What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
To me, the theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ seeks to explore the physicality as well as mentality of the black man/woman. It is the relationship between the skin and the brain—the connection between colouration, scarification, mental capabilities, mental health, and so on, all related to black men and women.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
I don’t know about best, but I think ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi explores the black body quite well.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
Pores that seep melanin to either cause or cure pain, and an afro that changes colour to match her shoes.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Yes. He/she ensures diversity and balance in world narratives about a people. It is about representation—of self, context, reality and voice. Without that representation on the world stage, the black experience – our truth – becomes an interpretation, one in which our reality is being deconstructed in ways that do us very little favour. It reimagines a different reality for us where we play second fiddle, where we are told who we are, and what we are expected to be and do, from an external voice and eye. We become strangers to our own reality because we have allowed it to be defined by others. So the African writer is a huge part of the memory of culture—his/her culture, and he/she exports that to the rest of the world.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
The African gender equality activist.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
Penny Busetto’s ‘The Story of Anna P as Told by Herself.’
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
Kainene as male, because for some reason, I think she would have been closer to Olanna, and also her banter with Odenigbo would be more fun. When their father said Kainene was not just like a son, but like two, he was on to something.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
Mental health is as important as physical health and should be taken care of, and treated as such.
Most people living with mental illness will recover fully if they get the help they need, and stigmatisation is born of myths and ignorance.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
That it may be loved, respected and accepted for what it is.