Interview with Irenosen Okojie –
Short Fiction/University of Essex International Short Story Prize 2021 main judge
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian British writer. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her work has been featured in/on The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post, amongst other publications. Her short stories have been published internationally including in Salt's Best British Short Stories 2017 and 2020, Kwani? and The Year's Best Weird Fiction. She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Booker Prize winning author Ben Okri as a dynamic talent and featured in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular, published by Jacaranda Books, was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her new collection of stories, Nudibranch, published by Little Brown's Dialogue Books, was longlisted for the Jhalak Prize. She is the winner of the 2020 AKO Caine Prize For Fiction for her story, ‘Grace Jones’. She is a fellow and Vice Chair of The Royal Society of Literature.
One aspect of your work people talk about is how far and wide you let your imagination roam, not just in terms of language and imagery, but also plot and subject matter. Where does the inspiration behind your ideas come from? Is it literary, or cultural, or from your own life?
I think it’s a mixture of everything! It’s cultural, it’s literary, it’s a real love of books from a very young age. I moved here from Nigeria when I was eight to go to boarding school in Norfolk, which was such an interesting experience, but books unlocked something in me. One of the first books I read was Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl, I just loved it, it was so funny and had this surreal quality…it felt like it wasn’t a children’s book. I felt somehow privy to this adult sensibility, and what the imagination could do, the fact you could tell these incredible stories, excited me. So I developed this voracious appetite for reading, everything from Roald Dahl to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. I guess I wanted to make sense of my own world and who I was as a person, so I was doing everything from keeping diaries to listening to people’s conversations, earwigging, and being fascinated by human interaction, and how we process things.
There’s also the duality of being both Nigerian and British, being born in Nigeria and moving to England and having to learn the cultural differences here. One thing I found quite tricky was I rarely saw myself reflected in books, because black writers weren’t really being published back then. So I had to look to American writers to see myself, and while I loved books I felt quite passionately that I wanted to be able to depict the experiences of people who looked like me, as well as generally being interested in human beings from all sorts of backgrounds, and telling their stories.
Through all this was a real love of language and what you can do with it. It fascinates me how I can interrogate language, how I can stretch it and push it and what I can do with it. Particularly imagery. A lot of my stories start with images, I’ll think oh my God that’s a really striking image, how do I create a world around that, how do I create context, what’s the next step, what’s the story? I’m really missing exhibitions at the moment, because of the process of being fed by art and imagery, and sometimes I’ll get ideas from that. Really it all comes from this interesting ecosystem we call life, where everything has a kind of influence.
There’s a poetic feel to your use of language, not just in terms of sound and rhythm, but in the sense of not necessarily following rules. Your images often involve comparisons with the abstract, or with something unexpected.
I really admire other people who do that, like Shirley Jackson, or even Toni Morrison, whose use of language and experimentation is often left out of the conversation, because a lot of the discussion around her work is about its social impact, of blackness and what it means to be black. And while that’s very important, and we should be having those conversations, it’s quite frustrating to me that she’s actually a really experimental writer, but nobody talks about that. So it’s lovely when people like you ask me questions like this, about craft, I’m like oh my God, they understand who I am as a writer, it’s not just one aspect of my identity, being able to talk about these things is really important.
When I first started actively writing and working on fiction I would read poetry in the morning. It changes your mind, it opens you up in a way that other things don’t. It gave me permission to be free on the page. I would wake up six or seven in the morning and maybe an hour later I would do my own writing. So there was a process of absorbing it, of being given permission to play, to not see writing as a kind of chore, to go to the page with a sense of excitement and enjoyment. I want the readers to pick up on that, hopefully my joy of language comes across, and also the ability to be playful and to surprise. I love all kinds of stories, but I do love stories that do that!
I wondered whether you see the fantastical element and the strangeness of the stories as metaphorical, a reflection of the strangeness that already exists in our world and in ourselves, or whether you see yourself as creating different worlds?
That’s a great question. I think there’s an element of all of it. I’ve always been slightly more leftfield as a person, slightly more alternative in my interests…I’m always looking for the magic in the everyday…a plastic bag billowing over a fence has a certain poetry for me…a shoe dangling off a tree, well whose shoe was it, and what does that mean? Human beings are really weird, man. We do odd stuff, the world is a strange place, it can be an incredibly joyful place but it can also be really dark. I’m fascinated by all of it, the kind of in-betweenness, I guess looking at it with a broader lens. How do I create a world that looks like one we recognise but also feels different?
Often I’ll have a sense of wanting to explore, say, desire or loss, but I want to create a world around it that takes the reader somewhere else, on an immersive experience, so there’ll be aspects of strangeness in that. So it’s the strangeness within us, but also recognising the strangeness in the world around us, and finding ways to tell stories that hopefully feel immersive, but also moving and in a way realistic.
Despite the fantastic elements, the stories are often rooted in real settings, like in ‘Fractures’ in Speak Gigantular the characters go to The Ritzy in Brixton and ‘Kookaburra Sweet’ in Nudibranch is largely set in Forest Hill. And the structures of the stories are often realistic, even conventional, they do the things that stories are “supposed” to do, in terms of engaging the reader and having momentum and being structured in a certain way.
