JJ Bola is a Kinshasa born, London raised writer, poet, and educator. He has published three books of poetry Elevate (2012) and Daughter of the Sun (2014). His third, WORD (2015) is his most comprehensive poetry collection.
His debut novel No Place to Call Home (OWN IT, 2017) will be out this June. He is an MA Creative Writing student (Kit de Waal Scholar), Birkbeck, University of London (2017) and Spread the Word Flight 1000 Associate (2017).
JJ Bola’s work is centered on a narrative of empowerment, humanization, healing of trauma as well as discovery of self through art, literature and poetry. Creating the increasingly popular adage, ‘hype your writers like you do you rappers’, he believes that the true purpose of poetry (art) is to expose the reality of this world and how to, most importantly, survive it.
JJ Bola reads regularly at shows and festivals across London/UK such as Tongue Fu, Vocals & Verses, Chill Pill, The Round House, Ventnor Fringe, Glastonbury etc as well as Universities; SOAS, UCL, Oxford, Lincoln, University of Birmingham, and a mini tour of the US West Coast in 2015/16, LA, Da Poetry Lounge, UCLA, Stanford University and Merrit College in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland, where he won the Oakland Poetry Slam.
This conversation took place in a green sweet-spot in the cold city of Gaborone, Botswana and cold, wet, rainy London over a cup of tea by Skype.
Gaamangwe: JJ in an interview with Electric magazine, you said “Our existence is political”, which I think is a powerful statement. How has this statement been true for you?
JJ: Here, the statement “our existence is political” is essentially an observation of how we as human beings fit the society that we are born into, in the world. We often only consider politics in terms of political parties or when it comes to voting and not necessarily; what schools we decide to send our children to, what areas we grow up in, what languages we learn or what music we listen to, but all of these are political decisions and we are influenced by that.
This has been true for me when I reflect on my own experiences in life. Coming into the UK as a refugee, immediately from a young age, I was made aware that to be a refugee and not have status in a country or society that required you to have legal status, means that your existence is political. But also when you do get that status, that is also a political existence. There are a lot of political elements that exists that really sum up the reality of our day to day lives.
Gaamangwe: How has being a refugee throughout your lifetime influenced the experiences that you have experienced?
JJ: From as far as when I was in school, I was always aware that I had a different reality compared to my friends around me and those who weren’t refugees because of the kind of access that I had to certain spaces or certain opportunities.
So when kids talked about where they went for holidays on the summer or when it came to applying for certain opportunities to do with education, I was aware of the fact that I didn’t have a passport or status. This meant that I was restricted from access to a lot of thing. There was also how I felt; you are always reminded that you are on the outside, you’re always on the periphery and that you kind of carry that wherever you go. You carry that burden in so many other spaces beyond whether you are a refugee or not. It happens in so many other spaces and you’re a lot more aware and conscious of the politics of the world.
I remember being aware of the politics of the world at a young and these weren’t things that my friends at school were particularly concerned about. You look at the direction the world goes in, more so recently in the past few years’ people have been talking about a refugee crisis but for refugees around the world, there has always been a refugee crisis. To be a refugee is to exist in a state of crisis all the time because you’re not offered security. So that is really kind of the impact that it had on my life, my family around me and also the community that I grew up in, many of whom were also refuges.
Gaamangwe: How did you navigate living in that space where you are never sure what tomorrow is going to be like?
JJ: I just kind of followed my parent’s examples if I’m being honest. I am really fortunate because I think my parents had a really optimistic kind of approach. They instilled the ethics of hard work in us, as a lot of immigrant and refugee parents do. They tell their children to work hard, be hopeful and optimistic for the future and that’s what we did. We never defined ourselves by our refugee status or by our political status. We were always aspiring and aiming to achieve our aspirations, our dreams and hopes. All of those things are things that went beyond any kind of label or stigma about being a refugee. We saw ourselves as human beings with value that we can add to the world and that is all that we were really trying to do.
Gaamangwe: Being a refugee means in some way you belong to different places and cultures. Do you identify as British-Congolese or just British or just Congolese?
JJ: That’s a really great question. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily identify as British. I grew up in London so I identify more as a Londoner that I do as British. Obviously there are places and times when I leave the UK or depending on where I am, where people say “oh you’re British”, so it’s something I have to navigate around. I also identify with my Congolese heritage through my parents and my family back home but often times, politically I am not necessarily allowed to identify with being fully Congolese.
I am not given certain access because of the politics of being a child of the diaspora, you are always kind of removed from your country of origin because the question of authenticity comes into place. How authentic Congolese are you or how much do you belong to that house when you don’t live in it, is often the question or the conflict. I think it’s important to acknowledge the root or the origin of where you’re from but also allow yourself to have the fluidity of being able to belong in different spaces at different times because as human beings we do occupy more than one space at one time. We are fluid in our identity, we are fluid in the way we see ourselves, we are not fixed at all. So I am able to belong to many spaces at the same time and also to no space at all. I think this are some of the conflicts that come with belonging and being human.
