That Moment of Transition: Talking with Musa Okwonga
I have long been a fan of Musa Okwonga, the football writer and co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Stadio. Reading In the End, It Was All About Love (Rough Trade, 2021) also put me firmly in the camp of Musa Okwonga, author and poet. The second-person, present-tense novella is part autofiction, part paean to a complicated relationship with a city, part heart song to complicated emotions that, at their best, seem connective, communal, cathartic; at their worst, insubstantial, not worth even trying to put into words.
Divided into three sections, each starting with an original poem, this slim book packs an intensity that will find you reeling days after. A story that makes you feel seen on a spring Saturday afternoon in a city far away, in a life that for all its similarities with the author’s is also vastly different in many of its experiences—and yet, your thoughts and doubts have been captured on paper by a mind and heart and soul that knows and cares. A love that reverberates across oceans.
It was a pleasure, then, to chat with Musa over Zoom recently about In the End, It Was All about Love and about One of Them (Unbound, 2021), his Eton memoir that was only a day old when we spoke. We also discussed making art, storytelling, his experiences as an immigrant in the UK and in Berlin where he currently resides, about occupying a unique space in his creative and personal life, and the almost Renaissance-man nature of his existence.
The Rumpus: What is the purpose of the magic realism in In the End, It Was All About Love?
Musa Okwonga: First of all, thank you for asking me that. I love that you asked me that. I foreshadowed the magic realism; it’s there from the very first chapter. Berlin as a city is bottomless, right? I wanted to give a sense of that, and I wanted to talk about psycho-geography because Berlin has this astonishing history. I wanted, basically, to create the sense that there are some cities, some particular places, where the air is so laden with history, it sinks into everything around it. There are some places where such momentous things have happened, they sink into the surroundings.
A friend of mine went to Senegal where the ferries would ship the enslaved Africans across the ocean, and she posted a photograph one time of when the bay doors open. They are basically in the ocean, and as you look out, that’s all the enslaved would see between there and America. The boundless ocean. The view [in the photograph] is the same view they would have seen two hundred and fifty years ago.
With the magic realism in the book, I wanted the readers to sink into a place that unmoored them somewhat, I wanted to untether them from reality and be like, this is deeply surreal but also entirely real. It may not show up until later [in the book], but I’m sort of drip-feeding it in from the start. There’s a poem, the second poem, “Magic Realism,” at the start of the second section, before it plunges you right into it.
Rumpus: Speaking of poetry, I was particularly intrigued about the one titled “Black Gravity.” It was powerful and almost eerie. Could you talk a bit about its origins and what that concept of black gravity means to you?
Okwonga: Thank you for saying that. I’m so proud of that poem because it’s the first one I had published in any journal, and it took for me to move to another country to get my poetry published. It’s one of the oldest journals in Europe called Neue Rundschau, and I have Sharon Dodua Otoo, one of the best writers we have in Europe, to thank for it.
I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled to many cities. At one point, I started putting together a list of cities and the racism I’d experienced, almost ranking them in terms of the sort of atmospheric pressure of racism in these cities. I came to the conclusion that in some cities, that pressure, that black gravity, was greater.
Apply that analysis to Berlin. What is it like from street to street? There are certain places in Berlin that you can’t go to. Twenty-five minutes from here in a taxi, there is a bar run by, not neo-Nazis, but Nazis, actual Nazis. I know where that bar is, people know where that bar is, antifascists know where that bar is. The black gravity inside is almost too much for the soul to bear.
So, I thought, let me write a poem about the psycho-geography of racism in the city of Berlin. Every single injury sustained in that poem is one sustained by me, or a friend, or a friend of a friend.
Rumpus: In In the End, It Was All About Love, you also talk about reclaiming the city of Berlin. Has writing the book helped you reclaim parts of yourself?
Okwonga: You know how in a computer game you have to do something or get something to get to the next level? I wrote this book seeking something which I wasn’t aware of yet and in writing it I reclaimed a part of myself I didn’t know I was missing. There is a part of me that is full, having gone there, having returned to my father’s grave in Uganda after thirty-six years.
