When We Speak of Nothing (Olumide Popoola)

When We Speak of Nothing is a novel by Olumide Popoola.
Finished on: 2.5.2020

Content Note: not outright transmisia, but some problematic elements in trans representation

Karl and Abu are 17, best friends and grow up in London together. Out of nowhere for Karl, Karl’s uncle Tunde – the brother of his to him unknown father – shows up and brings news that Karl’s father lives in Nigeria, only just learned that Karl exists and would like to meet him. Karl goes to Nigeria without his mother’s knowledge but the trip ends up very different from what he expected. Meanwhile Abu falls in with a difficult crowd and gets mixed up in the riots surrounding Mark Duggan‘s death. Both boys will have to figure out how to deal with new situations and without each other close-by.

When We Speak of Nothing is an interesting book with very great language, but that has some problems in how it goes about dealing with the fact that Karl is trans – starting with the fact that this piece of information has to be considered a spoiler already. But overall it was a really good read.

The book cover showing a drawing of a burning car in front of a high-rise and a palm tree.

I have to admit that it took me a little bit to get into When We Speak of Nothing. The language of the novel is unusual, often falling into British youth slang and also quoting apparent dictionary definitions of some words (that aren’t really dictionary-worthy definitions when you look at them more closely, but excellent definitions nonetheless). The dictionary definitions worked pretty much instantly for me, the slang parts took a bit of getting used to. But once I was in the groove, I thought it was an excellent way to bring me closer to the characters and made the prose very vivid.

The story itself is also interesting. It emphasizes how politicized belonging really is – who you are is intertwined with where you belong and where you can belong and where you’d want to belong. None of this is neutral and figuring out where you stand in life is made even more complicated when you acknowledge that, as this book does.

As I said, Karl is a trans boy and while I did like a lot about how Popoola – herself a cis woman, as far as I know, as am I – writes about that, not everything works out perfectly. The good stuff first: Karl is never questioned in his gender. Popoola acknowledges that transmisia exists but doesn’t make it a focal point of the story so the novel isn’t about how difficult it is to be trans; for the same reason I appreciated that his immediate social circle is very supportive.

Now the not-so-good stuff: as I mentioned before, Karl’s transness is a surprise reveal for the readers, despite the fact that Karl gets beaten up in the first few pages for being trans and the quotes on the book reference that it is about “being queer”. That’s just bad form. There is also a scene in the book where Karl looks at his naked body – and that scene is the quintessential cis gaze on the trans body. There is no equivalent scene for Abu. Also, when Karl has sex with his love interest, her pleasure is the entire focus, how he touches her. His own lust and pleasure don’t really come into play, which feels supremely weird.

On a more ambivalent note, I was uncertain about Karl’s characterization in a couple of moments. In the beginning, he and Abu are described as being very similar only that Karl is smaller, softer, tidier and always very careful about the way he looks and is dressed. These are traditionally considered feminine traits, of course, and I was ambivalent about that because it hints at Karl, as a trans boy, being more girly than a cis boy. At the same time, trans boys don’t owe any more masculinity than cis boys and can be as girly as anybody else, so it is strange to criticize that.

Despite the problems I had with the trans representation here, I really liked reading the novel. I liked both Karl and Abu and was rooting for them. I liked that it wasn’t the “usual” coming-of-age novel (that is white, cis, mostly wealthy). So, I’d still recommend the novel – with a couple of words of warning beforehand.

Summarizing: Engaging and interesting, despite problems.

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