How to speak when we speak nothing
Guest Post by
When I started writing prose a few years ago I realised how much English was not my first language. Because I have long performed spoken word in English I sound fluent, and I am. People hear an accent but usually don’t assume that German is my first (and most “immediate”) language. I have always enjoyed emulating sounds so my English always came across as something that really belonged to me, rather than something I needed to work at.
To write a long piece of prose with lots of scenes and drop the reader straight in the middle turned out to be much more difficult. Not because I lacked the discipline but because I didn’t know how to express all the intricacies of mundane moments, which in summary show the dilemma and development of the characters. I struggled to describe the most boring parts. I had only one word for things and when you write you need to be able to say it in a thousand ways, preferably a thousand new ways.
At times it felt like I had lost all language, swimming in a sea of pleasant yet murky water, which didn’t quite reveal where I was or what was ahead. I felt it, what I wanted to express, without being able to articulate it. I had to check the most common words in the dictionary, words that were familiar to me, words that should have been at my fingertips. Sometimes I knew them in English but it bugged me that I could not think of the German equivalent. Or I knew vaguely what I wanted to say in German but could for the life of me remember how to express it in English.
There is a challenge here, for any multilingual writer: do you let the flow be interrupted and search for the right words or do you fill in the gaps in the language that is available and return later to straighten it out?
Over the years this struggle has become natural, and of course much less so because I have more words at my disposal, and they come much easier. I have also discovered that I am often freer with the English language because I don’t have any “allegiance”. I have to make it work, however I can, and if that means inventing or subverting a few expressions or words on the way, the better.
When I wrote When We Speak of Nothing I returned to my favourite part of language: the melody, the rhythm, the how things sound. This is how I learn language. By mimicking its audible expression, by trying out how it feels on my lips, how I have to form or twist my mouth to get a similar sound out, by feeling out where the gaps and pauses are.
The novel took some time to take off because I couldn’t get the voice right in the first chapter. Once I had it there was an immense freedom. It then became this dynamic voice that almost wrote itself. When I read it back I knew it was right. I could hear it. The narrating voice became a character, one that has authorial commentary and can shapeshift into different registers. I call my amalgamation of slang urban speak. It is partly how I heard young adults talk in the King’s Cross area. Note ‘how I heard’, not how they spoke. There is a difference in perception, understanding and meaning, especially when you’re not a native speaker. It is what I make of what I heard around me. The rhythm and melody that stuck and which I had to find a way to put onto the page.
There is a narrator. Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god of the crossroads. Esu is concerned with language and he is known as a shapeshifter. It is easy for him to take on different tongues. But more than that the voice is itself. It lifted the narrative for me, made it walk first, then run, and most of all: spoke of so much.
“Some of the women walked so slow they were, like, floating. For real. Heads perfectly straight. Hips swaying, left, slow, right, slow, step, slow. If you didn’t concentrate you would think they weren’t moving at all, their bodies just hanging in space…”
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.
When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage.The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young, black and queer in London. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.