in 2004 she won the May Ayim Award in the poetry category.
She is the initiator and leader of the Arts Council funded mentoring scheme for emerging LGBTQ+ writers, “The Future is Back”, and is currently based as a Writer-in-Residence at Greenwich University.
We had the opportunity to interview Olumide via a Skype call, where we asked about her transcultural bildungsroman, When We Speak of Nothing, situating this novel in the context of the publishing industry and the context of her professional literary career.
In your article, “All the Feels: vulnerability as political vision”, you discuss the power of fiction. Can you expand on the importance of intersectional literature and the imagination as a tool for change and political vision?
I don’t think there is any true approach to life if it is not intersectional. I’m not just saying “only black trans people need to have their voices heard”, I’m asking for people to look fully at someone else and understand that sometimes there are intersectional struggles in life which don’t get heard. If we can’t imagine anything different, we can never strive for change. I think the power of fiction sneaks up on you. For example, it is important that the reader comes close to the characters, even if they don’t agree with them. I think that this is a big opportunity for us to open up our perceptions and see different angles, but also to create visionary places. In When We Speak of Nothing, some Nigerians have said that the narrative is very hopeful and not close to the truth because the trans character has a great experience in Nigeria. But I didn’t say that the whole country is like that, I wanted to highlight that there are pockets of support. If you don’t imagine a place of acceptance, it is never going to happen. If you think, “oh it’s going to be too difficult” or “we can’t work like that”, then realistically, nothing will ever change.
You create an interesting parallel between London and the Niger Delta in this novel. What connections were you hoping that the novel’s readers would make between the racism and homophobia that plagues London, and the corrupt business practices in the Niger Delta?
I really wanted to juxtapose common misconceptions. For instance, in terms of transphobia, we often think of the Western world as being more progressive, but my transgender protagonist, Karl, faced more challenges living in London than in Nigeria.
I was also really interested in the Niger Delta, so I wanted to create a story where I would be able to go there for research purposes. The West is profiting from the Delta’s devastation and so are the Nigerian people, but the local people who live near the sites of oil extraction are certainly not. There is only one scene in the novel that directly reflects my life. It is when Karl gets stopped by local thugs and they demand money from him – this happened to me! Obviously, I am not Karl, but I was constantly thinking what would happen to him in this situation.
The Delta was always going to be a part of the novel, and it was while I was writing the London Riots broke out. It became like a mirror: fire here on the streets of London, and fire there due to the continuous gas flares. I was interested in these parallel stories, as similar themes that may have been previously overlooked emerge when places become interconnected.
Why did you affiliate with the London Riots to such an extent as to include them in your work?
Whilst working at a community centre, I was inspired to explore masculinity in young black and brown men. I was interested in how the voice of the younger generation was responding to the credit crunch and eventually to the recession. They were super cool and sharp-looking, so I was struck by the tenderness surrounding their friendships. The riots were very close to home and I cared deeply for the men who regularly turned up at the centre. I would say to them, “I hope that I am not going to see you on TV”, and they would respond by saying, “No, no, no! I will wear a hoodie; they will never know it was me!” I would reply that that wasn’t my point. I didn’t want them to get into trouble.
In the public spheres there are negative stereotypes, particularly concerning non-white men. How does your construction of private spaces investigate a tenderness and non-normative masculinity that challenges public stereotypes?
The idea of public and private life is a great question! I wanted to reverse our own perceptions, and not just focus on those who we deem as non-progressive, homophobic or transphobic. For example, we often think that Nigeria has bad laws for queer and trans-people, but I aimed to highlight that there is lots of activism there. I was also keen to challenge thinking about London, as the idea that we are completely safe on the streets is not true.
Abu’s dad challenges the stereotypes surrounding Asian families. He is an Asian man who is also extremely tender towards a black, trans man: Karl. Despite not talking very much, he is an amazing father figure and I am very fond of his character. These moments are very private, but they are also doing something in relation to public life. It is public in what it is showing us as readers, but this representation is rendered through private moments.
Were the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter a development throughout your writing process? Or did you know from the start of writing that you wanted to begin each chapter with them and link them to the definitions?
When We Speak of Nothing was my PhD project and whilst doing this I used quotes from critical and creative texts to form the epigraphs. When it came to publishing the novel, it would have fallen to me to get permission from the critics to use their words. I thought, you know what, I’m just going to write my own. This was a really good decision because it sharpened my writing. The definitions came pretty quick and because I had a lot of ideas, they underlined clearly what was going on in that chapter. They were a lovely way of pulling all my ideas together.
To me, the definitions are primarily tied to the narrator, Esu, who we never really get to spend much time with or get to know. So I can’t really say whether the definitions were deliberate or not, I just dropped them in when I thought it was necessary. One of the definitions is “body”, and at this point we don’t know that Karl is a trans man so in that way I’m giving the reader something, a hint about him, but it is not revealed properly. Sometimes I wanted to say to the reader “stop, you could also be thinking about the narrative from this angle, but for now let’s now get back to the story”. So in another sense, they are also interventions.
