Our Existence Is Political: An Interview With JJ Bola, Author Of Word
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
It would be fair to say that poetry saved JJ Bola. In many ways, he belonged to the London area of Camden Town, where he grew up — one of the most heterogeneous neighbourhoods in the city, and as such, quintessentially London: everyone belongs. But he was also different to all the kids he was growing up around: he had been born in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and moved to the English capital at the age of 6 with his parents. That made them all refugees. And that encompasses a lot of things: having to constantly renew documents; never having the certainty that you won’t get kicked out of the country you live in; not being fundamentally understood by your peers; or having to give up your life plans.
Bola grew up to become a big basketball promise, whose dreams of going to America were squashed by his refugee condition. Poetry, and writing, became his unlikely allies when that possibility was shattered. We met in a garden and community center in the Dalston neighbourhood, built on a disused train line, in one of London’s far too scarce clear summer evenings. He was relaxed and charismatic, but there was a hectic energy to him, which his poetry also transpires (“This is not just poetry. This is a prayer. This is eyes closed bended knees hands together in the air.”). In his latest poetry collection, Word, he deals with themes of race, feminism, culture, rape, politics, love, depression, suicide. He is one of those people who seem to thrive the more projects they embark on — he is involved in several educational initiatives and continually works in projects to raise awareness about the horrifying human rights situation in his native country, where six million people have been killed in the ongoing genocide, and 1.000 women are estimated to be raped every day as a weapon of war.
Marta Bausells: Your experience is intrinsically linked to your parents coming to the UK as refugees. Can you explain the journey they went through?
JJ Bola: My family are originally from Kinshasa, Congo; I came here when I was 6 years old, but before that we had a pit stop in Romania, because my grandfather used to work in politics, for the Congolese government. So we were at my grandfather’s before we came to London in the early 90s, into the 3rd decade of Mobutu’s dictatorship. And because my grandfather was involved in politics, there was a lot of pressure and insecurity in the family. My father left first to go to my grandfather, and my mum stayed behind with me and my brothers, and I only learned recently that on the day that we all got on the plane, there was a military mutiny in the city. It’s a story that my mum hasn’t really told, I only found that out last year — and I was like: “Mum, this is a huge thing!” I understand that it means something else to them. For me it’s a really exciting story, to them it’s a really traumatic experience that they don’t want to pass on to their children.
They came here not being able to speak the language. My dad speaks Italian, Romanian, French and Ki-Mongo. My mom speaks Lingala, Ki-Ngombe which is another local Congolese language, and French; they were both educated, but they came here not knowing the language and having to learn English and adapt — that takes a skill that refugees don’t get given credit for, and especially in those days, when there was no internet and barely even mobile phones.
MB: What was your childhood like? Did you have an awareness of being different?
JB: I guess when you’re young, you don’t realise how unique your experience is, you just think everyone’s going through the same. If you’re a refugee, you have to go to the Home Office, and they fingerprint you and give you this four-page document that essentially says: you are this person, this is your status in this country, these are the rights that you have as a person of that status, and this is what you’re entitled to. We used to have to go every month. And for me, that was just normal — that was what every child did! And then you grow up a little bit, you start to have conversations with friends in different circumstances, meeting different kids and understanding the politics behind it.
MB: When did books come into play — and how did they help shape your identity?
…you have to also try and fit in, particularly when you grow up in an experience where you’re already so far in the periphery.
JB: What really touched on me was: I remember when I was doing my GCSEs [a British secondary school qualification], we read Animal Farm by George Orwell. And it talks about the politics of oppression, and the liberators becoming the oppressor, and that’s really the politics of what happened in Congo. I almost thought “oh my gosh, this is where I’m from!” And that really inspired me to become more involved in politics, at least internally. It wasn’t something I vocalised, because particularly being from an inner-city London culture, the whole being political, being outspoken, being into books, wasn’t seen as cool. That wasn’t what got you in — and you have to also try and fit in, particularly when you grow up in an experience where you’re already so far in the periphery… Why are you going keep doing things to push yourself away, you know?
MB: Let’s go back to Camden for a moment. How was it to grow up there, in an ever-changing absolute melting pot (excuse the clichés, but you know they are true in this case)?
