Olumide Popoola’s Novel About A Transgender Character Is Inspired By A Yoruba ‘Shemale’ God ‘Esu’...





For some time, there has been a ‘go back to the root’ movement, and those spearheading this movement are mostly Nigerian writers, who have been merging our culture and beliefs with 21st century events, terminologies and technology turn-around agenda and it has been paying off. Recall that Nnedi Okoroafor’s novel ‘Who Fears Death’ will soon be made Into HBO TV Series and George RR Martin, the guy behind Game Of Thrones is on the project.

Another lady who is doing something spectacular with her novel ‘When We Speak of Nothing’ is  Olumide Popoola, a London-based Nigerian-German author. Her book is  a fast-paced narrative, that takes a deep look into the lives of the book’s lead characters, examining their struggles, identity and experiences as they navigate through their lives.

Popoola’s novel gave life to an imaginary narrative of life of a transgender boy, Karl, who has a Nigerian father but was born in the U.K. The author has also explained her reasons for setting a novel looking at legal and societal acceptance of LGBT people, in both the UK and Nigeria. Here’s what she had to say about her book;

“A few years ago the BBC ran a programme called ‘The world’s worst place to be gay?’. The programme presenter travelled to Uganda which was on the brink of passing a new law that could have introduced the death penalty for being gay, the so called Kill The Gays Bill. In the end an amended version was approved, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2014. Nigeria has its own version and introduced the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in January 2014. The BBC programme looked in detail at the reasons that made the Kill The Gays Bill possible, especially the connection to right-wing, fundamentalist evangelists from the US, who are using Uganda (and other places) as their playground for playing god.
I found the framing of the narrative unnecessary, difficult, especially with the title. It is too close to the self-congratulating notion that the West is progressive – ‘see, all the marriage equality laws we have now?’ – while in this assumption the global South is portrayed as archaic, queerphobic by nature, and the worst place to be when you live your life outside the heteronormative status quo. No mistaking, these anti-LGBT laws are horrible and do real life threatening damage. They legitimise queer- and transphobic attacks and criminalise sexuality and gender. They need to be contested and fought because they infringe on human rights.


On the other hand they do not tell you who will accept you, or where you might feel safe in your day to day life. And laws are not always a reflection of the cultural possibilities.
This type of framing – The Worst Place To Be Gay – also erases cultural histories and opportunities.
Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads was my writing patron for When we Speak of Nothing. Esu is widely accepted to be androgynous, simultaneously a beautiful woman and a potent man. If you thought through the mythology from a contemporary standpoint, with current discussions around gender in mind, it is easy to see Esu as a possible patron for trans persons.
In When We Speak of Nothing I reverse the notion that law equals acceptance. Karl, the trans protagonist, has a much harder time finding widespread acceptance in London, than in Nigeria. In Nigeria Mena, the cook at the bottom of the apartment complex Karl stays in, makes links to other Nigerians who have openly lived gender as the continuum it is. She references Charly Boy, a musician and entertainer who wore women’s makeup and hairstyles. And Area Scatter, a 1960s musician widely described as cross-dressing but  who allegedly, by his own accounts, went into the wilderness to return seven month later as a woman.
When we look at how far we have come in the UK, celebrating 50 years of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is good to look at the whole picture: hate crimes do exists, even in cool urban places like London. And Nigeria, like Uganda, has a thriving LGBT scene. Perhaps underground but nonetheless. There is activism and advocacy, scholarly work and artist expression.
It was important for me to show in When We Speak of Nothing that understanding can come easily, despite horrible laws. To show how complex it is, understanding and love, how we cannot know who will embrace us the most. Even if on paper we are in the wrong place.”
The book has a lot of possible distractions and detours (Niger Delta pollution, London riots, alternative family and race).

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