JJ Bola is a writer and educator who was born in Kinshasa, and lives in London. He has published three poetry collections entitled Elevate, Daughters of the Sun and, most recently, Word. Ayiba’s Debbie Onuoha spoke to JJ about the impact of his bicultural experiences on his writing, as well as the upcoming second edition of his book, Word, which has been described as: ‘a collage depicting much of what is going on in the world today, not as the newsreaders tell it, but how we as people experience it.’
Can you describe what you do?
Apparently I write. I’m not quite sure what that means. The best way I can describe what I do is: I have a lot of questions that I’m just trying to answer, and that’s what has got me into writing, because you ask questions and sometimes you can answer them. And it’s not definitive, you answer it for a moment, or particular point in time. Obviously on a tax form you can’t really put that, so I guess writer and educator is the official thing.
Do you remember the first time someone else heard or read something you’d made?
Years ago, my friend, Emeka bumped into me while I was editing some poetry in the library in uni. He was like, ‘What’s that?’ I didn’t have any books with me: just these little notebooks and pieces of paper. I tried to pass it off as if I was studying, and he’s like ‘What? You’re not studying, what are you doing? Let me see, let me see!’ I was really embarrassed to share because he’s this very masculine guy—he’s twice my size, gym guy, everything—so I was like ‘Ah man, Emeka’s gonna find out I write poetry!’ I gave him the piece of paper, and I could see his facial expression change. He was like ‘Yo, I really like this man!’ He showed such enthusiasm! It was pretty much the first time anyone had read anything I had written, so that could have gone either way, if he would have said ‘This is horrible,’ I may not be here today.
Has that experience changed for you or is it the same? Now so many years later what is it like to have an audience or a readership?
There’s still naturally that element of being nervous. I’d say if you’re not nervous about something that you’re passionate about, something that you’ve created, how much are you really invested in it? I think art exists to have a specific purpose, an impact and touch people’s lives in a certain way. So there still is that element of how is it going to be received? But I don’t let that prevent me from doing my work, I don’t think of it consciously until I’ve completed it, then I wonder. But I think that’s a natural insecurity that you have as a human being or as an artist; it’s just there.
You’ve been quoted a lot saying this phrase, ‘Hype your writers like you do your rappers,’ where does that come from?
I grew up listening to a lot of hip hop and rap. Whenever there was a new song out it was hyped so much: everyone gets excited. I’ve definitely been a part of that, but what I realise is, when I came across certain books, I was so excited to share with my friends. Especially earlier on, I would message all my friends, ‘Oh my days, I read this book!’ and I would take a screenshot of a particular page and send it out but there was just no energy. And I thought, what kind of cognitive or consciousness impact would it have if we were to treat books the same way that we did albums? Why is one seen as more of a credible art form within the community rather than the other? So that’s what led me to use that kind of phraseology, just to get people thinking.
You recently released a second edition of your book Word. How did that project come about?
I can’t talk about Word unless I talk about Elevate. So Elevate was the first poetry collection: kind of experimental and more so mixtape than anything else. When I had started doing regular gigs and being a bit more visible people would ask, ‘Where can I read this?’ and I had nothing at the time. So I put Elevate together. It was a good little introduction but when I got to Word, a lot had happened. I’d written of poems that weren’t necessarily the happy uplifting message that was in Elevate. I themed it as a progression from the societal-political to the more personal, and it just felt natural, it felt like that was supposed to happen. Then the second edition is almost a step up from that: with the artwork and the extra poems in there, it just told more. I felt like the second edition is me saying, ‘I’m a poet.’
I know you identify with two places, Kinshasa and London, can you talk about what your link is to those two places?
It’s interesting because I’ve never thought about them together. It’s always like one foot is there—one foot is in Kinshasa, one foot is in London—but I forget that they are connected to the same body: they are both me. I feel like when I’m in London, I’m this person, but when I’m in Kinshasa, I’m a different person. Growing up in both, if you look at it from an African perspective to a Western European perspective, or Francophone and Anglophone differences, it’s given me access to different worlds. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Sometimes, most times, London is really uncomfortable. There are opportunities and it’s great, but do I really feel at home here? You have this idealist nostalgia: ‘Oh gosh, if only I was in Kinshasa, I’d be able to sit out at the bar and have drinks and listen to the rhumba and be with family and friends, and sit under the sun and stars at night et cetera.’ But there’s a lot of really difficult things going. And there’s times when I’ve been back home and I haven’t felt at home. There’s a Nigerian poet, Ijeoma Umebinyuo who talks about being ‘too foreign for here, too foreign for home, never enough for both.’ Sometimes I’m a Congolese in London, sometimes I’m a Londoner in Congo, and then sometimes I’m a Londoner in London, so it’s just fluid.
This experience of these places—or just of space in general—how has that shaped you as an artist or how does that figure into your work?
I’ve been heavily influenced by not just the physical space but also the ideological societal space in London. Coming here as refugees, there was the Home Office Bureau in Croydon where you used to have to sign in monthly, so that the government knows where you are. It’s a long queue, and you sit down, and they give you a number, and they take your fingerprints. We thought every family did this, you know? Then going to school I learned, ‘Wait a minute, my experience wasn’t like everyone else’s.’ Then there’s the physical experience of London as well: how people physically react to you taking up a particular space, like on the tube. When you’re young you’re not aware of it, but you become more cognisant of it the more it starts to happen, and the more you understand your own journey, and where you are. I think writing or art is generally experiential. When I went back home for the first time I wrote loads of pieces of poetry that related to how I felt being back home, and with things that I saw. You have to be influenced by your environment, I don’t really see how you cannot be since that, to a certain degree, creates you. You’re like a seed in soil and your environment just waters that [laughs], or not, depending on where it is.