Gaamangwe: I completely understand the complexity of this, especially because we live in a world that insists on labels and ideas of belongings that is tied to one country.
For me, it is very simple; I am in Botswana, I’m from Botswana and I have lived my entire life here, so questions of identity and belonging are easy for me. Because I belong and understand the nuances of what is it to be a motswana. I am also able to navigate my world and sense of identity easily.
How does having two influences, two cultures and two countries influence the kind of human that you are?
JJ: It is really interesting. For example, one of my cousins back home, we are about the same age, and we have pretty much had similar education experience but he lives in Kinshasa, he was born in Kinshasa, grew up in Kinshasa and never left Kinshasa. Although I was born in Kinshasa, I grew up in London and schooled in London.
For my cousin, he is Congolese and he doesn’t have the conflict whether or not he is Congolese or any of the concerns of being influenced of multiple cultures. His identity is rooted in his congolese identity. But he watches the Kardashian’s and all these reality TV shows and he knows very little about Congolese history, culture, politics, the different cultural groups and so forth. And on the other hand, I know way more about Congolese history, culture and politics because I have been passionate about researching about Congo.
So when we have a conversation, he sounds like the foreigner, because he is talking about mainstream TV, all these reality show and social media and I’m talking about our culture and our traditions. So, you have to ask yourself who is more Congolese in that situation? If I didn’t give the location of where each person was, and I just said person A speaks about mainstream culture and person B speaks about the culture of the country, which person do you think is from this country? People are more likely to say person B is from that country because we often tie our identity to culture, arts, history, and people who have that information or passion are seen as being more authentically from that country or from that place. So it’s always a really interesting dynamic, this idea of how authentic or the authenticity of being from where someone is from. What does that truly mean because when you take my cousin, he has never had to question that because no has ever questioned him on whether he is truly Congolese because he is physically there. Is it enough to be physically present yet be mentally or even spiritually absent? I am not saying he is absent in that way but where do these rules about authenticity come from and when do we ever come from just one place? Especially when I am looking at Congo, a lot of Congo is defined by colonial borders and again that’s the number one conflict that I have when it comes to nationality and what we are tying ourselves into. It’s a conversation, I don’t know if I I’m presenting the answer, I’m just saying this is the question that leads to more questions.
Gaamangwe: Yes, I also have a lot of questions. How do we define citizenship? how do we define belonging to a certain country? how do we even define countries? I don’t think it’s as simple as we always want to make it seem, it’s more complex than that.
I realized that there is probably a person who is outside Botswana who knows more about Botswana than I do. I also had an experience where I moved to India and I knew so much more about India because when you feel like you don’t know something you are propelled to do a lot of research and consciously experience that place as compared to someone who is there and takes it more lightly. There is so much gratitude and awareness when you are outside something.
JJ: Definitely, I remember this experience I had that led me to be passionate and aware of the culture of my origin. This one time a white guy somewhere randomly asked me what country I was from and I was a teenager at that time and this was just after Congo had been named back to Congo, after it was Zaire, so this is a few years after Mobutu’s exile. I said I am from Zaire, because as far as I knew my country was still called Zaire. He said Zaire doesn’t exists, it’s Congo now and he said how could you not know and he went on to tell me about my own country. This guy who was not from my country talked about the history, politics and I was learning so much but I felt a deep sense of embarrassment because there was this complete outsider who knew way more about where I was from and I didn’t even have anything to offer to him as new information. So that really set a deep conflict and I was embarrassed by it, and so I thought it’s really important to learn. Obviously no one can know everything about where they come from but at least you should be able to offer a certain amount of principles.
Gaamangwe: Definitely. I imagine that you didn’t leave Congo under good circumstances. How did you live with that kind of wound and betrayal from your country of origin?
JJ: Even still now as an adult I can still feel the way I felt when we had to leave. It happened in a way that it was a surprise. Your parents have to make a decision to leave, so they leave a place where they have their lives and where they are surrounded by their family. They make a decision and that’s that but there is no consultation process or any preparation. They barely have enough time to even really pack anything. It’s a really difficult thing especially as a child. So we are looking at issues of attachment, belonging and abandonment. You are taken from a place that you have always lived to a completely new place in a different environment and you are treated differently. It can be a shock to the system. But we were quite lucky because London is quite cultural, so all the time there were other people from our country that we were able to connect with here. It’s really important to have that sense of community as well because the community allows you to find yourself, to always recreate where you come from. But it’s really difficult because even now in my adulthood, I realize that there are something that I still take with me. Constantly travelling and moving from place to place, feeling of attachment or dis-attachment and not completely ever feeling settled in one place because you always have to be prepared to leave just in case. That’s always in the back of my mind. I am always prepared to leave just in case. I guess that’s a symptom of the experience that we have had as a family or that I have had as an individual. But on the flip side, it’s also made me a lot more resilient and given me a lot of strength and determination because seeing what my parents and my community have been able to go through, how they have been able to achieve in spite of the odds really makes me believe there is so much more that I can do and that we can do. Leaving to go to a new country where you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the language, you’re not aware of the systems and you’re poor and still be able to establish yourself and start a life even if it’s just holding down an ordinary job, that’s still a massive achievement. That is something that still does give me hope.
