JJ Bola talks to Aisha Phoenix about his debut novel No Place to Call Home
JJ Bola’s debut novel No Place to Call Home will be published by OWN IT! on June 22nd. JJ Bola talks to Aisha Phoenix about hope, belonging, humanity and experiences of being a refugee. Read an extract from No Place to Call Home.
AP: You have said you believe that the true purpose of art is to expose the reality of this world and how to survive it. Can you talk about the reality you are seeking to expose through your writing?
JJB: I think art, poetry, literature really bring issues that are hidden to light and it’s not just about bringing those issues to light, I feel it’s also about giving people a method of understanding their reality and understanding how they can continue to survive within it because it’s really difficult to have hope. You can see in the current political climate, you look at Brexit, you look at the 45th President, you look at the potential of nuclear war and if you write a really beautiful poem or a really good book within the context of all the destruction you have to give someone hope that there is a point to all of this, that there is a point to still creating art within these circumstances.
Can you say a bit more about the survival techniques you offer through your work?
JJB: I think it’s really about also being able to see yourself reflected in the world and understand yourself within it. In so many cases and so many institutions there are so few spaces you can be your authentic self. If you are in school or at work you have to fit into quite a narrow construct of whatever’s being demanded of you. For me it’s about creating art that allows people to see themselves within the world.
AP: Can you talk about the writers who inspired you?
JJB: In terms of poetry, there are a lot of spoken word poets who really influenced me, like: David J, Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams, Kat Francois. You’ve got international ones as well: Joshua Bennett, Anis Mojgani, a lot of the US poets and a lot of page poetry, the Romantics if you like: John Keats, although I didn’t like Keats at school, I came to appreciate his work when I left school because I realised he wasn’t writing poetry to be taught, he was writing what he was experiencing and when you tap into raw experience of that art it makes you connect more to the artist.
In terms of my favourite writers and novelists, George Orwell, Arundhati Roy is probably one of my favourites, Ayi Kwei Armah, who’s a Ghanaian artist who is mind-blowing, bell hooks, I read a lot of socio-political stuff as well.
AP: When you talk about your own work and trying to help others see themselves more clearly, is there a particular audience that you’re seeking to speak to with your work?
JJB: Not necessarily. When I’m telling a story I’m telling a specific story in terms of my experience, in terms of where I come from, but it’s not exclusive or limited to that people. It’s just going to be that those who are closer to that experience will probably understand it a little bit more immediately compared to someone who’s not as close, but it doesn’t mean that it’s only a story that’s limited to them.
AP: You talk about your experiences coming to the UK from Kinshasa as a refugee and your desire to use your writing to humanise the refugee experience. How do these themes in your writing feature in No Place to Call Home?
JJB: Coming from Congo early on, once I was aware of the socio-political history and the current politics, one thing that I was immediately made aware of was how the first thing that people thought of when they heard of Congo was war. For the majority of Congolese people, even in conflict situations, they don’t define themselves by that situation. I wanted to get people closer to Congolese people’s actual lived experiences. I look at the community that I grew up around and how they lived their lives and they never reduced themselves to whatever stigma or whatever label is associated with them.
I see people as human beings. You connect to the humanity of someone before you connect to the label. Hopefully if you’re able to do that, that’s when you can produce good art. I think some of the difficulties are that people often say I want to write a story about refugees or about war or about conflict and so forth, and if you approach it in that way you are limiting yourself to just that, but for me I’m writing about human beings from a particular place who are experiencing the world in a particular way and the other things that come out of it – refugees, migration, immigration, dictatorship – those are just circumstantial, but they are not definitive. I would say that I am writing about people at the end of the day. I say it’s about refugees and so forth and that’s just so that people can understand what kind of story it is, but for me I’m writing about people and it’s just people I know.
AP: Can you talk a bit about your novel in general terms without giving away your story?
JJB: The story looks at a family that comes to the UK to seek asylum as refugees in the early nineties. It centres on the parents and two children (a young boy and girl). The main protagonists are the young boy, Jean, and the dad, Papa. It looks at the story from their dual perspectives. From the parents’ perspective as they try to protect the children from the realities of their political circumstances and from the children’s perspective trying to understand the reality of where they’ve moved to and where they’ve grown up and also how their lives are different from their peers’. It also goes back into 1970s Kinshasa, Congo, looking at what the parents’ lives were like before they had children and came to the UK, what their aspirations were and what their community was like. It also looks at how a community comes to form itself. In the UK it looks at how the parents meet other people from their communities who they’d thought they’d left behind and start to form a community in a place where they didn’t fit in.
