AKO Caine Prize Winner: A Dialogue with Irenosen Okojie
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 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 Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2017, 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 writing talent to watch 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 nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her new collection of stories, Nudibranch is published by Little Brown’s Dialogue Books. www.irenosenokojie.com Twitter: @IrenosenOkojie
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between the UK and Algeria, via Zoom.
Saliha: Hello, Irenosen. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Can you tell me about your feelings on being shortlisted for this prize?
Irenosen: The AKO Caine Prize is so well-respected, and it’s a world-renowned prize that celebrates African voices within African literature in the Diaspora as well, so I am really delighted and honoured to have been shortlisted. It’s such a great shortlist as well; each story is so different to the other, it’s really varied and wide in what everyone brings to the table, so it’s fantastic.
It just encourages you to keep going as a writer. When you get shortlisted or longlisted for something, it’s a sign you are heading in the right direction, so it’s a real honour to be shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize.
Saliha: I am glad for you.
Irenosen: Thank you.
Saliha: The story made me feel like it has a chaotic atmosphere to it. Whether it’s about the thoughts of Sidra or what is happening around her. However, as I finished reading it, I didn’t leave it with a chaotic mind. I felt calm, even though I was in such chaos before. How did you achieve such a literary feat?
Irenosen: That’s a really interesting question. I think that a lot of it is instinctive, because as a writer you are actually investigating. For me, it’s a process of investigation, so what does it look like, and what does it feel like when you are somebody who’s been traumatized, and you’re living in a post-traumatized state? The way that trauma manifests itself; it does that in all sorts of weird and strange surprising ways, so I think the chaos is a reflection of Sidra’s inner landscape. So within someone who has had that experience, I think the inner landscape is going to be chaotic and complex, and they are trying to come to terms with this past trauma but they are also, in some ways, still reliving it all the time, and in Sidra’s case, she is.
I think the sense of chaos is trying to investigate how Sidra deals with what she’s been through, both Sidra as herself but also through the character of Grace Jones, so it’s working on multiple levels. You have Sidra actively causing chaos herself then Sidra also living through Grace Jones and trying to hide elements of herself through that character as well.
Saliha: In your stories, I do notice that you are interested in the psychology of people. Can you tell me why are you more interested in what is happening in the minds of the characters rather than external happenings?
Irenosen: Well, I am fascinated by people. People are just interesting, and you know how they appear and what’s going on inside can often be a contradiction, in the sense that somebody can appear to be happy with everything, seemingly be functioning, but really things are coming to a turn internally, or things are breaking down internally. I am really fascinated by that, and by how people cope in those circumstances. Often my stories deal with people who are at a cross in their lives, or some sort of turning point, whether large or small, and they are trying to navigate how they go forward, so that process is really interesting to me, so I always want to delve into the minds of the characters.
“Often my characters are very complicated women, messy women, especially messy Black women and women of color and very often we are not allowed the full spectrum of emotion, we’re not allowed to show the full spectrum of emotion, so I really want to bring that into my stories.”
I always want to create an immersive experience for the reader, and I want to surprise the reader as well through that process. I don’t want them to be passive within the process. You mentioned the chaos earlier; the chaos means that you are not just passive as a reader, you are constantly trying to understand what is going on. I think it’s also about creating empathy for the characters, because often my characters are very complicated women, messy women, especially messy Black women and women of color and very often we are not allowed the full spectrum of emotion, we’re not allowed to show the full spectrum of emotion, so I really want to bring that into my stories and I am passionate about doing that. I often incorporate that through the psychological process and how you get to know the character.
Saliha: I find that really fascinating. You are like a scientist doing scientific studies.
Irenosen: (Laughs). Thank you!
Saliha: It’s a difficult topic to write about. The fact that you are succeeding in telling these complex stories is also not something simple. You are writing in such a beautiful, captivating and intense way that as a reader, I can’t leave the story without the images you are creating in my mind staying with me.
Irenosen: Thank you so much. That’s really nice to hear. The thing is, I am also fascinated by the characters, and I think that’s something that I actively try to do. I am creating characters that I really want to interrogate; what their process is, what their life experiences are like. So if it’s somebody that’s struggling with a mental health issue, somebody that’s struggling with loss, I want to know. We all know what loss feels like, but I want to explore that on the page, but I also want to do it in ways that feel fresh and new.
