When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola is a raw story, which tugs at the humanity of all of us. The story opens up with Abu and Karl; brothers beyond blood, bound by camaraderie and seared in unspoken words. Their shared experience keeps them together, especially as racially motivated violence lurks around them, reminding us yet again how dangerous the west can be for people who look a certain way. When We Speak of Nothing however was off to a slow start and struggles to pick up steam such that impatient readers may give up early but if you soldier on you will find that the story really packs a punch especially after Karl lands in Nigeria.
The characters were well thought out, back characters were also well developed and recognizable. Olumide wields a fearless pen, bravely crafting a vivid story down to the minutest of details. Nigeria remains a dangerous place for people who do not conform to traditional sexuality and gender identity and they are often demonized. Olumide however tells the story of Karl with such bravery and frankness that his humanity shines through; she is an effortless story teller save for with a few bumps, but she holds you spell bound with the way she gradually builds momentum. One thing that stood out for me was how she masterfully springs details on you, a bit like a snake attacking prey. For instance, having read the synopsis my first thought was that Tunde was the queer character and I kept waiting for the big reveal. I did not expect that it would be Karl eventually, it was beautifully done.
I do care about believability when I am reading fiction, and I think there were parts of this story that bordered on fantasy. I did not understand how nearly everyone who met Karl in Nigeria was accepting of him. Nigeria is a dangerous place for queer people, it didn’t read like the Nigeria I know. Olumide did say in interviews that she wanted to paint a picture of a Nigeria she would have liked to see, one not contaminated by colonial inspired bigotry. While this may be true, I think there is a conversation to have about painting pre-colonial Africa as this open inclusive society where everyone mattered. I don’t agree that Africa was like that before the white man came.
I also didn’t think that Portharcourt was vividly described in the book; I didn’t smell the city, I didn’t see it, I didn’t taste it. I really would have loved to read in detail the back story between Karl’s parents and why they never worked out, and I desperately wanted to read more about Tunde’s own life. He was the character who stood out for me the most and the snippets of him we saw made him even more alluring.
In all however this was an intersectional story, one which evoked a cerebral response in me. I am always thrilled to see queer representation in literature particularly in this part of the world, so it was refreshing to read about Karl and his struggles. I also enjoyed the sub themes of parenting, the Niger Delta environmental assault and living in a racially charged world.
Homophobia and transphobia thrives on dehumanizing people and taking away their agency. I also think Nigerians will be more likely to accept LGBT people when it is someone they know personally. I liked that this story played up Karl’s humanity in an organic way which was smooth and left the reader to make their own interpretations. Olumide did not descend into the area, which is very easy to do when writing stories that deal with strong political themes.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about Trans people but also because the story telling was layered, evoked emotion and teaches empathy. This was a story that needed to be told.