In conversation with

Irenosen Okojie

Author of Butterfly Fish, Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch

Irenosen Okojie

Introduction

Introduction

To read Irenosen Okojie is to step into a technicolour world. She’s a writer who likes to question the boundaries of reality, curious about how we are drawn in by “spaces that appear indefinable… those spaces where you never really fully comprehend what you’re experiencing but you’re compelled by it.”

Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo calls Irenosen a “dazzlingly wild, bold and imaginative writer” – an impressive endorsement emblazoned on the cover of her latest short story collection. Nudibranch definitely examines those spaces in between, flitting from stories about time travel, Grace Jones impersonators and a dimension-hopping monk.

As one of 28 writers we worked with on Comfort Zones, we witnessed firsthand the ease with which she writes, and the infectious energy she brings to the page. We recently we spent an afternoon at Clean Prose – a writers’ space in London of which Irenosen is a founding member – to talk about the tradition of storytelling and leaving the limits of imagination.

Question and Answer

What stories were you interested in growing up?

As a kid in Nigeria there was a lot of oral storytelling, often using life lessons at the heart of it to teach children, stories like Anansi the spider etcetera. They were magical fables in which anything was possible. I remember staying with my grandmothers in the more rural parts of Benin. Sometimes, in the evenings people would gather by the fire telling these stories. It was a form of tradition, even though I was young and didn’t fully understand it then, it felt like some currency was being passed on which settled in my body. I loved those experiences. When I moved to England aged eight, the first book I read was Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It was brilliant, wacky and hilarious. I thought Dahl had a really distinctive sensibility which intrigued me; oddball yet with with worlds full of characters that felt both recognisable and new that you could root for as well as the more grotesque ones. I loved Matilda, The Witches and The Twits too. As a teenager, I was drawn to stories about outsiders because I felt like one. I read books by Rosa Guy , S.E Hinton and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry remains one of the most powerful books I’ve read.

You’ve spoken before about how your Nigerian-British heritage has influenced your writing – do you think writing from personal experience is the best way to create?

Inevitably it weaves its way into the work. There’s nothing wrong with that. The richness of identity and its constant, subtle evolution will always be a great source of material to draw from. Equally, you don’t have to have experienced something to write about it. If you respect the process, you’ll research and investigate. For my novel, Butterfly Fish, I wrote about the 18th century kingdom of Benin. Even though my family are from Benin, obviously I’m not of that time so it’s an imaginative feat, a leap into the past but I spent time researching that period; the architecture, the different Obas, the customs and landscape. I saw it as my cultural inheritance, it was a form of legacy to create it. Since there hadn’t been much written about Benin in fiction, I felt like I was producing a blueprint. I like to go to the page not always knowing everything. The process of discovery comes through that space where you feel you know just enough to not feel too restricted.

How important is it for you to weave stories about race and culture within your work?

There should be space for that of course. There needs to also be room for us to explore other subject matters. Sometimes I actively write about it, other times I don’t but I don’t want to be put in the position where my race is supposedly the only thing I’m an expert on. I’m very deliberate in how I respond to that through my fiction. I’m interested in expanding ideas around blackness, the contexts that people see us in although I don’t necessarily do it from the entry point of race solely. I read a great piece by Nesrine Malik for the Correspondent where she basically nailed how I’ve been feeling about this stuff. She talks about hunting for non fiction books by women of colour that aren’t just about race and the deafening silence she faced is really telling and indicative of how writers of colour are framed in the UK.

To read your work is definitely to leave the limits of one’s imagination – would you say imagination and escape are themes in your writing?

For sure, the narratives are grounded by characters on the fringes who are struggling in some way albeit couched in these darkly, magical worlds.

“I'm interested in expanding ideas around blackness, the contexts that people see us in although I don't necessarily do it from the entry point of race solely.”

You weave surrealism into your work which is a genre that we don’t often see – why do you turn towards it and what does it offer the stories that you’re telling?

