What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
It reminds me of the classic mind-body problem: an unsolved problem in the cognitive sciences concerning the relationship between consciousness in the human mind and the brain as part of the physical body. It highlights this problem in the context of the African experience where, for much of history, the African mind (its mental health, scientific theories, artistic creativity, religions, etc.) have been relatively ignored or diminished in order to exploit the African body.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘The Book of Phoenix’ because of its direct, angry and beautiful focus on the manipulation of African bodies, and the main character’s response to that.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
Quistis from my story, ‘Home is Where My Mother’s Heart is Buried’ is an alien that has all the elements I’d attribute to an African-Alien-Femme-Fatale. She is a shapeshifter, so physically, she can be whatever she wants to be and can sneak into and fit into almost any environment and seduce anyone.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
‘Blackass’ by A. Igoni Barrett.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
The African writer is to reflect as fully as possible the varied African experience and impress that upon the world, as well as to imagine as vividly as possible the multitude of futures for Africans in the world. When we sit back and look at the African literary canon resulting from all our stories, we should see a varied and wide tapestry, and it’s our collective responsibility to weave it.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
Akwaeke Emezi, for her complexity and boldness and the link she draws between gender and a specific set of cultural beliefs.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
‘Azanian Bridges’ by Nick Wood, ‘The Palm Wine Drinkard’ by Amos Tutuola, ‘Woman of the Aeroplanes’ by Kojo Laing, and ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
‘The Passport of Mallam Ilia’ by Cyprian Ekwensi, because it is literally a story about revenge in a time when “a man was a man and women were won by those who deserved them.” Can you just imagine how drastically and fantastically the story dynamics would change if Ilia was a woman of that time?
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
I’m not a mental health professional but numerous studies have linked it to physical health and environmental factors. So I would say: as much as possible, take care of your body and don’t be afraid to change your environment, if you can.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
My vision for the black body is for it to go everywhere without being restricted. I want to see the black body everywhere. On beaches, underwater, at family dinners, in the conference rooms of global research facilities, at conventions and workshops, in the backs of driver-less cars speeding through supercities, on the moon, in research space stations on the event horizon of a black hole, at Olympic events and in stock photos that pop up when you google “successful businesswoman”. And I want none of it to even be remarkable. Normal. Let the presence of the black body be normal. And since we know that melanin can conduct electricity, then I want the black body to be electric everywhere and in every way.