I have a confession! I have not watched Moonlight, the critically acclaimed, best-picture winning film directed by Barry Jenkins. It’s not for lack of trying, but as the editor of a fairly new publication, there are many casualties in the list of things I would like to do.
Anyway, the only reason I bring this film up is that the debut book by Olumide Popoola, When We Speak of Nothing, has been described as the ‘British version of this great film’. Big boots to fill by any standard, but I was compelled to throw it in my suitcase on a recent holiday.
Promo for the book gives a heads up on what you can expect: “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 were a novel, it would be this.” I can report that it did all it promised and more. However, I was also very interested in how Popoola would depict one of the locations in the book, the city of Port-Harcourt, a place I remember with fondness, as I lived there for a few years in my teens, and the plight of the communities affected by the drilling of oil, which the area is richly blessed. Popoola’s sensitive, and in my view, accurate story-telling, dealt with the situation in a sympathetic way, and quite rightly, highlighted the unjustness of a circumstance that saw the people who should be enjoying the fruits of their land instead suffering shortened life expectancy and wretched existence due to the fall out of the pollution left in the wake of the drilling.
As much as the environmental issues are an important part of the narrative, it was a side story in the book that is really about the genuine and unjudging friendship between Karl and Abu, two 17-year-olds living in Kings Cross in 2011.
Told in the first-person narrative, Popoola skilfully ushers us inside the heads of the two protagonists and holds a mirror up to their thoughts and experiences as they grow up in urban London. She was able to articulate the struggle, mistakes and unconditional love of parents who are faced with unfamiliar situations when it comes to sexuality and acceptance.
A good third into the book and I thought I fully understood the two protagonists and their stories, before Popoola sprang a curveball that I did not see coming, making me shut the book and ponder for a good 10 minutes. Always a good sign!
All in, this was a well-paced, coming of age novel that gave great insight into the issues of how young people, and the adults around them, deal with sexuality and their identity.
The official book launch is on Sunday 16 July 2017. To attend and buy the book, click here.