Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian writer based in the UK. Her work has been published in several publications including Huffington Post, The New York Times and The Observer, among several others. Her 2016 debut novel Butterfly Fish was awarded the Betty Trask Award. She’s since published additional titles including Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch. Her short story Grace Jones, which was published bytheHachette Book Group, has been shortlisted for this year’s AKO Caine Prize.
We caught up with her to talk about being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize this year and what that means to her as a writer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little about when the writing journey started for you.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid really. I was writing poems because I was a voracious reader as a child. I always had an observer’s eye and would write for different magazines throughout the years as well. I wrote for a filmmaker’s magazine at one point, because I love films. And then I guess about nine years ago, I started seriously thinking about the novel. I had the idea for my first novel around that time and then about three years later, I started actively writing it. I then took a break from the novel and started writing short stories.
I loved writing short stories because it showed me that I was an experimental writer who found my voice writing the short form. After I’d written that first collection [of short stories], I went back to the novel and it gave me real confidence to finish it properly. By the time my first two books came out, I’d written a novel and a collection.
What possibilities would you say you discover in writing fiction?
It’s a great way of expression and interpreting the world. It’s also almost another limb for me.
“I can’t remember a time I didn’t write and it’s really opened up my world.”
I consider a writing space to be a transformative space. I’m sure a lot of writers feel that way too. You can take things that maybe caused you great pain and create art from them. The process of going through that is really quite special.
You can also claim things when writing as well. With my first novel, I wrote about the Benin Kingdom. My family is from Benin in Nigeria and it has a fascinating history, rich in culture and architecture. I moved to England when I was eight-years-old and my father started telling me about Benin and the Benin Kingdom. Through my novel, Butterfly Fish, I was able to write about that cultural inheritance. And I was really proud of doing that because very often when people talk about Black history here, they talk about slavery. I knew that that’s not the only history that we have.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the short story in particular?
I think that with short stories, you have a short space of time to really engage the reader. They have to be really quite striking because you’re doing less with more. I feel that short stories are undervalued in a way, because they’re really hard to get right. But what the forum does is that it allows you to do things that you perhaps wouldn’t do in a novel. And I really love that aspect about it. I love writing these subversive stories. I have a really playful mind so the short form is a great space to allow me to explore different narratives whereas with the novel, you sit with the same idea for a long time and there can be the possibility that you lose momentum.
When I write short stories, I’ll write one short story a month because I’m just so excited to get these ideas out there. And it’s really a way of, I guess, stretching your arsenal if you’re able to do both. I enjoy playing with both the novel and the short form.
What inspired your now shortlisted story Grace Jones?
I’m a huge Grace Jones fan. I’ve always loved her music and her aesthetic. I think she’s just a really unique and standalone artist. Just looking at her visually, I think is amazing. And she has really challenged people’s ideas of gender expectations before it became a thing. Grace was doing that years ago. I’ve always wanted to write about her. This story, Grace Jones, really was inspired by her and is an ode of sorts to her. The story follows a Grace Jones impersonator who looks like Grace and is able to get a job as an impersonator, but also has a few dark secrets of her own. Throughout the story, the reader gets to find out what those secrets are, and how they have impacted her years down the line.
Which writers, African or otherwise, would you say have been instrumental in your own work as a writer?
I really love the work of Toni Morrison. I say that in a lot of interviews, but she’s really incredible. I read Jazz as a teenager and it blew my mind. What she did with that novel, to write a novel that mimics a musical genre, is pretty special. I went on to subsequently read her other books, which equally blew my mind. Beloved was absolutely devastating, and The Bluest Eye. Every single book of her body of work is astonishing and we’re just so lucky to have that still.
Jamaica Kincaid is a huge influence on me. Again, she’s another really unique writer. And when I was writing my stuff, one of the things I worried about was how it would be received because there aren’t that many experimental Black writers around. When I read Jamaica Kincaid, she gave me permission to do that because she’s absolutely phenomenal and equally experimental.
I’m equally inspired by Ntozake Shange who wrote the play For Colored Girls. It’s like three forms in one book because it’s a choreopoem, a play and a novel. It was just astonishing that she did that. There’s Amos Tutuola, who wrote the Palm-Wine Drinkard, Margaret Atwood and June Jordan, a Black American poet that I love.
What does it mean for you to be shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize?
Well, I think it’s great. It’s a real honour and privilege. Some of my writing heroes have been shortlisted or have even won the Caine Prize in the past. I’m thinking of the great Binyavanga Wainaina, Chika Unigwe, who I really love, Billy Kahora too. It’s a real honor, I think, to be shortlisted for this prize but I’m blown away that I was shortlisted. Like I said, my stuff is more experimental and so that means the world is opening up to this sort of writing.
What would it mean for you to actually win the AKO Caine Prize this year?
I don’t want to jinx anything because I’m sure the quality of the shortlist is probably excellent, but it’s a fantastic prize––very highly regarded on the literary scene. Just to be shortlisted is amazing. I’m delighted that one of my short stories was shortlisted for the Caine Prize and I wish everyone the best of luck. Obviously the quality of writing is always outstanding and so winning is very subjective. One group of judges will pick one winner on one day and on a different day, another group of judges will pick another winner. So I don’t take any offense if I don’t win. I just think it’s a wonderful thing to have this happen because it means that hopefully my work can be introduced to an African audience as well. I’m really proud of that.