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Present, Tense: On Cake, Berlin & The Far Right With Musa Okwonga
Robert Barry , March 6th, 2021 09:39

Musa Okwonga talks about his new novel, In The End It Was All About Love, out now from Rough Trade Books. The interview is followed by an extract from the book

Musa Okwonga is showing me his old smart phone. “Here it is!” he says, grinning, having dived behind the webcam to retrieve it. It’s kind of an odd moment in the chat, because, in a way, it’s just an ordinary black iPhone, not much different from the one in my pocket or a million others in a million other pockets. But at the same time, it’s not just any old phone. This particular black iPhone played an important role in the writing of one of my favourite books of the year so far. This phone has been on a journey.

Everything feels deferred at the moment. At the college where I teach once a week, several students have chosen to defer their studies for a year. I can’t blame them. I’ve been putting stuff off myself – waiting for things, the world, etc. to open up again. Even this conversation is passing through multiple deferrals, travelling through microphones, fibre connections, proprietary software, headphones, between two different cities in two different countries hundreds of miles apart. So it was refreshing – almost startling – to read something as immediate, as present as Okwonga’s new book for Rough Trade, In The End, It Was All About Love.

It’s a book, as Okwonga himself says, for journeying, a book that takes you places – to Berlin, to Uganda – but a book that also takes you inside people, deep into their inner lives. And if it sometimes feels like the words have just poured straight from the heat of the moment onto the page, then it’s because at least some of them more or less have.

“You know how when you’re writing a speech or whatever for a special event, like a wedding, you have to write it as close to the event as possible, because then you capture the mood of it?” he says, still brandishing the phone in one hand. I nod, half laughing to myself as I remember my own groom’s speech, written at 1am, the night before the big day. Okwonga isn’t talking about a wedding specifically, but the final portion of his book, tapped feverishly into the notes app of that very phone while riding the bus back to Kampala after visiting his father’s village for the first time in years. “I was like, I have to write this in real time, I’ve got to capture it, the kind of –” he snaps his fingers click, click, click, like he’s searching for a word but also miming the spark of language flowing through his hands, “– the intensity. Because if I write this in the UK, I won’t get it done to the right degree.”

“A lot of the book,” he says, “a huge percentage of that stuff happened – but a lot of it didn’t. I always call it a tall tale. It’s very personal but also sort of magic realist.”

Can you tell about how this book started?

There’s always a moment when you extend a short piece of work into something much bigger. For me it came, I think it was around 2017. I worked on a sci-fi novel which had a lot of interest from different people. It was based on four different planets, with different alien languages. A whole universe. I spent a year and a half writing it. A hundred and ten thousand words. Then I showed it to these people and one by one, they all turned it down. And it was just spiritually, creatively, emotionally exhausting.

So that was happening in my creative life and in my personal life, the far right was surging. 2016 you had the referendum in the UK, which a lot of people still refuse to believe was anything to do with the hard right (Yeah, I know). But then you had the US with what happened there, you had Orban, you had Austria. All these countries. In Berlin, the far right vote jumped from 0% to 14% in one year. All of this is happening while I’m getting that novel rejected. And I was like, well, instead of writing about the external world and creating other universes, explore the inner world and talk about how you and your friends are feeling. A lot of the book is drawn on my experience, but there’s also other experience. I wanted to write a book that was almost like a recalling from trauma, to make every passage as vivid as traumatic memory.

And at what point did you decide to make it all in this second person tense?

I wanted it to be a book which people experienced as a video game. You know those first person player games, like Grand Theft Audio. People have no problem imagining themselves as a Miami Vice-type drug dealer. So why not give people a virtual reality experience. Get them to live it. So the beginning of the book is very universal. It talks about getting a flat, getting some cake. If you’re white and you’re straight and cis, you’ll read that and be like, oh yeah, I can imagine doing that, then by the time – hopefully – you’re in the voice and you’re feeling it, then it’s like, ah, now I’m experiencing race, I’m experiencing homophobia, I’m experiencing all this family stuff, therapy.

So, just to situate this a little bit, when are these events in the book taking place?

I wrote it so it wouldn’t have too much specificity. It has no brand names in there, no company names, no politicians’ names. I think fascism gains power by naming it. Give them a name, you make them notorious. They don’t deserve a name. The way to deconstruct power is by refusing to acknowledge it because power actually likes to be mocked. Every time you mock a particular clown of a politician, they actually get off on it. They love the attention. If you had to put this book anywhere in history, then give it the end of 2016 and the first six months of 2017. But I’d also like people to read it and feel like they could pick this up at any point and read it at any point, a few years in the past or a few years in the future.

