London-based Nigerian-German Olumide Popoola is a writer, speaker and performer. Her publications include essays, poetry, the novella this is not about sadness (Unrast, 2010), the play text Also by Mail (edition assemblage, 2013), the short collection breach, which she co authored with Annie Holmes (Peirene Press, 2016), as well as recordings in collaboration with musicians. Olumide has a PhD in Creative Writing and has lectured in creative writing at various universities. In conversation with Nigerian author und satirist Elnathan John, she discusses her latest novel When We Speak Of Nothing (Cassava Republic Press, July 2017), her choice of a main trans character and the rhythm of her stories.
ELNATHAN: One of the things you have done with this novel is to handle language that dispenses with the needful particular words but instead uses feelings and ideas that describe moments in a way it makes the reader see things, feel things, almost want to touch things. How did you come up with this idea?
Olumide: English is not my first language, German is, and there is a freedom in it to mash it all up. I live in London for quite a long time and I hear the different communities speak in different ways and I just like playing with that and creating one common life through the melody of it all. Actually, I think it starts with the melody and then the image appears.
ELNATHAN: Talking about your character Karl. You hinted at Karl already a few years back and said he was going to be central to the novel. What brought Karl to life?
Olumide: I cannot remember but I know he kind of snuck up on me and then developed. I know that the name was there before I had a sense of the character. For some time I have been interested in how especially young men not only portray themselves but also interact. Karl therefore is a sensitive, gentle young man who is also tough.
ELNATHAN: Another point that struck me was the narrator. You have used the term it´s the third person narration in the first person voice. Do you want to explain what that means exactly?
Olumide: The narrator is a Yoruba god called Eshu, god of the crossroads. Eshu is concerned with language and is a shape shifter who can transform himself. And because he is concerned with language, in “When we speak of Nothing” he is the narrator who takes on the language of the character he is expressing. It is my idea of Eshu transforming instead of having first person narration, which would have been limited to one person only.
ELNATHAN: I am interested in the whole mythology of Yoruba culture and how Eshu as the central and first Orisha plays a role in the life of the main character Karl. Eshu is described as a trickster god but also as a god of mixed purposes. He invites good but also prevents bad from happening because bad is always happening. Is this something you thought of when writing the character and is it driving his life somehow?
Olumide: I understand Eshu as someone who is tricking you so that you can get to the next level. You can improve on yourself. You can improve on your humanity. It is challenging you. For me it was constructional work coming down from Eshu to the actual story of the novel, the actual plotting.
ELNATHAN: You mentioned once that you did about twenty drafts of the first chapter. Tell us the story of those drafts.
OIumide: The chapters of this book are not so much about the words that I have written but very much about the rhythm. So the drafts were always about getting the sound right. I read them out and it was not right or maybe the tone was superfast and I then I did not know how I could sustain that. When I was writing I was in a residency and I was running, always looking for Eshu, because he is around the corner. In Yoruba culture, he is the one you have to address first, who will trick you and I think that is how I got exactly there, to the next level.
ELNATHAN: You have said there are not enough role models in novels which portrait queer characters without making sexuality and gender an issue and therefore the book a gay book. This label often leads to the consequence that a book is delegated to the margins and then maybe advertised as being only for queer readers. Did you think about not writing a queer book or not marketing it as a queer book?
Olumide: People, who are queer have told me that they find it very refreshing that it is not a coming-out story. It pleases me to hear that they think it´s just a story, a good read. Only the publisher chose to advertise it this way but it is actually not a queer book. It just happens to have a character who is trans but it is not about his transition. There were two other things I wanted to explore: Young black males, their friendship particularly and the Niger Delta.
ELNATHAN: Let us go back to the language of the novel once again. As we evolve, our language also evolves. I am thinking of your movement to London and you having to switch your everyday language from German to English. Did this do anything to your evolution of your own language?
Olumide: Language is a great playing field. There was a different option for the novel where Karl´s Yoruba pronoun would have been used, which is gender neutral. The idea that things have to be disruptive sometimes in order to arrive somewhere, that we need to be comfortable with life being disruptive, difficult and uncomfortable, is appealing and I discussed this with the publisher. It is uncomfortable to learn that we cannot just categorize somebody by simply looking at them. If we don´t know anything and sort of swim every time we meet someone for the first time, that is what brought my idea of the hybrid language forward for me but in the end we decided against it.
ELNATHAN: In the book, you talk about the uncle why he was able to get to London. His UK visa from a trip earlier was still valid. Maybe a British character would not have thought about that because he can get in and out as he/she pleases. But as an African you have to think of the visa. What do those little details do to the characters?
Olumide: Me, who has a German passport and does not have to apply for visas within Europe, always realize along those examples how different we move around in the world. In fact to my embarrassment first the uncle had a Schengen visa until I was told no, this visa will not let you enter the UK. I simply did not know.
ELNATHAN: Karl, the trans main protagonist, has a much harder time finding acceptance in London than in Nigeria. You refer to Charlyboy for example who is a real person, cross dresses and tries to shock with his appearance. He is becoming more popular again now that he decided to lead a protest against the regime, which criminalizes homosexuality. You mention him and Area Scatter, who used to put on female clothes and performed in front of the king without anyone attacking him, as examples of visibilities for characters who may not fit the norm. Do you think this is a function of class as opposed to being a function of space and subjectivity?
OLUMIDE: In my opinion, Charlyboy is a lot of promotion, he is shocking, he is a musician and he gets away with it. I have a feeling Area Scatter was different because he chose to go round in women´s clothes and said he was a woman. There is a difference between identity and performance. In terms of the novel: Karl is a working-class boy who goes to Nigeria and his father is a very nice settled middle-class man. But Karl enjoys his time much more with the poorer distant relative who is definitely working class, too. I did this on purpose because I wanted to show that we, the educated liberal people, have those hang-ups in mind, thinking just because the working-class has maybe not read the lasted gender theory they are not up to the task understanding. In the novel, I wanted to subvert that. I am not saying that Nigerian society would have embraced Karl much better than London or King´s Cross. But those particular people he meets love him and because of that there is no question whether they need to change him. I am trying to make a point about acceptance coming through having truthful interactions with each other. I wanted to highlight that acceptance exists.
ELNATHAN: We know of many LGBTIQ people who did leave the Nigeria though because they did not find acceptance, not by their families and not in their neighbourhoods. Arrests take place often and many receive death threats. What would you say to a person who had to leave Nigeria and who told you that you are too hopeful?
OLUMIDE: If we cannot imagine a different future, it cannot happen. As a writer, it is your job to put your vision on paper. It is right to imagine something, which may not yet be entirely true. For a young queer person for instance it may also be of value to find something beautiful in a book to identify with. This is why Eshu is so important. There is potential, as scholars, to read gender queerness into him because he is a shape shifter. He is described as both a beautiful woman and a very potent man. You are all welcome to disagree with me but I made him a patron for Karl and for the idea of queerness.
Every quarter widely praised satirist, author of Born on a Tuesday (#BOAT) and Caine Prize finalist Elnathan John leads through an evening of literature. His novel “Born on a Tuesday” will come out in German in August. In conversation with his guests from varied literary backgrounds and interests, he explores political and social questions of our times. Fiction, prose, poetry – join us for an astounding perspective on African literature. Next: Petina Gappah, 11th Nov.