Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Interview: Ronke Osinowo

I first met Ronke Osinowo after going to see Young Soul Rebels as part of the Film Fringe Fest. She (along with Dean Atta) introduced the movie. I really enjoyed the film except the ending where following a traumatic event it cuts to the next scene where the cast are dancing. I'm not a fan of this portrayl of black people in cinema at all. Moving on. After the film I spoke to Ronke and was immediately impressed by her warm and friendly manner. To my delight I found out she was a poet, though Ronke doesn't like to call herself a poet, she see's herself as an observer. We had an intense discussion about the fate of most people who leave the care system. I knew then I had to interview her. I asked very nicely and thankfully she agreed! I couldn't have got a better first interview. Read on, I'm sure you will all think she's as fantastic as I do.

There I was in the rain huddled under an awning of a newsagents in Old Street where I spotted Ronke, when she saw me a huge smile and warm greeting followed. I offered her an M&M-she has a nut allergy.  "I love nuts but at the age of 24 I developed anyphalactic shock after eating a carot cake". I chose a lovely setting to have our interview. It was closed for refurbishments. Luckily Ronke knew of a lovely place less then1 minute away. When we got there I thought the least I can do after dragging this women out in the pouring rain is buy her a drink. She refused and bought ME a drink instead. After we settled into our very plush surroundings we had a very interesting chat and this is what she had to say:

 "The concept of my book came about because my mum-my foster mum was always chronically ill, since I was little. She was overweight, needed a walking stick and sometimes a wheelchair. She also suffered heart attacks. She had one when I was 6, one when I was 15. When I was 30 her heart didn't work on it's own anymore. In January 2006 my dad started getting thinner. He was a strong gypsy man-he'd never been to a doctors in his life! We were like-you're not eating-you need to see a doctor. So he did. That's when we found out he had cancer. It was terminal. As a result everyone got stronger, my mother got more mobile looking after him making sure he was taken care of-it was amazing! Then he had to go into hospital. 5 months later on her way to visit him she had a heart attack and died. She actually died before him.
9 days later we buried her. 2 days later my dad died. I really believe he was holding on for her. After that I was in a pretty bad way. I thought the only way I could deal with this was to start writing. I'd written a whole load of stuff probably about 10 years before they died so I decided to revisit that. I had to document that time, how I experienced it. I'd kept some of my notebooks and started writing new stuff. Then I contacted my brother-who's dislexic but great with visuals. I spoke to him about the fact that no-one really reads poetry, but these are my thoughts. I started off by giving him a couple of lines and he would create an image based on the words I'd given him."

Me: That's really surprising considering how well the imagery compliments each piece. I thought someone would need the whole poem to create something so fitting.

"Well he's the only one who could've done it. No-one else would understand. We were the only black kids in that town. Our bond is so strong I knew that whatever he'd come back with would be his interpretation of our shared experience and that it would compliment the work. I also really like his illustrations I think they are really good. That part of it was so easy with him. Basically, I couldn't have done it without him. He's very focused where as I'm very all over the place (laughs) which actually worked out really well.

At first we just made these little postcard things just to get the word out there but my brother kept on at me, he was like "Ronke, you gotta do something with this book."  So I sent it off to a few publishers-no response! Or they'd ask me questions like "who's your market?" I don't know. These are just my words. I started to get sick of it so I looked into self publishing. Eventually I found this place in Indiana in the states because they were the cheapest. The process took 18 months.The hardest part was when they said they couldn't do images, only print. I thought-you could have told me that before! I would self publish again but at least now i'm more aware of the process. I had to edit it myself and I'm no editor. Eventually they said they could do the images in a smaller format but I had to pay even more money.When the book was finalised I invited some friends to come down and support it. Everyone wanted me to sign it. This was a new experience for me and it made me go inside myself a little."

Me: Why? You were getting the praise you deserved, after all that hard work!

"I know, I guess i'm just in introvert where my personal work is concerened. I just couldn't articulate what it was all about because it was so deep. Also I don't think you can function on that level, what I mean is you can't spend every moment completely aware of your darkest thoughts and feelings."

Me: Has anyone ever reacted negatively to that darkness?

"Well when people started to see it at first they were like "ooh, thats quite errm dark, why don't you write about the good things that have happened to you?" Or "I don't wanna get depressed" so I'd say I'm not writing it to depress anyone, it's the reality of the situation. Another reason I wrote the book was because me and my brother we're the type of people who I wouldn't call smart-but we were smart enough not to get into fights! Art was our way through and I wanted to show people that just because you come from dark circumstances-you're not fucked! (Laugh's.) You can still come out the other side and create something beautiful. That's my survival mechanism, i'm not gonna drown in it, i'm gonna throw it back in a nicer form.
I was fostered for over 18 years with 20 + kids..."

Me (interrupting) Did this give you a more rounded view of people in general?

