Speaking Gigantular with Irenosen Okojie
Interview by Kit Caless.
Irenosen Okojie’s prose is luxurious, rich and evocative, frequently funny, sensual. Her writing also carries a sharp bite, razor edges that cut you up if you slip into an easy groove. Her stories are fable-like in the way she anthropomorphizes animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects and forces of nature. They traverse continents, fetishes, curses, incredibly strange goings-on and serious traumas. Winner of the Betty Trask Award this year for her intoxicating debut novel, Butterfly Fish, Okojie has made a name for herself as a unique voice in British fiction. Her new book, a collection of short stories titled Speak Gigantular was released in September and she has been reading from the book at festivals all over the UK. I caught her on a rare slow day to talk about her life, writing and the over-applied term ‘magical realism’.
3:AM: You have a vivid and unique imagination in your writing. Do you ever feel like you can’t control your imagination? Do you let it run free when you write, or do you try to narrow its focus?
Irenosen: I let it run wild. Honestly, I don’t want to control it. For me that’s the fun of a first draft, the skeleton so to speak, is that there is that sense of freedom and you allow yourself to play without being too self aware. It’s a safe space, it’s helpful I think to create that safe space whatever your style where you can really let go. Also I tend to operate from a place of curiosity as a writer rather than authority. It’s liberating, it takes a certain pressure off and means you’re not writing to any expectations, except your own. I’m aware that if I have an idea or a theme I want to explore, mine is just one perspective and there are so many others, but what I want to do is create a unique, interesting and perhaps occasionally challenging experience for the reader. If I’m scared and excited by an idea and there’s some risk, usually I’ll follow my instinct to write it. I’ll let my imagination fly, the honing and focusing comes in following drafts. At the same time, I don’t want to lose that strange vividness where it’s appropriate because that’s what gives the writing a certain thumbprint and verve.
3:AM: Where do you think this imagination comes from? Perhaps it isn’t possible to say. I like to think that you just sit down and stare out of the window at your desk and all this stuff just comes spilling out.
Irenosen: I think it comes from several influences, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing in isolation. I used to walk around day dreaming a lot, literally bumping into people on streets because my head was somewhere else. Just full of so much stuff that I didn’t share with anybody except on the page. There are probably people who thought I had some sort of visual impairment the way I was knocking into stuff and people at one point. I’m glad I had writing as an outlet even before thinking I would attempt to do it seriously. Going back even further than that, at secondary school in London, hilariously, I found myself in a crew of popular girls. I was the big reader in the group though. I really revelled in that. I never hid that side of myself. I knew there was a quiet power in it. That it opened up your mind and your world.
3:AM: How were you perceived in this group by the group? Were you the ‘brains’? It’s funny you say you never hid that side of yourself. Do you think girls at that age do feel they have to hide pursuits like reading? There was definitely a pressure on boys to not show any outward signs of wanting to learn anything when I was at school, but I don’t think my sisters experienced that so much.
Irenosen: I was perceived as brainy but not necessarily geeky. I was the funny, sarcastic one. I think this is where my fascination with humour began. I realised it was a great trump card to have, particularly in the confusing minefield of teenage life. You could mask awkwardness with it, disarm people, stop bullies with it, because they’d be afraid you’d verbally show them up. Because you were funny, people left you alone and in a way you were able to get away with being yourself more than say a really popular girl who had to succumb to the pressures of what that meant. I think it’s easier for girls at that age than boys to show that they like reading. It may be different now but it still wasn’t seen as a cool thing to be doing even amongst girls. There were other supposedly cooler things like getting into clubs and fights.
3:AM: Humour and comedy runs through your work. Do you see the way a comedian tells a story as something different to the way literature, or short stories do?
Irenosen: There’s definitely common ground between stand up and literature. Comedians are also writers since they produce their material, obviously both comedians and authors are storytellers. It’s just comedians are more conversational and immediate. You have a set that’s structured towards punchlines but also very well crafted. I think novel and short story writing is probably more intricate. I love Richard Pryor. He had this amazing ability to turn tragic situations into sublime sets that not only made you laugh but made you really warm to him. He was different to other comedians. His observational and improvisational style was uniquely his own at the time which went on to influence loads of comics. It never surprised me that he appealed to crossover audiences. Dave Chapelle has a similar quality. Plus Richard just did funny shit. When he dated Pam Grier, he used to snort cocaine from her privates. Who could blame him looking at Pam?
3:AM: The narrative voices in Speak Gigantular are varied and the writing styles too. The stories are collected over a number of years, and you revisited them and edited them fresh for this book. When I look back on my writing, at any time, anything I wrote over 8 months before the time I’m looking at it makes me cringe and never want to see it again! Even if I loved it at the time of writing it. How was it going back over short stories that you might have written some time ago?
