Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award. Her work has been featured in The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post amongst other publications.
Her short stories have been published internationally. She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Ben Okri as a dynamic writing talent to watch and was featured in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors.
Her short story collection Speak Gigantular is out now, published by Jacaranda Books.
Butterfly Fish (2015)
Further recommended reading:
Speak Gigantular (2016)
Literature Works caught up with Irenosen to discuss diversity in publishing, the importance of heritage to her writing and why it’s so important to read.
At Reading Passport, we are firm believers that books and reading can transport our readers to new worlds and lead to new discoveries. We’re seeing a movement calling for more diversity in publishing both in regards to writers and reading material. Can you say, what do you feel that more diverse attitudes towards publishing and the voices and stories that are being shared offer to readers?
This movement for diversity of stories and people within the infrastructure of publishing needs to continue. I’m enjoying the range of voices in the YA genre with the likes of Catherine Johnson, Alex Wheatle, Patrice Lawrence and Peter Kalu. For readers, it opens up worlds, makes you a smarter, more empathetic person. It’s more satisfying to have choice, variety and vibrancy.
To what extent do you feel that Nigerian culture and your heritage impacts upon your writing?
Deeply I feel. My novel Butterfly Fish is steeped in elements of Nigerian culture and my desire to connect with that heritage, with the richness of it, the stories, the history, the art which transcends time. What you see is me exploring that on the page, hopefully doing it in a way that’s interesting for the reader. My Nigerian heritage impacts me in ways that are unexpected. I wrote something once about a culturally specific character in a particular, funny situation. I shared it with my dad and he said “How did you know about this? I’ve never told you about this tradition.” There’s something in that. We carry stories of the past. We don’t know how they got there but they’re in us, we’re writing on instinct, releasing on instinct. For me there’s a power to that intrinsic cultural connection.
We’re eagerly awaiting your forthcoming collection of short stories Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda Books Art Music). Can you tell us a little bit about some of the themes you explore and your inspiration for the collection?
The stories in Speak Gigantular are vignettes examining what it means to be human in the world today; this marvellous, joyous, heartbreaking, illuminating constantly evolving experience. The stories are strange, surprising and funny. The characters are trying to hold on to some sense of who they are or even redefine themselves in their settings and their positions in life. There’s a woman who has a son with a tail. Too different for the town they live in, the world for them feels dangerous, fragile, and tenuous. It’s a constant navigation. One woman is driven by a loneliness that encourages her to explore her sexuality in ways that liberate and haunt her. Another has a boyfriend who begins to become unrecognisable after being gifted a samurai sword he cannot bear to part with. A young woman struggles with a sense of direction, finding herself chasing beginnings and suspicious of endings. Some of the stories are complex and experimental. Hopefully people will recognise things they see in themselves and enjoy the discovery and insight of the unfamiliar.
The Reading Passport is a project based in libraries. Do you have a memory of a book you discovered at the library?
I stumbled upon J. California Cooper’s short story collection in the library during my early teens. Somebody had left it on the window sill. I remember being struck by that, by a book left looking out into the street so much so I almost made the book life like because I believed in the magic of books and still do. I sat on the floor, back against the radiator reading one, then two, then more of her stories. I fell in love with her writing. She was an underrated genius. Her stories are deceptively simple yet profound. She could take one character, what appeared to be a simplistic desire, a meandering situation and break your heart into a thousand pieces. Her work and the memory of finding it in a library remain with me.
If you could offer one piece of advice for aspiring writers looking to get published in today’s market, what would it be?
Be brave, write on your own terms. Write well and read voraciously. Read what appeals to you but find pleasure in challenging your tastes and habits sometimes. Know that there’ll always be an audience for your work, no matter how big or small because people are interested in people.
Thank you Irenosen!