Since launching his career, in 2012 the Congolese-British author JJ Bola has dipped his toe in a range of genres, having published four collections of poetry and a novel. His most recent work, Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, Bola analyses the performance of masculinity, the deadly consequences it can have for society and tells men why they need to read some gender theory.
Olivia Logan spoke with Bola ahead of his appearance at the International Literature Festival.
How did you develop an interest in gender theory?
I studied sociology and psychology, so I was always interested in people. I had quite a religious upbringing and lots of things didn’t make sense to me, and the people around me were giving unsatisfying answers. When I heard ideas that were attempting to justify patriarchal hierarchy, I just kept asking “why”? I began to reflect more on how what I believed had been placed on me rather than being a conclusion I had come to myself. I tried to unlearn that, keep what was valuable but develop my own ideas that went beyond oppressive structures.
You have been involved in youth work for a while now. Does this work overlap with your interest in gender theory?
I first started working with disenfranchised and at-risk kids when I was 19 or 20. Lots of them had been involved in crime and gang activity. It was through doing this that I recognised the recurring aggressive facade of kids who, in reality, are really vulnerable. If you saw them walking down the road, hoods up, being loud and belligerent, you wouldn’t necessarily see their vulnerability. There have been many occasions where young boys I work with have broken down crying, in a way they would never do in front of their peers. When I’m teaching I always emphasise to young men that it’s okay to show emotions, but you have to be realistic about the contexts in which you do it. It’s important to express your emotions and cry but it’s probably not a good idea to start crying in the middle of the playground because someone called you a name.
Between the ages of about 13 to their mid-twenties, many boys and young men have a really strongly held, quiet rage which is waiting to burst. Lots of them don’t even know why. I try to empower and give them the critical tools to understand and develop their relationship with their emotions. This is a lifelong learning process, so I try to make sure that they take this critical mindset away with them and it’s not dependent on me being by their side. Doing this work is what led me to interrogate my own experiences. When I started reading more gender theory, everything came together and made more sense to me. I wrote Mask Off for my younger self, almost. I feel like so many years of my life would have been a lot easier if I had been given a book like this as a 16-year-old boy
While doing research for Mask Off was there anything you discovered which challenged what you already knew about masculinity?
There weren’t necessarily things that changed my opinion, but I found out a lot of things that I was surprised by. For example, rape cases within the US army, where the victim and perpetrator were both male, were once not legally considered rape. It was never acknowledged as something that happens. Of course, it was feminist organisations who were campaigning to give this issue more attention and make sure that cases were brought to trial. I have had many men say to me that feminists are evil, they are out to get men etc. and I always ask them, “What movement has there been, which has advocated for men on such a scale as feminism?” Men never ask for help, until women’s issues are brought up and then they ask, “What about us?”
I saw a clip of Jordan Peterson that went viral. He was saying, 90 percent of homeless people are men, men are more likely to be addicted to drugs and to be victims of violent crimes. Of course these facts are all true and were shocking to me, but Peterson never equates this to being a perpetuation of the patriarchal system, he just says it as a rebuttal to the issues that women face. This is what a lot of men try to do, instead of recognising patriarchy as the root cause of these injustices against men, we continue to uphold it in our own lives. When you personally come to understand patriarchy as the insidious cause, you have to decide whether you’re going to uphold it or do something to uproot it and dismantle it.
Do you think it could be the case that women have a deeper analytical understanding of masculinity than men?
I think women have more clarity about masculinity and femininity than men do. Women know about both, men barely know about one. For me this is not reflective of men and women but rather the relationship between the dominant and the oppressed group. Not just in terms of gender, but all other intersections of identity. Let’s take sexuality, for example. Straight people are rarely informed about or understand the lived experiences of the queer community. Considering race, I can use myself as an example. I was born in Congo but I have a knowledge of English and British history, but how many people in the UK know about Congolese history?
Women are forced to navigate a “man’s world” but there are very few circumstances where men get to experience being the minority gender. The sixth-form school that I went to was part of an all girl’s school and I was one of the few boys there. That was probably one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had. I was 16 and excited to be surrounded by girls. I remember walking down the corridors and having my bum slapped, it was so disempowering. I remember thinking, “Wait, I thought I was going to really enjoy this attention,” but I just wanted to get on with my day. This was another thing that got me thinking about the gender dynamic. I think the more men get to experience being the minority gender, the more eye-opening it would be.
What kind of reception has the book had from other men?
Overwhelmingly positive. I got a tweet yesterday from a German reader who said, “I’m a 50-year- old, white, straight man from Germany and I completely agree with everything you’ve said in the book. I wish I had read it sooner.” The positive feedback that I’ve received hasn’t necessarily come from men who would align themselves with gender theory, but they have found the book and related to it. I haven’t had much negative feedback, but I would asterisk that by saying, men feel more comfortable challenging a woman than they do challenging another man. I follow a lot of feminist writers on Twitter who are very vocal about misogyny and toxic masculinity and they receive so much abuse. I write about the same topics and my experience of social media is so different. Within my own friendship groups the reception has been positive but there are still quite a few people who I’m working on, friends who need to read the book a bit deeper, but that’s all part of the journey.
Your dad is from Congo and grew up in a different masculine environment from yourself. What did he think of the book?
I know that he enjoyed it. I grew up in a very male-dominated household: my parents and four brothers. But there weren’t clear gender roles, my mum wouldn’t have allowed it. We all had household duties and we really got into trouble if we didn’t do them. When I was growing up, seeing my dad being understanding, empathic and crying openly at home normalised such male behaviour for me. Naively, it wasn’t until I left home that I realised this wasn’t always the case.
Congo is a patriarchal society but the way masculinity is expressed is different from in the UK. For example, in Congo men holding hands in the street or kissing to greet is very common and there is also an emphasis on men taking care of their appearance. Of course this exists in European countries like Italy, but in the UK male grooming is not a priority. I think another factor is that in pre-colonial Congolese society, gender and sexuality were more fluid. This was the case in many colonised countries and because colonial history is not widely taught, most people don’t realise this, they think gender fluidity is a novel thing.
JJ Bola will previewing Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined (14 Sep, Silent Green,19:30) at the 20th ILB.