Irenosen: Haha! I think it’s a similar thing for me. You cringe at first but then you have to get over the awkwardness of that to really look at them critically both from an editorial perspective and a reader’s point of view. The main thing for me was connecting with them again, particularly some of the earlier ones. There’s a story in the collection called ‘Anonymous Jones’. It’s probably one of the most simply written in the collection, about a young woman trying to find her way in the world drifting from one unfortunate situation to another. During the edits, I became really emotional about that story. It made me think about how hard it was coming out of university, trying 9 to 5 and all the shit jobs I had before I found a place in the arts. And just how difficult it is for young people if you don’t come from a certain background and you live in London, you’re fucked. I love London, I love it’s vibrancy but it can crush your spirit if you don’t navigate it carefully. Suddenly, it became really important that this story was in the collection. It took on a whole other dimension and sense of purpose to me. I think there’ll be young women who’ll relate to it and especially some young black women who’ll understand where I’m coming from with that piece. It’s a sly narrative.
3:AM: I like this idea of ‘sly narrative’. The poet Sam Berkson calls for ‘heavy subject; light touch’ when it comes to addressing weightier themes. How do you feel about this? Sometimes I quite like being hit over the head repeatedly by a story until I’ve really got the point hammered into me. On the other hand, a character like Sully in Butterfly Fish was a fairly subtle way of discussing the gradual European expansion and colonization of Nigeria.
Irenosen: It’s a good strategy. When it’s a heavy subject or theme, you worry people might switch off if it seems like you’re hitting them over the head with it. You don’t want to come across as preachy. On the other hand it may be a point you really want people to come away from the work thinking about, from that perspective it makes sense to be more heavy-handed. With Butterfly Fish, the Benin section of the novel is more about the politics of living in the palace, the relationships formed, seeing that world through the eyes of a variety of characters and the setting in which the brass head is created. The colonization of Nigeria is something that looms on the periphery, physically represented by the character Sully. I made a very conscious decision to write about pre-colonial Africa. I still wanted to reference the impending doom, destruction and pillaging of Benin that was on the way, that’s part of the reason Sully exists in that world.
3:AM: You seem to use fish a lot in your metaphors and imagery. Is this something you’re aware of? If so, what is it about fish that inspires these moments?
Irenosen: This is probably my African sensibility here but I feel like they carry stories in them being from the water, that there are things in rivers and seas they’ve seen we’ll never know. In my novel, a fish from a different time arrives in the present. For me it was the perfect creature to use to straddle two separate time periods. Fish are also strikingly beautiful so aesthetically they bring something to an image. When I use them, there’s a doubling that’s happening. I like the fact that you can take this beautiful image and potentially turn it into something dark. It’s not that I’m doing this consciously, on reflection, these are probably the reasons why.
3:AM: What do you mean by ‘African sensibility’? Can you explore that a bit further? Do you mean in the way animals may be given significant philosophical roles in some African cultures?
Irenosen: Exactly this. I think it comes from some of my childhood in Nigeria. Oral storytelling is a big tradition there, particularly in some of the more rural areas. I remember gatherings in the evenings to listen to stories, folk tales, fables. Many of them with animals at the heart of it, like Anansi the Spider stories. They’re really engaging and entertaining! You’d get the story, then some questions, then you’d have to figure out the moral of the story. It was a simple format that works very well. There was usually some philosophical theme to think about but it was done with a light hand. It’s actually really clever. When you use animals in the context of stories to teach children in this way, it stays with them. It’s working on two levels. There’s the fantastical element, which really speaks to their imagination, then there’s the life lesson usually snuck in at the end. Parts of Africa do have long traditions using animals as devices in stories to do this, which is why I referred to it as ‘my African sensibility’ because I’ve had that experience. It’s interesting, where and how that sensibility shows in the writing.
3:AM: Some people have placed your writing in a kind of ‘magical realism’ genre, particularly Butterfly Fish. What do you think of the term ‘magical realism’, it’s supposed literary roots in South America and do you think it applies to your writing?
Irenosen: It’s funny, I didn’t come across the term until much later. I was already writing that way early on before I even knew what it was. I just knew that I liked marrying the other-worldly with the mundane. Then people started saying ‘read Marquez’. I love Marquez but the truth is I was writing that way before I discovered him. And I honestly can’t say where it came from. Reading his work, and work like his, showed me there was a space for that kind of writing. I also like the fact that it allows you to play with form and language which results in writing that has a depth and vividness to it. It’s wonderful that it originated in South America.
