The Intersectionality of Identities: A Dialogue with Ola W. Halim

THE INTERSECTIONALITY OF IDENTITIES

A DIALOGUE WITH OLA W. HALIM

Ola W. Halim writes fiction and poetry and also teaches English Language and Literature in Edo State, Nigeria. He seeks to tell stories not frequently told, themes rarely explored. As a teacher, he has been shortlisted for the TFCN Teacher’s Prize for Literature in 2019. 

He edits prose for ARTmosterrific, a literary platform publishing young African writers, especially undergraduates. Halim is interested in research on sexuality, albinism, inclusive education, and feminism.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Ugboha, Edo State, and Kampala, via email.

Ola’s story, “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair,” is about what it feels like to be different in conservative Nigeria through the lenses of queerness, albinism, effeminacy, and religious questioning; he discusses how he remains connected to themes while writing, designing inclusive curricula, what he does with ideas that bloom in his head when there’s no one else to share them with, and his fascination with unusual narrative styles and structures.

Davina: You described the Commonwealth Short Story Prize as an amplifier of diverse voices—different voices that demand and deserve to be heard—and that you think your voice, and your story, are one of those that deserve to be heard. 

The protagonists through whom you explore queerness, albinism, and religious questioning are an effeminate boy and a man who dislikes effeminacy; I was intrigued by the way they are introduced, as if they are walking through the curtains, on to a lit stage, to perform specific roles and parts in a play. Tell me more about how you came to open the story this way. 

Ola: I felt that description captures the essence of the story. I like to see my protagonist, the boy, as a “triple minority”, at least against the Nigerian background. But furthermore, being albino, queer and agnostic doesn’t only place you in the minority; it also renders you susceptible in the face of dangers. You could be taunted, bullied and even killed for merely existing as albino: happenings in Tanzania and Burundi testify to this. 

Homophobia in Africa isn’t just differences in perspective, but it’s a matter of life and death: in Nigeria, queer people are hunted, blackmailed and slaughtered; Ghana was on the news weeks back because its queer community demanded their fundamental rights to live, which were met with violent repressions; now, queer people are being murdered in South Africa. 

And what if you’re questioning your religion? It’s a grave sin. You don’t doubt it; you swallow everything line, hook and sinker. Should you deviate from “the religion you were born into” (this phrase is the recipe for emotional blackmail), you become a castaway; someone—no matter how inherently good they are—whose renouncing of religion has demoted to grass and cowshit. 

Over the years, these vices, and their ugly implications, have been my concerns, and it felt refreshing to have found a way to tackle them through my writing, and isn’t it just amazing that someone found it worth appearing on a prestigious shortlist?

I’ve been brainstorming and even writing a story like “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” for years, although none of my previous attempts have been this direct or explicit. I just knew I wanted to create an intersection that brought albinism and queerness together in an unapologetic Nigerian setting. So “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” came almost fully formed. 

I recalled the morning it demanded to be written. It was a Saturday. After washing my clothes, I was taking my bath when the phrase “cupped hands” came to me. I quickly came out to write it down. Ruminating on the story later, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be naming my protagonists. They’d just remain the Boy and the Man. 

Consequently, it became apparent that I had to find a way to introduce them before the story begins properly; like, you can’t just dive into a new story by writing: “…The boy lived…” You know, questions will arise—which boy? for instance—and I didn’t want to start with something as flat as “A boy”. It was at this juncture I decided I’d be writing a prologue or something like that. 

Before I write, I create what I call “identity tags” to help me stay connected to theme, motif and others. For this story, one of the tags was “relationship drama”. Later, during the drafting process, “drama” stood out, so I thought, “Can’t we introduce this like some stage play?” There, I reached a decision about the opening. 

Davina: The way stories come to you is similar to the way stories come to me. Usually, it’ll be a striking phrase. Something someone said; what I read in a long WhatsApp chain message (I actually read those, too! Hah!), or a newspaper. Or a poignant image. Something that signals a different kind of possibility.

