Tag Archives: UK

Exclusive Excerpt: When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola

Today on the site we have an exclusive excerpt from When We Speak of Nothing, a newly released novel by Nigerian German author Olumide Popoola about being Black, male, and queer in London that commemorates 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK: 

Best mates Karl and Abu are both 17 and live near Kings Cross. Its 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local “wannabe” thugs just for being different.

When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known. Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma. Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.

Buy it: Amazon * B&N * Book Depository 

Excerpt:

It was hard enough to stay level with this much newness. The sounds, the smells, the colourful outfits interspersed with sports and business wear. He felt lost. And scared. How to fit in here? How to even try?

But this part, immigration, produced even more dizziness. This was only sweat. Nothing else. No question mark, no slow trying to catch your feet. Just bare panic. He closed his eyes for a second. Breathe man, just breathe. He could hear Abu. The visa was approved, the Port Harcourt address verified. All he needed was for it to go quick. No overzealous immigration officer, aka gender police in the making.

Karl took out the mobile again.

heat man!!! no rain in site. @ passport control. Im here. Cant believ it. All gud so far. wish me luck

An officer in a beige uniform walked along the queue that was forming. What his role was supposed to be was a bit difficult to see. The foreigners from the plane were lining up with Karl. It was easy to spot the lot of them, either white or light-skinned, like Karl, almost as if they were carrying signs: really not from here. They were all older than Karl, mostly male, travelling by themselves with little luggage. Their faces were getting sweaty, like Karl’s, but theirs were changing to much deeper red tones. There was a general wiping going on, a couple of chequered handkerchiefs, back of the hand wipe – that sort of thing.

Uncle T had disappeared to the other end of the small hall.

Karl’s eyes followed the officer who stood next to a burly bloke with one large bag hanging over his shoulder. They were shaking hands and a few notes were slipped from one palm to the other. The officer caught Karl staring and Karl focused on his trainers instead. The burly man proceeded to the raised immigration booth and exchanged a few words with the officer behind the glass before leaving the queue and the airport altogether.

‘You have something for me?’ The man in beige appeared next to Karl.

Karl shook his head. ‘Sorry?’

The line was moving faster than he had thought. A lot of the white men in the queue had someone waiting for them, someone in uniform who would fast track them down the line, past the raised booth and out.

The officer looked at Karl. ‘What did you bring for me?’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Karl swivelled around. Where was Uncle T when you needed him?

‘Anything.’

‘I’m sorry? I don’t understand. It’s my first time. My uncle …’

The officer didn’t hide his pity and waved him forward. He had arrived at the raised booth and the man took his passport from his shaking hand and gave it to the man inside the booth. Another officer. He took the passport, looked at the picture, looked at Karl. Karl made himself scarce, pulled himself away from his skin, disappearing inside his bloodstream so that nothing on the outside could touch him. But the guy was still looking. Staring. No bloody subtleness at all, just full-on fixation. Curious and shit but unmoved, no smile, no softening, no invitation to exchange a few pleasantries. Nothing. Then waved to the supervisor behind him, who disengaged from the guy he was chatting with, in slow motion. Before he could make it to them, officer number three arrived, a guy who had been inside the building, further down, closer to the exit. Number three placed his folded arms on the rim of the small cubicle. He was about to tell officers number one and two, the one walking Karl over and the one in the box, something funny. You could see that because he was already smiling about it, like he knew this was a real good one. When he opened his mouth officer two shoved the passport in his face.

‘Ah ah, they no know how to dress demselves. Dis one, no be woman …’

Officer number three, unimpressed, still smiling, licked his lips. Looked at the picture, but didn’t really. Didn’t care one single bit.

‘My friend, leave am now. No be our problem.’

Karl smiled. That shy, I’m so damn unaware of my charm but I’m throwing everything your way smile. Because right now I need it to work, I need that charm to charm you out of asking me too many questions, out of extending this, making it obvious for everyone around. Embarrassing me. Hurting me. Making this unbearable.