Gaamangwe: That’s inspiring. In your own personal reality, what is the story of Congo?
JJ: For me, Congo is the land of my ancestors. It’s a place that connects me back to myself and reminds me of how small I really am. Those times when I start to sink in my own ego and I see the world as only me, I think and connect back to Congo and I am reminded that there is generations and generations that came before and make up who I am today. It’s like connecting the roots to the tree, it’s always good to remember that you don’t stand alone and that you are connected to other people and also the people where you come from. My being away from home and my country and being part of the diaspora doesn’t mean that I am separated or cut off, it’s just like a branch from the tree but we all have the same root. It definitely reminds me that I am always connected to something that is bigger than just me.
Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. Have you ever gone back to Congo?
JJ: I have been back once in 2014. It was so powerful. I have my extended family that I have only ever been able to see through pictures and only ever been able to speak to on the phone, so being able to hear their voices and see them face to face was such an incredible experience. It opened me up to a part of myself that I wasn’t aware of. To be able to travel outside of the city into the village and connect with my grandparents side of the family, was a deeply, humbling experience. I think it was very spiritual. I would say there was a deep peace that settled in my soul when I went back home in the sense that there was something I was looking for that I didn’t know I was looking for. It definitely answered a lot of questions that I had and it also gave me a vision of myself, in terms of where I can be and what I can speak about in the future. It gave me new language to be able to articulate my reality, and I think that was probably one of the most important things.
Gaamangwe: How do you articulate your reality now especially when you think of it in connection to Congo?
JJ: For me, I have a lot of admiration and reverence for my reality. For who I am as a person, for the journey that I have come from not just as an individual but in terms of the connection that I have with people who come from where I come from. Often times we are conditioned to feel shame about being from Congo and Africa, especially in the diaspora. It really allowed me to connect back and see myself because while other people are still looking for themselves and the world is still looking for itself, I was connected to something that was already there and visible. Right now people are trying to find ways to define themselves, ways to define their culture, so being able to go back home and connect with my culture allowed me to see myself and also see those around me. I was able to now speak about Congo, being back home and give examples of the way things are going that are much more concrete and solid than just what I read in books. A book can prepare you for so much but the reality to be able to see it, live it and breath it is just way more powerful. So this experience was really empowering as it allowed me to speak of myself and my reality in a way that I was never able to before.
Gaamangwe: That’s incredible. So you wrote a book exploring most of the things that we are talking about— the idea of home and belonging— called “No Place to Call Home”. Can you tell me more about this book?
JJ: No Place to Call Home looks at the journey of a family that comes from Congo to the UK to seek asylum as refugees. It tells a story from two perspectives, the parents (the father) and the children (mainly the young son). Essentially from the parents trying to protect their children, trying to integrate their children into the new society and protect them from the reality of their political experience. But also the children are trying to understand about their reality, where they come from and what they are going through and some of the conflicts that this can bring. It also looks at the parents lives before they decided to leave the country and have the children; how life was like then, what their dreams and aspirations were, what was lost when they were forced to leave and what was the circumstances that actually forced them to leave in the end. So it tackles the questions of belonging and identity, and this feeling of places and how there isn’t a place for you but also how communities come to form themselves away from the places they feel they belong to and how they survive in different spaces and some of the issues and interactions that go around that. It’s really like getting magnifying glass and going to a community who aren’t really spoken about on focused on a lot.
Gaamangwe: Was it very cathartic to write this book because it seems that you were inspired by your own personal experience? Was it also a bit difficult for you to go into the depth of your own experience and translate that into the characters of the story in the book?
JJ: It was definitely both. It was cathartic in the sense that there were things that I hadn’t had to think about since I was a child. Some of the things that were long left behind that I didn’t need to address in my adulthood, a lot of it came back to me and I was able to see some of the experiences that we had and it was a release. There was also a lot of the issues and burdens that we still carry as adults and trying to navigate around that.
I feel much lighter and clearer after writing it and I hope that those who read it and have gone through similar experiences will be able to relate but also those who haven’t gone through this experience at all will also be able to relate because I think it’s part of the human story, it’s part of the everyday experience that we all feel no matter where you are from. I think we all feel this idea of places and this feeling of questioning our identity.
When you’re refugee it’s more of an immediate question, it’s something that comes sooner to you because of you status at the moment . But it doesn’t mean that it’s not an a question that doesn’t arrive at all for a lot of us. At some point or another in our lives we question who we are, who we think we are and how others see us and how we see ourselves.
Gaamangwe: The idea of places and belonging is a huge part of the human experience. There is a sense that not all of us fit places entirely nor feel a sense of belonging entirely, at all times. I look forward to engaging further with these questions and realizations in your book and possibly process my own experiences. Thank you for joining me in this space.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.