JB: Camden is such an interesting place. I think Camden is what taught me how to speak to different people and relate to different people. Because it was — and still is — such a mix. I grew up quite near the Roundhouse [an iconic performing arts venue], so even just walking from Chalk Farm to the Camden Town station, and then Mornington Crescent, you can go from like the stereotypical cockney men, drinking at the pub, watching football, cheering on England; to the very posh, middle-class, well-educated, white British, kind of like quintessential English; and then you walk further down and you have ethnic diverse black African, maybe hip-hop and rap culture, which is more the experience that I grew up in; and then you move a bit forward and you have the punks, and the rockers, you know, like spiky hair, tattooed all over, piercings everywhere, rock music, Dr. Martens boots; and you move further and you have the Asian community, really traditional clothing; and so on. And on top of this whole blend of people, Camden has about 10 million tourists a year, so you have people literally from everywhere walking up and down. So growing up I was exposed to people — so I always felt comfortable around people, and being able to them you learn about their experiences… Seeing someone with their whole face tattooed up wasn’t a shock to me, because I was like “oh, he looks like that person in that shop, I speak to him all the time”, you know.
MB: What about school?
And so you try to hide that part of you because you don’t constantly want to be pointed at, you just want to live your own life.
JB: School was interesting, and I’ll be quite frank: I hated school. Absolutely hated it. It was so bizarre, because although I did have that sense of being the other, I was also quite included. It depended on the context — so I found that because I have a London accent, I don’t sound like I grew up abroad or anything, or like my parents might be refugees or I myself may be onel. So when I’m just speaking, expressing a very London culture, then it’s fine! But if I speak in my home language, or if I brought our own traditional food as packed lunch, my friends would be like “oh my god, what’s that?!” And they’re having fish and chips, but I’m like “this food is nice!” Then you start to realise: oh ok, they don’t really understand the culture. And so you try to hide that part of you because you don’t constantly want to be pointed at, you just want to live your own life.
MB: You were quite a big basketball promise in England when you were a teenager…
JB: I started when I was about 13. As I got older, I competed nationally and won a lot of trophies, but because I didn’t have the nationality, I wasn’t able to travel, so I couldn’t represent England or Britain. So I missed out on a lot of things — and then when I was about 18 I was getting a lot of interest from universities in America to play on scholarships, but I didn’t have papers, so I couldn’t really do anything — I really really tried, but it ended up not working out. So I started university here, and I still carried on playing but it wasn’t the same passion, because you know when you’re not where you expect to be. Even though you have the talent to do that, it’s just due to circumstance — and then I guess maybe that also pushed me to become more interested in the politics (you see how politics influences people’s lives, and people often take a very reductionist approach). I finished university, got my nationality, and I was able to then travel and see the world a little bit, and I ended up getting injured. And after that — you know when something happens and you know “yeah, this is it”?
MB: Is that when poetry started?
…writing was a way of expressing myself and lifting the weight off my shoulders.
JB: I just knew, then, I didn’t have the same passion for [basketball]. What I did start, though, was, in my lectures, instead of writing the notes I started just kind of writing short stories, and phrases, little things, and I would turn them into poems. I never saw it as writing poetry — I didn’t attempt to write poetry. For me, I felt like there was this heavy burden — I felt like a responsibility, because something that was supposed to have happened didn’t, and because my parents had worked so hard to get here and to raise us, and that was supposed to be the next stage of what I did. And because that didn’t happen I didn’t really know how to understand that, how to explain it. And so writing was a way of expressing myself and lifting the weight off my shoulders. The more I wrote, it just came naturally to me.
MB: You said, at your recent book launch, that you never thought those words would ever leave the walls of your bedroom. How do you go from that to having published three books?
JB: I had a little red folder that I would write in, and that was it. For about two years, never showed anyone. And then one day I showed it to a friend and he loved it, and I thought: oh my gosh! Because we were educated, schooled in a way to believe that poetry belongs to a certain group — poetry it was stereotyped in the sense you had to be very middle class, very educated, like a very posh … And that wasn’t my experience. People who came from where I came from, or grew up where I grew up, they rapped! And I didn’t like rapping — I liked to listen to rap, and I think the storytelling of rap was beautiful, I loved them, but I didn’t want to be a rapper. So when I had that reaction from my friend and saw how he was able to connect with it, that really inspired me to keep on going, and I just kept on going until where I am now.