I feel it’s in my writing DNA, by that I mean, I can trace it back to those stories I was told as a kid in Benin which were often fantastical so I carried that inside me. It adds other layers and dimensions to the work. It allows me to stretch the boundaries of form and language. I’m curious about in between spaces that appear indefinable, you know those spaces where you never really fully comprehend what you’re experiencing but you’re compelled by it, you’re intrigued to keep wanting to know it. It does that for me. If I’m curious and excited then that reflects in the writing.

You’ve written both novels and short stories – what are the challenges and rewards? Do you have a preference?

I love both forms. The novel gives you a lot of scope to really interrogate a subject and there’s a pleasure that comes from seeing it evolve until it becomes its own animal, when it feels like a living, breathing thing and like it’s almost writing itself that’s the sweet spot. That’s where you’re trying to get to. It can also be a very tough process attempting to keep the momentum going or even just the gulf or reality between what you had in mind in comparison to what manifests on the page. By that I mean the writer’s own expectations. The journey to level that or even surpass it takes time and patience. I always tell emerging writers to read the first novels of writers they admire. I used to do that quite a bit because a) they’re like first albums so you know they’ll be good but not perfect b) they’ll encourage you to keep going, if you’ve been working at the craft, you won’t feel too far off from the standard of writing.

With short stories, you’re doing less with more. I adore the form since it saved me when I had a difficult period with the novel. If you have lots of ideas like I do, then short stories are the perfect vehicle to explore that. I find the process joyous, feverish even. It also builds your confidence because you’re finishing different pieces. That in itself is a reward, the ability to see a piece of writing through to the end is validation which you have to wait for with a novel. The general consensus is that short stories are hard to write. If you have that in your mind then it can be, if you see it as a space to play then it can really by transformative.

Where does a story begin for you – can you give some insight into your writing process?

Usually it’s an idea or image that comes to me, sometimes it’s even endings so I don’t always get ideas in an orderly fashion or even write in a linear way. I wrote the middle part of my debut novel when I struggled with the first half. The aim was to keep writing even if it wasn’t in order. If an idea really strikes me, then I think about creating a context for it. The writing at that stage feels urgent. I tend to write early in the mornings in short stints when it seems like the rest of the world is still asleep. The sleep / awake state my brain is in lends itself well to the sort of writing I do. Something about writing in those early hours of the day is akin to being in a meditative state and I love that.

Which writers have had the biggest impact on you and your writing?

Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, June Jordan, Dennis Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, Amos Tutuola, Margaret Atwood, Buchi Emecheta, Miranda July, Leone Ross, Chinua Achebe , J. California Cooper, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ZZ Packer and more.

"Writing is a long game. There's value in that even if it might not seem that way at first. You're on the right track, keep going."

What words of advice would you have given yourself as a young writer?

In my frustrated moments… Writing is a long game. There’s value in that even if it might not seem that way at first. You’re on the right track, keep going.

Are there any writing initiatives or communities that you particularly love?

Visual Verse run by the amazing novelist Preti Taneja is great. I always look forward to the newsletter too since there’s usually a writing prompt in it. I love Words of Colour, a creative communications agency run by the marvellous Joy Francis which develops writers of colour at all levels. Clean Prose, a new co writing space in London that also programmes unique events and workshops is fantastic. I always look at their site to see what they have coming up. ReWrite run by the excellent Christina Fonthes supports and champions black women and women of colour writers providing masterclasses, workshops etcetera. They also do great reviews. They’ve just started ReWrite Reads too, an online magazine featuring stories by women of colour from around the world. It’s edited by Zahrah Nesbitt – Ahmed who also runs Bookshy, one of my favourite sites which celebrates contemporary African literature. It’s an incredible resource.

The Storylist

Irenosen's Storylist

Books

  1. Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime by J. California Cooper
  2. Jesus's Son by Dennis Johnson
  3. The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

Magazines

  1. Afripop
  2. Okay Africa
  3. Gal-Dem
  4. Psychologies
  5. Happiful Magazine
Previous Story
Rosianna Halse Rojas John Green Producing Partner
Rosianna Halse Rojas

Writer & Producing Partner

Next Story
Henry Tobias Jones ES Magazine
Henry Tobias Jones

Features Director of ES Magazine

Articles

Featured storytellers

View all

Sign up to our newsletter