An Interview with Irenosen Okojie

Cross Borders, Be Bold, and
Write the Stories That Haven’t Been Written Yet:
Irenosen Okojie on writing, diversity in publishing, and her new short story collection Speak Gigantular

A samurai-sword wielding man charges down a high street in London. A bank robber in a chicken costume exchanges recipes with his victims. Released right on the heels of her award-winning debut novel Butterfly Fish, Irenosen Okojie’s first short story collection, Speak Gigantular, features the surreal in mind-bending ways that Bernardine Evaristo says probe “the painful, the unsayable, the unknowable”. As part of the British Council’s “Diverse Voices, New Directions” literature seminar in BerlinSAND Assistant Fiction Editor Ashley Moore had a chance to chat with Irenosen about the new collection, diversity in publishing, the short story as a form, and the submissions process.

SAND: Sharon Dodua Otoo, a Black British writer, has just won one of the most prestigious prizes in German-language literature, and the British Council in Berlin featured you, Dodua Otoo, and four other British writers of color at its “Diverse Voices, New Directions” seminar in Berlin. In contrast, this is also a time in which we are seeing far-right movements gain traction in Britain, the US, and continental Europe. You’ve written that “[t]he power of books is their ability to cut across all of the societal barriers, and authors from varied backgrounds should be given the opportunity to do so.” Do you think writers of color and female writers have a special role to play in breaking down barriers in today’s world?

Irenosen Okojie: I think all writers have a special role to play. Part of the problem is a passing-the-buck mentality that seems to be entrenched within our publishing infrastructures and people’s mindsets. This inability to take personal responsibility or be accountable in some way. “I can’t write about such-and such person from X background because I don’t know any, I’m worried it won’t be coming from an authentic place.” I think Jonathan Franzen made comments to that effect. I had to scratch my head at that. Honestly, it’s such a cop out. Well, get to know people from diverse backgrounds, take yourself out of your comfort zone and your bubble of privilege, it’ll make you socially smarter and more empathetic. Do your research, approach it the way you would any other character. It’s not hard; we’re all human beings. Or when some editors say they want be inclusive but that they don’t get the submissions. When I hear that, what I glean from it is that it’s not a priority. It absolutely should be, now more than ever in the time of Trump and the rise of the far right, we need a counter to that. We need it at every level. Writers of colour and female writers have been breaking barriers just by the very act of producing our work and will continue to do so. Art is political, even if it doesn’t intend to be. The fact that that work exists means it’ll continue to challenge, provoke, shape and hopefully inspire others. Think about the Brontë sisters combating what was a very male-dominated space in the 19th century or James Baldwin being unapologetically black, gay and political in a time when he could have been so easily killed for being any three of these things! His fearlessness, his boldness never ceases to amaze me. Women writers and writers of colour play our part but the onus needs to be on everybody.

SAND: I’ve seen that you’re an Ishmael Reed fan. Back in 1976, Flight to Canada criticized the creative slavery of a literary market that confined black writers to specific topics and genres. Reed compared members of the white, male literary canon like Tennyson and Poe to the fictional and historical slave masters in the novel. You’ve also written about the limitations that the Booker Prize and the media place on black, Asian, and female writers in Britain today. Do you feel that there’s been much improvement since Reed’s novel came out 40 years ago? How can we as writers, editors, and readers work towards change?

Irenosen: There’s been some improvement although it’s slow. What you get is flurries of action here and there that appear to be change, but it’s on a surface level. Someone will break through in a big way and that’s great, that visibility is hugely important, but then the industry will rest on its laurels and think we have that one writer of colour that’s broken through, change has happened. No, it hasn’t. It needs to be consistent. People should consider the range of stories within communities of colour, that the multiplicity and nuances of those stories deserve to coexist alongside each other on our shelves the way it does for white writers. Part of the problem is when you have an industry that’s very risk-averse, it fosters a kind of apathy. Gatekeepers should consider their remits and think about how they can break those barriers. There are good editors out there, there are some great editors that care. The way books are commissioned has changed in big publishing houses. Perhaps some of those editors feel slightly powerless within that system. In these troubling times, it shouldn’t just be about the bottom line. The top editors wield great power. Use that power to seek out those marginalized voices, partner with other organisations who may have access to them to run projects to develop those voices, hire more people of colour in decision-making roles. Be truly inclusive. Publish writers of colour, LGBT, white working class, writers with disabilities, intersectional writing. It’s important to. Because to do nothing is to be complicit in a system of silencing and erasure. I think independent publishers are doing amazing things, taking risks and publishing exciting, interesting work. If you’re a festival organiser, the same idea applies. Programme inclusively. By “inclusive” I don’t mean sticking writers of colour on a diversity panel. That’s not change. Diversity can be a part of the conversation, it’s an ongoing, important, necessary conversation. First and foremost, let them talk about their work, their practice, the same way other writers do. Everybody can play their part. If you’re a reader, ask yourself if you’ve fallen into particular patterns of reading. Think about how you can change that. It’s actually exciting when you do because whole other worlds, perspectives and experiences are presented to you. By actively engaging with that you’re enriching your reading experience. I, for example, will make more of an effort to seek out and read translated works. We don’t publish enough of that in the UK. I like the idea of crossing borders through reading.

SAND: Speaking of the literary market and prize committees, in your story “Why Is Pepe Canary Yellow?”, the “hero” Pepe is “one of the invisibles” who only makes an impact once he takes bold, extreme measures to be seen and heard, at great risk to his freedom and possibly even his life. Do you see a connection between Pepe’s experience and that of black, Asian, and female writers in Britain? Is the only way to be seen and heard to do something so bold that it cannot be ignored? Even then, is this bold writing marginalized?

