Interview by Katy Wimhurst
When did you begin writing short stories and why is it important to tell them?
I began writing short stories during a difficult draft of my novel a few years back. I picked up a collection of short stories and was really struck by how liberating they were to write, by how you could realise ideas quickly, creating these contained worlds which could have an emotional impact. It really affected me as an artist. It changed the way I saw fiction – it was as though another gateway opened up in my brain. Short stories allow you to reveal these digestible vignettes exploring the human condition. It’s a form that enables me to experiment and be fearless.
You’ve had a book of short stories published, Speak Gigantular. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. What is it about the short story form that appeals?
Thank you. Short stories don’t give you the space to take your time with the plot or endless passages of description in the way that a novel can. This is a positive or a negative depending on how you look at it – because I write both, and enjoy both, I actually think writing short stories makes you a better novelist. It did in my case. Working to the restrictions of the short form means the work has to be tighter, each character more indelible, the world you create immersive. You’re having to do a lot with less, although you’re gaining more by broadening your range and skills.
You’ve also written a critically-acclaimed novel, Butterfly Fish. What are the differences and difficulties in transitioning from short fiction to a novel-length work?
Well, I did it the opposite way round, so I wrote two drafts of the novel first before I put it away and just wrote short stories for a while. I honestly loved it. I’m eternally grateful to have randomly decided to start reading and writing short stories. They’re so much fun to write! Plus you don’t have the pressure of sustaining a world over long periods of time in the way you do with a novel, although short stories are technically difficult to pull off. Interestingly, I found that writing short stories built my confidence as a writer. When I went back to working on the novel after some time writing short stories, I felt less intimidated by the novel process. I decided to see the chapters in each section of Butterfly Fish as a series of connected shorts. It worked, it took my fear away.
You were born in Nigeria but moved to the UK aged eight. Have Nigerian (or, more broadly, West African) cultural, mythological or literary traditions influenced the kinds of stories you write?
They certainly did with Butterfly Fish. Oral storytelling is a big tradition in Nigeria, especially in some of the more rural areas. I remember going to stay with my grandmothers – we’d be told stories in the evenings. The stories were magical but also cleverly existential. There were lessons to learn from them. I think that inheritance definitely shows in Butterfly Fish in the Benin section particularly. In Speak Gigantular too perhaps in ways that are more subtle even though that book is very much about London. It’s all there under the surface, this mishmash of influences, which I love.
The stories in Speak Gigantular are written in different genres: some use realism, some blend fantasy and reality in what might be called a magical realist way. What does magical realism offer you as a writer that straight realism doesn’t?
If I’m honest I never labelled my writing or actively thought about what a particular genre could offer me. It’s like a cocktail of ingredients and influences. I enjoy blending the everyday with the surreal because it enables me to explore what’s possible with language, with imagery. It allows me to discover new ways of doing this, which I feel is reflected in the writing. I go to the page excited because of this. I never go to the page knowing or 100% assured – where’s the sense of discovery in that? Where’s the revelation of what’s hidden both to you and the reader? I never want to seem smugly erudite either. I genuinely find that sort of writing dull.
Did your Nigerian heritage prompt you towards non-realistic genres? I mean in part because of writers like Ben Okri but also because some African postcolonial writers have associated realism with colonialism.
No, I read widely. As a result, the writing is its own particular animal. I love what Ben Okri does – he’s a very special writer. My Nigerian heritage certainly plays a strong part in the way I write, in what I’m interested in doing with fiction. I never specifically thought about it in those terms i.e. as a direct challenge to colonialism. I will say, however, that with Butterfly Fish I deliberately set the Benin section in a pre-colonial period. It was important to show the heritage, complexity and the beauty of the kingdom before the colonial influence and the destruction of that kingdom occurred.
In ‘Animal Parts’, Henri’s long, furry, grey tail marks him out as different and as an object for suspicion and bullying in a small Danish town. In ‘Footer’, Grace has a pet called Loneliness, which has a green head, blank human eyes and a crocodile’s tail; ‘its body was mushy, lacked real definition and looked as if it would sink into itself’. In ‘The Thumbnail Interruptions’, thumbnail photos of Birdy – ‘those lost fragments of herself’ – keep multiplying and appearing in inappropriate places. Do the surreal elements offer you a nuanced way to reflect on – even offer concrete metaphors for – deep aspects of human experience?
Absolutely. It offers me interesting, fresh ways of unpicking the human experience. Incorporating this element into my writing is like creating a canvass, a texture. It gives the writing a certain depth and verve.
Many of your stories include young, black, female, protagonists who are struggling in a world of precarious work and challenging, sometimes violent relationships. Given the spike in racism and xenophobia following the UK Referendum, and the related undermining of the importance of diversity, do you feel it is particularly important to tell these kinds of stories now?
Now and forever. Most people will look at Speak Gigantular and see a bunch of weird stories. This is true, although Speak Gigantular is partially a response to the invisibility and erasure that young black girls and black women in general experience in this country at the hands of strangers and people they know. These experiences are multiple, never-ending, subtle and overt. It’s impossible to explain how it impacts you without writing several essays. Since I didn’t see myself reflected enough in fiction and the world around me generally, since I love books, I decided to carve a space for myself, for girls and women who look like me, but I wanted to do it in ways that are unexpected so the reader is challenged on multiple levels, so a transformation occurs. What that transformation is depends on the reader, on what they choose to take away from it. It’s all there though, it’s in the text. Speak Gigantular is about otherness, alienation, loneliness, identity; it’s about black girls and women; it’s about London.
