Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian-born novelist and a short story writer living and working in London but her heart is always home, Africa.
Her collections of short stories are unapologetically black and powerful, sending bold messages to the corners of the world. She’s the author of Nudibranch short story collection and she’s confidently aware of how experimental and disruptive her work is, but yet breaking literary grounds. Her stories touch magic realism and promote the richness of the African heritage from a unique as others would say strange point of view.
In 2016, “Butterfly Fish”, her debut novel, won the Betty Trask Award. Two years later, Irenosen was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and her short story “Synsepalum” was broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 to celebrate the BBC National Short Story Award 2018.
She has written for The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post, and she’s also one of the contributors to the 2019 anthology New Daughters of Africa.
Last year, her mind-blowing short story “Grace Jones” won the 2020 Caine Prize for African Writing. She has received many more nominations and rocked the judge’s seat in different writing contests.
The Interview With Irenosen Okojie:
So how did you discover your passion for writing?
I was really a ferocious reader. As a child, I loved books. I was that kid that would go into the library and take out 10 books :), because I was hungry for literature.
I noticed that there was a gap in representation for people that look like me. While reading very widely, I also was actively seeking the voice of black authors I could get my hands on.
I remember reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, and Edith Jackson by Rosa Guy, because there weren’t as many black authors being published. It was really hard to see myself.
I had to look to America and Africa to get those voices. I’m talking of writers like Buchi Emecheta. I love her works and in fact I was able to participate in an event honoring her legacy.
That was about 2 years ago, and it meant so much to me. I remember reading In the Ditch, The Bride Price and The Joys of Motherhood. I can still remember reading In the Ditch and passing the book to my mother. The book was like my mother’s story of how difficult it is to forge a new path as an African in another country and trying to be true to that sense of yourself and identity. I just love her voice so much.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is also one of my favorite books. And in my humble opinion, I still think he’s probably the greatest African writer. I love his works and the scope of what he was able to capture with fiction. I love the humanity he showed in terms of Africa and how complicated we are as a people — our culture, politics, and all the rich experience. I was reading writers like that, and that encouraged me to believe there’s a space for me.
We are always trying to make sense of what it means to be human, especially being black in a foreign land. I moved to England when I was 8. My father enrolled me and my elder brother in a boarding school in the countryside. We were the only black kids.
That was a real shock for me. Back in Africa, Nigeria, the wonderfulness of blackness is everywhere. You don’t feel like an alien.
Growing up, my father was a politician and we were from the middle-upper class background. I got to meet interesting people. And there’s no black person I encountered as a child that wasn’t doing great in the sense of blackness. But in the UK, it was devalued and seen as a limitation. The cultural difference was obvious in terms of the food and how people express themselves. I had to adjust to that.
Fiction then made me less lonely as a child and empowered me. So that’s where my love for writing came from. I started as a reader to a writer. It was a symbiotic relationship where you absorb so much literature and then you try to make sense of the world around you. And writing was the way for me to do that.
In 2016, your debut novel “Butterfly Fish” won the Betty Trask Award. Looking at where you are today, what was it like for you when you got your first win?
I was so passionate about that novel. I’m from Benin, Nigeria. My father hails from Uromi and my mother, from Eruwa. As a kid, my father would tell me about the Benin Kingdom. And that stayed with me. It was so fascinating, because of its richness in history. It was a different feeling as opposed to the usual slavery history. There was a deeper connection to my ancestral legacy I wanted to reclaim.
If I have knowledge about my heritage, then I have to tell that story. The Benin Kingdom was very advanced architecturally and culturally. The creativity of my people were displayed through their artworks.
When foreigners came they were stunned by the structure and sophistication of the Benin Kingdom. They looted the artifacts and distributed them all over Europe. In Festac, Lagos, where I grew up, I remember we had brass artifacts in our home. I love the artifacts.
For me, it was that connection to the seed that was planted in me as a child. Being in the UK didn’t stop the longing for that connection to my identity.
I was very much aware of the literature of the Benin history in nonfiction. But what I wanted to do was create an interesting cartography, a multi-generational story connected by the iconic Benin artifact, the brass head, and how it’s being passed on to families.
I was really delighted when I won the award. I remember going to the
Aké Festival (Aké Arts and Book Festival)
in my home country and it was really an emotional moment for me. I remember Butterfly Fish being sold out in the bookstore. It was amazing but yet I was still nervous. It was a reimagination and the rewriting of history and I wanted it to be welcomed by the people. Winning the award was a validation for me.
I was obsessed with writing that novel for about 10 years. It gave me confidence that I could have a career in literature even though my voice is very experimental and disruptive in terms of what people expect from black writers. I knew it was not going to be easy getting an agent or an editor. I was writing about blackness in a way that people don’t expect you to write. I’m glad because it’s who I am and that’s where my interest lies as a writer.
It made me go more experimental with my short stories with themes dwelling on what it takes to be a black woman living in London as well as traveling to places like Cape Verde to explore Africa positively.
Speaking of short stories and blackness, it brings up a powerful line from Grace Jones:
“She’s never seen a black woman so unapologetically…”
The world is changing and women globally are changing the status quo. Where do you see your writings in this change?
I hope I’m part of that change because of the swirl of voices from women and generally from people of color.
There’s something about the climate right now that feels much more elastic. We have had the impact of Black Lives Matter with the sad terrible incident of George Floyd’s death and how it opened the world. But it’s devastating that it took that to happen.
I think people are beginning to pay more attention to black voices. Away from that, we’ve always been innovative despite our backs pressed against the wall. Somehow, we still manage to create powerful art and there’s always a brilliant amount of ingenuity in it. That hasn’t changed, I just think the world is becoming more open to hear our stories.
What will excite me the most is having more than one narrative of or stories. I think it is so important to operate with multiple genres. One of the things I think about the Caine Prize shortlist was that it was so varied. All the writers shortlisted are fantastic contributing different sides of the African narrative. We just have to keep on moving forward with our ideas and reclaiming spaces.
Talking about your writing, it looks like you do it so effortlessly. But what were your challenges and how did you overcome them?
I’ve been writing for years because I developed interest as a child. It’s almost like second nature, but just because you have passion for something doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.
I had to work on my writing. You have to be committed and work hard. I honestly think it’s probably about 25% of creativity and every other thing is commitment. Because if you’re really creative and you fail to do the work, you don’t get to go anywhere with it.
From the outside, it may seem effortless. Behind the scenes, I have put in the work. One of the things that has really helped me is having good mentors; people who have already done what you’re about to do. People who can facilitate your journey are really important because as a writer you’re really doing things by yourself. It’s isolating.
You have to get out there. I’ve done columns for some of the big newspapers in the UK. I remember going out for a literature night where emerging voices were all invited to south London. I read from one of my stories and I never knew the editor of The Observer was present.
Probably, a month later he got in touch with my agent and I was given the opportunity to write columns putting me on a national platform to write nonfiction.
You just never know. You have to put yourself out there.
Thank you for speaking to us, Irenosen 🙂
By Elijah Christopher
Elijah Christopher is a journalist at A New Touch Of Africa, is also a creative writer, a poet, and an IT enthusiast. He contributed to the collaborative poem written in celebration of Edwin Morgan Centenary, the first Glasgow poet laureate and Scottish national poet from the University of Glasgow. He loves meeting people and learning about new places, cultures, events, and lifestyles.