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Performance poet Olumide Popoola sets debut novel in King’s Cross

Olumide Popoola’s debut novel is a quirky coming-of-age tale with a difference about two black friends living in King’s Cross

15 September, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah

Olumide Popoola and her debut novel, When We Speak of Nothing

Karl and Abu are two black friends living in King’s Cross, where regeneration is making things “all clean and shiny” but placing them on the wrong side of the tracks, and the cops are always on their back.

Austerity has begun to bite and tensions are high – in a few months the whole of London will explode into the 2012 riots. But for now the youngsters have more immediate worries on their mind after being jumped by a local gang on their way to sixth-form college. The target is Karl, who is seen as being different.

So begins Olumide Popoola’s debut novel, When We Speak of Nothing, exploring the lives of two boys learning to make their way in a world they feel alienated from but where friendship provides that all-important ballast.

The focus of the story, though, is Karl, who lives with his chronically ill white mother and whose welfare is overseen by social worker Godfrey. It turns out that Karl used to be Carla and has been taking puberty blockers with his mother’s blessing.

While being mixed race and transgender are non-issues for those who love him, they come to the fore during an unexpected trip to Nigeria, where the father he has never met lives.

Karl learns to cope with the inevitable rejection and the cultural shock of a place that “makes King’s Cross seem like a piece of cake”, managing to get his head around routine power outages and pidgin English and to forge new friendships with people who accept him for the what he is, including Janoma, the woman with whom he has his first sexual encounter.

Thrown into this heady mix is Port Harcourt, where Karl is staying, a corrupt oil city in the grip of kidnapping gangs and a long-running insurgency against the polluting multinationals.

Meanwhile back in King’s Cross, after inadvertently becoming caught up in the riots, Abu is badly beaten up and ends up in hospital.

Phew! There’s so much going on here it is sometimes hard to keep up with a storyline that often defies credibility.

For example, would a social worker really keep his charge’s impending trip to Nigeria a secret from the mother, and what struggling single mum would rebuff genuine offers of financial help from her son’s father’s family?

Popoola, a London-based writer of Nigerian and German descent, got the idea for her novel during her time working with young people in King’s Cross a few years back, and I suspect it is a composite of the characters and stories she came across, seen through the prism of race, class and gender.

It is no surprise that Popoola is also a performance poet and it is her inventive word play that manages to fire the complex narrative along, a grime-like lyricism peppered with “innits”, “OMGs” and “bluds”. It is a language all of its own: a hospital becomes “long corridors of hush hush rush”, questions bounce “back and forth like bad table tennis”, and nerves flutter “like a trapped pigeon”.

Aside from the novelty of being set in King’s Cross at a pivotal moment in Britain’s recent past, this quirky if convoluted coming of age tale is a worthy attempt at giving an overlooked generation a voice.

• When We Speak of Nothing. By Olumide Popoola, Cassava Republic Press, £9.99

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