Gerald Kraak Award Shortlist: A Dialogue with Olakunle Ologunro

Olakunle Ologunro’s writing has appeared on Litro UK, Queer Africa, and elsewhere. He is a student of English Language in the University of Ilorin, and an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop.

This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the slow-paced city of Ilorin, Nigeria by Email.

Gaamangwe: Once again, Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. What does being shortlisted mean to you?

Olakunle: Thank you, Gaamangwe. As a writer, being shortlisted is a victory. Because writing is a pathway filled with rejections and very small flashes of light along the way, being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award is, to me, a comfortingly bright light, a ‘Yes, we see what you are doing and we appreciate it,’ kind of comfort.

As a human being, being shortlisted makes me glad, because it means that the story I have chosen to tell and the realities I have portrayed will reach people who are familiar with such realities, people who know the experience as well as they know their mother’s name. And it makes me glad, too, because to people who are not aware of such realities or who do not know that such problems exist, this story will acknowledge the existence of such problems. And acknowledging the existence of a problem, to me, is the first way of tackling that problem.

Gaamangwe: I definitely agree. Your story rendered a very humane exploration of domestic violence realities in a relationship. But you also intricately weaved all these various aspects of human relationships (psychological histories of the characters, society’s ideologies on homosexuality, and religion) that “create” and “sustain” violence.

 Because after all, the thing about violence is that it does not exists in a vacuum. It’s not a singular thing that can be merely stopped just like that, right?  

Did you think a lot about how these aspects interplay to create Ibrahim’s violence and also make the narrator stayed? Do you think that the modern realities of homosexuality (potentiality of being attacked for being one, especially in Africa) sustained this violence? I think a lot about how leaving is not as easy as we might think.

Olakunle: Yes, you are right. Violence is not a singular thing that can be merely stopped just like that. People need to unlearn all of the things that society, religion and existence has taught them, in order to actively begin the process of uprooting violence. But with the way we are now as a people, the possibility of that unlearning is so so bleak. Now, violence is so commonplace that the first response to it is to look away, and when it’s starting to concern you, make a surface effort so that it doesn’t appear that you are not doing anything. Now, when we hear stories of a man hitting a woman, the first response that follow it is something along the lines of: “Are you sure she did not provoke him first?” Recently, I was reading, on an online forum, the story of a man who publicly beat his wife. It happened in Nigeria, in Ilorin. Photos showed the woman in an already torn wrapper, beaten and thrown in the dust. One of the man who had come to watch and, I presume, take photos, helped her carry her baby and another tried to lift her up. The second comment on that post was from a moniker (an online ID, I guess) that had the letter ‘F’ for female. And the person’s comment was:

Buhari has reduced so many good men to beasts because of economic frustration. This man might be rich under Jonathan regime, now he is a wife beating hungry lunatic because of hardship.

Pity.

And just while I was wondering if “economic frustration”, is enough reason to batter a woman, another commenter said:

why the wife have to wait for the beast in that man to be unleashed on her to this extent she needs to be evaluated mentally.

Now Gaamangwe, this is interesting: the first comment had 134 likes and 11 shares, and the second had 19 likes. Isn’t the world progressing in educating people on domestic violence?

If I had to give a reason — apart from the reasons he gave — why Ahmed stayed, it would be what I call the “waiting” period. That period when you sit in the rain and tell yourself that soon, it will be over, after all it was all dry before. That period when you stay in a bad relationship, a bad job, and you wait, hoping that it will turn around easily. And because the abuser, like Ibrahim, has sane moments that remind you of how good things used to be, or how they used to put food in your belly, you tell yourself, “Wait a little more. Wait and see if it will happen again.”

For Ahmed, yes, leaving is never easy as we think it is, but I feel that he weighed the greater one: the collective violence of the society to homosexuals and effeminate men, and the single violence of a lover, and he chose to stay with what seemed the lesser and milder one when, in truth, no form of violence is ever less or mild.

And it was all of this, I think: the vulnerability of Ahmed, his human-ness, his “waiting”, that kept Ibrahim going, knowing fully well that at the end of it all, Ahmed would always remain.

Gaamangwe: I am appalled by the current state of things when it comes to domestic violence in Africa and the world. Absolutely outraged that there are custodians of violence, people who seems to only understand and explain violence as the “fault of the victim”. How maddening it is that it’s another woman, no less! Our society is so big on shaming. The world has simple decided that anything that is “different”, “other”, “unknown” will be shamed, feared and violated.

We need to actually look at our whole systems of governance (not just politically), but all these systems that inform us of how to be human. Because I think if we are thinking progress in educating people on domestic violence, we have to ask, but what exactly are we teaching people about domestic violence? I think we need to teach far beyond ‘violence is wrong’. Facts don’t usually determine human behaviors. It’s your emotions, your values, your beliefs, your cognition, that will determine how one acts.  

Similarly, when we think about both survivors of violence and perpetrators of violence; on why survivors stay? and why perpetrators continue to hurt?, we have to think as your have alluded, all the psychological determinants of the whole dynamics.

But I shudder, when I think, what sometimes comes, especially for queer individuals is; what is the lesser evil? Its sad to think about how the world is actually responsible for the pain people suffer in their private lives.  

There was something interesting, but also disturbing about the compartmentalization of Ibrahim in the story. The violent Ibrahim, and the religious Ibrahim. Or say Ibrahim and his sexuality, and his consistent religious practice by a religion that is homophobic. How does one bridge these kinds of contradictions?  

