We’re big fans of Musa Okwonga here at DADDY. The author and musician has already contributed an impressive body of work to leading publications such as The Economist, The Guardian, and The New York Times, but he’s gone and topped himself with three books scheduled for publication this year. The first, In The End It Was All About Love (Rough Trade Books, 2021), dropped during Black History Month because #BlackExcellence, but I admit I was initially confused. I was expecting to learn more about his time at Eton College, where he overlapped with an heir to the British throne, but it turns out that’s the subject of his other forthcoming memoir One of Them out in April. And finishing the year with a children’s book about his main passion football, Striking Out, co-written with Ian Wright, is expected in September.
The frenzy might explain why All About Love is a relatively slim 122 pages. Rather than racing through his life and its many different stages – London, Eton, Oxford –, Okwonga slows down to show us a more intimate view of his Berliner Alltag. The approach mirrors how he greets visitors. The cousin who visits him for a day from England isn’t shuffled past tourist attractions on a walk around the city, but rather deposited on a bench at the edge of a lake looking across to Brandenburg. Surprising the people he loves with “birdsong” instead of “bass drum,” is why he feels at peace here and in all the many ways we get to know him, so Musa. It’s not clear how he managed to juggle writing this book with all his many other projects, but as he tells us himself, one thing always keeps him going.
“What is the point, you think, of all this writing, all this creating, if at the end there is no-one to stroke your head on the night bus home, no-one’s hand to hold in a darkened cinema, no one to feed ice cream on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon. What is the point of trying to put joy into the world when you can find none of your own. You think of those comedians and soul singers who entertained and brought solace to so many but who never met someone who cherished them; and then you look around your flat, where barely a friend or lover ever sets foot, and you realise that, though oceans away from their success, you are still sailing in similar waters. What is the point of all this, you wonder; and then, because you have rowed so far out into this life that it feels you have no other options, you start to type. In The End, you begin, It Was All About Love.”
Living in Berlin since 2014, Okwonga’s love for this city is tempered by the open hostility he receives from strangers and acquaintances as a Black bisexual man. Between being assaulted on the street and ignored by love interests, it’s hard to see what exactly he gets back from this place he’s made his home, but he casually accepts that such setbacks are simply part of the deal: “Sooner or later Berlin will punch you in the stomach. When it does, please try not to take this personally – instead, try to treat it as a passport stamp, as a sign of your arrival. You won’t get on here if you don’t. If you hang around long enough, it will give you a kiss on the forehead, it will invite you to the less harsh parts of itself.”
Where we don’t get invited is into the writer’s inner sanctum, despite the undeniable vulnerability he exposes. The life he has chosen comes at significant personal and financial costs, which he lays out in unflinching detail. Often broke and insecure, he struggles to feel worthy. Comparing himself to his surgeon/revolutionary father, who was killed when he was four and possibly assassinated by the same general who has ruled Uganda ever since, doesn’t help. These traumas lead him to seek therapy in the novel’s middle chapter, before flying to Uganda for its emotional conclusion. Along the way we learn about enough of his personality from his loves – football – to his vices – in a city known for its hedonism, inexplicably, icing – that we almost have a full picture, but like an artful magician directing our attention, he always leaves something unsaid.
To be fair, he openly acknowledges this sleight of hand. After a lover tells him he is “guarded during sex, that even when naked you are afraid,” it takes days for him to recall the conversation, and when he does, he collapses “for an hour or so, as if her words have eventually triggered an earthquake in you.” As another Black queer man, I was surprised that his bisexuality only surfaces in two paragraphs, versus his love for cake, which gets six. Even though he clearly loves “that café across town where they drown each slice of apple pie in whipped cream, that one whose back room is filled with Seventies-style sofas” and the one “three stops down the line for a serving of marzipan-mohn, its thick, speckled layers of sponge dissolving the moment they touch your tongue,” he carefully avoids telling us where we could get some, too. Why?
“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.”
In The End, It Was All About Love is available now from Rough Trade Books for £11.99.
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