A lot of your poems talk about the experiences of yourself and your family moving here, have your family read any of your work, and what do they make of it?
It’s funny because my family mostly hadn’t. It was only really last year. When I had the book launch for Word, my mum came. Prior to that she had no idea. In Congolese culture most focus for art is singing, not really poetry and writing. She couldn’t grasp that people would come to listen to poems. She was convinced that I rapped for ages, and I was like, ‘No mum, I don’t.’ So when Word was published my mum was reading part of it. And she said: ‘No you’ve got to change this, you’ve got to change that.’ Then my dad read probably quite a lot of it. And he said to me, ‘Hold on, you mentioned your mother here but you don’t mention me, that’s not equality!’ But they haven’t even really read it. It’s that thing: the closer people are to you, the less they know of your work. Maybe it’s because they already know you, and the art is a reflection of you, so they don’t feel like they need to know more. I really still don’t have an answer to that. But generally they’re not that aware of what I’m writing and what I’ve written.
Talking about writing, you’ve performed, you have these books out, and you have these videos on your website. As you’re making a poem is the process different whether you’re creating it for stage, or for the pages of a book, or for a screen?
I’ll answer that back to front; I hate videos. I absolutely hate them. That’s why I make so few. However, I do see the necessity and almost the beauty of combining art forms. I just hope some of my writing engages people, so when I do write, I’m not necessarily thinking about whether it’s going to be spoken word, or whether it’s going to be page format poetry. I’m not really thinking about the platform, but more so about the expression, whether it’s going to come out authentic. And whether it’s on page or it’s on stage, whether it’s interpreted for film, whatever, if you have the authenticity, however the art form manifests will be fine.
It’s this particular emotion or this issue that arose something in me to want to write, so I have to make sure I express it in the best way I can. With a lot of poets now, videos are the main way, but I’ve just always wanted people to read my work. When you watch it’s a passive thing, you’re suspended, you’re not doing anything, you’re just given these images and these sounds thrown out at you, and you have no autonomy for those say three minutes, that’s it. But when you read it, you have to internalise and visualise it, you have to hear the voice of whoever’s saying it, and how they’re saying it: the intonation, the speed. So reading it is way more active than watching a video, and as much as possible I always try and ensure that people read it, even if its longer pieces that are more spoken word. That being said I will probably have to put another video together soon.
In the wake of the current political climate, Brexit and also the migrant crisis how do you do you deal with that as a writer and as a poet?
Because it’s my own experience, I’ve always been acutely aware. In my opinion there’s always been a refugee crisis. So it’s not anything new necessarily. Now it’s mostly focused around Syria and Libya and so on, but even prior to that I have always known of people coming into the country as refugees. I have always been aware of the challenges that they face as well as how society treats them. So what this has done, the current political climate, it’s just brought a certain conversation to the forefront, that people had been having already. The problem is that people assume they have an informed opinion on an experience that they’ve never gone through, instead of listening to people whose experience it is. Poets, like Warsan Shire for instance, write a lot about being a refugee, and immigration, so this has been written about for a long time, but people are now only starting to pay attention because it directly involves them. We need to go beyond that, we need to go to the point where we can find solutions, so that people don’t have to go through these experiences. I would hope that we can use Brexit et cetera, as a way to bring about the right voices to the forefront who are aware of the issues. So that when the dust settles, people would still be as committed and as passionate as they always have been.
You have a lot of conversations with your readers on Twitter, especially late night musings, what do those mean for you?
It means that there are other people in the world who have the same thoughts, you know? These are conversations when I daydream. I just have loads of questions and I think at those times, people engage more genuinely. I was previously in a conversation about death: I was like, ‘You know what, let’s have this conversation before all the boring people wake up and then judge us.’ Then the next day I got a text message that was like, ‘Yo, I saw your tweets about death and I’m a bit worried.’ It’s not even negative, but generally there’s a fear that if you’re talking about death then it’s suicidal. It’s interesting and I think that’s limited to Anglophones and UK culture because, in Francophone culture and France for instance, their philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, et cetera, they have been so obsessed with existentialism and death that people are just like ‘yea of course.’ I’m not trying to idealise French culture, it can be inherently racist and systematically so—just look at religion in society—but they have a different association with those kind of conversations.
I really do enjoy those Twitter dialogues because it just helps me to remember that we have more similarities than we have divisions. So more than anything it’s about following that and reminding myself that actually all these questions that you have aren’t just your own.
What’s the best thing you’ve read, seen or heard lately?
Oooh, can I do all three? So read, I would suggest Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza who is a Congolese author based in Austria. It doesn’t necessarily read the same way a novel would, but it’s still really engaging. Seen, there’s a Congolese artist called Eddy Ilunga whose artwork is being exhibited at the October Gallery in London and his work is phenomenal, you just have to see it! He fuses traditional African society, Congolese society, culture, clothing et cetera, with this almost neo-sci fi element. It’s like the Matrix meets the village. It’s so weird but it’s proper beautiful, I highly recommend. And heard, at the moment there is this singer-songwriter called Gabrielle Aplin, she’s got a song called Home that I’ve had on repeat for the best part of 12 hours now.
What are you up to next?
I’ve got a few performances coming up this summer. I’m also starting the MA in Creative Writing at Birbeck in September/October. I was third for the Kit de Waal scholarship, so I get a bit of funding for that. Coming from a poetry background I never really thought I would get it, but they really loved the work. I’m really excited about it because you it’s the first time I would have ever studied anything to do with writing officially.