As JJ Bola’s debut novel No Place to Call Home (published by OWN IT! 2017) hits good bookshops near you, JJ shares a carrot cake and discusses said carrot cake, humility, getting into writing, writing in Lingala and how No Place to Call Home came to be, with his fellow Flight 1000 Associate Remi-Lyn Browne. Spread the Word was pleased to support OWN IT! with JJ’s book launch in late June 2017.
Our interview started with JJ’s favourite, carrot cake. He told me about his “3 tier assessment criteria” which he uses to assess all the cakes he eats. There’s more to every writer than books, right? Quite.
So the first criteria was aesthetic, he said. “Because we eat with our eyes?” I agreed. He wasn’t asking me, but I agreed. He was a man that was serious about cake and I, as a woman that is serious about food generally, respect that. He gave my cake an 8 for aesthetics, not bad. The second assessment criterion was texture, “some carrot cakes can be quite dry,” he said, picking up the fork. I wanted the one that I bought to do well by his standards because I buy from this particular shop all the time. I didn’t make it, but I am competitive in an irrational kind of way. He tasted it and said “Remi you might have done something here, where is this from?” I told him Sponges and Cream in Brixton Village. He jokes about moving into the area and gentrifying it some more – which I appreciated in an odd way.
At this point, a woman came into the room to give us a flyer. She said to JJ, “you look like an artist” and she was right, he always does, in the best possible way. Then she said, “I’ve seen your face on Twitter I think.” It’s not hard to miss JJ on Twitter; he galvanises and provokes great conversations and with around 19,000 followers, I’m sure many of us know a couple of people that follow @JJ_Bola. The lady helped me out with my interview, asking him why he’s so humble. JJ replied, as most African children would, “Because my mum would slap me if I behaved in any other way.” Makes sense.
Shouts to the lady for the great conversation. When she left we got back to cake. The last assessment criterion was aftertaste, as in: the taste that said cake leaves in your mouth after you have long swallowed it. He said he had had better than my cake and so gave it a 7; the lack of nuts brought it down. So we got 23 out of 30 and he said he’d pay the shop a visit when he was next in Brixton. Not bad coming from such a seasoned cake man.
When the cake was done, we returned to writing. “Writers aren’t the same as sports stars and don’t get the same validation from society,” he said, “so how can we have the same ego?” JJ thinks it’s better like this, as writers need to be observers; “how can we observe if everyone is always watching and clapping?”
I asked him how he got into writing and he said what I hoped he would, “completely by accident.” He wanted to be a basketball player when he was a kid, so he could be what most working class children hope to be, a millionaire. Though he was an avid reader in primary school, the amount he read dipped in secondary school due to a mixture of reading “no longer being cool”, and there simply not being enough engaging material around him. Then, he found writers like Chinua Achebe and George Orwell and things changed. He loved Animal Farm so much that he put it in his novel.
So, we talk about his newly published novel, No Place To Call Home (NPTCH), published by OWN IT! in June 2017. My burning question was whether the protagonist Jean and his parents were characters that were heavily influenced by JJ’s own family life. That wasn’t the case, he laughs as he tells me that that the only similarity was that his parents are both Congolese and still together. As for Jean, he makes much better decisions than a young JJ did.
For those that haven’t yet started on their copy of NPTCH, JJ writes some of it completely in Lingala without translation. It’s written cleverly so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything if, like me, you are aren’t a Lingala speaker. I wondered why JJ had made that choice, “Each writer to their own but I think that you have to give your readers some credit and trust them a little bit to get it. If Jean is walking down the stairs into a room, followed by some Lingala speech, he is probably saying hello.”
The love story between Jean’s parents struck me in the book. Why did you focus in on them much, I asked, “Congolese are romantic people, love is important in Congo for men and women,” he said.
JJ started to write NPTCH in 2015 and he didn’t know whether he would finish it, having written would-be novels before. Literary and film agency Pontas approached him, asking whether he had considered a novel as a project. They asked him whether he could finish by June that year; the rest is history, and the outcome now lives on my bookshelf. “Editing is hard,” he said, and I smiled and nodded because I’m editing my own novel at the moment and learning just how hard it is.
This book is exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. I, like so many people in the Diaspora, needed to read it. I don’t think we have had a story like it for a long time; there’s something so warming about hearing a story that you needed to hear.
It was getting late, so I squeezed one more question in as we packed up: “Does it make you feel sad that your book has to be more than a book? That it has to represent so much more than just being a story, it has to fly the flag for a whole community?” He says, “I wish it could be just a book. For there to be a need for a book that’s classed as representative, there needs to be an underrepresentation in the community that it talks about, and I don’t want that. So it’s a mixed feeling. I’m split. I’m so split.”
Remi-Lyn Browne is a Flight 1000 Associate at Spread the Word. Remi-Lyn is part of the London based creative collective SXWKS and her first poetic work these are the most terrifying thoughts is published under SXWKS publishing. In 2015 she co-founded AZ-MAG, an online publication centring around the experiences of British LGBT BMEs.