Since studying a Master’s in Creative Writing at Birkbeck in 2017, JJ Bola has gone on to establish himself as a successful writer, poet and advocate for refugees. His creative work draws on his own lived experience of seeing racial and social inequalities in action. His second novel, The Selfless Act of Breathing, interrogates these themes through the lens of mental health and is now being adapted into a feature-length film.
“Art is a way to really impact the world”
After arriving in the UK as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, JJ reflects that he simply had to “somehow get on with life” despite the challenges of starting over with his family and beginning school without understanding any English. He soon discovered a love for reading and literature, but as a student was not made aware of the resources or opportunities available to him for developing a career as a writer.
Instead, he dedicated himself to a career as a youth worker, supporting young people with behavioural and mental health problems. Having grown up on a council estate facing numerous challenges, JJ did not consider this work to be ‘activism’ but simply saw the importance of carrying on the positive community work that had been a cornerstone of his childhood experience. From everyday tasks like helping other families on the school run, all the way to protesting deportations, community was a crucial force for achieving social good.
However, he maintained a passion for writing and often found himself crafting poetry in his spare time. With encouragement from friends and family, JJ decided to pursue his talent by studying Creative Writing at Birkbeck: “I was initially unsure whether to go ahead with it. There can be a lot of pressure for a master’s to lead to a secure job and I was sceptical about how precisely you can teach someone to be creative! I used to think that my process was sporadic and intuitive, but I didn’t realise how much I needed structure to write until I started at Birkbeck.” With a flexible schedule, a supportive community of student writers and the accountability of academic deadlines, JJ was able to hone his craft.
He has since published further poetry collections and novels that incorporate themes from his family background and experience as a youth worker: “I’m fortunate to have a unique lens on the world that reflects my many conflicting identities — refugee, anglophone, francophone, Black, working-class. With my work, I hope to offer an alternative perspective on issues across lines of race, class, ethnicity and sexuality.”
His second novel, The Selfless Act of Breathing, is currently being developed as a feature-length film by Bron Studios, a Canadian motion picture company that has produced recent acclaimed films including Joker, Queen & Slim and Greyhound. The novel follows the story of disillusioned British-Congolese teacher, Michael, who decides to quit his job and travel to America to establish if his life is truly worth living. JJ describes how the novel provides an account of depression that reminds us of its impact at an individual level and how it can affect those closest to us.
He hopes the story will encourage people to take a more empathetic approach to those struggling with mental health and remind people that feelings of depression “are not alien; they are common and they are accepted.” For JJ, the connection between storytelling and social impact is evident: “Art is a way to really impact the world. Through storytelling, we learn and ‘unlearn’ about the world and about each other.”
JJ also promotes social good outside of his writing in his role as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ambassador and through his advocacy for the importance of education in society: “Education is the passport to your future. Having the opportunity to return to study at Birkbeck was a life-changing experience for me. Institutions like Birkbeck that provide access to education are essential for unlocking the next great innovation in someone’s mind, and ultimately, that creates value, which can be reinvested into society.”