Olakunle: In creating the character of Ibrahim–all of the characters actually–I observed people, because I wanted the characters to be so realistic and alive that you can run into them one day, or find yourself sitting beside them on a park bench, and they will tell you their own story. Religion is a large part of us, and I wanted this to reflect in the character of Ibrahim because, to face the truth, a lot of people carry contradictions about in this present world. They contradict their own selves and then carry out personal battles on the bodies of other people. I wanted Ibrahim to be a representation of the irony of people nowadays, people who are two things all at once, people who leave you unsure of what to do, or how to even go about doing it.

If it was in a straight relationship, perhaps Ahmed might have spoken up earlier, even if he had to “wait”, but because it’s a gay relationship, one already frowned upon, what then could Ahmed do? It’s a clear case of weighing the options that living in a homophobic society gives you: Abuse happens in a straight relationship and only little is done. But this is a gay relationship, an already-abhorred “cohabitation” and you think the society will do something about it? Think again.

Gaamangwe: I totally understand Ahmed’s wait, because yes, society is not ready or willing to engage with domestic violence in a gay relationship. Actually, generally society is not willing to engage with violence as long as it’s removed from them. If it’s not, it will find a way to blame survivor of the violence.

This actually disturbs me; why is society unequipped to deal with violence? Why are we unable to handle other people’s traumas? And why do we find it easy to ignore harm done on another, particularly if they fall in the minority group?

Olakunle: This is a question we all should ask ourselves, because a society is not just made up of one person. It is made up of different people who, although are bound by various factors like religion or dressing, have different opinions. And in thinking of the right way to answer this, I sampled opinions of different people. Here are some answers:

A: I think it’s sometimes laziness. So when the violence is not done to us, it is easier to ignore than get involved especially when everyone is battling the daily business of living.

B: We are naturally selfish people so once we don’t feel it directly, it’s easy to “forget” and get carried away with the motions of our own lives and its challenges. We can feel bad somewhat when we hear about it, yes, but when we get into the details of our lives, we shrug off those excesses.

C: Because life is survival of the fittest.

D: Why we cause harm to minorities is due to a variety of things. Centre of it, some argue, is the evolutionary need to preserve the group. So when someone, or a group of persons do something different and in essence become minorities, the larger group feels threatened by them, believing it puts their collective existence at risk. Why it then becomes easy to harm such minorities is that once they are othered, they can be thought of as sub-human. So they are marked, described as a threat to the collective, then labeled as something other than human. At this point the human fight or flight response can be trusted to take over. You’ll easily kill a group of people if you believe they are going to eat your kids, than if you just don’t like their face. But find a way to tie their faces to killing your kids and it doesn’t matter again what the original intentions are.

As for why we’re unable to handle people’s trauma, I want to know, are you asking why we’re unable to bear witness to pain, or why we are eager to undermine such pain? Again, we are wired to be repulsed by trauma. It’s why horror movies sell. It’s easier to turn our eyes away from someone being beaten in horror than to go and try to rescue them. It’s why we reward bravery. If we were all brave, there’ll be no need to reward it. As for being quick to ignore it, it all boils down to empathy, I guess. Again, I’m not sure there’s an evolutionary need for empathy beyond protecting members of someone’s clan. We’re naturally empathetic to our own family, and that, sometimes, makes us quick to turn away from taking on the burden of others lest we utilise resources meant for our people on strangers. This is probably why we do Suffering Olympics. You’re in pain? Hey yeah, I was in pain yesterday too. It was worse than what you’re going through today.

Gaamangwe: Suffering Olympics is absolutely terrible because it makes us invalidate each other’s suffering. For your questions, I am asking both; why it’s difficult for us to witness other’s pain and also our eagerness to undermine other’s pain. This brings me to what I am grappling with; how do we actually then learn and relearn witnessing other’s trauma? What’s necessary, psychologically and evolutionary, for us as a society to learn to put our disagreements and misunderstandings aside, particularly in the face of violence, and actually step up and witness and intervene?

I am distraught because for all those reasons you shared about why we struggle with bearing witness particularly to minorities, they must still be something innate in us, that is moved to help others, to see each other, particularly minorities as human beings. This is the part I am interested in learning and discovering, because we need to step up as a society. Too many of us are hurting, and are being hurt, and we as a society must create spaces that help those who are being hurt, especially minorities.

Olakunle: First of all, I think that we should learn the act of collective living. We should know that we all are interconnected in ways that are beyond our understanding, and so should learn how to stand up for one another in difficult times, how to be really active, really doing, and not just sit in the comfort of our homes when issues arise, only posting Facebook status updates, tweets and changing Whatsapp display photos.

We should learn the act of love, too, and of understanding, and we should stop acting God, sitting to apportion judgement and blame. We should know that there are questions that we cannot answer, and we should stop trying to live people’s lives for them or dictate how they should be or act, what they should how they should do it. And we should unlearn our fear of minorities, and re-learn how to be human, because it all boils down to what we are as humans. Before anything, we are human. And there is no perfection in humanity, honestly.

Gaamangwe: I agree with learning the act of collective living, because we are truly one. I love that. Thank you so much Olakunle for these reflections. They have been shifting for me. Keep writing, keep telling stories.  

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa's leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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