What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
I think this year’s theme reads to me as Black Bodies Matter. To me, it’s a revolution taking charge of the narrative of black stories. There’s never been a time like this in African literature. We are speaking our truth, our shame, our hurt, our pain, our crazy, our being. We are taking control over our lives, and what better way than to do it words and works that stand the test of time?
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
Americanah! I can’t believe I almost typed something different… We hear about the hardship of going to ‘America’ and the success and all the unspoken things. Then, Chimamanda dares to write about this unspoken truth. I love it. Ifemelu faces everything – physically – she explores her body with her love, mentally she shuts him out after “that” incident, emotionally she’s back to a man she never stopped loving. Americanah, that’s the tweet.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
Every book that has ever been written by a black woman. From the autobiographies of Maya Angelou to the debut novel of Akwaeke Emezi, there’s the theme of conflict, acceptance and the strong resolve to remain in self. Read between the lines and know that your colour is part of who you are.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Through owning our narrative in every shape, form and medium, we do a thing for the representation of our community. In 2017 I vowed to read more African authors and I began to see me in black and white in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus; and I saw my sisters and brothers in the North through Hadiza El-Rufai’s An Abundance of Scorpions and Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday. The role is the representation; the African writer represents who we were, who were are and who we hope to be.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
Chimamanda Adichie. Point. Blank. Period.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
Freshwater (Akwaeke Emezi) and Americanah. Freshwater went there! I remember reading this with my book club and I could relate with Ada so much. A lot of them wondered why, but as someone who campaigns for mental health, Ada and I were soul sisters. Why Americanah? Feeling everything and denying so many things is something Nigerians can relate to; Adichie brought the ‘feelings that shouldn’t be named’ to the fore.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
Self-actualise, so you know how to love yourself even when you don’t. You also know it’s fine to just take a step back and have ice cream. Pressure – don’t put the pressure to be, just be free and happy.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
To matter. Truly matter.