Irenosen: Absolutely, I see a connection. That’s part of the reason I wrote the story. Sometimes when you make a point in a way that people may have heard plenty of times before, it has no impact. They become desensitized to it, so I’m always curious about coming at things from a slightly different angle. People can feel other and invisible for different reasons: racially, disability, a physical scar, social awkwardness, etc. What I wanted to do with this story, is that while engaging with it, the reader comes at it from their experience of invisibility, what they think it means to battle that feeling everyday. It’s almost like the story has different entry points. And the point of entrance you take, what you get out of it very much depends on your experiences or understanding of what it means to fight to exist, to be seen and for that existence to matter in some way.  Being bold isn’t the only way to be seen and heard but I like it when people are. And by bold I don’t necessarily mean being loud. Sometimes being bold can mean being yourself in an environment that requires you to change somewhat in order to fit in. Michelle Obama is bold, Serena Williams is bold, Kate Bush is bold, Miriam Makeba was bold. You can be a reserved person but a bold artist. I particularly like it when the most unassuming people turn out to be bold. It’s really interesting, there’s a layering there that’s intriguing. It’s about finding the vehicle that allows you to express that part of yourself. As an artist of colour, it’s unfair and frustrating when that boldness is marginalized but lauded in others. The fact that the work exists with the potential of permutations for different readers is a powerful, heartening, thing. It means it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

SAND: You’ve talked about the importance of short stories in the process of writing your novel Butterfly Fish, and you have just released your short story collection Speak Gigantular, whose surrealistic elements, sensory language, and dark humor take readers to weird, wonderful places. You’ve said, “I love short stories. […] I think short stories don’t receive enough acclaim. Interestingly, it was while penning the short stories [in the course of writing Butterfly Fish that] I felt like there could be a space for the sort of things I wanted to write about.” We at SAND share this love. Would you mind expanding a bit on how short stories provide that space that other types of writing might not?

Irenosen: Short stories allow you to produce these small worlds. There’s something very liberating about it even though technically, they’re actually very difficult to get right. Putting a collection together you have to show range, breadth and depth. The stories have to change in tone and variety. With the novel, because it’s a much longer work, you can find yourself at sea in parts. This can be frustrating and can hamper your progress. The short stories in contrast are like bursts of light. You’re energized off of the momentum, from being able to realise an idea, then move onto the next one. Something about having an ending in sight reasonably quickly (depending on how fast you write!) makes you feel capable. Once you write a story, it gives you some confidence that you can actually finish a piece of work. What short stories do is provide a framework that means you write quickly; they create a sense of urgency. It’s a space to play, experiment, refine.

SAND: Would you also share a bit with us about your experience submitting short stories?

Irenosen: It’s probably similar to a lot of people’s experiences, which is lots of rejection in the beginning! In fact, that doesn’t actually stop when you’ve been published. People can still say no. You have to find a way of developing a thick skin: otherwise, it can be disheartening. Once you accept that rejection is a part of the process, it becomes easier. There was something about the first two short pieces I got published. Once that happened, other things came my way. It’s like a breakthrough, you feel more optimistic. That optimism and enthusiasm propels you to keep going.

SAND: How do you choose the publications you submit to?

Irenosen: Truthfully, in the beginning it very much depended on who was interested in publishing me. I tend to submit to publications or anthologies that are doing exciting things or provide a space for experimental writing.

With the novel, because it’s a much longer work, you can find yourself at sea in parts. This can be frustrating and can hamper your progress. The short stories in contrast are like bursts of light. You’re energized off the momentum, off being able to realise an idea, then move onto the next one.

SAND: Where were you most proud to be published? Where do you still wish to be published?

Irenosen: I’m genuinely proud of all of them. Each one felt significant at those different junctures in my life. They all play an important part in my writing trajectory. It’s not a literary magazine but I really wanted to write for Trace Magazine published by Claude Grunitzky. It was a magazine of transcultural ideas. It was so fucking cool. I loved the way it captured the black diasporic experience in ways that were celebratory and beautiful. I got an internship to write for them in New York, but in the end, other commitments meant I couldn’t make it happen.

SAND: Do you have any advice for short story writers slogging their way through submissions and rejections?

Irenosen: Target your submissions, keep an eye out for anthology submissions. They’re great because if the editor likes your work, sometimes they’ll signpost you to other opportunities. Also, if you’re finding it difficult to get published where you’re based, send your stuff to international journals and publications who are actively looking to publish new voices. Just keep at it, take feedback and critique. Learn from it but don’t let anybody devalue your work or crush your spirit. Nobody has a right to do that. Most published writers went through the minefield of submissions and rejections, it’s an ongoing process but eventually people will say yes. When they do and your work is published, enjoy it. Let it give you some confidence going forward.

SAND: Do you have anything you wish you could say to editors of literary magazines publishing short stories today?

Irenosen: I like that they provide spaces for short stories to live. I like what they do. Just keep taking risks and publishing interesting work.

SAND: Toni Morrison has not merely advised but actually mandated that writers push beyond, saying “[i]f there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Is there a book or story you want to read that you must write?

Irenosen: I love that quote. I love Toni Morrison’s work. She’s a genius. In fact, it was one of the quotes I looked at several times whilst working on Butterfly Fish. It puts the power in the artist’s hands. It means you can forge your own path, even if it feels daunting, terrifying. Even if you feel ill equipped in the beginning, all the more reason to do it. I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan. Not only does she transition between genres so seamlessly, she creates compelling female characters. I love what she did in Alias Grace. I like the anti-heroine in a perilous situation within a historical context. Creating something of that weight but from a different perspective and angle would potentially be an exciting, challenging experience, I feel.