MB: You write about anger, racism, exclusion, suicidal thoughts. Do you feel like you’ve found an inner peace through writing?
JB: I think it’s a balance. Human beings are so complex, and we’re essentially creatures of the universe, of the environment, and there’s nothing in the universe that either is one thing or the other. When I am writing is when I’m at my most peace. And I feel like things that I imagine, that I envision, that I am seeing are becoming real. It’s like you have a gift, a touch, you’re creating something — so you know that if your existence ended right now, there’s something that could continue, and from that something else could come. Because my writing comes from someone else’s writing, and that’s what’s inspired me, and I’m adding to that … So when I do write, for me it’s like — like deep breaths, you know, it’s like when you just find that calm, and it’s beautiful; but at the same time, I think there are times when you really need to be challenged, and you need to be moved.
MB: It’s interesting to me that in WORD you had the need to clarify — almost justify — the role of writer, which you qualified it as “audacious and absurd.”
…you take on that task because you truly do believe that you will change the world; that writing, art, essentially poetry, can change the world…
JB: I think it’s probably one of the most ridiculous tasks anyone can do, right? Because why on earth — I can’t even put into words the hours and the mundane boring tasks that this book project has been! Before the first draft, I spent four draft stages making sure all the full stops were in the right place! You have to read the poem as if it’s not your own poem, and that’s not why you write it. It’s a bold task to undertake, and you take on that task because you truly do believe that you will change the world; that writing, art, essentially poetry, can change the world, and to this day I fundamentally believe that it can. Otherwise I wouldn’t write. And the absurd part is — even though you believe it can, you know it can’t.
MB: To what extent do you write to represent or denounce the refugee experience and the experience of displacement?
…when I write about the refugee experience, I’m not writing about war, rape or displacement…
JB: A lot of my poetry touches really difficult issues like conflict, war, or rape — but I guess for me, when I write about the refugee experience, I’m not writing about war, rape or displacement. For me it’s been an expression of humanity, of my own humanity and that of the stories that I’m connected to. On one hand I want people to be able to connect with the human side of that experience, but I also want people to understand the political aspects of that. Our existence is political — the choices that we make, where we decide to eat, where we buy our clothes, what school we go to, what languages we speak and where we speak them, how we speak… Art allows us to understand the political reality of our human experience without it being forced to us, without someone telling us this is what it is, we connect the stories as human beings.
MB: What do you think about the civil rights situation in America?
JB: We’ve been seeing that social media has given a platform for those who are marginalized in America and who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice to express their views. So if you look at the #blacklivesmatter campaign, and other movements — particularly on Twitter, you see how the media portrays black Americans and non-black Americans. And the difference continues to this day to create such a divide in communities. To the point where you had the recent shootings in Charleston, and you’re seeing how the media treats the perpetrator just because of a different ethnicity. So the politics of separation, the politics of division, continues to have such a huge impact in America. I went to America in 2007, and… it was a different time. George W Bush was still in government, everyone was fed up — and then we got Obama: on one hand, we have to take him with a pinch of salt, and one man can’t change; but on the other hand, just do what you said! It’s particularly difficult to be able to tell what direction America is going in, and I’m planning to visit, but I just don’t know. [ed. note — Bola visited the World Fellowship Center in Albany, N.H. in July] I don’t want to be walking in the street, and then see a police officer and then know that my life might be at risk. Gary Young wrote an article recently about leaving, and that’s huge — and it shouldn’t have to be like that.
MB: You’ve just hosted a few events under the title Hype Your Writers Like You Do Your Rappers. Where did that come from?
JB: I love hip hop, I love rap, I listen to a lot of it. This came out of me thinking about the buzz around J Cole and Kendrick Lamar’s album released recently — I was part of the people who were excited! But I thought, what kind of effect would it have if we had the same buzz around writers? I think the best rappers that we have out there, they read. From listening to a certain record, you can always tell who reads and who doesn’t. And a lot of the time, rap came from the tradition of literature. It was just a continuation of it, a different expression of it — but it wasn’t supposed to be separate from it, it was never meant to go in a certain direction and then leave literature behind. Sadly, one of the things that happen with rap is that a rapper will become popular and then they’ll forget about their message, where they came from and their experience. And then their message becomes dissolved and they start making music that doesn’t really reflect the community that they came from. But with writers, you don’t get that!