Ola W. Halim: A Fiction of Truth, Queer, and Freedom

Ola W. Halim: A Fiction of Truth, Queer, and Freedom

Ola W. Halim is a fiction writer, a poet, and a teacher in Edo State, Nigeria. He teaches English Language and Literature and was shortlisted for  TFCN Teacher’s Prize for Literature in 2019. 

He writes far away from things frequently told, exploring the unimaginable. His “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” was shortlisted for 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His works are reshaping the representation of albinism in literature while also exploring sexuality and feminism.

Ola is an editor for ARTmosterrific, a literary platform promoting the works of young African writers, and a strong advocate for inclusive education.

Interview with Ola:

How did you feel when you were selected as one of the shortlisted writers for 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize?

I felt incredible, and then I feel like I’ve arrived 🙂 I’ve been writing for years.

Writing “An Analysis of a Fragile Affair” wasn’t clicking for me because there was a lot I was hiding as a result of where I am, the people who would read it, and the fear of those who know me personally stumbling upon it.

But then, it got to a point where I was full. So I wrote without passing judgements. I think I wrote it at the right time. 

When I was done, I no longer cared about what anybody might find because the story itself is about daring to do things that might go against the so-called moral standards.

I decided to submit for Commonwealth Short Story and see how it unfolds. At least, someone should read the story whether or not it is selected. Initially, a magazine was interested in publishing it and it was going through the editing process the very night I received an email from Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Honestly, I really can’t explain how I felt. The first instinct was to sit down somewhere and just cry. And then return to the mail to discover how real it was. 

It’s been overwhelming too. People send me their works now to review. It’s piling up and I can’t meet up with all the deadlines. 

Sometimes, I just want to be alone and not do anything. I’m learning and beginning to say no. I do feel guilty because I was once in that position where I expected people with more experience to help me out. Some gave the don’t-push-me response. I was holding grudges against them but now I get it.

Tell us more about your story: what was it about and what motivated you?

It’s about albinism. 

Everyday I was faced with the albino phobia (rejections, ill-treatment, and  persecution of people with albinism sometimes abbreviated as PWA). But somehow, I have learnt to protect myself. 

The story revolves around an albino boy who created a life of his own. In this self-created world, nobody gets to ask him why he is white or if he produces pink sperm when he cums or if he can see under the sun or if he consumes so much pepper.

And in that life, he is a feminist. Nobody gets to tell him how he should behave. He is completely protected in that world. But when he comes out into the real world, his eyes get flooded with all the things he has been running away from.

He struggled with that until he met a particular man on the social media whom he thought he was in love with. They started dating secretly online. Eventually, they get to meet and the man discovered the boy is a feminist and a writer with a poor eyesight (which is usual for most albinos). When they had sex, the man found cheloids on the boy’s back.

Well, the relationship continued with both of them fully aware of how different they were considering their ideas and philosophies including physical distance.

They hoped things would work out between them as the boy over time bought into the man’s ideologies. Later on, the boy struggled with some internal revolution and the desire to express himself publicly was intense. He joined a queer group against his lover’s. At the end of the day, they agreed to call it off acknowledging the incompatibility. 

The boy travels to Columbia where he met other people like him. He revealed his name at the end of the story — Freedom.

Ola, at what point did you discover your passion for writing?

I think as early as I could read. Back in primary school, we used to have a literary group where we wrote drama and the best gets performed. 

Growing up, I’ve been reading stories like Chike and the River, the abridged edition of Oliver Twist, and many other books. 

In primary four, I could remember writing a play about a sick man whose daughter kept the death of her brother a secret. I followed the structure of writing drama. I used to and still love The Gods Are Not to Blame by Ola Rotimi. I submitted it to the literary group and it was accepted for performance.

I was happy. I felt if I could do that, then I could do more. So I started writing about suicidal albinos. 

What challenges were you faced with?

There’s no time I want to write that I don’t find something to write. I personally don’t believe in writer’s block. But I may only end up not writing exactly the initial story I had in mind. Sometimes, it all ends there.

My main challenge was self-worth. Till now, I still doubt if some of my works are good enough. That’s why when I receive acceptance letters, I go back to the stories. Then I ask myself ‘What did they see?’

Each time I write, I’m hardly satisfied. I tend to go through the story over and over again. When I get rejected, I feel like it was meant to happen and when it isn’t the case, I get overwhelmed.

Another thing is me struggling with writing my truth. I used to write about heterosexual relationships but they weren’t true to me even if they got accepted and I got money from it.

I got to a point where I just wanted to breathe. Breathing would mean writing exactly what I want to write about. I believe I’ve conquered that by writing about characters that embody me.

Do you get albinos reaching out to you?

The first story I wrote on albinism was the ‘Albino Worldwide Outreach’ published on Kalahari Review. I got messages from albinos in Zimbabwe. We talked about how albinism has been represented in literature — the evil albino.

I encourage them to write whether or not they’re writers. Being an albino can be overwhelming most especially when you’re still in the flesh as I would like to call it if you’re yet to accept who you are. 

With the Commonwealth shortlist, the numbers I engage with skyrocketed. There are over 50 people like me on my Twitter. I recently published an essay about the killing of albinos in Tanzania, Burundi, and in South Africa. Someone from Pakistan reached out to me and was shocked that things like this still happen.

I used to be a member of the albino foundation but I left because the stories there were the stereotypical ones characterized with self pity and sympathy. Usually, they talk about their stigma and how the prospect of them getting jobs is minimal. But I had to step out of all that.

The foundation responded to the Commonwealth shortlisted work and I was surprised they connected to it. Both albinos and non-albinos connect to my work regardless, because at some point we all have some similar experience like seclusion.

How do you feel getting out of your flesh?

‘I feel good’ would be a cliché. But yes, I feel good. It’s not all albinism per se, in my interview with Africa in Dialogue, I identify as a triple minority. I think I would add a quadruple minority to that now because I am also left-handed. 

On top of it, I’m a man who sounds feminine. When someone calls for the first time to speak with me. They find it unbelievable and sometimes plead I pass the phone to Ola. At that point, I put on the out-of-the-flesh voice. I think I’m born to break stereotypes. If I wasn’t a writer, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to.

As a teacher, one of my students in 2018 was an albino. He always sat at the back. 

He’s  not wearing glasses, and I could tell that he couldn’t see clearly. I asked him to come in front but he declined. I got infuriated and dragged him forward. I instructed him not to move. 

After teaching, I recalled a sad experience with a teacher while growing up. I realized I should understand better. I called the boy and apologized. When I got home, my sad experience growing up flashed and I was again filled with pain as if it was just happening for the first time.

And this is the reason why I write. I realized that telling yourself that you’re not to be blamed for being an albino makes being an albino wrong.

I had to do away with that mentality when someone tries to discriminate. I onced boarded a bus and deliberately caused some trouble to see for myself if I’m truly out of the flesh.

And then someone in the bus said:

“You dis (this) albino, wetin dey do you self (what’s wrong with you)?”

Then I replied:

“The same thing doing you is the same thing actually doing me.”

When I dropped, I felt good knowing I can actually be rude too. I can say ‘no’ now as well as I could say ‘yes’. I’m no longer controlled by a condition but by that shared humanity. Amazingly, I haven’t lost friends as I feared I would rather I made more.

Thank you for speaking with us, Ola 🙂

By Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher

Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.

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