When We Speak of Nothing takes place primarily in London in 2011, focusing on best friends Karl and Abubakar (‘Abu’), both nearing their 18th birthdays. It takes readers on a journey from Kings Cross, London to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to the ecocide of the Niger Delta and back to the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan.
The reader is dropped into a brief but pivotal period in Karl and Abu’s lives as they negotiate the challenges and possibilities of being young men of color in the capital. Shunning longer, detailed introductions in favor of dialogue-driven scenes, the characters, their flaws, and how you understand and judge them build over time as the story develops.
An important bedrock to the whole book is Karl and Abu’s close friendship. It is a bond built on loyalty, love and support, providing them with a means of survival. Through their experiences and conversations, the book explores absentee fathers, mental health, falling in love, gentrification, bullying as well as social worker-youth relationships.
The book is ambitious in drawing in such a broad and important set of themes and issues, but they are made human, situated in relation to key characters. They are put in context and reflected on from the perspective of those at the receiving end. This is particularly the case in the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan, as Abu observes:
“You can’t make a move without being wrong. I can’t even walk along the street without someone following me around because I look like a terrorist in the making. No one gave a shit about that guy in Tottenham. The one the police shot. No one cared. Now they are all upset because someone is burning a bin somewhere.”
The discovery of the existence of Karl’s father, Adebanjo in Nigeria and Karl’s drive to find him threatens to uproot the two friends’ universes. It pulls not just at their relationship but all the other characters around them. It is from here that the story really begins to spiral out and develop in its complexity.
The reader is taken on a journey that is as twisting and turning for them as it is for Karl, as he seeks to make sense of the years he has lost, why his mother Rebecca had kept his father secret for years as well as now questioning his sense of identity and belonging.
With the two central characters separated, Popoola has ample room to play with the storyline, allowing Karl and Abu’s characters to develop their own space, while giving the opportunity to explore the interplay between two different worlds – what it means to be young in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and Kings Cross, London.
Popoola explores Karl’s character fantastically. At times, we are drawn in so close, feeling his emotions through the twists and turns of his story – the excitement of finally meeting his father, the disappointment when he’s a no-show at the airport and the rush of everyone wanting to tell him and show him everything about Nigeria. At other times, we feel as distant from him as those around him – unaware of where he’s really at and what his eventual plans are as he gets lost in his new world.
Through a cast of new characters who seek to befriend and show him around, we meet activists working to spread the truth about the inequality, severe health impacts and environmental damage of the country’s oil extraction. Nakale who uses his university’s lab to analyze soil samples tells Karl:
“They neva tell us how much de danger, what it go do for us. For our health… This money, the oil money, it has made our country. But de people here, who are suffering because of it, we have not enjoyed. We have not seen our share.”
It is while in Nigeria that Popoola introduces Karl as trans. While other readers may have picked up on his identity (and inevitably others will read and experience the characters differently) I personally hadn’t until then.
While Karl’s story is intersectional – he is trans, but also young, black and poor – I feel more space could have been given over to explore his trans experience, for example his coming out to his close friend Abu or his mum Rebecca and some of the challenges he has faced.
Despite this, the choice of Nigeria as the site where this part of Karl’s story is explored makes sense as it is now something hidden or unknown to those around him, rather than a given. Popoola is sensitive in exploring Karl’s struggle over when, what and how to tell the new people he encounters, whether they know and what will happen when they do.
In a relatively short space of time, When We Speak of Nothing covers a great deal of ground. It offers a politically potent reflection on growing up as a young person of color in London, gentrification, borders and boundaries, global and local inequalities and more.
Much like Popoola’s work in breach did with the refugee crisis and the realities of living in (or passing through) Calais, When We Speak of Nothing keeps big issues rooted, focusing always at the level of the human. They are made legible and knowable as the characters in the book work through and live in spite of them. At its core it is a story of friendship, love and belonging on the verge of ‘adulthood’ but as you delve deeper, it offers a great deal more.
When We Speak of Nothing is published by Cassava Republic on Monday 3rd July
Olumide Popoola’s Biography can be found here
Image: Rob Schofield