Irenosen Okojie’s first novel Butterfly Fish (2015) follows Joy, a photographer in London who inherits a cursed brass head and her grandfather’s diary, after the sudden death of her mother. Joy begins to discover a far more complex and tragic family history than she could ever have imagined – and keeps catching glimpses of a young Black woman who looks strangely familiar in the background of her photographs. Okojie’s writing twists and shifts the world as we know it, opening up realms of exhilarating and sometimes terrifying uncertainty. Her work is dizzyingly rich with symbolism, metaphor and startling narrative turns, undergirded by a deep understanding of human frailty and empathy for her characters.
Okojie’s darkly funny, tender and surprising short story collection, Speak Gigantular (2016) features two ghosts trapped on the London Underground, a young woman with epilepsy determined to solve the disappearance of her neighbour and an altruistic bank robber dressed as a big yellow bird. Characters faced with challenging situations like unemployment, grief or incarceration find themselves plunged into bizarre but revelatory experiences, including being rescued by statues or enlisting a helpful crocodile to eat disappointing men. In her second collection Nudibranch (2019), we meet characters ranging from a woman farmer raising a small boy who is part of a lethal secret experiment, a famous musician caught in an obsessive love affair with a possible murderer and a Black acrobat in nineteenth-century Prussia. ‘Grace Jones’, a story from Nudibranch that won the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, introduces a young Grace Jones impersonator working at a raucous party; over the course of the evening, the reader slowly comes to understand how the death of her entire family in a terrible fire continues to emotionally sever her from other people.
Okojie’s family come from the city of Uromi in Edo State, Benin, a part of Nigeria which once formed the flourishing royal capital of the Edo Kingdom, a rich historical lineage that has inspired Okojie’s writing. Born in Nigeria, she moved to England aged eight and attended school in Norfolk and London. Okojie is a polymath: in addition to writing prose, she works in film, theatre, visual art and poetry. As well as coordinating numerous theatre projects, Okojie is the creator of ‘Black Joy’ (2019), a short film on the importance of Black creativity and pleasure in film, music and literature for BBC Ideas. She was awarded an MBE for her services to literature in June 2021.
Okojie is a warm, erudite and expansive conversationalist, with a wry sense of humour. She was so enjoyable to talk to that I didn’t notice over two hours had passed, and the interview only concluded at the request of her pet beagle, Gogo, who needed to be let outside.