JJ Bola is a Kinshasa-born, London-raised writer, poet, educator and workshop facilitator; his work is centred on a narrative of empowerment, humanisation, healing of trauma as well as discovery of self and survival through art, literature and poetry. He is an impressive new talent, whose voice as an author emerges at a crucial time.
His debut novel, No Place To Call Home is the story of a Congolese family seeking asylum and their efforts to construct a new and hybrid collective identity. It provides a lens through which the current refugee crisis might be explored and encourages deep empathy for those living in ‘a perpetual purgatory’ between borders, straddling cultures and constantly consumed by fear.
#TBB10 found out more…
1# Introduce yourself, who are you and what defines you?
I am JJ Bola, writer, poet, educator, human. I’m still trying to figure what defines me, it is process, a thing of growth. We are constantly evolving beings, and the very moment you think you have yourself figured out, you’ve already out grown that and are evolving to the next stage, so I would more so say that my definition is in my ever evolving being, whatever that may be.
2# Tell more about the story of No Place to Call Home and the reason(s) behind the title?
No Place to Call Home tells the story of a Congolese family who come to the UK to seek asylum as refugees, and their attempts to integrate into British society, have a sense of belonging and find a place, whilst holding on to their culture of origin. The story is told from the perspective of the children, Jean and Marie, and how they navigate their youth, and discover more about their background, reality and experiences, and from the perspective of the parents, Mami and Papa, what their lives were like before they left Congo, Kinshasa, and their struggle to normalise their children’s experience. It is also about how a community comes to be, and how, in a wider sense, we all seek this sense of belonging, and a place where we can find ourselves. I chose the title because I wanted to confront this idea of home, belonging and placelessness. The question of belonging is a much more immediate question if you don’t fit as part of the mainstream narrative, but it’s a question that we all have to navigate whether you are in the centre or the periphery. I wanted people to have that question raised within them, regardless of where they come from and what their experiences may be.
3# Why now, what motivated you to write your debut book?
It was a feeling, this burning desire that I can’t name, place or identify. It just would not go away, and once I started, I had to finish. I was not writing to respond to the world, or to politics, or to make a statement that must be heard in these times, it was more so, that this story had to exist. I was thinking and motivated by my family/community’s experience, and what it must have been like for so many people who went through something similar.
4# Name the person or thing that inspired you to take your creative path?
I really have no idea. I used to draw as a child, I really loved it. But that went away when I started playing sports. I was never particularly known for my creativity growing up. My younger brother plays the trumpet, so as children, he was known as the child prodigy, young creative virtuoso, and I was his older brother who played sports. But as the years passed, there just came this inexplicable need for me to write. It grew within, to the point I had to find moments of peace and quiet so I could hear what was being said. I can’t put it down to one person or thing or moment, however, it is definitely an amalgamation of all the things, people, and experiences I have known and had.
5# Tell us a bit about the piece of world you frequent, the people you surround yourself by, what keeps you going?
I go to the library regularly. I love the dual feeling of being alone, but also collectively surrounded by people. It reminds me of the duality of existence. I love how it is quiet, and it is okay to be in there and not talk, not interact, not perform. In that space, we accept each other and all that we have to do. There’s a particular café that I go to for tea and cake, and parts of the city I like to go to for solitude, peace and reflection. I’m surrounded by the most incredible people, friends and family, who I really value, love and admire. They inspire me to be the best version of myself, the truest version of myself, and I feel well and truly supported as a result of this reciprocal relationship where the cycle of giving and receiving is symbiotic and organic. I spend a lot of time alone and away from people/the world, so over the years, the relationships that I have built up are with those who are truly there for me, as I am for them. This may sound obscure, but I am mostly motivated by the fact that I am alive, and will one day not be. I often reflect on the sacrifices and challenges that so many had to overcome just so I could be here to do this, and I try to draw on that strength in order to keep going.
6# Tell us a bit about your writing process and how you managed to take the book from an idea to an actual physical thing?
I have several peculiar habits. I kept a diary for the book, and in that diary, I wrote down everything to do with the book, even the smallest, insignificant detail, to try to build up the world of the characters and make it real. I also created a kind of social media profile (in the diary) of the characters to get more insight into their existence. I had a playlist of songs that each character would listen to, but also a particular playlist for when writing, and often, I would listen to one song on repeat for the entire day, or even week. I also started walking everywhere that was within walking distance (I usually hate walking). It helped me to process thoughts and slow down time a little bit. I had “writing clothes”, so similar to gym clothes, or exercise clothes, I had the same set of clothes that I would wear every time I wrote. This helped to get me into the right frame of mind and prepare for writing, and nothing else.
To get it from an idea to an actual complete story, as much as I would like to say it was a magical, ethereal, transcendent thing, I don’t think I can. At least, I cannot confidently articulate that. The only thing I can truly say is that I set a schedule, and sat down to write, and made sure I met my writing targets. If it was 500 words a day, I held myself accountable. I believe that stories exist (in their worlds) and we, artists, are the mediators between this world and the world in which the story exists. But we have to sit down and write. I took Matt Haig’s advice on writing from his Twitter, he says; how to write a book – sit down, write 90,000 words, make it good. This goes back to the fundamentals of writing, the heavy labour of it, and the physical demand. How, as a writer, you just have to do.
The process of finding a publisher was filled with anticipation, excitement and anxiety. I’m fortunate that I had an agent, Maria Cardona, from Pontas Agency, to represent me and make submissions to publishing houses. I met with many editors who were interested, one of whom was Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who started OWN IT!, and the advice that my agent gave me was to choose the one who is most passionate about your story and understands what you are trying to say. This was Crystal. Her insight and understanding of the story was second to none, and I completely trusted her vision, which, to this day, she upheld. It has been a pleasure working with her and seeing how things have gone from strength to strength.
7# What’s special about this book?
As the writer of this book, I am answering this question with a particular bias, but I think what is special about this book is that it is real. It pulls you into a world that exists, not in a dramatic way, not in a way that is filled with conflict, or danger or fear, but in a way that you feel. I hope that by the end, when someone finishes reading it, they will be able to reflect on their own life and have particular feelings evoked in them. I hope for it to be the kind of book that when a person finishes reading, they either urge their friend to read or ask their friend who read it, so what do you think happened?
8# Where can we buy your book and what’s next for you?
No Place to Call Home is available to pre-order through OWN IT! All pre-order purchases are signed and personalised. It will be launched on the 22nd June. Then it will be available in all good bookstores in hardback and eBook. What’s next for me is to keep writing, and to see what kind of other stories I can tell and how I can tell them.
9# Where do you call home?
This is a question I’m still searching for the answer to.
10# What does the JJ stand for?
For now, it stands for JJ. Although those who have known me, already know. It’s a name that can evoke the most interesting reactions. But for now, JJ is and remains JJ.
Find out more about JJ Bola via www.jjbola.com.