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Interview with Irenosen Okojie

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.

 

Q

The White Review

— I recently had the pleasure of re-reading Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch. Both crackle with magic, and I noticed that they both also open with very short stories. ‘Gunk’, in Speak Gigantular, is a nihilistic, defiant pep talk to a heartbroken man alone in the city, instructing him, ‘Son, this is the skin I’m leaving you with / This is how to wear it comfortably. / This is how to camouflage when you need to.’ Meanwhile, ‘Logarithm’ in Nudibranch conjures an enigmatic, flickering world with a simple formula: ‘Here is a crease. Here is a murmur.’ When you were writing and ordering the collections, did they feel like incantations to you?

A

Irenosen Okojie

— I like that way of phrasing it, ‘incantations’, because the word has a spiritual element, which speaks to the intentions behind my stories. In both ‘Gunk’ and ‘Logarithm’, I wanted to set the tone for the world that is going to come – like saying ‘this is an Irenosen Okojie collection, these are the rules.’ Even though they are probably quite jarring for the reader at first, I think by the time they finish the collection, they can see the connection between ‘Logarithm’ and the other stories in Nudibranch. Similarly, with ‘Gunk’, there are themes like otherness and race, masculinity, femininity and motherhood. By the end, the reader gets a sense that, actually, the first story was a way of grounding the collection. Certainly with ‘Logarithm’, it feels very spiritual, and it’s very much a stream of consciousness piece. It’s been interesting working with editors in terms of how they want to shape the collection, what should go first and what shouldn’t.

Q

The White Review

— Can you describe your relationship with editors and being edited? You write such unique stories, and often the plots go in unexpected directions but their visionary quality is always clear.
A

Irenosen Okojie

— I have to have an editor that firstly has an appreciation for my work – who understands that my writing is really layered and dense. Sometimes with short stories, editors expect them to be quite clean, but my stories are the opposite of that. There’s so much going on. I like to have the freedom to be able to feverishly write the first draft, and I never worry about editing the pieces initially, or even the second time around, because I think that can disrupt the flow of the writing. I’m somebody who is very loose and intuitive in terms of how I structure my stories. I like to leave space for things to come to me. Being able to play, being able to experiment and to go where the characters lead me, makes the process much more exciting. With Nudibranch, I submitted all the stories together, so the editors weren’t just looking at the individual stories, but the collection as a whole – whether certain stories worked together, whether one or two stories need to be there to make the collection feel more cohesive. I think, from an editor’s perspective, it’s about tidying it up and reining me in – keeping the wildness of the writing, but also making it cohesive for a reader to follow. I want my writing to leave you with images and themes to grapple with, so the reader asks: ‘What have I just read? Why does this image disturb me? Do I have sympathy for this character?’ I’m trying to interrogate readers’ expectations, particularly around Black characters and Black women in particular. There’s been such a lack of representation, unfortunately, there is also a particular expectation of what stories Black women writers are supposed to tell and how far we’re supposed to go. I just completely ignore all of that. I’m not writing to a prescription of what a Black, African-British woman writer should be. So an editor has to bear all of that in mind and not be intimidated by that as well.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

IRENOSEN OKOJIE is a Nigerian British author whose experimental works create vivid narratives that play with form and language. Her debut novel BUTTERFLY FISH, short story collections SPEAK GIGANTULAR and NUDIBRANCH have won and been shortlisted for multiple awards. A fellow and Vice Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Irenosen is the winner of the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for her story ‘Grace Jones’. She was awarded an MBE For Services to Literature in 2021.

Leon Craig’s writing has been published in the TLS, The London Magazine, The Mechanics' Institute Review and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Cunning Folk and the anthology Queer Life. Queer Love. Her short story collection, Parallel Hells will be published by Sceptre Books in February 2022.

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