Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize this year, Speak Gigantular is one of the most captivating short story collection I have ever come across. Irenosen Okojie author of this wonderful collection and Butterfly Fish (which won the Betty Trask award in 2016) was kind enough to answer my questions on this book, the themes of magical realism and fragility and diversity within publishing. For those of you who participated in #DiverseAThon – this is a book you should for sure pick up!
Following on from the success of your debut novel, Butterfly Fish, Speak Gigantular is your first short story collection. Did you find writing short stories afforded you with more flexibility than with a novel?
I think writing short stories gave me a strong sense of identity as a writer in terms of how I want to write and the subject matters I’m interested in covering. There’s a certain flexibility, freedom to experiment which is exciting to play with. I don’t necessarily think it gave me more flexibility. It’s just a different dynamic, similarly, there are restrictions with the short form whilst a novel gives you more scope and more room. I started writing short stories when I hit a wall with the novel. It became an addiction. Each time I finished one, I felt a sense of achievement. As a writer, you need that now and again to keep you going. I love the short form. It helps me manage my writer’s fear and made me more confident tackling other drafts of the novel.
A lot of people have noted the hints of magical realism within your stories. Is this a genre that interests you?
Sure it interests me but so do other genres too. People say that to me although I think it’s an obvious way of attempting to categorize stories that don’t neatly fit in a box. There should actually be more terms created for that sort of writing because there are mutations, variations and nuances. Helen Oyeyemi’s work is slightly different to say Kelly Link, then you have my writing. I can see why people might draw broad similarities but each one is actually it’s own animal. I like both those writers and respect what they do. I have these wonky ideas which I explore on the page. I like blending the surreal with the everyday. I enjoy where that takes me.
Most of the characters in Speak Gigantular are ‘broken’ and seem to be for the most part seeking to mend their fragility. Is this an intentional theme?
It underpins a lot of my work. It crops up because I’m genuinely interested in that subject.The human condition, what that means, how we navigate it. How we cope when we’re traumatized, the ways in which it materialises psychologically and physically fascinates me. How those experiences can distort our personalities and we can become versions of ourselves we may not recognized or are those alien versions also us? And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that even if we find them lacking and imperfect. What I explore is people trying to claw back some sense of themselves, even if it means reinventing themselves or behaving in ways others may find terrible.
Animal Parts is by far my favourite story – it actually made me cry – however, Walk With Sleep is probably the one I most refer to for the sheer real imagination behind the premise of spending eternity underneath the London Underground (as a Londoner that is terrifying!). If you had to choose – which would be your favourite story and why?
It’s difficult to choose just one. I like the emotional power of ‘Gunk.’ I like the fury of it. There are a lot of people walking around emotionally repressed because we’re conditioned to feel that showing anger is bad. Sometimes that’s why you get ticking time bombs who will explode with tragic consequences. When actually, expressing anger is good, it’s healthy. Particularly as women, we’re made to feel you have to behave in a certain way. As women of colour, our relationships with anger and how we express it is even more complicated, especially for black women. There’s a lot of unfair stuff happening in the world that really pisses you off. Gunk in a way was the manifestation of that. ‘Animal Parts’ is also a favourite. It’s really about the way human beings react to difference, trying to subtly unpick why people can find difference threatening and that we need to reconfigure our ideas of what we consider ‘normal.’ I like the kinky exploration of ‘Footer’ and ‘Poko Poko’ is a story that means a lot to me in terms of rediscovering how amazing Africa is which was important at that point in my life.
What can you tell us about the reason for choosing the title Speak Gigantular?
It was about carving a space for these skewed, outsider narratives to be seen and heard hence the title.
Congratulations on the shortlist nomination for the Jhalak Prize! How do you feel about your writing being recognised on such a national scale?
It’s lovely for the work to get this recognition. It was a fantastic longlist and it’s a brilliant shortlist. I’m in excellent company for a prize that aims to show the breadth and depth of work from writers of colour.
Do you feel that diverse voices within the publishing world are adequately promoted?
There’s obviously a lot more that could be done. There’s still a long way to go but there are ripples of action here and there. The important thing is to try to stay proactive and for the onus of those changes to be everybody’s responsibility.
Last but not least – what is your favourite book of all time and why?
Impossible to nail it down to one! A few are:
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achibe
- Everything by James Baldwin
- anything by Toni Morrison
- everything by Buchi Emecheta
- Ben Okri’s work
- Octavia Butler’s books
- Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
- No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- The Twits by Roald Dahl
- The Witches by Roald Dahl
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and basically her whole catalogue of work
- Between The World and Me by Tanehisi Coates
- Ntozaki Shange’s books
- Anything by Rupert Thomson
- Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
- Hotel World and The Accidental by Ali Smith
- The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
I’ll stop now.
I really hope you enjoyed this Q&A – I just loved Irenosen’s responses – particularly her ‘favourite book’ list which is more of a favourite collection of ALL the books!
Now you may have some questions following reading the above such as:
Where can I read more about Speak Gigantular?
OK, I have done that – now where can I buy it?
Right here! (support the publishers!)
How else can I follow Irenosen?
Thank you to Irenosen for being so approachable and providing such great responses and thanks to you all for reading this – I hope you enjoyed it!