And dangerous.

That’s it. Someone had sense, he would be moving on in no time, just like most of the white dudes who had been in the queue before him. All he had to do was get some damn oxygen into his body so he wouldn’t collapse right here. Before he had officially made it to Nigeria. Breathing in, breathing out, one two, one two. Focus on pairs instead of the throng of officials shuffling around the little cubicle. Officer number two was flipping through the passport pages, thumb cinema-like. Officer one was casually looking at it and then at Karl again. Only Spain, otherwise no other country had ever seen this gathering of well-stitched pages.

The supervisor arrived.

Four of them now; officer number three still shrugging his shoulders, ready to move on, finally drop that story. Who cared about whatever it was; it was a long time until they were off; why make life harder by winding yourself up like that? And right at the start of their shift?

‘Wetin worry you? Leave am now. De family will tell am.’

Karl looked at Uncle T, who had walked through the Nigerian citizens’ line and was now far ahead. A questioning look. Karl quickly shaking his head, vigorously. Number four, the supervisor, followed his glance.

‘Your father?’

‘Uncle.’

The officer looked back and forth between them.

‘But my father is waiting for me,’ Karl added, the word unfamiliar, almost sideways in his mouth. The puddle of sweat on his lower back was descending, trickling between his cheeks into his underwear. Father. Even more foreign than his first experience of the country. ‘He is outside.’

Number four’s face stopped doing what it was doing midway, the expression frozen. And like his face, time was now freezing over, sucking out all movement until everything became unreal, dangerously flat, a wall that would collapse and bury you in its debris.

Number three was looking around, trying to find someone else to chat with because this was defo no chatting whatsoever. Not what he had in mind when he had come over. Number two was still staring at Karl. At the long T-shirt that was hanging over his jeans. The trainers that were holding the jeans up, as it seemed. Number one? Had nowhere else to be, nothing else to do.

It was a bit much. The attention. The waiting. The not saying much. A whole group of people, yet again focus on Karl.

‘Your father is outside?’

Number four seemed to have recovered. Karl nodded, eyes sending nothing cute and charming any more just good old please. Pleading. But number four was already reaching inside the booth. Fumbled around. Then a quick stamp. Officer two shook his head. Supervisor handed the passport to Karl, ‘Welcome to Nigeria’, ignored everyone else and walked off.

Officer two annoyed. Disapproving. ‘Na crazy, dis one.’

But there was nothing else to be done. The group dispersed.

Karl was through and out the other side.

*****

London-based Nigerian-German Olumide Popoola is a writer, speaker and performer. Her publications include essays, poetry, the novella This is not about Sadness (Unrast, 2010), the play Also by Mail (edition assemblage, 2013), the short collection Breach, which she co-authored with Annie Holmes (Peirene Press, 2016), as well as recordings in collaboration with musicians. In 2004 she won the May Ayim Award in the category Poetry, the first Black German Literary Award. Olumide has a PhD in Creative Writing and has lectured in creative writing at various universities. She is available for live studio interview.

Better Know an Author: Laura Lam

This month’s featured author is the lovely Laura Lam, the brilliant mind behind several SFF series with queer main characters, spanning both YA and Adult categories. If you haven’t already read her work, now’s the time to learn more about it and pick it up!

It’s been quite the busy year for you! Multiple releases, loads of events across Europe… If you stand back for a second and take a breath to think about it, what’s been your favorite bookish moment of the year so far?

It has been an uncommonly busy year! I’ll never have this many releases in so short a space of time, I don’t think, as a few were due to delays as a result of changing publishers. I think my favourite bookish moment was going to Dutch Comic Con in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It was my first convention as an invited guest, and I also got to meet Gates McFadden (Doctor Beverly Crusher from Star Trek TNG). I gave her a copy of False Hearts and she ended up reading it, liking it, and now she follows me on Twitter. Win! It was also just a nice, friendly con and me, Zen Cho, and Vic James were all really well treated by The American Book Center, who helped organize our events.

