Interview Sogi Nigeria

Thank you so much for agreeing to be featured on SOGI Naija! We’re excited to have you on here. For those unfamiliar with you and your work, could you tell us where you’re from and what you do?
I’m Nigerian-German, spend some years in Nigeria as a child, some more in Germany and have been in London for 10 years now. I’m a writer of fiction, for the stage, poet and performer.
Did you start writing at a young age? When did you realize you wanted to make it your main focus?
I started at age 6, which is when I learned writing. I don’t know what prompted it, probably my love for reading and stories, but I decided and proclaimed then that I would be a writer. I wanted to make it my main focus in my late teens and early 20s but was doing more performance poetry then. Fiction came to me as a surprise only about 5 years ago. I had written a few stories before but not lots. I feel like fiction freed me as artist/ writer. It gave me a new dimension, new levels of exploration.
In addition to writing, you’re also a guest lecturer and a speaker. Could you tell our readers what the scope of your work is in all these different avenues, and what you choose to address or explore through it?
I’m currently completing a PhD in creative writing for which I am producing a cross-genre novel. As part of that I also think (and of course read) critically a lot, in terms of structure of narrative, how a novel could be broken down, “disturbed”, other influences added… Theoretically it might be around themes such as cross-genre, code-switching, border-crossing. So when I get invited to speak I could discuss my work in a larger context of these explorations.  But of course also in regards to the themes I use content wise, thinking process in regards to writing and ‘voice’ itself etc. I kind of like to involve myself as well, what does it mean to be writer for me and create certain characters and let them out into the world.
How do you choose to identify? (as queer/lesbian/gay/none of the above?)
Mercy Killing: A poem by Olumide Popoola that appears in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality
How does your identity play a part in your writing?
I think my life, not just my personal one but what I see on the perimeters of my horizon(s), is reflected in the characters I create. Themes that interest or disturb me in real life find their way into the story. What I can personally imagine possible, permeates the work.
What was the coming out process like for you? How did your family react?
Only my father had trouble with it at first, initially disowning me for a while. But we reconciled and he was then genuinely fine with it (he passed a few years back). Funny is that his reasoning for accepting me was the fact that I am half German. That made it somehow OK.
What’s your opinion on the current state of queer issues in Nigeria, especially the pending anti-gay legislation? How can we work on improving the situation?
Awareness. It takes a lot of brave people to stand up and say things, contest homophobic attitudes in public. Recently a straight Nigerian man stated on facebook that he wanted to de-friend all homophobes, as he was tired with their un-informed and ignorant views. The vendetta was endless and painful to follow. He had incredibly well scripted arguments, based on thorough research and quotes from the bible to defy the common same-sex un-African and un-Christian claims. Yet the hatred was potent. Again, in the end his own acceptance was explained on the fact that he no longer lived in Nigeria, which was an untrue claim.
I think that a lot of organizing and lobbying is happening continent-wide and hopefully it’s a matter of time for more and more people to speak up and defy homophobic views. Networking and being supportive in the way that we can is important. Listening and following the lead of local activists and which direction they are taking in addressing the issue.

‘water running from my mouth’ w/ Leon Michener from Olumide Popoola on Vimeo.

What was it like winning the May Ayim Award back in 2004? How did that affect you as a writer?
It was one of the greatest honours! May Ayim was a very important writer for me and in my development. It still casts waves as people still talk about the award.
Tell us about your recently published novella! Where can we get a copy?
Short: it’s about the unlikely friendship between two women who grace each other’s lives by sharing moments of beauty, understanding and love.
In this is not about sadness, an unlikely friendship between two complex and traumatised London-based women, one an older Jamaican, the other a young South African, is explored through each character’s use of specific language to relate to space, memory and silence. The lyrical dual-narration allows vernacular language to shape the structure and flow, echoing call-and-response modes familiar to international storytelling traditions.
The novel follows pensioner Mrs. Thompson’s and young activist Tebo’s developing friendship and the problems that arise due to their different views on political issues. Their conflictive personalities make for an unusual pair and both carry unspoken trauma. When Tebo cries one day to offer empathy for Mrs. Thompson’s pain, the silence is broken. Their bond is sealed through the acknowledgment of the other’s pain; the personal histories arrive in a space where understanding difference creates possibility for healing and alliance.
You’ve done collaborations with musicians before. How does music intersect with your work?
I love working with live musicians and I did it more often when I still performed more spoken word sets. It gives another layer and dynamic as both have to listen to each other, respond, let the music and the words have their own and a common place. It can take a poem somewhere else and give it a different melody or rhythm than it originally had. It can also allow me to find something new, get out of my own patterns. I’ve also collaborated with various DJs, sometimes for “regular” spoken word sets or even in clubs as live PA. I’ve recently recorded a poem for Edward Maclean, a super talented and amazing Ghanaian-German bass player. I’ve played with him a few times when I lived in Berlin. He’s currently working on a solo project called Adoqué and I put words to one of the tracks. I don’t know any release details yet though, alas. But it’s a great track, that has a subtle haunting melody, and can’t wait for it to come out!

Olumide Popoola reading excerpt from ‘this is not about sadness’ (novella) from Olumide Popoola on Vimeo.

I see you have a BSc in Ayurvedic Medicine! Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Oh… I have to confess that after a short stint as a practitioner I no longer practice. I decided to study Ayurveda because I was deep into Yoga at that time and had also started learning a little about the philosophy. Ayurveda, which is traditional Indian medicine (alternative or complementary medicine if you will), felt like a natural extension and I was fascinated with their views of getting to the root cause of a problem, rather than just pacifying the symptoms. There is also a lot on balancing various things: inside the body, what we eat/ ingest, behaviour etc.
It’s still important to me more in subtler forms.
What advice would you give to young queer Nigerian writers?
Find/ build networks. Be good to yourself. Love. Be brave. Laugh. Enjoy. Find joy, live joy, and live life as much as possible!
What’s next for you? What do you hope to achieve with your work?
I’m working on a play that if all goes well will be published next spring (2013). Also working on a novel, which will take a little longer than that. In the meantime I try and publish some poems or stories here and there or work on collaboration with musicians.
I hope to push the imagination a little. Say that things we sometimes pretend are not possible, are very much able to happen or take place, and that we are not bound to go along with a notion that we shouldn’t talk about them. More than anything: create space. On a recent panel discussion I described it like this: When you see lightening it is said to be Oya, when the thunder sounds it is Shango. Oya prepares the way yet everyone talks about Shango’s power. The imagination is like Oya, it paves the way. If we cannot conceive of something it cannot happen. The rest (impact) comes soon after.
Thank you!