Late winter and early spring brings the publication of two novels – which I coincidentally read in succession – which have significant thematic as well as tonal overlap. “When We Speak of Nothing” by Olumide Popoola and “Speak No Evil” by Uzodinma Iweala are both novels about young, black, and queer characters whose parents are of Nigerian descent. They embrace the intersectionality of privilege and oppression, highlighting tensions which are resonating at the surface of modern life.
In “When We Speak of Nothing”, Popoola features Karl, a young man coming of age in the council flats of London where his chronically ill mom virtually shares custody of Karl with his best friend Abu’s family.
“Those two? Like twins. The funny thing? Abu’s parents already had twins and they were a sweet-but-annoying seven years old. Was almost as if Abu had needed to fins his own match, so he had someone to leave the house with. Even funnier? His mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother. Meaning Karl was in and out of their house like trains out of St Pancras station. More in than out actually. “
As a transgender and biracial man, Karl faces daily oppressions, from microaggressions to all out assault.
“Karl. Abu. The neighbourhood. Karl got beaten less because Abu stepped into the line of fire. It had become a thing of pride for Abu. You don’t leave your bestie to be attacked. You take care of that shit, as he liked to say. Not that he could; one dreamy Karl and one Abu against a bunch of haters … too much even for Abu’s big mouth. But still. You tried. Best friend’s honour.”
When Karl is contacted by his father’s brother, suddenly a world which has been totally unknown to him opens up. Unbeknownst to his mother and with the help of his social worker, Karl flies to Nigeria to get to know his estranged father. In Nigeria, Karl’s eyes are opened to a different culture, to political struggles, and to a sense of belonging he has never felt before. Unfortunately, he also faces the violent rejection of his transphobic father and the real dangers of being discovered in a society with no tolerance for differences in gender identity nor sexual orientation.
Popoola is a beautiful writer taking on a fascinating topic. Hers is one of several novels I have read lately from the perspective of a transgender main character, and the simultaneous normalization and empathy her story evokes strikes a welcome tone in a climate of fear and hate.
“My life was supposed to be different. Niru and I were supposed to go to Harvard together. He was supposed to become a doctor, the cool kind – a trauma surgeon who saves lives in difficult places. I was supposed to become a lawyer, the cool kind like Amal Clooney, who prevents genocides while wearing Louboutins. We were supposed to live in an apartment in New York, then a row house in Dupont Circle, and settle in Foxhall or Kalorama with our beautiful biracial children, an older girl and a younger boy. We would name them Nigerian names and use our one car to take them skiing in Vermont. But then I kissed him and that loosely woven fantasy unraveled. Most of my life since has been a mystery to me.”
In “Speak No Evil”, Uzodinma Iweala presents his readers with the “model minority”, the son of high-achieving, assimilationist Nigerian immigrants in a well-to-do neighborhood in Washington, DC. Niru is a senior at an elite private school, destined for the Ivy League and all it’s promises. Niru is used to being the lone black kid in his classes, the only one to face microaggressions daily from his classmates and the real fear of moving in white spaces as a young black man, as someone seen as a threat even by those who are tasked with serving and protecting.
“The white kids used to touch me all the time when I was younger, like they owned me. They’d call me Velcro Head and press things to my hair to see what would stick. I let them play around because there were always more of them than me and because back then I didn’t know the difference between ignorance and malice. Then there was that time one of the girls came up to me after school and asked if she could look down my pants, just a peek, you know, to settle a debate they had after sex ed. I pretended not to hear, but I walked around the rest of the day staring at the floor with my fists clenched.”
Niru’s parents are notoriously strict, with high expectations and a steely reserve.
“He says congratulations, and holds his hand out to shake mine. I accept and his rough palms grip my hands tightly. Your mother had to go back to work, he says. She’s proud of you, we’re proud of you, I’m proud of you. My stomach flutters. My parents do not say things like I’m proud of you or I love you often – my mother more than my father, which is almost never. They show their love by paying our tuitions, OJ says, and by putting food on the table. They show they are proud by demanding even more than you think you can do.”
Niru is gay, but he is barely even able to admit it to himself, let alone to the outside world. He only tells his best friend Meredith when she tries to kiss him and he doesn’t reciprocate. But when Niru’s parents find text messages on his phone from a love interest and discover that he is gay, they are panic-stricken and furious. Soon, Niru’s father has bundled him off to Nigeria for an intervention of sorts in order to ‘fix’ him.
Iweala deals with incredibly heavy topics – race, sexuality, parental expectations, bias – with respect and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. His witticisms are often simultaneously deeply specific and somehow broadly relatable, like his description, in Niru’s words, of how Niru’s father is transformed upon arrival in his home country.
“My father becomes an entirely different man when we come to Nigeria. OJ cam up with a term for the condition during a trip we took the summer after his first year in medical school. He said Daddy had a bad case of Nigeriatoma, an acute swelling of ego and pride that affects diaspora Nigerian men, rendering them unable to accept the idea that a true home might exist outside of their birth country. Symptoms may vary but are exceptionally pronounced upon return to native soil and include hyperactivity, elevated mood, grandiose thinking and increased aggression.”
“Speak No Evil” was often quiet and understated, sometimes slow and then off at a sprint, and surprisingly unpredictable. It is relevant in ways that are deeply affecting and effective.
Thank you to Harper for “Speak No Evil” and to Cassava Republic for “When We Speak of Nothing” in exchange for fair and honest reviews.