You got your start with your Micah Grey trilogy, which was pretty unlike anything publishing had seen at the time, and also had a bit of a bumpy publication process. For those who don’t know about the process of getting all three books into the world, can you share that experience? And what was the reception to the series like from readers?

Micah Grey stars an intersex, bisexual, genderfluid lead. Back in 2012, there was fewer books that investigated the gender binary—in just a few years we now have so much more, and that’s brilliant! Most of them are still in contemporary YA, whereas the Micah Grey books are gaslight fantasy in a secondary world. I wrote it, not really thinking about how it might be hard to get published. I was very lucky in that it sold to the first and only publisher who saw it—Angry Robot Books, who were just about to start Strange Chemistry, the YA imprint. Pantomime came out a year later in 2013, and it had really nice reviews and a decent amount of buzz. I wrote the second book, Shadowplay, which came out in 2014, but a few weeks after it was released, my trilogy was cancelled and I was pretty devastated.

I’d always thought that the hardest part of writing was finishing the book, then getting a book out there. But actually, staying published and being able to have regular releases is a much greater challenge. I’d wondered if that was it. If I’d wasted my shot. I kept getting lovely messages from readers, many of whom were queer and/or investigating their own gender identity, and each one made me burst into tears as I was so sad because I didn’t know if the series would be finished. I kept trying to write it, but I was still heartbroken. I figured at some point I’d self-publish.

So I wrote something else—False Hearts. And I threw everything I had into it. It’s more violent so I channelled that frustration. It sold, and then my agent was like “well before you self-publish, let’s see if Tor UK want your trilogy too.” Turns out they did. I cried so, so many tears when I found out. It’d been like I’d been holding my breath for almost two years at that point. Now all three books are out and I’m just very grateful. I had to fight for it, but it was worth fighting for.

You’ve since jumped from YA to Adult, and fantasy to sci-fi, with your Pacifica series, beginning with False Hearts. Do you find your heart is in any one category and/or genre, or do you see yourself continuing to jump around, and why?

False Hearts was freeing because it was so very different to what I’d written before. I used to think I’d be rubbish at writing science fiction and thought my heart would always be with fantasy, but it turns out I was wrong and I love both equally. They each have different rewards and challenges. I don’t think I’ll ever write the same genre forever. I have ideas for more science fiction, a science fantasy duology, a time travel historical fantasy, and a book that’s not science fiction or fantasy at all. I like to keep trying new things.

Bisexual representation is something I think we can all agree is lacking in genre fiction, but definitely not in your books! Can you share a little bit about your bisexual characters, and how their sexuality fits into their worlds?

Pretty much all of my protagonists are bi. Micah Grey is bi, and so is his love interest, Drystan. Taema and Tila from False Hearts are bi. Carina’s love interest in Shattered Minds is a trans man, and though I don’t state her sexuality outright, I don’t think she’s straight. I am not sure if I know how to write a 100% straight protagonist. *shrug*

In Micah Grey, the world is very repressed and Victorian-inspired, so there is more hesitation and secrecy around sexuality there. In Pacifica, the world of False Hearts and Shattered Minds, it’s about 100 years in the future, and I made the deliberate choice to have all forms of sexuality and gender identity be no big deal whatsoever. There’s still some bigoted people, sure, but they’re fairly few and far between. It was nice write that. While there’s many things about that world I wouldn’t want to actually come true, I do hope that does.

You publish in both the US and UK, which means different pub dates, different covers…it almost looks like two totally different experiences. How do you balance doing promo and having publishers on both sides of the pond?

Only False Hearts and Shattered Minds have two different publishers. Micah Grey at the moment, only has a UK publisher but they distribute copies to the US, hence the slight delayed release of them (so there was time to ship). Balancing the promotion is definitely hard. Usually I end up doing two blog tours. I’m not able to get out to the states very often, though I’m going out this August and will be doing at least one event at Borderlands. I’m glad I have a presence on both sides of the pond, both where I grew up and where I live now.