I think Nudibranch is weirder, but Speak Gigantular is also an odd collection. It’s very much about London, so the place anchors it, it’s about the city and what it’s like to be lonely in the city, and how people, especially people of colour, navigate that. So you get that grounding that people recognise but you also get the fantastical stuff.
As for structure, a story has a beginning, middle and end, you know, and even if you play with that, because sometimes you start a story at the end and take the reader through the process of going back, or you can break it up and do all kinds of interesting things, I think it has to have some sort of forward momentum, or it doesn’t feel like a story. Even if you’re playing with form, the characters have to go through some sort of transformation…the beauty of the short form, and there’s so many brilliant writers doing amazing things with it, is that you can play around, you can do really interesting things, because you’re creating these miniature worlds. And there is a restriction within that, within the form, so you’re working within these constraints, but you can also do something interesting with it.
A lot of the stories start off with a recognisable world, and the strangeness might come in first of all as a metaphor or an image. Like in ‘Point and Trill’ in Nudibranch the first element of strangeness is an eel appears in the side mirror of the car. And because it’s an image, the reader might let it go and think it’s just a metaphor, things are still normal, but then as the story goes on it turns into an introduction to the fantastical world that comes later.
Very well observed! It’s almost a foreshadowing. It’s not accidental, it’s an indication of what’s to come, but it’s also a reference to a relationship, that kind of slippery terrain that you find yourself in when things seem like they’re not working. It’s kind of reflective of all of that.
Your writing has this amazing effect where as the reader goes into the stories they become transported, and accustomed to the oddness of what’s going on. It’s like entering a state of wondering but not wondering, where you might come across an incredibly strange line or image, and you could stop and think hang on a second, but quite often you don’t, so these things become normal for you as a reader.
That’s really complimentary, because it’s about suspending your disbelief, especially with these jarring moments where you could potentially go “I’m really annoyed by that”. I think it’s got be handled carefully. With both my collections the first pieces are really important because I’m drawing you into that world and saying “this is the space you’re entering and it’s going to be like this”. To a certain extent that does affect the reader, and they kind of accept it, which is really lovely. They go into reading the stories with an openness and a kind of willingness to say “I’m in this world now, I want to know what happens and I’m not going to get taken out of it until I finish”. My mother doesn’t understand any of my short stories…she says she really loves the novel but she doesn’t know what I’m doing with the stories…
Did you have the confidence to experiment right from the start? Did you ever write more conventional stuff?
I tried to write straight stuff, but it just wouldn’t work! It just wanted to do its own thing. Like I said I had an interest in being playful, being subversive, I was always someone who looked at things and thought what if I did it this way? What if I broke it apart and changed it that way? I was always looking to play, to be inventive. Poetry was a big part of that because it does so much with language, with the form. You’re very restricted but there’s something about that restriction that makes people produce these incredible pieces. It’s so inventive and there’s so much that’s being done with it.
I took a real sense of confidence from that and I continued to develop my voice, and I also actively sought permission, in a way, from other writers who were also pushing the boundaries of what they did. People like Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin. And Octavia Butler, I’m a huge fan of hers, she was probably one of the first black women to be writing sci-fi, and her body of work is incredible.
You have to believe in your voice and actively work on developing it…by the time you work at it a lot your talent levels up, because you’re actively doing it. There’s no way if you write x amount every day that your writing won’t get better, whereas you can have the talent but if you’re not willing to put the graft in, because it is about graft, and commitment... And it’s about putting your work out there too, because there’s no point in doing the work and not wanting the payback of putting it out there. It is scary, of course, it’s terrifying, I got rejected a lot too, all writers do, only a very few are lucky enough to not have had that experience.
There’s always insecurity, of course, but if you can manage it and it’s not completely crippling its actually good, it makes you open and it means you stay curious, you never take anything for granted, certainly I don’t! The best writers are those who are interested in others, who find ways to be supportive of others, so it’s not just about them. When you do that, things come back to you.
Are you excited to be judging the Short Fiction International Short Story Prize? What kind of stories might impress you?
This competition is fantastic, especially as it’s expanding and has this nature element, it’s really cool. Personally as a judge I lean towards the experimental, but I’m really open, I love good stories, well-crafted stories, so what I’m looking forward is stories that do that, that bring you into a world that explore the human experience in an interesting way. I want to be moved, I want to be excited, I want to be invigorated, because I think great stories do that, they pull you into this world. There are so many exciting voices out there, and a competition like this is great because it means I’m lucky enough to experience that. I always come to judging with a real sense of excitement, and reading the stories is always a process, I feel I learn something new each time. I love the short form, I’m really passionate about it, it doesn’t get the same value as the novel, but it’s actually really hard to create multiple words in one book, with different characters…and anything that helps to shine a light on that, including competitions like this, is marvellous. What a privilege it is to be in a position to read the work of other people’s imaginations, that they’ve created. It’s always joyous!