What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ conjures up two ideas – mental health of black people and mental production (artistic production): how these issues are handled, valued/devalued, talked about, supressed or hyped.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
I can’t remember anyone who celebrates the black body the way Achebe does in Things Fall Apart. The way he presents Okonkwo and Amalinze the cat during that wrestling match, Achebe is inviting you to gaze at the magnificence of the black male. Passages replete with images of hypermasculinity. Because the body is minimally clothed, the reader is invited to gaze on the physical strength of the African male in performance.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
My femme fatale would be plain, unassuming, pleasant – the kind of woman who disappears in a crowd. She would be super strong, super alert when on her period. In those five days, she would save the world from anything. She would hunt down spouses that abuse their partners and children, parents that neglect their children.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
Chinelo Okparanta’s collection of short stories, Happiness Like Water. I would hint that my favourite story in the collection is ‘Fairness,’ But then again, with people that bleach the problem is psychological, and they suffer from a deep lack of confidence.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Oh yes. More so now when the world order is shifting from the West to the East. In a few decades Africa will be a formidable market and hub of creativity and innovation. But to get ourselves ready for that future, first we need twist and turn the African gaze around, to look to itself, become totally Afrocentric and make Africa the centre of the world for ourselves. For too long our gaze has been Eurofocused.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
I think Adichie has filled the space that Western feminists had vacated. Zukiswa Wanner, who has taken on the growing middle class in Africa, is doing a good job of flashing out our petty bourgeoisie pretentions. I cannot help mentioning the two Zimbabwean authors, Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
- On PSTD from WWII I would use The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah.
- On how people with mental problems are treated I would use The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
Okonkwo. This would be a sequel. Okonkwo arrives in the world of the dead and is denied entry. If you arrive via suicide, you are sent back to life in the opposite gender. (Imagine that: Okonkwo had such contempt for women!)
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
- Mental illness is the same as any other human illness – there is nothing to be ashamed of. Also, there are things we can do to keep our mind healthy.
- I would encourage them to talking about it, and talking about it the way we talk about malaria, is the first step in de-stigmatising it. It also lifts a burden off the shoulders.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
Becoming just like any other human body where the need to say Black is Beautiful is removed. Where young men and women do not crave light-skinnedness. I envision more scientific research done on black health – mental and otherwise. I hope they come up with a different measurement of BMI, this one is wrong for us.