The book starts with you moving to Berlin and trying to settle in. You’re still in the city now. How have your feelings about the city changed since finishing the book, with everything that’s happened since?

It’s been amazing. This city feels like a real sanctuary at this point. We’re tucked in this tiny pocket, two hours from the Polish border. For a city this size, the number of Covid cases has been really quite low. The far right has been mostly staying at home, which they’re miserable about – but no-one else is. They’re atrophying in the dark. So that’s actually quite nice. The beauty of writing a book like this, on a personal level, is the catharsis and the way that you process trauma through writing it. And it now feels like fully my city.

When Charlottesville happened, I went to the rally in solidarity. And at the same time, nazis came from all over Europe to celebrate the life of Rudolf Hess in Spandau. So I went on the antifa protest and that changed my entire life in relation to this city, because it was then that I realised this is their city, but it’s also yours.

How to Eat Cake in Berlin (an extract from In The End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga)

The best time to eat cake in Berlin is a weekday afternoon, say 2pm on Thursday. You can’t do it much earlier, because you won’t have earned it. You have to get the timing just right – if you get to the cafe for 3pm then when you finish you will emerge into a swarm of angry and homeward-bound commuters.

The best place to eat cake – well, that varies. It depends what you are looking for. If you want to go somewhere where you can pass out after the arrival of the sugar rush, then there’s that quiet spot in your neighbourhood, the one where the atmosphere is almost supernaturally gentle – where, even when it was full and busy one evening, you were still able to write a short story without being distracted. That’s the same cafe which has a dog who seems to spend ninety-five percent of his time in a state of hibernation, slumped on a shelf just behind the bar, and who only wakes when another dog enters his realm. Then, he’s almost on his hind legs with fury, and won’t stop roaring until the door closes behind the startled and rapidly-retreating invader.

That’s also the cafe where the toddler babbles at you in Spanish and tries to impress you by holding up a series of nearby objects, waiting until you nod in approval before presenting a new one – a salt-shaker, a menu, a sugar bowl. You are always impressed. This place is as tranquil as your first girlfriend’s bedroom at university, and when you fall asleep here no-one nudges you awake.

If you want to eat cake in a place where you can dream, then you wander down the street, to a cafe which also serves salty stew and cups of hot chocolate so thick you can almost stand up a spoon in them. This cafe is where you will spend many afternoon hours gazing out of the window and planning new adventures. It is the place where you are sitting where you heard from a dear friend for the last time, when he sent you a text message from his death-bed to remind you that, on that particular day, you were doing exactly what you were meant to be doing with your life: not worrying about making money, or what everyone else was achieving in their careers, just being. If you want to remember him, you go and eat there.

If you want to eat cake in a place that reminds you that love is possible, go to that cafe across town where they drown each slice of apple pie in whipped cream, that one whose backroom is filled with nineteen-seventies sofas and which is graced with a small cabaret stage. In this cafe, over cake, love twice came close. Or, to feel similar, catch a tram fifteen minutes from your flat, where you spent a Sunday afternoon sharing Sachertorte on a first date with someone who understood you.

If you want cake for its own sake, which of course is reason enough, then go three stops down the line for a serving of marzipan-mohn, its thick, speckled layers of sponge dissolving the moment they touch your tongue. If you want cake which rewards your loyalty, then go to the cupcake store nearby, where every week you get a free helping because you are in there so often, and where you were just beginning to build up the courage to ask out the woman who you had seen working there for years and then she left her job.

To eat cake in Berlin properly, never reveal where you eat. If you must, then guard your preferred locations with the jealousy of an insecure lover. If you are feeling a little more generous, then leave hints as to where you have been eating, perhaps the odd photo on social media, so that the keenest detectives among your friends can figure it out. As ridiculous as it seems, not only to you but eventually your dentist, cake has become your sanctuary. It is your ritual.

Each year, after you have completed your tax return, you catch the underground train to Mitte and mark the occasion with a dessert that costs no more than four euros, a restrained way to celebrate yet another twelve months as a freelancer. Cake punctuates your artistic career, each mouthful is a milestone. Whilst this town offers many escapes, many vices, yours is icing.

In The End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga is published by Rough Trade Books