What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?

This relates directly to the content of my book, ‘Skin Deep’ – it covers the territory explored by the book (race ‘science’ and why it is wrong). For me personally, it has an added resonance because I grew up mainly in Apartheid South Africa with its history of subjugating black bodies and using spurious arguments about grey matter to do so.


Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?

There are so many to choose from. But I will choose the one I read most recently, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which deals with African identity in a Nigerian and American context and explicitly looks at skin colour, hairstyles and so on, in this regard.


You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?

Well, she would either be African or an alien, but she couldn’t be both.


What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?

Again, Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ would be a good start. I would also give her my book ‘The Story of Colour’ (Michael O’Mara, 2017), which has a section on skin lightening and on skin colour. And I would give her ‘Skin Deep’, which looks at the history of ‘colourism’ and where skin lightening emerged from.


Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?

Perhaps. to raise the awareness of non-Africans about the lives of people in Africa, about their loves and likes and hates, and about the problems faced by Africans, and about how different they are from each other.


Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?

Again, I am going to choose Adichie. Her TED talk on feminism was brilliant.


You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?

One would be ‘Willow Weep for Me’ by the Ghanaian-American writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (although that is a memoir). Margie Orford’s crime novel, Gallow’s Hill, deals with the relationship between physical abuse and mental illness, among other things.


Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.

Perhaps the character Bakayoko in Ousmane Sembene’s ‘God’s Bits of Wood’. He’s a charismatic trade union leader who, by the end, is made slightly less ideally heroic by his philandering. He would be extremely interesting as a woman character for these reasons.


What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?

First, that they are not alone – that the problems they experience with mental health are shared by so many. Second, that the best way to start dealing with it, is to talk about it.


What is your vision for the Black Body?  

That it is not idealised at the expense of the brain.