AP: From what you’ve said it seems like belonging and alienation form an integral part of the novel.
JJB: Yes, definitely. That’s a reflection also on my own experience and what I came to realise afterwards was the experience of so many people I spoke to. Before I started writing the novel I was speaking to a lot of people about things like belonging and this idea of home and what it means to have a home. It’s often an imagined reality, but it’s something that we also feel deeply attached to. For me coming to the UK as part of a family who were refugees and not having citizenship and then having citizenship and then having a passport and then being able to attach myself to a national identity that I wasn’t able to before, the question of belonging was something that I was confronted with much sooner.
I think this question of belonging is something that we all battle with in our daily lives, but it’s just a much more immediate question if you are refugee because that’s your current political circumstance, that’s something you have to deal with immediately, but for the majority of us we all have these questions and what happens is we either try to confront them and find an answer to them or we just abandon them. This is just me trying to bring the question back up and ask, this thing of belonging, this idea of home, what does it really mean? What does it really mean to believe that we have a place that we belong? Is there such a thing? Because I’ve never been in a space where I’ve been able to completely be myself and feel like I belong when I’m sharing that space with other people.
AP: You’ve touched on a question I was going to ask about your own experiences when you came to the UK and belonging. Can you talk a bit more about your experiences?
JJB: When we first went to school I wasn’t able to speak the language, so you just try to integrate. You play sports and imitate behaviour. More so when I reached secondary school and teenage years and I became much more aware of politics.
I remember I joined the basketball team and they needed our ID to register us and I didn’t have a passport and everyone had a passport and I was the only one who didn’t have one. When you’re seeking asylum you get a letter from the Home Office which is a four-page document that says your status. When the coach was like, ‘Everyone bring in your passport,’ I was like, ‘Okay, this is all I’ve got’, and I remember bringing it in and trying to bring it privately so that everyone else wouldn’t see and already then I was aware of the issues with it. And one of my friends saw and he was like, ‘JJ, what’s this?’ and I had to explain to him and then he was laughing. We were only 14 at the time so I don’t blame him, but incidents like that already made me aware that there was a different reality that I was experiencing compared to a lot of my peers.
And I remember that when I went to university in 2004 for my undergrad, when I was enrolling again, it was a similar thing. So there would be these little reminders that my political status was not quite complete, was not quite on the same totem pole as the majority of people’s, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We were just living our lives and trying to make the most of our situation. Myself, my family and my other friends who I met who were also refugees in school and our age and so forth and in different situations. No one let that reality limit them in terms of what they wanted to do.
AP: When did you start writing?
JJB: Six or seven years ago I first started out with poetry and did an open mic. My friends encouraged me to start going to more. For the first four years I was writing poetry more. I had no intention of writing anything more than that, but I’d always passionately read, even throughout my childhood and I think, even in school, I can remember circumstances where I was writing and passionate about writing, but unfortunately in the education system children aren’t often allowed the space to explore their creativity. I got a D in my English literature A level and I never imagined the reality where I could be a writer, when actually it’s not definitive at all.
AP: When did you start writing No Place to Call Home?
JJB: I started writing it in November 2015. For me the turnaround was quite fast because I work quite intensely and I really can’t think or do much else when I’m in that space of writing. I kind of obsessively worked on it until I finished and allowed myself to move on.
AP: One of the things you see in articles at the moment is about how writers can afford to be writers. In that period when you were working intensively on the novel did you have funding for the novel?
JJB: I planned to leave my job for about a year and I was like, right, I’m going to save up. At this point I wasn’t even thinking about writing, I just wasn’t satisfied enough with where I was working, doing pastoral work at a school in North London. I really enjoyed it, but it just wasn’t enough. My manager gave me some great advice and I was like I need to plan this and I remember I left and I went to America for a bit and that’s where I started writing the novel. I was staying in California for a few months and also because I freelance write and I do performances I was able to sustain myself. It is extraordinarily difficult to be able to sustain yourself and not have a main job, but I think in the modern day as writers we have to look at how we can fund ourselves in terms of being self-sufficient and able to produce because it’s really difficult working a full-time job and also writing because you’ve got so many commitments. When I came back I was able to continue freelancing and also writing the novel, but it really took up all of my time. It was extraordinarily difficult to be able to constantly work at such a high level, but when I finished I felt like I could do anything in the world.
AP: What was your journey from writing your novel to submitting it?