You’ve worked and achieved critical acclaim across a wide variety of literary forms beyond the novel, from plays to short stories to essays to an established career as a spoken word poet. Can you expand on the progression of your literary career?
As you said, I was a spoken word artist for a long time. I enjoyed that very much, but there came a point where I didn’t always want to be present with my work. If you’re absent, your work doesn’t always live the same way; for example, if you do spoken word, it often depends on the delivery. My first book was a novella and whilst writing I was still very close to my performance background. There are two main characters, one is an elderly Jamaican pensioner and the other is a young South African activist. For the pensioner I did a lot of body work. I tried to understand what it felt like to be older and have health issues with your body. I wanted to explore the idea of voice, and practicing the accents made them closer to how they would have been performed. The longer novel form needs a lot of stamina and discipline, but I love the depth that it brings. It has been a real transformation for me as a writer and that is why at the moment the novel is my ideal form although it is a struggle sometimes to get the work done!
I don’t think I would go back to spoken word in the same way, but I can see myself doing more performances, maybe like a performative prose piece. I like the idea of doing a performative lecture, where I act out a short story but with some critical elements. But I don’t think I’d be a full-time performer again.
Would you mind talking about your activist projects in the literary space, for example you established “The Future is Back” in 2018? What did you hope to achieve with this?
I do not like calling myself an activist, as I feel that it is unfair on the people who are constantly doing the groundwork to galvanise change. I see myself as a writer who is committed to social change by reflecting on and challenging our culture and society: I engage in a form of activism, but I am not an activist.
“The Future is Back” is a writing scheme that I have created and manage for emerging LBGTQ+ writers. It is lovely to spend time discussing writing and craft, and we do that as part of the course, but I constantly try to encourage students to think of how they can develop a life for themselves. I also think it is important to talk about how to make money, as after all everyone must pay the rent! This is how I am trying to empower the next generation of writers who might not have been picked up by mainstream channels. I wanted to pass on confidence, that even if you do not come from normative backgrounds you can still get your foot in the door. I aim to create a community of people who can support each other.
Cassava Republic Press, who published When We Speak of Nothing, are built on the idea of ‘feeding the African imagination’. They also work with other publishers on the continent, thus placing emphasis on pan African solidarity – a theme which is woven into the core elements of the novel. Were their ideas and what they stood for as a publishing house influential when deciding to publish with them? Did you find it liberating or limiting using a publisher that was renowned for publishing ‘African Narratives’?
I was very lucky to have Cassava Republic Press, who were very supportive and did not try to put me in a niche. This was very empowering as they did not suggest that my book was for a transgender or transcultural audience. I don’t think any other publisher could have understood the book in the way that they did. Most readers don’t understand the importance of the narrator, but my publisher knew about the mythological figure of Esu and everything that Esu stands for. I felt very grateful and incredibly lucky to have someone with this sort of understanding. My publisher also had a really solid feminist and intersectional background so she could speak to me in depth about the text, challenging me in a way that made sense for my text rather than edit things out that they didn’t quite understand. It is a tricky word because obviously “African” is not a genre, so what does it mean? Why is it important? Why do we do it? We do it because the mainstream is so dominant. I am actually very pleased to be included in this African idea, because my work is very outspoken, queer and trans.
You’ve talked about writers needing to make a living. How did Cassava Republic Press help you with this?
Cassava Republic were very good at thinking outside the box, as indie publishers they do not have a huge marketing budget. They are restricted so they must think creatively, like creating a buzz on social media or getting bloggers involved. The small, indie publishers are good if your work is not super commercial, as you might not get a huge advance but you can build and nurture close relationships with people while your work develops. I enjoy giving talks, guest lectures, and other similar events. They are all ways of marketing my book while gaining income since they are paid events.
Is there anything you are currently working on? And what kind of message or story are you hoping to convey next?
I am working on two things. One is my next novel, and the other is a non-fiction piece of work. I am trying to bring something together that draws on my own personal life, but it also explores ideas of motherhood, mental health, and extends my thinking in other works on vulnerability and radical tenderness in relation to life in general but also politics.
We’ll see what happens with the novel. It is going to be London based again, and I have a feeling there will be quite a few more, but who knows I might have gotten London out of my system by then. I’m hoping to investigate the idea of Brexit, or reflect on where we are at the moment. The personal side will look at trauma through the investigation of individuality versus a group.
Is there anything that you would like to ask of your readers?
All I want from readers is openness. I had a great experience early after publishing the novel, where lots of middle aged, white, straight women related very strongly to Karl. And I thought, yeah that’s literature! My novel was not marketed for the queers. That’s all I want from readers: the same openness that you would give to a middle-aged white man!
René Bahar, Megan Ratcliffe, and Jade Gallat-Opoku are undergraduate English students at the University of Exeter. During their studies of postcolonial literature, they have developed an interest in intersectional feminism and postcolonial ecocriticism. They were highly excited at the prospect of studying Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing on a module called African Narratives.
Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing is available to buy through the Cassava Republic Press website.
For more AiW words on the novel, see ‘Experimental…Representative and Complex’ by Chelsea Haith, from last March – #PastAndPresent .