In addition to your full-length novels, you’ve also published short fiction. What can you share about it?

I wrote the Vestigial Tales, which are prequel short stories and novellas in the same world, to teach myself how to self-publish back when I thought that was the way it was going to go. Writing them also helped me keep the love for that series alive as I recovered and wasn’t sure what the heck was going on with my career. They’re all prequels set in the same world. “The Snake Charm” is about one of the secondary characters, Drystan, in the Circus of Magic before Micah joins. “The Fisherman’s Net” is a short fable about a mermaid and the dangers of greed. “The Tarot Reader” is another character, Cyan’s, story in the circus she worked in before she’s introduced in Shadowplay, book two. “The Card Sharp” is another story about Drystan, about him being a Lerium drug addict and card sharp before joining the Circus of Magic. “The Mechanical Minotaur” I released this year, and it’s sort of like a non-racist Indian in the Cupboard meets Boy Cinderella, and doesn’t really feature any characters from the main series (but is still best read after Masquerade as a cap to the series).

Friends helped me edit, another friend made the covers (Dianna Walla, who was my childhood pen pal!), and I formatted them myself. The first Vestigial Tale is permanently free if anyone wants to check it out and it can be read before Pantomime.

On your blog, you share monthly posts about what books you’ve just read. What have your favorites been so far this year, and what are you really looking forward to for the remainder of 2017?

I try to read about 100 books a year, though I don’t always make it. I feel like reading a lot is a valuable part of market research. Plus it’s just really good for my soul.

Some of my favourites this year:

  • Duke of Shadows – Meredith Duran
  • Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Tiny Pretty Things – Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra
  • The Seafarer’s Kiss – Julia Ember
  • Nasty Women – edited by 404 ink (disclaimer: I do have a story in this)
  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
  • A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal – Meredith Duran
  • Parable of the Talents & Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler
  • The Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett
  • Assassin’s Fate – Robin Hobb
  • The Radium Girls – Kate Moore

I’m very bad at planning what I’m going to read over the rest of the year. I know I really want to read Want by Cindy Pon! I’m also searching for a first person past tense book with an unreliable narrator to use for my First Person Module I teach at Napier, so next I’m reading His Bloody Murder by Graeme Macrae Burnet and The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp.

What’s something you’ve seen in LGBTQIAP+ media that’s really stuck with you, for better or for worse?

I internalised a lot of the biphobic things I saw in media. I thought I couldn’t be bi because I’ve only dated my boyfriend/now husband. The number one thing that annoys me is when they dance around saying bisexual. Certain people don’t want to put labels, and that’s fine, but every time I see a character who is clearly by say “oh I don’t like labels,” I do grind my teeth a little. I put “I’m bi” in False Hearts and have had almost 20 people email me thanking me for putting those two letters of B and I in a book, so I don’t think I’m the only one who feels the frustration. I want to see bi characters who are just as awesome and interesting as any other character.

What’s up next for you?

Who knows? That sounds flippant, but I’m in that awkward in between stage where I’ve finished my current contract but can’t quite pitch for more just yet as they’re waiting for False Hearts paperbacks sales (so buying a copy would be loooovely if the premise interests you!). I’m editing two books and hoping I can sell them in autumn.

*****

Photo credit: Elizabeth May

Originally from sunny California, Laura Lam now lives in cloudy Scotland. Lam is the author of BBC Radio 2 Book Club section False Hearts, the companion novel Shattered Minds, as well as the award-winning Micah Grey series PantomimeShadowplay, and Masquerade. Her short fiction and essays have also appeared in anthologies such as Nasty WomenSolaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History, and more.  She lectures part-time at Napier University in Edinburgh on the Creative Writing MA.

