What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ Mean to You?
This is a spectacularly timely theme. It spotlights two extremely necessary, related topics that we generally do not want to talk about – Race and Mental Illness. Okay, so we’re here in Nigeria; so I mean, our experience as people of African descent and our mental health. The theme to me simply means we will be talking openly about these issues, and I simply cannot wait!
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
As clichéd as it might sound, I’d say Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? For me, it is one of the first African novels to unapologetically speak directly to us, we were the primary audience, people of African descent. Achebe showed us ourselves, our environment, our culture; and most importantly, how we thought about things. As it ages, its underlying message seems to morph to answer questions we ask in each generation.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien, what physical attributes would she have?
Hmm… well. Nnedi Okorafor’s work suggests that the African female’s body is already considered exotic and somewhat alien. African women already shape-shift: hair in constant flux, body modified, symbolically scarred and modified for thousands of years. These, our goddesses, buck physical gender constraints and conventions, have conquered and ruled empires and oilfields. I’d simply say: look around you, strip the woman you see of all the negative stereotypes – there’s your femme fatale!
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
I actually have two – Sefi Atta’s ‘Everything Good Will Come’ or A. Igoni Barrett’s ‘Blackass’. They explore colourism with humour!
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
To paraphrase Toni Morrison, whatever genre or stories African writers choose to explore, they should be allowed to claim them as central.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
Many, to be honest, but Mona Eltahawy’s inspired use of literature to force difficult conversations, easily comes to mind. Of course, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde have also all advanced intersectional feminism in their own ways.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
I’ve just gotten through ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’ by Tope Folarin. It is such a vivid picture of mental health and being black. It beautifully illustrates the interplay of genetic and environmental factors in vulnerability to mental illness.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender and why.
Hmmm, I would rewrite Okonkwo of ‘Things Fall Apart.’ I just think it challenges the imagination – beyond what is usual – to imagine a female warrior in a male dominated “sector” so deeply concerned, just like Okonkwo was, about how she is perceived by her peers.
What two things should every teenager understand about Mental Health?
First: that mental health problems are very common and affect everyone; about half of mental health problems begin before the age of 14. And second: that mental health problems have nothing to do with being lazy or weak; and many people need help to get better, and when they do get the help, many recover completely!
What is your vision for the Black Body?
I want the stigma around the black body to be seriously acknowledged and addressed beyond placatory statements. I want conversations around our bodies to evolve beyond our proximity to people of other races, and that we turn our focus to celebrating ourselves, our achievements and the wealth of history and culture from which we draw, to define ourselves today.