I find that I’m increasingly writing stories whose characters, like your protagonists, remain unnamed. I’m not sure why, yet, but I find this kind of thing incredibly liberating.

Ola: Interesting how story ideas come to you. The WhatsApp thing is new to me, but I think it’s pretty cool. I mean, don’t we find ideas even in stranger places? (I’d love to read some of your stories, Davina, so please share links with me, thanks.) 

About nameless characters, I don’t know. They just come naturally. Sometimes, though, I love to think they are more all-encompassing and panoramic, not ethnically or geographically defined. In “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair”, for instance, the characters are sure Nigerian, but are they Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Urhobo? Does that give the story a pan-Nigerian feel? Does it drive home my point that its themes can affect any Nigerian? I think so. 

Davina: What you said about how homophobia isn’t just about differences in perspective, but is also about life and death, made me think back to what Otosirieze Obi-Young said:

When I engage curious homophobic people in person, the ones who genuinely want to know what queerness is, I explain to them the premise for the conversation. Two questions that saying yes to would confirm their willingness to discuss truthfully.

Do you believe that nobody knows everything?

Do you believe that no one can adequately and truthfully talk about something they haven’t experienced?

If they say yes to those, then I would present three more questions because it is important that their words come from a place of genuine involvement. I ask them:

Are you queer?

Do you have a parent, sibling, close relative, close friend who is queer?

Have you ever had a heart-to-heart discussion with a queer person about their queerness?

If they say no to all, I then explain to them how knowledge of facts—the things they must have read about gays—is simply unequal to an experience of a truth. I tell them they cannot truly understand what queerness is if they have had no personal, non-sexual experience of it. Then I ask their pre-convictions. And I table mine.

You spoke about using creative storytelling to create intersections between queerness, albinism, and agnosticism. Are you doing the same through your teaching, given your interest in research into inclusive education?

Ola: Thank you so much for sharing Otosirieze’s quote. I strongly resonate and (reading the full interview), I think it’s an effective way to open dialogue about homophobia and patriarchy and associated vices. 

I’m happy I’m a teacher, especially here in a Catholic school. While I can talk about self-acceptance, diversity and tolerance in class and meetings, for now, it is risky to introduce queerness and agnosticism to most people I teach and talk to. 

But of course we have done well covering the socio-biology of sex and gender (outside the regular school curriculum, which just brushes surfaces, and is too invested in technicalities); we have had debates on feminism, and we have recorded small victories—like the fact that both boys and girls are responsible for soiling their classes and thus must clean them up, like the fact that cooking is a skill that neither came with a penis or a vagina, and so should be learnt and practised by everyone, etc. 

Okay, here’s where inclusive education comes in, Davina. You know, we’re all human, right, but there are many things that set us apart. Here, I’d focus on cognitive differences. Some people learn faster than others. Some people can’t assimilate until you concretise some abstract concepts. Some people can’t sit still as learning goes on. Some people, when they look at a flurry of numbers on the board, they just go blank. Some people have disturbing backgrounds, and their processing of new information is impaired. Some people can’t deal with failure or criticism (Nigerian teachers are experts at rebuking a ‘dull’ child, and it’s very harmful). Some people easily fall asleep in class, even if the lesson is about the exoticism of dinosaurs. Some people stammer, and this sometimes affects their participation in class activities. Some are introverted; and sadly, our systems are designed for outgoing people, hence the group works and all that. I could go on and on. 

The way our curriculum is designed, these people are left out. Lessons, for instance, last for forty minutes. Nobody cares whether you understand or not. Before you take a deep breath, another teacher comes in. They come in with new techniques, a new subject and topic, a new voice. 

Once, someone told me, “That’s why we have schools for special kids!” I pondered over it and remembered my secondary school days. I think it was in JSS Two or Three. Somehow, power changed hands academically and I dropped from Class B to C. When I got to Class C, I felt different, like an outcast, someone who wasn’t good enough for A or B. Of course I worked hard to get back up, but the pressures and strains left me hollow for many terms.