Yeah, if you survive it. Out of 20 kids, for 15 it was just too much, understandably. It's alot to take. 5 of us refuse to be victims. We had to look around and decided very early on which way we're gonna go. I didn't want a negative life for myself. One of my first perceptions in life was hatred. When I was 3 a policeman spat on me. It happened quite alot, it was the 70's. I used to like hanging around with the adults and annoy the other kids! I learned early on that if you behave in a certain way in life you will get more of what you want. I hated fighting, I can't stand pain. Plus I was very small for my age so anyone would be able to beat me up. I just dealt with it by isolating myself, reding books, writing and thinking about how I'm gonna get through the next day because I knew there would be trouble.

I had a pretty bad relationship with my (biological) mum growing up, it's alot better now she's older. I had massive abandonment issues. I was the first born and a girl and in Nigerian culture that's not desirable and my dad left so she felt unable to cope. She would visit me every to weeks and I had to deal with her constant criticism because I was introverted and would have preferred me to be more confident, forthcoming. We are complete opposites. I didn't feel loved by her. With me and my foster mum it was different. We got on well because we had an understanding. My mum was a survivor. Bearing in mind it was the 70's-eveyone hated gypsies and then she had all these black kids running around so it felt like we got double the hate. But she was always like "fuck them, everyone's gonna give it to you-give it back" she was quite strong and clever even though she was illiterate. Because of her illness she couldn't have kids and children are a big part of the culture, that's why she fostered. I got on really well with my dad too, I remember having quite adult conversations with him. He was a long distance lorry driver and often went to working mens clubs. When people saw us it was like a head fuck! It would puzzle everyone what we were doing together?! I had a good relationship with them, they were very warm and very loving. They really wanted us. In this day and age they wouldn't be allowed to foster because of the way they behaved sometimes but they were really good parents and very moral people. They gave all of us good and valuable advice for dealing with life in general. At their funeral all the the kids they fostered who could be there were. The ages ranged from 17 to 43 which I think is a testament to them."

Me and Ronke then have a little talk about her school life-she went to a convent school and explained she never misbehaved in the traditional sense but often challenged the rules she had to obey and the world view she was being fed. I asked her if as a black women she found she attracted the agressive label.

"That's all it attracts. There have been times I've been in a job and taken things to the point I couldn't take it anymore and when I'd challenge this I'm immediately labelled as a trouble maker. It's just racist. plain and simple.

I've worked so many jobs, I've never been out of employment from age 16 till 38. I realised I can only help myself besides I can't be signing on. I can't deal with the people who work there! At the end of the day I don't want to be controlled by people who have no respect for my circumstances."

Me and Ronke then went on to have a chat about how repressing certain things lead to some serious health problems and how that made her desire to write even stronger.

"I wouldn't describe myself as an intellectual writer, or a funny writer. My writing comes from a deep place and if someone can identify with it, I'm happy. Actually when I published the book I thought it could be used by social services for other children who've been fostered." If I could've seen something like that out there when I was 14 it would've meant everything to me. I read alot. The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Sun, reviews, articles and it all seems to come from a position of priviledge. Like I went to see the Oswald Boateng documentary and when I read a review in The Guardian the reviewer dismissed his pride as bragging about getting a shop on Saville Row with no understanding of how hard it is for anyone to get a shop on Saville Row much less where he's come from.

I then turned the talk to gay rights and the stonewall workshop I did at as part of Fringe Fest. I found it pointless and boring (not the trans workshop though, the trans workshop was great) and nothing more than advertising for the marrige campaign. A call to arms dressed up in "what's good about social media and what's bad about it" clothes. I expressed this to Ronke.

"I feel I've only just come to terms with being gay. Not in the sense of that I hated who I am but the fact I don't like alot of the stuff the gay media and charities put out there. Like whether you're born gay or not. I don't think that matters. This marrige campaign seems again to come from a patriarchal middle class place. I feel like they should focus their energies on places where people are getting killed everyday like Brazil or Nigeria. I think there are more pressing issues in the gay community then changing the word Civil Partnership to the word Marrige. Historically, marrige was a way for men to own women and children like property. Why would we want to be a part of that?" I don't want to seem anti I just don't relate to alot of things going on. There is still so much inequality in gay society campaigning for marrige seems indulgent."

Ronke also described the labelling of gay cure therapy as "voodoo cure therapy" as "propagating negativity."

"At the end of the day Voodoo is just a traditional religion Africans took with them to the Carribean and other places. It's no different to the ritual and ceremony of most major religions. At the end of the day I just think there needs to be a more diverse range of views out there. The opinions we are being presented with are very narrow. Worst still, they are sold as facts. Every opinion out there is relevant and we need more views to counteract what we're being fed on a daily basis."

Me: You're very interesting!

"No, I'm really boring actually."

If you read this interview to the end I know, like me-you don't believe that she's boring at all. I thouroughly enjoyed her company, and her book-which i urge you to buy. It's very different to alot of poetry that's being published and her unique world view can only serve to colour yours in the most wonderful way. Check the bottom of this article for links. Thank you for reading and thank you Ronke for a wonderful interview.

Sirena Reynolds.

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