Rumpus: I read in another interview that you wrote the third section in the book, your Ugandan homecoming, on your phone while returning from visiting your father’s grave. No wonder there is such a vivid sense of immediacy to those words.
Okwonga: To me it was powerful and poignant, and I’m not embarrassed that I wrote it on the five-hour journey south to Kampala, returning from my father’s final resting place. Everything I’d done had led to that moment and that form of writing. I’d written so many match-reports as a football writer in a pub on my smartphone for years, so I was used to writing on it. So, I’m sitting there in the dark, and we’re going through the north of Uganda, which is beautiful. Karuma Falls is the unofficial border between the north and the south and you cross the river Nile and it’s gorgeous. There are no streetlights, just moonlight.
I knew I had to write it all down while I was still feeling everything. It was one continuous sweep—you know, like a camera-panning shot, it’s got to feel cinematic. And there’s something about driving with a sense of closure, knowing that you’re moving south so you feel like you’re descending, back into the city, into Kampala, from the countryside. Kampala’s on the Seven Hills so when you arrive, you’re at the top of the city and you descend down into this massive, cathartic throng. There’s something about the intimacy of focusing on that small screen in the dark and the words punching out of you. There’s a different energy to the writing when you’re doing it in a moving vehicle. It’s what I call the physics of writing. You get out of it what you put in it.
This was not a midlife crisis, but an end-life crisis—not who am I, what am I doing—this was, I didn’t think I’d live past forty, let me assess my entire life, and then in the self-assessment, I was like, now I can live for myself; my life is finally my own. Returning from Uganda, my life was mine for the first time. It had never felt that way before; my life had always been owned by someone else, owned by trying to live up to a legacy, owned by an institution, a school I’d been to. So, In the End, It Was All About Love was an old-age novel; it always felt old, but weirdly, this is the first time I’ve felt young.
Rumpus: You’ve said that you’re happiest in transition, when you’re on the brink of being chaotic. How does that affect the way you see the world, your sense of belonging, and also your creative output?
Okwonga: Yes, I’ve noticed that the happiest I’ve been in life is when I’m in between two points. Walking to see friends I haven’t seen in a couple of months, taking the train across town at 7 p.m. with a bottle of chilled wine to see your partner and they open the door and they’re there in the doorway—sometimes you don’t even remember what happens after you go in but for that moment, they open the door and there’s home. It’s that moment of transition. Or running through on goal when you’re about to score. The crowd knows you’re going to score, you know you’re going to score, the goalkeeper knows you’re going to score, and the goalkeeper knows you know that. Or the top of the jump shot when you’re about to release the ball.
There is something amazing about the arrival, but even greater is that moment before that when you know that everything’s going to be okay. That’s maybe about safety, and it’s the knowledge, not just of transition but the knowledge that safety is on its way. It’s really powerful but you’re about to be held. That’s it. That’s the one. That’s the moment.
For me—I don’t want to be universal—for me as a writer, the frightening thing about writing is that I often don’t know where I’m going to end up. Not in terms of a plot, but I’m not sure what I’ll discover about myself, and the thing about writing a memoir, it’s about being seen. People write memoirs and they emerge being hated. So, when you’re writing, sometimes you’re afraid of what’s going to emerge. About belonging: how much does belonging matter and where can you belong are concerns that I grapple with in writing and my life. In a place where you’re alienated, where can you find home? Where can I find home when home is not a matter of geography? We’re going to see huge migrations in future; we may be part of those migrations in future. Where do we find home when home is hostile, or when the immediate surroundings are hostile? It’s a constant redefinition of what that is.
Maybe that’s the future. Look at nationalism. Look how dangerous the concept of belonging can actually be, how toxic. Because belonging is such a fragile concept that people cling to it even when it’s gone and that clinging creates desperation. What is that but drowning? If you’re drowning spiritually, you’re pulling everyone else down. The truly radical thing is to be like, we belong everywhere and nowhere at once. Maybe that is the radical solution to this mess.