I just knew I wanted to create an intersection that brought albinism and queerness together in an unapologetic Nigerian setting. So “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” came almost fully formed.

It’s unfortunate I’d left the meeting before this came to my mind. But if I ever find that person who talked about special schools, I’d tell them that the last thing a child wants is to be separated from their ‘regular’ peers, to be classified as ‘others’. But then, this begs the question: what should we do? Well, perhaps, train and include more psychologists in our educational systems, among a host of other solutions. Many people who teach are just there for—I don’t know. No interest in the kids at all. No nothing. 

Of course, it’s impossible in a traditional classroom setting to cater individually to students, but hey, we know we can improvise. Asking a child why they aren’t bright this morning goes a long way. Asking the class to clap a child who doesn’t quite get the answer correctly is something we can do. Singing for someone on their birthday (I have a ‘somehow-somehow’ voice, but I do it too) is a huge pat on their back! 

Davina: One of my friends has complained that since she took up full-time teaching of English Language and Literature, she’s had trouble writing. There’s of course the matter of time; she can’t devote as much of it to her writing as she used to. But she intimated that something about having to constantly assign grades to students’ writing has left her feeling jaded of creative writing. Do you feel that your teaching is adding to, or taking away from, your writing?

Ola: Sorry about your friend who is grappling with teaching and writing. I hope they find a unifying mechanism soon. For me, it’s the opposite. I tell my students stories. I teach them stories too, how to write them (outside the normal school curriculum). It’s exciting when some of them attempt theirs and can’t wait to read them to me the next morning. 

Of course there are some who don’t want to try, but they invest their attention: they listen; they’re interested in it. I tell them some of my story ideas (when ‘morally appropriate’) and we joke about whom to employ as a potential character. It’s all beautiful. I’ve begun applying the storytelling methods to my regular teaching even. 

Davina: Nice! I’m sure your students look forward to listening to your stories, and thinking about possibly getting into character.

You said being shortlisted was like getting home after sojourning through the desert for a century. Your mention of getting home echoes an expression by Fiske Nyirongo, “coming home to one’s self,” which in a way is exactly what the boy eventually does when he stops being the person he thinks the man wants him to be and starts being the person he believes himself to be.

The first mention of home in An Analysis of a Fragile Affair is when the boy and man are analysing their dead and dying feelings; at this point the boy has left Nigeria. The second time is when the man takes the boy to his home in Lagos and introduces him to his family as a job-seeking university graduate. Although the boy thinks that the man’s wife is a sweetheart, he pities her—for her ignorance about how often her husband sneaks into the boy’s room for sex.

I identified with what you said about stories; how, within them, we often reveal emotions and feelings that otherwise don’t pop up in normal conversations. Something that rarely comes up in normal conversations, I’ve noticed, is how rarely we check or adjust the assumptions, about others, about our connections with them, that we carry around with us, and cling to. 

The kind of “post-mortem” that the narrative attempts seems to foreground the importance of calibration—the necessity of regularly checking the validity of our assumptions. I hope I’m not misreading the story. 

Ola: You’re not misreading the story at all. I felt like my protagonist, the Boy, when I received the email that I’d been shortlisted. I’ve been writing for years, and like many other writers, I’ve built a hill of rejections, many stories I might never be confident enough to share, and I’m surrounded by people who bear no inclinations towards Literature. 

It was partly because of the Boy’s decision that I decided to submit. “If I could nurture my character to that level of confidence,” I thought, “then I too can do something bold.” Submitting the story to the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize is one of the boldest things I’ve done in my life. 

I’m glad you resonate with the fact that we reveal emotions that don’t come up in ordinary conversations while telling stories. Sometimes I think a lot. I think about how unreliable our feelings are and the conflicting reactions they generate; about our intransigence in the face of change and readjustments; about our politics, the facade of accountability; about how our educational systems seem to exist only for ‘normal’, ‘easily teachable’ people—those with no psychological, physical or cognitive problems. 