JJB: Round about Spring last year I signed with Pontas agency. After I’d finished the novel and when it came to submitting it to editors in September there were lots of agents that were interested. A lot of the feedback I got from editors was that there was so much of the story that they wanted to change. They wanted to change the ending, they wanted to take out so many things and there were so many things that I felt were fundamental to the kind of story that I was trying to tell. When I met with Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who’s the editor and founder of OWN IT!, the critique and analysis that she gave of the story, no one else had given. Her insights were so profound. That’s how we decided to go with her because the insight and passion that she had was just unmatched.
AP: When I was in Finland I heard that you visited the Jungle camp in Calais. Can you talk about your experiences?
JJB: The University of East London do a programme where they offered credits to the refugees at Calais so that they could learn on their course and it would be accredited. When I went I managed to do a workshop with a group of ten refugees of all ages from different parts of the world from Sudan to Syria. I met a young man from Syria who was a university graduate. He was the most intelligent young man, so well principled and a really nice guy. We connected and spoke with each other and it just reminded me of how close I was to that reality and not only that, but just how it’s such a tragedy that so much of the world ignores what’s going on. These things should not be happening at all, but due to politics it continues to happen and it happens in certain parts of the world because people don’t see the humanity of other people and there’s a hierarchy.
For me it was really inspiring because it reminded me that I can and should be doing more. So I was really motivated by that and that was one of the things that helped me write this novel and get it done much faster than I probably would have. When they heard what I was speaking about and the poems that I’d written and that I was also someone who had come from a family of refugees and got to this position and I was still doing work about it, that was something that they were really appreciative of. A lot of them imagined that once you became a national you abandoned the life of being a refugee.
There’s a book that’s being published called Voices from the ‘Jungle’.i Being involved in things like that helps to offer a counter-narrative to a lot of the stigmatisation that we’re seeing in the media and so forth.
It’s a lot of work, but we have to constantly challenge people’s assumptions. It’s not that people are intentionally ignorant, it’s just that they are unaware. Sometimes just having those conversations can help relieve some of that ignorance and bias. It’s part of changing the narrative.
AP: Is that something you’re hoping to leave readers with when they’re reading No Place to Call Home?
JJB: Yes. I hope so. I hope that people will be able to read No Place to Call Home and feel like they are in a different place from where they were before they picked up the book. I’m not trying to make political commentary. For me, it’s about getting people to connect with people and ultimately when we do that that’s when we remove all barriers and understand that we’re much closer than we feel we are. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.
AP: Do you think attitudes to refugees have changed since you came to Britain?
JJB: For a lot of refugees what is going on now is normal. We’re not really surprised by the political turmoil because for a lot of refugees their lives have always been turmoil. I can’t say that I’ve seen attitudes really change, but what wasn’t being said has now been normalised to be allowed to be said. I wouldn’t say that that much has changed, but it’s a little bit more tiring. It’s like a marathon. You’re a little more tired on the 26th mile than you were on the 6th mile, but you’re still running.
AP: Are there any other writers whom you think are responding to this particular situation?
JJB: One of the great things is that writers and artists are probably the ones that are always the first to respond to a particular situation. I’ve got The Good Immigrant, which is clearly a direct response to the situation and I think it’s times like this when writers and artists have got to respond.
AP: I wanted to ask you about being a black writer. In an industry with a poor record on diversity, have you faced any issues as a black man?
JJB: Yes. No one thinks you’re a writer firstly. It’s been really interesting approaching publishing houses because initially with a lot of the houses we approached the assumption was, ‘Well how good is your writing?’ The industry doesn’t have confidence in underrepresented voices. So what happens is underrepresented voices aren’t published and marketed in the same way, so if a book doesn’t do as well they say it’s because it’s a black writer or this or that, but that wasn’t the limitation. It’s really interesting navigating those spaces. Often I turn up to an event and no one expects that it’s me speaking. But that’s all part of the challenge and we just have to be aware of it and try to navigate it until we completely dismantle it.
AP: So what’s next for you?
JJB: I’ve got to finish the degree. I’m writing lots. I have a couple of ideas of what I want to work on next, but I’m nowhere near there yet. I’m just going to wait to see what people say about this book.
Aisha Phoenix is a Creative Writing MA student at Birkbeck College. She writes fiction and poetry and has had work published or forthcoming in: Litro USA online, Word Riot, the Bath Flash Fiction anthology and Peepal Tree Press’s Filigree poetry anthology. She has a PhD in Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Aisha Phoenix is a MIROnline features writer. She tweets as @FirebirdN4.