Rumpus: How do you navigate the pressures and pitfalls of representing yourself, your experiences, and your personal emotional truths in your writing? Have there been moments, while writing both your recent books, when you felt worried about how the revelations in them would be received?
Okwonga: Niven Govinden, who’s a brilliant writer, has written an amazing novel called Diary of a Film, and in it he defines an artist as being someone who has to create work from a deeply felt need, [who has a] deeply felt desire to create work in order to survive. What’s the antidote to the current political and social movement, the age of artifice? I’ve said it a hundred times, but it bears repeating. The only antidote for that is vulnerability, an act of radical vulnerability.
People say to me, “Oh, it’s so personal.” What did you expect? I’m a dark-skinned man in mainland Europe; how else did you expect it to be? The only reason it’s so harrowing is because that level of reality threatens people. I’m not ashamed. Yes, I’m dark-skinned; yes, I’m bisexual; what of it? I don’t mean that in a confrontational way. In the End, It Was All About Love is a visceral book and it will inspire visceral reactions. Because so much of what we do is based on not feeling anything. I’m talking specifically about the reactionary forces in our society; I’m talking about the macho, hyper-masculine, tough-it-out, knuckle-dragging, everyone-for-themselves. A couch of vulnerability is what we need to get through this mess.
You are constantly being observed. People are watching you to see how you treat people, in public or social media—that is the work. Award-winners come and go, and people may not remember what you won, but they remember how you made them feel. It’s not like I’m being guarded. That was always the work.
Let me have a sort of shamelessness that comes from a sort of integrity, a place of vulnerability, and a place of healing. That’s the shamelessness that I want. I don’t want the kind that tramples over everyone. I’m unashamed of my reality, I’m unashamed of my truth. I don’t regret going out into the world and trying to be the best version of myself—it has a value, I have a value. Especially with the way the negative stereotypes of Black people are constructed. What I do now is try to speak to my experience. Similarly, One of Them is an Eton College memoir, not the Eton College memoir. The specific range of experiences I’ve had, they are not everyone’s.
I have also realized that not everyone has to figure you out and that’s liberating. It’s about trying to live your life to the best of your abilities. I mean, there are so many reasons why so many people don’t get a chance to deliver these full lives for themselves. But, whatever I do, these two books have been defining projects for me.
Rumpus: I’ve noticed this undercurrent of hope in all of your work, despite much of it dealing with heavy topics. Is that part of what you might call your writer’s manifesto?
Okwonga: Every poem in In the End, It Was All About Love begins with a sort of bleak opening and they all end with optimism. That’s deliberate. I see you, I understand you, I understand that things are difficult and I’m not going to patronize you by pretending that they aren’t. I’m here, I see you; here is a way forward. That’s a deliberate technique I use in my poems, my music, in both my recent books.
I think it’s in me, but that is probably too easy an answer. If I’m being frank, it’s part of my belief system. There’s a great writer, Gao Xingjian, I’ve not read his work yet but I read his Nobel lecture and he talks about religion and faith, and he says, “I’m not religious but I have reverence for the unknowable”—that’s why the magic realism is in In the End, It Was All About Love. There are so many things I do not know.
My attitude towards life, in terms of my belief system, is that we’re here for the briefest time as a civilization, we’re here for a few million years of civilization. The Earth has been here for a few billion years, the universe a few billion years—we are here for the briefest time and then we’re gone again, and we have to, in the briefest time we’re here, create the warmest, brightest resonance we can. Everything I do, every project I do, is geared towards that. It all has the same energy, the acknowledgement of difficulty and the perseverance through that difficulty, because that is the thing we’re going to need, the world that we have coming—ecological collapse, the freshwater shortage in India, the drop-off in protein in the Atlantic, the ice shelves—we’re going to need people to be like, this is bleak, but here is the transition to hope, and that is the through-line for my entire creative philosophy. I’m really glad you can see that because it’s everything.
Photograph of Musa Okwonga by Kasia Zachark.