I was kindly given an ARC of Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing by Cassava Republic. All of the views expressed are my own. A warning: there will be spoilers in this review.
Best mates Karl and Abu are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local “wannabe” thugs just for being different.
When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known. Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.
When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.
There are many things going on under the surface of When We Speak of Nothing. In London, the 2011 riots are about to erupt and Abu finds himself right in the middle of them. He is caught on CCTV – not doing anything, but looking young and black enough to be a suspect. In Nigeria, Karl is attempting to meet his father, who prior to this visit had not known he had existed. Concurrently, he is learning what it means to be independent, having cared for his chronically ill mother all his life, and usually under the careful watch of Gregory from social services. Black masculinity, and what it means to be a young, black British man is the true forefront of When We Speak of Nothing, as well as what it means to be an outsider, and what it means to be young during this disruptive time. I’m sure that setting When We Speak of Nothing during the 2011 riots will resonate with a lot of people – whilst I wasn’t living in the UK at the time, I remember being glued to the television watching everything unfold.
This is not only a racially charged novel, but a queer one. It is revealed quite casually in the first half of the novel that Karl is transgender. However, it is not until the latter half of the novel that this comes into the forefront, as Karl’s father refuses to accept him and Karl begins his first sexual relationship. I don’t know if this aspect of the novel is own voices or not (Popoola identifies as queer), but in an interview Popoola said that she wants to shatter ideas that queerness is a ‘Western’ idea. Unfortunately this is still believed by many. Nevertheless, the book is also going to be released in Nigeria, although Popoola has also stated that she doesn’t think it will be very well received.
One of my favourite parts of the book were the relationships – Karl and Abu’s friendship is one of the most well-rounded relationships that I have ever read. Although both boys fall in love through the course of the novel, it is their intensely loyal (albeit sometimes rocky) relationship that powers the book more than anything else. It is an interesting thing to read about – a solid twosome that is split up through unforeseen circumstances – it is a relationship that evolves as the characters do, and is constantly in flux. It is one that I know I will be thinking about for a long time.
Popoola has other publications, such as her short story collection Breach, which is a collection of short stories about the Calais refugee crisis. I am saving up my money to get it, because I honestly believe that this author is definitely one to watch.
Finally, a word from Cassava Republic:
BUY YOUR BOOK ONLINE FROM WORDERY OR ANY GOOD BOOKSHOP NOW!
And if you feel inspired come along and meet the author at our exciting launch event:
Enjoy some grime and Afrobeats music in this stunning venue in the heart of Shoreditch. Along with readings from author Olumide Popoola, there will also be a special performance by poet Emmanuel Speaks.
Paula Akpan and Harriet Evans, co-founders of the “I’m Tired” Project, will be exhibiting some of their work which focuses on the significance and impact of micro-aggressions, stereotyping and assumptions. They will also offer guests at the launch a chance to take part in the project themselves and have their picture taken with their statement written on their hand – these pictures will be included in an installation.
This is the book EVERYONE will be talking about this summer. Don’t miss out!
I’m going to be there too, if anyone wants to meet up!