Olumide Popoola – I bring wild, rich imagination to life
Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian German writer and speaker who presents internationally. Her novella, This Is Not About Sadness, was published by Unrast Verlag in 2010. Her play Also by Mail was published in 2013 by and the short story Collection Breach, which she co-authored with Annie Holmes, in 2016 by Peirene Press. Her full-length novel When We Speak of Nothing was published in the UK and Nigeria in 2017.
Her publications also include critical essays, often on practice-led research and the novel, Hybrid Pieces And Poetry.
Olumide holds a PhD in Creative Writing, a MA in Creative Writing and a BSc in Ayurvedic Medicine and lectures in Creative Writing. In 2004 she won the May Ayim Award in the poetry category. She has received grants, fellowships and residencies from UEL, Djerassi, Künstlerdorf Schöppingen and Hedgebrook, amongst others. In this interview with Guardian Woman, she shares her thoughts on her new novel When We Speak of Nothing.
What interesting stories about your background led you to become a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer from when I learned writing and composed little stories from then. I don’t know that it is my background that led me to writing, more an active imagination. I spent a few years with my German grandmother who was living in a small village, actually not even inside that village. It was a little isolated. Maybe the absence of a lot of school friends led to reading ferociously, which then spurred my imagination…
What moment did you decide that you were going to become a writer?
I was a child with a wild and rich imagination. I think when I realised that you could construct stories, put them together yourself, I knew that that is what I wanted to do also.
What inspires your kind of story?
The people around me – recently also ‘place’. Two of my books, including When We Speak of Nothing, are set in London. One is set a few streets from where I live, When We Speak of Nothing is set around the area I worked in for a long time, as well as Port Harcourt. I’m interested in the small, hidden away stories. What happens in those side streets that don’t get mainstream attention. London fascinates me like any large city would but I think I end up writing about London because I have been living here for quite a while. Writing about it is both a making sense and a claiming my space here. As an outsider, someone who moved here, who is familiar yet also has other reference points.
Tell us about your recent project, When We Speak of Nothing.
It started as an exploration into young black and brown men in inner city London. I was working in a community centre with a youth programme at the time, and saw a lot of young men come and go. I was intrigued by their friendships, the way they were intimate with each other (as friends) in a different way than the young women were. I also wanted to learn about the Niger Delta so I created a reason to go there for research. This formed the basic idea about the novel. Then the London (and UK) riots happened and all of a sudden I had this dual narrative with flames from gas flaring in the Niger Delta, and flames from burnt cars and buildings during the London riots. Both main characters witnesses to one side of it, far away from each other, their friendship straining.
The main characters in the book, Karl and Abubakar, what makes them special? Despite their background differences, what makes them resonate so much with the readers?
I think it’s their complexity. They are lovable guys, fun and interesting, with good manners, most of the times. Sometimes they are not so nice, sometimes they are angry or run away or get involved when they shouldn’t have. They do right and wrong things but ultimately they are there for each other. They know how to be friends, even if some learning has to be done along the way. I think we can all relate to being imperfect but trying our best. The feedback I get mostly is that the determination to remain friends, to be there for each other is the most moving for readers.
Did you try to build these characters to mirror people and places that you’ve experienced?
I wanted to capture a certain inner city London youth. And I absolutely wanted to capture the King’s Cross area of London, but the forgotten parts where people without much money live, and the Niger Delta (very small parts of it). The characters aren’t based on any real people, more on ideas inspired by young people I’ve met. The character of Nakale, who is an activist in the Niger Delta, is inspired by an activist who took me around the area but he is nothing at all like Nakale. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both completely dedicated, and very knowledgeable.
What challenges did you go through while writing the book?
I run into a hairy situation on my travel through the Niger Delta which made it into the book as something Karl experiences. When I was taking a picture of gas flaring just behind a village (actually almost inside the village) I was standing on a bridge, another activist on an okada, waiting for me. All of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by a growing number of young local men who were shouting ridiculous sums of money I should pay for my release. I waited patiently, my activist friend had summoned me to sit behind him on the motorcycle and not get off again, he was trying to negotiate. He was holding my hand, apologising for the behaviour of these young men, who were part of his local community.
After 45 minutes in the sweltering sun and a lot of shouting on their side I lost my cool and gave them a piece of my mind. That albeit being light skinned and living in Europe had the right to be there and find out about my country. That I wasn’t sure what they were trying to do, what point they were trying to make but I was not a journalist selling any pictures (which is what they had claimed). I showed them my student card (I was doing my PhD at that time). They were shocked, as was my friend. I think I gave them £20 – just because – and we drove off while they were still trying to decide whether to kidnap me or not.
What inspired you to write it?
It started with learning more about the Niger Delta and the recession in the UK.
Where can we buy or see it?
The book is available for purchase on Cassava Republic Press website, or the Cassava Republic Bookshop in Abuja and any other major bookshop in Nigeria and the U.K.
Would you like to share details about your next book?
It is still so sketchy that there isn’t much to tell yet other than it will be set in London again (at least mostly) and will explore how we deal with a major trauma as an individual and as a group. I want it to be a dual narrative that juxtaposes between the collective and a few key character’s individual voices. We will see if that will still work when I get to the end of the first draft or if I will have to abandon that idea and find something else more suitable for the story.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
My website is a good place www.olumidepopoola.com or follow me on twitter @msolumide
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
To stick with it. Writing is much harder than you think. It takes perseverance and editing. Please believe in editing, it is the single most important part of writing. Writing is rewriting. But it is also immensely satisfying to immerse and invent. Find supportive writers you can exchange with. Find out what your voice is trying to say. Trust it. Hone it, polish it. Most importantly, let your voice soar.