I develop ideas I can’t share in a gathering meant for discussing football or Buhari or the falling price of garri. It can get so lonely, you know: ideas bloom in your head but there’s no one in the room who wouldn’t tag you weird if you dared bring them up. But, thankfully, there’s fiction. Fiction offers the golden platform to share these thoughts and ideas with the world, or at least, with a hitherto blank page and a screen. 

“Something that almost never comes up in normal conversations, I’ve noticed, is how rarely we check or adjust the assumptions, about others, about our connections with them, that we carry around with us, and cling to.” You’re a hundred percent right. We don’t gauge our connections, or their essence, weight or implications, with our (so-called) loved ones. We just assume we’re loved, even though we’re just being tolerated sometimes. Sometimes, we see red flags, but for many reasons (fear of rejection, loneliness and self-esteem complications included), we don’t want to affirm the truth (because truth is bitter, right?)

How many of us, for instance, discuss low emotional energy or erratic mood changes or feelings of loneliness or unworthiness with our loved ones? Like the Boy, don’t we accept people without duly assessing the psychological terms, conditions and implications? How many times do we stop to wonder why we’re loved, if at all, and on finding the reasons, scrutinise them? 

Davina: As for football! Once, while in a room packed with mostly men that were watching a match on a large screen, I suddenly wondered: how many of these men are here because they genuinely love football, and how many are here because they are performing love for a game they care nothing for? This is something I think a lot, about, too: how many of us are performing masculinity or femininity because we are afraid of rejection?

From the outside, it was obvious that the men were heavily invested in what was happening to the ball and the players, and that in that shared moment there was nothing more important than being a card-carrying, official-jersey-wearing Arsenal fan. But, well, there was no way to tell what was going on inside each of them. Fiction, thankfully, allows us to speculate.

Ola: Funnily enough, whenever I’m irritated by some “men must be men” behaviour, football comes to mind. I’m the least sporty man I know. Back in school, during game periods, I’d tell our teacher: “I can’t go into the sun and I don’t have my sunscreen!” It worked always. The poor teacher would shake their head and mutter something like “it’s well.” 

Wow, Davina! I love the way your mind works! Do you know I’ve thought about the football and performance thing too, and even had some discussions about it? From what I gathered, some of them might genuinely love the sport, but for most people, it’s the congregational opportunities they value most. 

Many men and boys I know can’t watch football alone. They say it’s boring. But give them a club or viewing centre clogged up with their kinds, even the most withdrawn becomes animated. Here’s the stage where they can perform their masculinity: shouting, punching, grabbing balls, breaking bottles, brandishing switchables. 

But then, I don’t know. It’s just what I gathered from the observation and interaction. A lot of people might come up with something different. 

Davina: True. Someone else might watch the same football-obsessed group but think up different questions. But, now, returning to your story, let’s talk about structure. 

The narrative in An Analysis of a Fragile Affair is sectioned into an introduction and conclusion, and further sub-sectioned into A. (I, II, III and IV), B. (I and II), C. (I, II, III, IV, and V) and D. (I and II); and there are multiple choice questions and answers interspersed within the text. The sectioning compliments the central thread within the story—that twisted cord of breakability, vulnerability, the ease with which our emotional connections with others are damaged or destroyed.

Although I’m a huge fan of unconventional and experimental story formats, so rarely do I immediately know that a story will be better-served by those formats. Often, I will start out writing a short story in a traditional format, and only maybe halfway in (or sometimes post-completion!) will it occur to me that, wait a minute, this isn’t working. Some writers speak of having known, as soon as an idea for a story came to them, exactly what format a story should assume. Was this true for you, and how often do you revert to unconventional formats?

