What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
To me, ‘black bodies’ is shorthand for everything related to the physical experiences and expressions of black people, from using our bodies as canvas for art (with things like tattoos, piercings, locs, scarification, etc.) as well as the spectrum of black skin and how we present our bodies (e.g. androgyny). ‘Grey matter’ is also shorthand, representing mental health and how we relate with and think about black bodies (such as colourism, stereotypes associated with having darker skin even within Africa, perceptions we have based on how people present, and so forth). The theme explores the relationship between both concepts. Another way to look at it is that the theme encapsulates the idea that black bodies matter; it explores all the ways black bodies exist.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
I think that Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett tries to explore how people relate with black bodies using Furo’s experience.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
She would have dark brown eyes, skin the colour of ebony. She’d also have really short hair, so short she’s almost bald and it’d be coloured purple or pink.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
I’m more likely to have a conversation with her about why she wants to do it and what she thinks it would do for her, before recommending anything. I understand why people bleach in general, but I’d like to first understand her specific experience and what finally drove her to this point.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Everyone has a role to play in the world. Yes, some people should have more responsibility than others; people with more privilege should be more active in their service to the world. Writers who have the space, mental and financial bandwidth to do more, should definitely use their work to speak to what’s happening in the world. At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
I don’t think that there is an African perspective on the gender discourse – whether you think of it from a historical or modern perspective. Different cultures, countries and regions within the continent currently have, and have historically had, different ideas of gender; and I can’t think of anyone who explores the nuances present in the discourse.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
I can’t think of any novels that I’ve read that satisfactorily explore mental health.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
I would change two characters actually, Ijeoma and Amina from Under the Udala Tree. It would be interesting to explore reactions to the novel if the characters were male.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
Mental health should be prioritised as much as physical wellbeing. There’s more to mental wellbeing than looking okay on the outside. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a therapist.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
I would like for all kinds of stereotypes to die. Stereotypes about race, gender, colour, sexuality and so forth. My vision for the black body is to live in a world in which we don’t have to defend our skin colour, where we have autonomy over our bodies, where we live freely.