“When We Speak of Nothing,” a novel by London-based Nigerian-German author, Olumide Popoola, is an honest examination of what it means to be black, young and queer in Port Harcourt and London.
Peppered with modern slang, When We Speak of Nothing is a fast-paced narrative, that takes a deep look into the lives of the book’s lead characters, examining their struggles, identity and experiences as they navigate through their lives.
It follows the lives of best friends, Karl and Abu, two black London-born seventeen-year old boys who are navigating through the last years of their teen, discovering and learning about themselves and the world around them. Although the book’s entire length takes place within a short period of time, it however, offers readers a critical look into the individual lives of the boys as they both find their paths in different locations while still trying to maintain a friendship that is fast unraveling.
Karl learns that he has a Nigerian father, and without informing his sickly mother, takes off to Nigeria with the hopes of meeting his birth father. His decision to visit Nigeria puts a strain on his relationship with his best friend Abu, his mother, Godfrey (who shares co-guardianship of Karl), and those around him.
In Nigeria Karl is rejected by his father because of his gender identity. Still Karl goes on to have a good time in Nigeria, falling in love and finding acceptance from strangers he meets and befriends. He learns about the environmental pollution in the Niger Delta area, and finds out about what other young people like him are doing to tackle the ecocide in the region.
In London, Abu gets involved in the 2011 London riots, he falls in love while struggling to reconnect with his runaway best friend, Karl, and fend off bullies. His relationship with his mother suffers too. But, for Abu, it is the discovery of the history of slavery, what it means to be black in London and Karl’s disappearance, that affects him the most.
Although the book has a lot of possible distractions and detours (Niger Delta pollution, London riots, alternative family and race), the author manages to keep her voice primed and focused on Karl and Abu – and in so doing, brings and sustains the search light on the central themes of the book: queerness and loyalty.
When We Speak of Nothing is a gripping, well told coming of age story that shows the intricacies of friendship, accepting and dealing with gender identity and difference and the dilemmas faced by teenagers on the brink of adulthood. It is by all standards, a beautiful story that should have been told long ago.