Friday 6 January 2017

Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okoji

Book review by Greenacre Writer Mumpuni Murniati

Imagine the light is out all of a sudden. Darkness descends; you’ve been caught off guard. It engulfs you fast. Struggling, you would try different ways to find either a switch or anything that would make the light comes back. You might think of something. Or else, nothing. You then decide to adjust yourself and put your senses into a good use for the first time in many moons. You learn to adapt.  

Reading line after line in Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular seems like being ushered into a tunnel. It could be a cave. Or an enclave. A crook on a steep cliff. Possibly, an abyss. There is neither a way to realise how deep the cave will be nor the distance of the tunnel. Short?  Long? One cave or more?  Yet the smells of candles burning fast are wafting in the air; giving a sense towards an end.

Their smiles became one white trap. They passed an invisible note between them but nobody knew whose handwriting it was. Ryan threw his arm around her reassuringly. They took her to the Alps spot with its hidden enclaves and view over the area. She was yanked deep within it. The unnamed flower inside her nursed a fist growing through blood. The boys held her down, undid their trousers and ripped the red ribbon from her hair to wrap around her fate. Two doves died in her eyes as they put a bag over her head.... (Nadine, page 116)

The Nigerian-born Okojie is an old hand for laying bare taboos and home truths. Her depiction of events are unflinching, her imagination vivid. Her sentences oftentimes contrast beauty and brutality in a paragraph that guarantee a stinging touch in its conclusion.

Just as in her acclaimed debut novel Butterfly Fish, she flavours abnormalities and perceived absurdity with a touch of the mystic. She often plays with her protagonists’ troubled minds, enlivening the worlds in their heads. Needless to say, the surreal topics deliberated in some stories may require a second reading and time to digest.

There is no doubt about her skill at blending intriguing narratives. According to Okojie, the viewpoint of her protagonist seems to guide and guard the plot, keeping the surprises until the very end of it. According to Okojie, real words and other ones can run parallel and their distinguished traits can blur.

Meet the underground jumpers Haji and October in Walk With Sleep and a ten-year-old Henri Thomsen who was born with a tail in Animal Parts. Okojie marvels at Fractures, her portrayal of the luring of an alien to its human prey tips. Despite the nature of their relationship it grows; leaving readers gasping for breath in anticipating the worst.

Long gone the days when a fiction is an escape from daily grinds. For this book seems to aim at pushing boundaries as to what is acceptable and what is not. At the same time, each story discusses the hardly touched issues of mental health problems.

There are times when a viewpoint is swiftly switched; from a protagonist to a minor character and back to the main one. Okojie’s minor characters move a story forward; usually an awkward jigsaw piece to complete a puzzle. 

Take the example of Hanif the butcher in Why Is Pepe Canary Yellow. He becomes Pepe’s friend; the protagonist who worked for him to raise money for his ailing mother.  

He grabbed his phone from his pocket, nearly dropping it and rang Hanif. The number had been disconnected. Edging forward, he bit back a groan, shivering slightly. Hanif had cleared out, closed up shop. He was still owed a month’s wage. He needed that money. How could he have taken off like that without telling him, without warning? He knew things had been rough, but he felt betrayed. He felt sad and alone.   

At that point, halfway the story, Hanif disappears after over a thousand words. A minor character that cleverly in his absence he manages to play significant part in the protagonist’s fate.  

In the end, Okojie’s themes on the fall of humans observes the process itself; their resistance, resilience and ambiguity. Thus, effort is more important than the difference in results. Her stories are not meant for readers seeking answers to human idiosyncrasies, but readers who are willing to understand varied motives of people’s behaviour judgement aside. More importantly is to challenge a perception toward circumstances and define new normalities.    

You sit by this window looking out, hoping for answers. Boy, I gave you answers. If you weren’t so busy showing what a waste of space you are, you’d remember. Your enemies are everywhere. They want to destroy you with fear. Don’t let them do it. Don’t be a puppet. I taught you better. (Gunk, page 3)
Irenosen Okojie has been long listed for the first Jhalak Prize. 

Awarded annually, this prize will seek out the best books by British/British resident BAME writers and award one winner £1,000. It was started by authors Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified, with support from The Authors’ Club and a prize donated by an anonymous benefactor. The prize exists, to celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour.

The judging panel is chaired by Sunny Singh. Joining Sunny on the panel are the YA author Catherine Johnson, the author and poet who recently won the Guardian Children's Fiction prize Alex Wheatle MBE, the poet and broadcaster Musa Okwonga and Booker-longlisted fiction writer Yvvette Edwards.

Greenacre Writers is absolutely thrilled for Irenosen and extend our warmest congratulations to her and the all the longlisters.

Thank you to Jacaranda Books for the review copy

Follow Irenosen on Twitter: @irenosenokojie

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