What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?

The theme of Ake Festival 2019, ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ is powerful because it takes us a step further than we have gone before in determining our own subjectivity. Our focus until now has been on the ‘black body’, which is reactive to being labelled black as opposed to white. Grey matter refers to the brain. It does not present in oppositional form. So, in engaging with our grey matter, we free ourselves from seeing ourselves through the subjectivity of another. No African called her or himself black before the advent of people with lesser concentrations of pigment.

Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?

Personally, I do not read for bodily experiences, so that is a difficult question for me. Having said that, I have just read Freshwater (Akwaeke Emezi), and I do think that is a remarkable exploration of the black body.

You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?

These are all very difficult concepts and questions for me. I reject categories such as femme fatale, because, in my opinion, they do not emerge from a subjectivity that I identify with, that I am willing to explore. A femme fatale is generated by a particular view on gender, which I do not believe is definitive. I would much rather explore other aspects of gender. The same is true of aliens with respect to belonging and not belonging. Those of us on the continent who experienced settler colonisation are predisposed to understand how critical it is to explore such oppositions from a fresh perspective. It is my growing understanding that there are no others. What then, if I proposed, “There are no aliens?” I would much rather explore what makes a being I have not encountered before similar to me, rather than different.

What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.


Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?

In the sense that the writer is an amplified voice, yes, the African writer has a role to play in the current world order. As I see it, the amplified voice of the writer should work to create space for others like the writer, where those spaces were originally closed.  I am not thinking of a specific space, but of spaces generally.

Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?

I do not personally know enough people who are presenting an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender. I find that since gender work is often funded by the global north, global northern perspectives prevail.

You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?

Penumbra (Songeziwe Mahlangu).

Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.

I would not want to rewrite a character from an African novel as a different gender. I believe the author created that character in a particular way for a reason, and I would want to honour that creative work. I might be inspired to write a piece of my own with a character in another gender exploring similar issues.

What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?

It ebbs and flows, just like physical health. Sometimes one has more of it, sometimes one has less of it. One should seek help when the ebb is so pronounced as to interfere with what one has to do in one’s daily life.

What is your vision for the Black Body?

Freedom from blackness. I would like every black body to view itself simply as a body.