On Section 28 and Its Effect on Queer Lit, a Guest Post by Kathleen Jowitt

On the site today we have Kathleen Jowitt, the author of Speak Its Name, the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. (More on that below.) In honor of Pride Month, Kathleen is here to share a piece of queer lit history, namely the British rule of Section 28, and how that affected the publication path of Speak Its Name. Before we get to that, a little more on the book itself:

A new year at the University of Stancester, and Lydia Hawkins is trying to balance the demands of her studies with her responsibilities as an officer for the Christian Fellowship. Her mission: to make sure all the Christians in her hall stay on the straight and narrow, and to convert the remaining residents if possible. To pass her second year. And to ensure a certain secret stays very secret indeed.

When she encounters the eccentric, ecumenical student household at 27 Alma Road, Lydia is forced to expand her assumptions about who’s a Christian to include radical Quaker activist Becky, bells-and-smells bus-spotter Peter, and out (bisexual) and proud (Methodist) Colette. As the year unfolds, Lydia discovers that there are more ways to be Christian – and more ways to be herself – than she had ever imagined.

Then a disgruntled member of the Catholic Society starts asking whether the Christian Fellowship is really as Christian as it claims to be, and Lydia finds herself at the centre of a row that will reach far beyond the campus. Speak Its Name explores what happens when faith, love and politics mix and explode.

Buy it: Amazon (US) * Amazon (UK) * Lulu (paperback) * Lulu (ebook)

And now, here’s Kathleen:

My first novel has just become the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. This is an annual award presented to the best first novel by an author under the age of 35.

Speak Its Name is the story of an evangelical Christian, and closeted lesbian, trying to navigate the troubled waters of university politics. The judges called it “An original, closely-observed, funny and often touching story with an unusual setting and a keen understanding of the interactions between members of small communities.”

I’m thrilled, of course, and I’m very proud to be the first self-published author on that shortlist. It’s pretty amazing to have the quality of my work affirmed in such an unarguable manner.

But I can’t help wondering… if history had been different, might there have been a route into conventional publishing, a route that wasn’t closed off to me and my book? What would have things been like, if it hadn’t been for Section 28?

Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act is notorious in British LGBT history. It stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

It came into effect in 1988, three years before I started primary school, and was repealed in 2003, just as I’d begun my first year at university. The whole of my school career, therefore, was overshadowed by this silence. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I’d heard the word ‘bisexual’ before I turned eighteen.

Because Section 28 was assumed to apply to the school library as much as it did to biology or citizenship classes, it stunted a whole branch of LGBT teen literature. If a library (a public library or a school library – both would fall under the Local Government Act) couldn’t be expected to buy a book, then a publisher couldn’t be expected to publish it.

As a result, the long, honourable tradition in the United States of America stretching from Nancy Garden to David Levithan and beyond, just doesn’t exist in British publishing. Jacqueline Wilson, who’s tackled issues from adoption to eating disorders, homelessness to mental illness, doesn’t address homosexuality in any sort of depth until 2007.

The one book with any sort of LGBT theme that I can remember getting into my school library was Dare, Truth or Promise – by New Zealand author Paula Boock. The only Nancy Garden was, ironically enough, The Year They Burned The Books.

That meant that, when I wrote Speak Its Name, nobody knew quite what to do with it. Even though Section 28 had been gone for the best part of a decade, the genre that my novel would have slotted into had never recovered.

So I published it myself. And, while my shortlisting shows that this was absolutely the right decision and I don’t regret it for a second, I can’t help but be a little bit wistful. Not for my book, but for all the other books, the ones that never made it to print because “nobody would publish them'” because “nobody would buy them'” because of Section 28. The ones that my fifteen-year-old self would have loved to read.

*****

Kathleen Jowitt was born in Winchester, UK, and grew up deep in the Welsh Marches and, subsequently, on the Isle of Wight. After completing her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Exeter she moved to Guildford and found herself working for a major trade union. She now lives in Cambridge, works in London, and writes on the train.