I was taken with your distinctive, startling use of language, including the similes and metaphors. An old, abandoned bomb shelter at a London tube station ‘was like a forgotten town, ready for [Haji and October] to invent their own subterranean language’; Jonno’s eye was ‘a black marble crawling under your skin…or stuck to a shiny copper two pence in your wallet, like a tiny fallen planet’; ‘Their eyes were pockets collecting all the flaws’; ‘Their smiles became one white trap’; ‘The crooked smiles that had slipped from [tube] passengers…were circling [October’s] feet.’ Have there been any literary or other influences on your use of this kind of language? Some of it seems almost surrealist.
Mostly it’s a desire give the text a certain tone, liveliness and thumbprint. Poetry has been a big part of it. It allows me to play with language and form. Film too. One of my favourite films is The Double Life of Veronique. I kept returning to it when I was writing my novel, Butterfly Fish. Something about the emotional mix in that film stayed with me. It’s incandescent but also darkly magical and melancholy. Music and theatre are influences too.
Your writing doesn’t shy from the dark aspects of life. Themes of loneliness, of struggle with identity and of being different weave through various stories. Why are these themes that you revisit?
These are very human themes. I care about outsiders, the disenfranchised, people on the fringes struggling with these issues. It’s important to me that their experiences are made visible. My story ‘Animal Parts’, about a boy with a tail in a Danish town, is about difference. Why do human beings fear people who they see as different or a threat? Is it a tribal instinct that kicks in? A desire to feel superior when the ‘different’ are the minority? Then of course there are societal structures in place that empower some and cheat others. ‘Animal Parts’ is an allegory for our times. With this story, you throw in the context of a suffocating small town and the difference is even more magnified. What do you do when your difference constantly marks you out? In Speak Gigantular, I’m turning difference on its head. I’m saying it can be your strength.
‘Walk With Sleep’ is an unforgettable, dark story with luminous images. I could see it made into a short film by Wim Wenders. You imagine the ghosts of suicides, including October and Haji, roaming the London underground. October and Haji talk about their lives and deaths, but also wander and play. They stand on top of Circle line tubes ‘pretending to be airplanes’; on the District line, Haji lies his head on a woman’s chest, listening to her heart-beat; they hold onto passengers’ coattails and laugh when the people try to get through ticket machines with them in tow. Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea(s) for this story and how it then developed?
I really like that you compared it to a Wim Wenders movie since I enjoy his films, particularly Wings of Desire. The idea came on a work commute that was interrupted by a suicide on the underground some years back. I remember standing on the platform wondering about the individual, who they were, who they’d left behind, what their story was, the multiple reasons that had led them to that point, which were both complicated and nuanced. I remember feeling sad for the loss, the suddenness of it, this inability to do anything about what was already done. It occurred to me that I could write about it, not in a worthy way. From a position of empathy, in a way that looked at things beyond the gaps. Things happening around us that we may not see as we’re distracted by the frenetic pace of modern life, by our gadgets. While all this is going on, I liked the idea of a doubling occurring. The idea of a subterranean space where suicide jumpers found ways of continuing to exist came to me. It developed from there. It wasn’t an easy story to write – I wrote several versions before it felt like what I’d imagined it to be.
What other short story writers or collections would you recommend to our readers and why?
Lesley Nneka Arimah – What it Means When a Man Falls From The Sky. I’m genuinely astonished by what she can do as a writer, her technical capability and dark imagination. She’s incredible.
Deborah Levy – Black Vodka. It’s sublime. There isn’t one weak story. She’s one of my favourite writers. This collection is a masterclass in the short form. Levy creates whole new ways of seeing, of being. She produces worlds that stretch and explores the pain and dislocation of modern living.
Miranda July – No one Belongs Here More Than You. I just love everything about her work. Her stories are offbeat, so delightfully oddball. Weird and wonderful doesn’t even fully encapsulate the magic of her writing. Enchanting and profound.
Leone Ross – Come Let Us Sing Anyway. Wild, witty and illuminating. These great stories cover a range of genres, from magical realism to horror, erotica and psychological drama. Leone can turn her hand at anything, I’m so glad she’s around.
What are you working on now? Any short stories, novels or other projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell our readers about?
I’m working on a few short story commissions – it’s getting me back into the writing space again, which I’m having fun with. I’m currently a Writer in Residence for Spread The Word’s ‘City of Stories’. A great project with free writing workshops, that celebrates the short form, libraries and communities – more here.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, won a Betty Trask Award. Her short story collection, Speak Gigantular, was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, Saboteur Awards, and most recently shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, and was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. More at her website. Find her on Twitter @IrenosenOkojie
Katy Wimhurst studied anthropology before doing a PhD in Mexican Surrealism. She also worked in publishing, but now has a chronic illness. She writes non-fiction and short fiction and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. She has a particular interest in magical realism and surrealism.
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