Back in 2011 when riots flared up in England, I remember riding home late at night on a bus that had to be diverted because Brixton was in chaos. Everyone on that bus was charged up with the news scrolling through their phones and checking social media for bits of information. It's interesting how when any major events like this happen in our local areas now a collective conversation occurs, but only within our circumscribed social groups and rarely with people we're actually sitting next to on public transportation. In the ensuing weeks the news was filled with people asking why this happened. Certainly the police shooting Mark Duggan sparked it off, but there must have been a lot of tension there already to provoke widespread arson and looting. Olumide Popoola certainly doesn't attempt a definitive answer to this complex question or speak for all the youth involved, but her engaging and vibrant novel “When We Speak of Nothing” represents something of the younger generation who felt under-represented and unheard. The author writes: "When we speak of nothing we don't end the silence." Moreover it's a heartrending tale of friendship, the British working class, first love and queer BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) youth culture.
Best friends Karl and Abu are on the brink of adulthood. They are at that crucial time of rapid intellectual, physical and emotional development. This is conveyed in part within the narrative through subjective definitions where particular words take on special meaning for these boys. They have a growing consciousness of the world outside the small social group of their friends and the bullying wannabes who hassle them. They live in the Kings Cross area of London. Abu grows to see his environment in a rounder context: both the past of this place which at one time in history housed slave-traders and the future of this place undergoing large-scale regeneration which will inevitably squeeze out people from his social-economic group. Alternatively, Karl keenly feels a division of his national identity when he's given an opportunity to meet his estranged father who lives in Nigeria. The majority of the novel is divided between Abu in London and Karl in Nigeria where both young men undergo radical changes and their connection to each other is severely tested. The author shows the particular dynamic of their communication infused with modern slang within disjointed texts and online chats. Their story is a wonderful tribute to how friendship can be more tight-knit than family.
What's particularly special about the way their connection is represented is that Karl's queerness isn't an issue until people outside their circle make it an issue. We feel his character and personality as unique in itself outside of any question of gender. There's no conflict in identity for Karl or the people who love him; the only conflict comes from outside of that. Some of the most emotionally charged scenes come when Karl, after much delay, finally meets his father and doesn't receive the welcome he wanted. Popoola conveys the crushing vulnerability of a child in this position, but also the beautiful way some strangers instantly accept him for the person he is. She powerfully shows the way people in Karl's position can receive wonderful support, but must still continually negotiate public knowledge of their full identity.
Equally, Abu is frequently made aware of his racial “otherness” when travelling in London especially when the riots begin. When news of this starts to spread he receives this comment on a bus: "'You people are a disgrace.' He had heard that so many times it made him laugh. Sometimes it was said out loud, like here. Most of the time it was the state. You. People. A threat." Not only does this diminish his identity as an individual, but adds to his justified concern about being perceived as a threat simply because of his skin colour. In this way Popoola gives a strong sense of a segment of British youth being alienated from a society which excludes them and this is what contributes towards "the city out of control because the country was out of control because the whole banking thing had gone like, way mad. Because none of them had much to be good for."
“When We Speak of Nothing” makes an excellent fictional companion to the powerful book "The Good Immigrant" for the way it speaks about alienation amongst minority groups within the UK. I think this is a novel which a wide audience will enjoy, but particularly appeal to a younger readership who will identify with both the language used and issues raised. It's wonderfully engaging and has a distinctive, refreshing voice that strongly speaks about the world we live in now.