3:AM: I’m curious about the links between magical realism and Nigerian or West African writing. I think writers like Ben Okri, yourself, Helen Oyeyemi, Syl Cheney Coker, maybe Kojo Laing (to name a few) write as close to or even explicitly in a magical realist mode. Magical realism is, of course, quite a problematic term and over applied to writing this is simply not 100% realist. But I wonder whether the links between storytelling cultures of Latin America and West Africa can be seen in the way that this magical realist element exists in both literary cultures. Given Paul Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic’ writing I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. Both continents have connected colonial histories, slavery, diaspora. How do you consider you writing within this? Speak Gigantular has quite a British sensibility, and Butterfly Fish is perhaps more Nigerian. But maybe I’m being a basic read and getting too influenced by the settings of the stories?
Irenosen: For sure. There is a connection. I actually think that sort of wondrous, hugely imaginative element has existed in West African culture and stories going way back. If we’re saying magical realism is about the reader letting go of pre existing notions of conventional plot, exposition, time, structure etc, then that aspect is certainly part of the culture, they just didn’t call it magical realism. There probably should be more terms created. I heard someone once refer to Ben Okri’s writing as ‘quantum spirituality.’ There’s an essay in that surely! Writing as ‘Nigerian in style’ is a fascinating subject to me. This idea of a writer’s style and identity. My short answer is that it’s multiple, varied, more than one thing. My other response would be to say what is Nigerian in style? What is the perception of what it is? Who gets to define what it is and by what standards? Is it Achibe? Okri? Emecheta? Adichie? All excellent, all very different. Also do I automatically have ownership to that style because I was born there? What if I was a white female writer from Bath massively influenced by all the above, could I claim ownership of that style? Would I be identified and defined in that way?
I love writing from Nigeria, it’s one of my influences and inspirations. Chinua Achibe’s Things Fall Apart is one of the greatest novels written. Ben Okri is astonishing, his writing almost transcendent. Buchi Emecheta is amazing and not celebrated enough. In terms of intention, I probably have more in common with the likes of Okri and some of the writers you mentioned but similarly, I would also add Jeanette Winterson, Shena Mackay, Ali Smith as writers whose work I really like and consumed. I remember reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World thinking ‘this is something special and brave’. What alchemy has this woman succeeded in doing? I’d like to throw in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard into the equation. It defies literary conventions and definitions. I think my writing style is a hybrid, most likely a result of being in diaspora. Tutuola’s style is also a hybrid but very much rooted in Nigeria in terms of its themes. You say Speak Gigantular is very British, I can see that. It’s interesting to me that I was writing it alongside Butterfly Fish, that both books reflect different aspects of these two identities, the Nigerian and the British.
3:AM: There’s a line in your story ‘Poko Poko’, set in Cape Verde: “We shake our heads, slightly embarrassed to be among black people and still be easily identifiable as tourists”. I recently spent a week in Spain pretending I wasn’t English and wincing every time I heard a London accent shout loudly in the street. Other than the usual effort we make on holidays to pretend we’re not tourists, – is there anything specific about being a black tourist in a black country that inspired the story ‘Poko Poko’? Is it, as I imagine, a very different experience to say, traveling in Eastern Europe as a person of colour?
Irenosen: Yes, you do expect to fit in or blend in. You’re so used to standing out travelling around Europe where you mentally prepare yourself for both the positive and negative reactions your presence might cause. I’ve loved travelling in Europe and you do tend to feel ‘other’ to varying degrees. What happens when you go to Africa is that you think you’ll shake that feeling off. And you do to a certain extent. Africa is amazing. It’s actually overwhelming at first and quite emotional. But that feeling crops up again where you seem in between cultures and spaces or slightly outside of it. In England, you’re British but not English, In Nigeria you’re Nigerian but anglicised with English mannerisms that you aren’t even aware of. Even though you can code switch, speak pidgin and some of the language, you’re still identifiable as someone different. You feel foreign wherever you go. You think, ‘surely here I won’t feel that way.’ It’s fascinating the ways in which this emerges. Part of the reason for writing the story was all of this, but also more importantly, capturing how different parts of Africa are. In the West, there’s a particular negative perception of Africa we’re deliberately fed through the media. There’s so much more to Africa. Each country has its own uniqueness. Cabo Verde is almost like a Caribbean island in Africa. They speak Portuguese, the pace of life is slow, their cuisine is different to what you’d eat in Ghana or Nigeria. People there are casual, laid back. It’s also like a few hours away from Brazil and I thought that was interesting, that connection between Africa and Brazil being so close.
