Sunday 12 June 2016

A Conversation with Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie was born in Nigeria and sent to England at the age of eight to attend a boarding school in Norfolk. The difference between the rich and diverse culture of Nigeria to her new life in England took some adjusting to and Irenosen wrote diaries to put her feelings into words.

This appears to be a thread in her life as Irenosen expresses her thoughts and emotions through writing. When her mother was in hospital for an eye operation, Irenosen passed the time in the waiting room penning a poem. During bouts of insomnia in her younger days the natural remedy was to pick up her pen and write.

Irenosen gave up her study in law to pursue a career in the arts. She has had articles published in many magazines and newspapers, including the Guardian and the Observer. Her short stories - no doubt influenced by the custom of storytelling at social gatherings in her early years - have been published in the UK, the USA and Africa.

Now Irenosen has written her first novel Butterfly Fish released on 8th July 2015.
The novel links contemporary London with 19th century Benin, Nigeria through Joy. When her mother dies, Joy is heartbroken and is pulled towards an artefact which she inherits from her mother: the cast of a warrior's head of a 19th century king in Nigeria. Her interest in the artefact results in Joy dreaming of a mysterious woman of the past which leads to revelations of family secrets. Butterfly Fish is a powerful novel of love, hope and loss written in Irenosen's unique and compelling style.

The following questions and answers allow us to get to know Irenosen more personally. We wish Irenosen all the success she deserves with the novel and her future writing.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.
I've always been obsessed with books from a young age. I carried them everywhere. I always wrote poetry and kept diaries. Even then, there was something about documenting my interactions and experiences that was intriguing. Not because of me but because of what I could glean about other people and their lives through these encounters no matter how trivial. I did different types of writing in my twenties; essays, articles etc. I wrote for a film maker's magazine and for a couple of women's magazines. Then, I penned a short story which morphed into a novel when I joined a writing development programme. I just kept writing, till it grew into this animal that felt urgent, pressing and necessary.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
It's funny; initially it feels like quite a selfish endeavour. It still does! It requires a huge amount of focus and concentration. Writing my novel almost made me anti-social, I just didn't have as much time for friends as I would have liked. Sometimes it felt like coming out from an underground space only within yourself. Irenosen meet sunlight! And try not to reveal these odd tics you've suddenly inherited. I enjoy holding an imperfect lens up to the world and re-interpreting what I see.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Here's the thing, I never dislike any of my characters even the ones that do terrible things. I find characters I know other people will dislike more interesting to write because you have to find the humanness in them and there's so much complexity there to explore. A good example of this is from one of my favourite actresses Samantha Morton in the film Morvern Callar. The book is written by Alan Warner. Here's a woman whose boyfriend commits suicide. Instead of grieving in a way most people would expect, she chops up his body, gets rid of it, invents stories to explain his disappearance and pretends to have written the novel he wrote. It's just an astonishing performance, there's such flatness to it you can almost project a series of motives onto the character but they all sit uncomfortably and you're never quite sure and I love that ambiguity.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing?
Ooh, some time in Machu Picchu and Zanzibar.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
Oh God, I really can't just say one, impossible! A few are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achibe, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Patel.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Write loads, read voraciously, go out and live. Things will emerge in the spaces in between and you might be surprised by what does.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
My debut novel Butterfly Fish has just come out! I have a collection of weird, dark, surprising short stories out next year that'll hopefully take you to Irenosen's planet so look out for that.

Butterfly Fish (2015) is published by Jacaranda Books.
You can follow Irenosen on Twitter: @IrenosenOkojie

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