What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
The theme is taking into cognizance the nexus between our bodies as black people and our mental health. Black bodies and grey matter are metaphors for these two important things. It’s about how we view ourselves as black people. As a woman, it’s contemplating the politics and reality of gender and sex, and how we as Africans can destroy harmful stereotypes and should be welcoming to queer people. The mental health bit is especially relevant now that there’s a growing awareness around mental health, disrupting the age-old stigma. There’s still more to be done. I believe that this year’s theme is going to shake a lot of tables, and that the powerful conversations will serve as catalysts of change.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
I rarely read African novels through the lens of ‘blackness.’ If I had to choose an African American novel though, I would say ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison, because it covers a lot of ground on racism and colourism. The novel paints a reality that still exists here in Africa and Nigeria: ‘white is associated with beauty and innocence, while black is associated with ugliness and dirtiness.’ There’s also ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe, which deals with sex work by black women in Europe. This is an important perspective of the black body because people do not see sex work as real work; it’s seen as selling the body etc. But it is real work and the members of this profession deserve respect; they’re real people with important stories.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
She has green eyes and red skin and is 8 feet tall.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
I’d certainly give her Toni Morrison’s ‘God Help the Child’ — it treats colourism with an even more modern approach.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
I don’t know that the African writer should have a specific role to play. I think all of us as humans have a role to play, and giving artists or writers a higher role or prescription usually ends up burdening them, and sort of restricting the kind of work they produce. We should use our art for bettering society and enlightening people, but it should be more of a personal choice.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
I’d say Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi, which allows for a traditional perspective on mental illness based on Igbo spirituality.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
I’m not sure of any.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
That taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. And that mental health is not just people walking naked on the street.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
That we will get to the place where the black body will be free from prejudice; that black people will be prouder of our skin, hair and whatever makes us black; and that black women the world over will have autonomy over our bodies.