What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
I see it as a welcome theme at a time when blackness and the consciousness of being black is receiving attention from movies like Black Panther to Beyonce’s companion album to The Lion Ling (2019); and the whole conversation that’s bound to open up in literature in the wake of the passing of the colossus, Toni Morrison, as a writer who wrote black into the literary canon like no one has ever done. The play on black and grey matter, I think, is quite clever and positions the conversation, squarely, in the realm of the serious and the intellectual.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
I would say all novels by Toni Morrison, who sadly passed away as I was taking a stab at this. She was particular about representing not just the black experience and worldview but the representation and portrayal of the black body, beginning right from her debut, ‘The Bluest Eye’, and all the way through ‘Sula’ to ‘Beloved’; and even ‘Paradise,’ which begins with the chilling words – “They shoot the white girl first.”
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
BS detector especially when it comes to stoopid men. That should be alright. But more seriously: black skin, kinky hair, brown eyes, full lips, fuller hips and sturdy legs. Not particular about big bosoms or booty. A femme fatale should be agile and lithe.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
I would start with ‘The Bluest Eye’ and then offer ‘Sula.’
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
Yes, in a world that’s becoming more and more brown by the day, the African nay black writer, has a role to play as a representative voice for a people.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
It will be too much to place the weight of the discourse on one person’s shoulders but if I was to choose I would say Mona Eltahawy. I like her feisty consistency.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
‘Blackass’ by A. Igoni Barrett because it riffs on identity, displacement, sexuality and gender in a non-judgmental way. ‘26a’ by Diana Evans, too.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why?
I wouldn’t do that. I think it would be insulting to the original creator of that character.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
First is that it is just what it is, an illness like any other and so, nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, many people are actually dealing with issues of mental health, so it is not peculiar.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
I look at this from two perspectives; the political and the physical.
That the black (wo)man should be proud of their colour.
That the black body is respected and accepted as valid and not as the ‘other’ (with all the racist connotations).
In a world going brown, the black (brown) body would sooner than later become the norm.
Finally, the ‘hunger’ to be white, the colourism that blights the movie industry and our music videos which privilege light skin over dark, must stop.