Olumide Popoola (e)

Writer in Residence 2017 - Olumide Popoola

To Reach Across
A response to Wimbledon BookFest 2017

I arrive on the Common to a flurry of hushed excitement. There is police around in bulletproof vests. A police van parked a little away from the entrance to the big tent, a few officers strolling, it seems, casually. The blackboard at the entrance informs me that bag checks are in place. It feels dystopian. The friendly common, open and exposed, a normal afternoon, nothing seems out of the ordinary, except for the BookFest. Bag checks? The foyer is almost empty. Talks and conversations are in full swing in both tents and only a few people are waiting or browsing. Fiona Razvi, the festival director, welcomes me. At the bookstall I overhear someone, ‘Salman Rushdie has arrived.’ The low bookcase facing me confirms his arrival. On the top shelf a row of The Satanic Verses. I understand now. The heightened security is not a reaction to our current climate. This is his news, Salman Rushdie's, and it is in some ways old, the threat of incensed reactions to his writing. He is here to promote his new book The Golden House.

‘The reality has outstripped the ability to imagine the bizarre…’ he says a couple of hours later. Our current times, he argues, are steeped in public lying, deliberately created fictions. Reality has outstripped imagination. With Rushdie’s departure the bag checks disappear. The common becomes dreamy and indeed magical - purple lights illuminate the waving leaves of a tree by the entrance to the tent.

Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct has one answer to the current political dilemma. Empathy, acting outside one’s own tribal affiliation. ‘When you put people together they discover their mutual humanity.’

I wonder how can we make empathy compelling enough for it to be a common goal, a shared normality ingrained in our daily lives? We have been together for a while, we, people, different to each other. Yet the gulf between us has widened again, at least many seem to want it to. Education, Bazalgette asserts, is the key. The BookFest is miles ahead here. Enthusiastic year 12 volunteers from a local high school speak to me about how much they enjoy the community atmosphere of the BookFest. It is joyous, for me as a writer, that books and the seemingly disappearing act of reading make their eyes shine.

On another day I sit with almost 500 school children in front of me, their fidgeting backs enveloped by flapping tent walls. The quiet is not of boredom, it is anticipation. Tanya Landman knows her audience and has them in stitches when she outlines the genesis of her children’s mystery novels. ‘I really really like killing people… I can just keep killing people indefinitely.’
Almost all hands shoot up in the air when it is question time. ‘Did writing change your life?’ ‘Yes, it is the best job I have ever done.’ I am energised by the urgency of their questions, their eagerness. Do they feel empathy towards each other, across their difference? Are they understanding themselves and each other better than older generations have? This speaking with each other, a writer much older than they giving them time, paying attention, taking their concerns serious is important. It is the listening that is part of empathy that I feel is often missing.
A.C. Grayling talks about facts and transparency in the era of fake news. Like most events it is packed. An attentive audience is reaching for answers. I wonder how much Miranda Kaufman and June Sarpong were able to offer in their conversation just before Grayling’s. Kaufman uncovers a silenced history with her book Black Tudors. In the pre-conversation chat June Sarpong calls it a whitewashing of history, the exclusion of such stories. Her Diversify offers strategies for inclusion, for all parts of society.

I am moved on Friday night after listening to Peggy Seeger speak about her extraordinary life. The Wimbledon Community choir had set the stage for Seeger introducing me to her song Call Me Home. ‘Life carries a chance for friends to carry us over,’ her beautiful voice sings into my ear as I walk the long way back to Morden, her song my latest purchase.

This is where the answer is, for me at least: to imagine each other’s life across differences. That is the joy of reading, the joy of books. It is also an answer and a lesson, their importance, especially in a time where facts can be questionable. Our imagination is needed, more than ever, to remind us how to reach across and be.

Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian-German writer, speaker and performer. Her publications include essays, short stories and poetry. Olumide has a PhD in Creative Writing and has lectured in Creative Writing at institutions including Goldsmiths College, London. Her novel When We Speak of Nothing was published by Cassava.