3:AM: What does travel mean to you as a person and as a writer? I find it distracts me from writing. I don’t ever feel settled enough to sit down and write. I used to take notebooks and pens with me if I ever went abroad, but I never wrote in them.
Irenosen: For me it’s essential to our wellbeing, if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to travel, some people aren’t. I feel like a trapped bird otherwise where life sometimes becomes monotonous. Travel breaks that dynamic up. It makes you more open minded, more empathetic to other people if you expose yourself to different cultures and countries. It’s just illuminating to see that there are other possibilities, other versions of life, other versions of you. When I’m travelling, there’s this potent sense of adventure. I’m more interested in people, the environment around me. I take a small notebook with me although I don’t put pressure on myself to write. I usually write after the trip is over which feels really productive when that happens even if I didn’t set out to write a piece! I’d rather concentrate on fully experiencing the trip. The tricky part is the come down when you’re back to your everyday life. The good thing is that London is a city where there’s always something to discover. Even though I need to get away from it sometimes, I always appreciate London that bit more when I’ve come back from a trip abroad.
3:AM: I’d like to end by asking a few specific questions about the stories in Speak Gigantular. The collection is a real showcase of your writing and deserves to be unpacked a little. I found ‘Walk with Sleep’ very intriguing. The story of a girl who commits suicide by jumping in front a tube train and then finds herself in an London Underground purgatory, with other spirits who have done the same thing. What are your personal thoughts on death and afterlife? I found this limbo in the Underground for those who took their own lives a kind of updated mythology for our present time, do you think human ideas of life and death are mostly recycled from myths we already set our selves so many centuries ago?
Irenosen: To a certain extent, we hold onto these mythical old ideas because we don’t really know the answers. For many people the natural emotional response to death is fear and sadness, whether people agree there’s an afterlife or not. I think believing that you can continue to exist beyond your time here helps you manage that fear to a degree. We tend not to talk about the afterlife with each other because it feels like a very personal thing. It is interesting how religion uses death and the idea of the afterlife as a tool for social management, essentially. If you’re a good citizen, you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife, if not you’ll be punished severely. What happens when your time on earth is cut short and you find yourself in this limbo afterlife where the usual societal structures, expectations and pressures don’t apply? Is it a relief or doubly cruel because you’re stuck with the memories, the pain and the mistakes of the past life? I wanted to explore these ideas with this story. I liked the aesthetic of the underground as a modern afterlife, limbo space. There’s something ironic about this to me.
3:AM: Many of the characters in Speak Gigantular seem slightly broken, or fragile – and the stories are about and how they try to come to terms with whatever broke them, what actions they take in the face of trauma. What is it about these fragilities that makes you interested in exploring, or writing about them?
Irenosen: This is an area I’m really fascinated by and a thread that runs through my writing because it’s very human. We’re all walking around bruised with baggage trying to function. What interests me is how that pain gets translated in the actions people take. What we do to cope and all the weird, funny, sometimes unexpected, poignant actions we take to survive these traumas, to get to the other side. There’s so much there to write about, there’s a well of stuff.
3:AM: I like the definition of ‘gunk’ you give on the very first page of Speak Gigantular: ‘the term gunk applies to any whole whose parts all have further proper parts’. Can you tell me a bit more about why you chose this word (and its definition) to start the book?
Irenosen: Firstly I really liked that the word doesn’t sound like what it means so there’s the surprise element. Then the meaning really struck me. This idea that if something is made of atomless gunk it divides forever into other smaller parts, it’s therefore infinite both in number, smallness and possibility. You are made up of parts, those parts are made up of other parts, those other parts are made of smaller things. On and on it goes. It really felt like the perfect title and idea for that particular story which is different to all the other stories in the collection because there’s no narrative structure. I thought of that piece like an atom splintering into tiny particles. Also it was very much reflective of the book itself which is made up of small stories. Those stories began as ideas or a sentence or an image. You could break that down into x,y,z, then break x,y,z down further still. So the constructions of ideas and things can constantly be reduced down into smaller / other elements and influences. This is what I took from the theory. There is no sense of an ending with this. How do you create an ending for a piece with gunk at the heart of it when the theory itself implies that there is no ending?
Irenosen Okojie is the author of two books; the Betty Trask award winning Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda 2015) and Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda 2016). Irenosen is also a curator and Arts Project Manager, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, the Caine Prize and the SI Leeds Prize. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian and the Observer.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kit Caless is a writer and broadcaster based in London. He is the author of Spoon’s Carpets: An Appreciation (Square Peg 2016) and writes regularly for Vice Magazine. He is also co-founder and editor at Influx Press, an independent publisher of fiction and creative non-fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 24th, 2016.