Every writer comes from their own particular standpoint, everybody has their way of doing things, but I am really passionate about writing characters who are often on the margins, who are often disenfranchised. I am really passionate about writing them into the centre, because only when we do that, do we get to see those we tend to ignore. We get to really see their humanity. I am really passionate about that. That’s the reason I focus on the sort of characters that I focus on, and also why I write the way I write, because I need to be excited as a writer.
If I am writing something and I am not excited about it, it will show on the page. So if I am excited, that translates onto the page, which means the reader gets excited as well, which means I am trying to leave you with strong imagery and writing that’s surprising, and writing that draws you in, and writing that also I think has elements of mystery to it, so even if you leave the story, you will often leave the story still asking questions about the character. I think that’s the sign of a good story for me, when you leave that world and you still feel attached to the characters, you still want to know what happens to them.
Saliha: That’s true. Personally, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and it’s so strange that I can never write about it. I would really like to see you write about it.
Irenosen: That’s fascinating. You never know, one day I might write about it. OCD is fascinating. Have you ever read a book by Mark Haddon called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”? It’s about a young boy who goes on the hunt for his dog that goes missing, and it takes him on an adventure because he has to step outside of his environment, and it’s a really interesting story. I am going to recommend that for you to have a look at. If I remember correctly, the character in the story has Autism, but I think that there are parallels that one can draw from looking at someone who has a particular issue, that can help when looking at one’s own issue.
Saliha: Yes. I completely understand you. I am going to look for it and read it.
I wanted to ask you, as a writer, have you seen any growth in your writing, for instance the difference between the first story you wrote and the last one? Have you see any growth in the themes, and the writing style?
Irenosen: That’s a good question. Definitely, there has been growth. When I look at the first story I ever wrote, compared to later stories, I think one gets better as a writer. Writing is like a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger it is, the better it is, the more confident you are. But it is also not a straight line, it can be up and down; so you might write a really good story, then you might not write for two months, then you might struggle with the next story or the story after that you find it really easy to write, then the story after that, for some reason, might take years to finish. It’s a very interesting process, because there is no straight answer. It varies, but I think that over time, if you keep up the writing practice, then your writing overall does get better. When you go through periods when you are struggling, sometimes that can be hard, but you push through it.
Saliha: That’s fascinating, because as debutante writers we often struggle to find our voices. So I wanted to know if it’s a continuous process or if the writing remains the same.
Irenosen: Do you mean how we approach writing?
Irenosen: For me, it’s a continuous process. It’s an ever-evolving process, so I might approach one story in a particular way and write it through a particular form. For example, I might write a story as a series of postcard snippets and then I might write another story as a poem, and then I might write a story as a prose poem, so it depends on what you want to explore in the piece and how you go about doing it, and what you think the most effective way of doing it is. It is sometimes purely by instinct; sometimes you have an idea and let the form lead you, and you listen to that voice, but you also make room for other things to come. I am not very rigid in terms of how I approach the writing; I have an idea and I go to the page and write it, but I leave space for other things to come, so I am not rigid in terms of structure necessarily. My writing style is very fluid and lends itself well to the kind of writing I do. That’s something that is consistent for me, the fact that I don’t overly plan when I am writing my stories; so I don’t necessarily go, “This is going to happen, and then this is going to happen, and then this has to happen”. I might have a rough idea, but I will leave it open so I stay excited about what might come.
Saliha: I think that’s what I noticed with the stories shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize. They are all so fascinatingly different; in their forms, in their themes. African literature has made me fall in love with literature again, which I kind of lost after reading so many Western novels and stories.
Irenosen: That’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s what we want to continue. We want to really be rich and diverse in terms of themes and styles, and subject matter and I think that the shortlist really reflects that. That’s why it’s great to be part of it.
Saliha: Yes. So, what are your upcoming works?
Irenosen: I am working a novel at the moment, so that’s going to keep me busy for a while, and I guess in-between that I will probably write more stories as well, so I have more work to do.
Saliha: I really thank you for taking the time to do the interview, it was a real pleasure. Good luck with everything.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at the university and a volunteer interviewer for online local magazines. She is one of the top graduates of her department in the Anglophone literature and civilization field. She is passionate about art and literature, and she recently became vegetarian. She is currently working on a series of personal essays under the theme of “family”, and on a short story about an aspiring painter. Her philosophy in life is to always try be the best version of yourself and to always keep on learning.