Ola: I’ve always been fascinated by distinct styles and structures. Because of this, I’d attempted some difficult work, like that of James Joyce (although I never went halfway through “Finnegans Wake”!). There’s Jenny Hubbard’s “And We Stay”, which struck me with its narrative voice and interwoven poetry. Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” also comes through, mostly recorded on a tape cassette. Mariama Bâ’s “So Long a Letter” classic for its beautiful epistolary style. Isidore Okpewho’s “The Last Duty”, which contains sections narrated by a child, presented without basic rules of punctuation. All of these have held me in awe, even if I still struggle to finish many. 

Earlier in my writing career, I used to be obsessed with the saying, “There’s no untold story.” I thought, “If that’s true, then how do I make my story stand out?” That was when the drive to achieve something unusual in my work came. Sometimes, I have to ponder about it, like I did when I was writing my story, “The Water”. Other times, it unfolds by itself, albeit gradually, like “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair”. There have been times I was inspired by other writing, and I tried (mostly failingly) to incorporate its format into my work. 

It was different with “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair”. The moment I opened the story with “Introduction”, the moment I renamed it “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” (it was previously called “Some Kind of a Relationship”), I knew I’d be treading a different terrain. From that moment, it felt natural to tell it that way, although major adjustments, like the Roman figure subsections, were made during the rewriting stages. 

“The sectioning compliments the central thread within the story—that twisted cord of breakability, vulnerability, the ease with which our emotional connections with others are damaged or destroyed.” There’s absolutely nothing as close to the truth as this! I said something like this in a recent interview with ARTmosterrific. The format the story takes suggests a pictorial representation of its edgy, interwoven themes; but then, I didn’t immediately realise this—in fact, it was after submitting, while I was discussing it with a friend, that it occurred to me. 

That said, unconventional styles don’t manifest automatically on my screen, so I can’t always tell at a glance that hey, this will work, or this is a waste of the so-called creative juice. I have to actively think about them, no matter how fairly. Sometimes, I experiment with something I consider awesome only to deconstruct later on figuring out it doesn’t work. Sometimes, I discover it after having someone read sections out to me, usually following the rhythms and vocal cues dictated by the said style. But then, it’s fun, and of course, I often consider doing something different with every story I attempt. Some work out; some don’t; some remain on the fence, dangling undecidedly to date. 

Davina: It’s interesting how much difference a title makes; how, once Some Kind of a Relationship becomes An Analysis of a Fragile Affair, the style and structure change, and the writing begins to feel more intuitive.

I struggle with titles; I’ll usually not manage to think of one until the story is complete. Sometimes, I have to ask a writer friend to read a story and choose a good title for me. 

I also struggle with endings. I’m those writers who have no problem starting strong but will struggle for days about how to send a character off satisfactorily. 

Are there any elements or parts of the story-telling process that you find more challenging than others?

Ola: I think titles just come to me. In fact, I should have a working title before I start serious work on a story. If not, it would feel like I’m working without a sense of direction. But the titles are dynamic; they can change any time. 

About endings, wow. I have friends who tell me this, too. For me, though, I always like to have a faint idea of it before the writing proper. Before writing, I create the synopsis, then bullet point sketches, before the plot. I must have figured out the ending before the actual writing. 

What elements do I find particularly challenging? First, description. I want to really write simple, straightforward sentences, but most times, I can’t just let all these beautiful descriptions I’ve created go (even though it’s obvious they add nothing to the story). The second is research. It’s difficult for me to tone it down when writing a story. Unless I give it to someone else to read, I’m not convinced I’m putting too much into it. 

Davina: Hah! I can relate! So many times, I’m so convinced of the beauty within a paragraph I’ve written that I’ll fight and fight for it to stay, no matter how many times my readers say “bagyenzi, but why are you tying on the paragraph when it’s doing nothing?”

I like the language in An Analysis of a Fragile Affair. The rain akamu-like against the window; the boy unable to do ojoro; entering each other’s minds like kilode. It’s unlikely that I’m pronouncing them in my head the way you do in real life, but I like their heaviness. 

Then the wobo-wobo wrists; the fruits ripening sharp-sharp; the hearts drawn jaga-jaga by children; the plop-plop sounds. As if the repetition is meant to reduce the probability of miscommunication. 

Ola: I’m happy you love the language! Thank you so much! 

As for their pronunciations, here you go: 

akamu /əˈkæmu/ (means pap; I was comparing its thickness to that of rain against the window). 

ojoro /əʊˈdʒəʊrəʊ/ (slang for dishonesty, fraudulence or pretence). 

kilode /ˈkɪləʊdeɪ/ (in Yoruba, means “what happened?” but it has slipped into pop culture used to show surprise, ease, irritation, magnitude, etc., especially to a hyperbolic effect).  

Davina: Heh! I reckon that your “kilode” is our “bannange.” “Bannange” is one of those words that has evolved to mean everything from pleasant surprise to distress heaped upon disbelief

Ola: Wow! “Bannange” sounds very musical! I can imagine someone saying it now, with their eyes wide open in surprise! 

Now, the repetitive words in my story are mostly onomatopoeic, often used in Pidgin English for humorous or musical effects. “Wobo-wobo” could mean limpness, lethargy, or fluffiness; “jaga-jaga”: without plan or direction—executed the way one pleases (usually negatively); and “sharp-sharp” is slang for ‘quickly’. 

Davina: Ahah! No wonder. Onomatopoeia is one of my favourite words! Here, it would be “fwaaah” for “jaga-jaga,” and “mangu-mangu” for “quickly-quickly” or “fast-fast.” 

Speaking of which, I was deeply touched by how quickly the boy started to change himself; how willing he was to make himself likeable to the man. How he even started writing movie reviews because he thought that’s what the man might prefer to read. 

Ola: Such is life, Davina. We can change form to make ourselves lovable. But we’re just making things worse. I tell people, my students mostly, never to change for anyone. Let the change come from within; be willing to do so. When you change for someone, they are now convinced they have powers over you, and they won’t stop manipulating you until there’s nothing left of you. 

Davina: I must admit that I was annoyed, on the boy’s behalf, when the man referred to his short stories as “articles.” I remember how furious I used to get with people who said things like “I read your article; it was nice.” I had to resist the urge to scream: “IT’S NOT AN ARTICLE. IT’S A SHORT STORY. THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE!” Ah, I used to get so frustrated, bannange! These days, I laugh at that version of myself. I’m much more chill about things like that. Maybe because I end up asking myself: “How would they know the difference?”

Ola: Oh, the “articles”! You have every right to be furious jare. It’s annoying. I used to mark those who commonised my stories as articles as “literary enemies”—more than half of my family included—while the others, those who ‘awwned’ and ‘ahhed’ were “literary friends”. But I’ve realised there’s nothing much I can do. Like you rightly said, “How would they know the difference?”

Davina: One last thing, Ola. I’m curious about the boy’s father’s herbarium. What’s that about? And why cordylines, of all plants?

Ola: He keeps a herbarium, as most men I know in this town do. But in the story, the herbarium also serves metaphorical purposes. It is the structure that hides the boy’s speckled leaves from the public, yet it contains dried leaves, as opposed to the speckled leaves which are fresh and alive, yet hidden. It is also behind this herbarium that the boy masturbates one night. I employed it as a tool of concretising hiding and invisibility before the boy killed off the speckled leaves. 

The cordylines serve metaphorical purposes too. But picking them of all plants stemmed from my love for it. As I child, I used to see them as painted pineapple leaves. In this story, since the leaves are mostly unicoloured, it served as an expression of self-acceptance for the boy, against the speckled leaves, with their ‘tentative’ and ‘disorganised’ whites and reds. 

Davina: Cue Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, here’s to self-acceptance, Ola. May we constantly work towards ensuring that we become the subjects of our own affections and devotions. Thank you for speaking to Africa in Dialogue about your story. Good luck ahead of the regional winner announcements. 

Ola: Thank you so much, Davina. Nice talking with you. 

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her. 

She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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