Interview with Irenosen Okojie on début novel ‘Butterfly Fish’

Irenosen Okojie

Witty, shy and quirky were the three words that came to mind upon meeting Irenosen Okojie. Her début novel Butterfly fish, found its way to my desk- unannounced. Replacing my customary pick- me- up, I was intoxicated by its rich imaginative ardour. Butterfly fish by Irenosen Okojie  came out in 2016 and is a smooth literary hooch, with a dark personality and complex finish.

A. How did the novel come about?

 I.O It started as a short story which was picked up by a literary project run by spread the word. On the program I was mentored by Donna Daley-Clarke (winner of 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book, Europe and South Asia). She was of the view that the story could be potentially turned into a novel. I was on the program for a year, at the end of which I got to publish an excerpt of my novel, as part of an anthology. Donna was very good to me, we stayed in contact for another two years. I found that once I had a connection with a supportive author, I felt that the novel could be possible. Had I not had that link it would have felt tenuous. I also worked within the arts, working with artists and poets programming events, which helped sustained my creative drive. When you’re around creative people and within an artistic space it helps motivates and inspires you. Through the course of writing the novel, I also discovered short stories which I felt in love with. Nevertheless to make the novel possible I quit my job to concentrate on; a) getting an agent b) doing a second draft of the novel and c) giving myself a time frame to do that. After completing the second draft, I then sent it out to agents.

A. So Far what has been your major challenge?

I.O The structure of the novel; writing a book set in three different time period sounds like a very good idea at first but really tough to execute convincingly and in a way that  is fluid. For instance I was advised to lose one time period, which I was against.

A.Man Booker Prize tells the same old story: male, pale and boring” Do you still feel that way?

I.O Hmmm, it is interesting to see that this year’s shortlist has been much more diverse than the previous, it was fantastic to see black voices such as Ellah Allfrey on the judging panel, Marlon James shortlisted and now winner of this year’s prize. I think that their list this year is a response to the criticism weighed against them. In fact, I wasn’t the only one that criticised the Man Booker Prize for having a shortlist dominated by white males. Let’s be honest, it has been quite boring and dull for some time. The lack of gender and diversity in their previous shortlist really begged the question, ‘where are the interesting and exciting voices?’ This year’s selection was a lot better so I am less critical about it, nevertheless, I hope the Booker Prize doesn’t think it’s met their quota, so to speak, for the next few years. It still needs to continue to have inclusive panels and lists.

A. Has your gender had an impact on the reception of your work or how and what you write?

I.O I think it has played a part, but almost subconsciously (like- I- don’t- think- about- it). Particularly, in my novel I wrote about complex female characters and also in my life, there have been a lot of complex women. Therefore it must play a part, however, In terms of how I’m received, I can’t quite say, hmmm -that’s very interesting. Where the industry is concerned, culture as oppose to gender has been the overriding concern for many of the publishers whom the book was sent to. They expressed reservations on how to market the book and whether there was an audience for it. More pointedly, given that the novel draws inspiration from a significant epoch in Africa’s history (i.e. the royal Kingdom of Benin), I was somewhat bemused by their reaction.  It is worth asking the question who decides what is palatable for an audience. Having said that, I think the only way to get around the issue of gender and culture is to have more people from minority backgrounds, particularly writers of colour within the structure (i.e. publishing). Hence why, I find it uplifting to see women publishers of colour like Valerie Brandes (Jacaranda). But more needs to be done.

A. The book possesses an eerie magical darkness to it. Are you attracted to dark things and subjects?

I.O I think I am. In addition, I have experienced some pretty depressing stuff, which I can’t go too much in detail since it won’t be appropriate. Just to say the least, I have a sister with epilepsy who has been through a lot; i.e. battling with issues of self –confidence whilst at the same time having to deal with this unpredictable illness that keeps holding her back. Nonetheless, she is amazing in terms of navigating round these setbacks. I am just interested in how people cope with difficult situations, and in fact F*** UP people are very intriguing, I mean psychologically.

A. What made you decide to run with the theme; ‘generational curse’?

I.O I am interested in inheritance. Hence, the book is about inheritance, and what happens when your family has this secret which you inherit but don’t know about. I was fascinated about that and wanted to explore it further. The theme also helps connect the lives of the characters, whilst charting their individual trajectory.

A. Also why sex as a way of charting the moral and psychological breakdown of your protagonist. Was it to add some spice to the character or to illustrate the severity of her condition?

I.O When the idea came to me, I felt that it made sense that the character will go down that path; it didn’t feel inauthentic to me. She was going through this terrible loss whilst dealing with mental health issues. Therefore, Joy’s sexual exploration with Rangi is largely symbolic. When it comes to Rangi, she encourages the exploitation for reasons that become clear to the reader later on. Let’s not be prudish here, sex is also another way of coping even though people don’t like to talk about it.

A. You read alongside Ben Okri at the London Short Story festival 2015, how was that experience and how did you find Ben Okri?

I.O Ben Okri is a ‘magical man’ in terms of his vast knowledge on literature and the process of writing. The whole thing was a surprise to me, I was contacted by Spread the Word to submit a piece of short story. As it turns out Ben Okri liked it and chose me to read alongside him. It was quite a surreal experience, since I really admired Ben’s work. He was really lovely and generous.

A. Could you tell us a bit about the collection of short stories that you’re working?

I.O All I can say is that they are surprising, strange, dark and illuminating stories of characters on the fringes. Again there is a common thread of people coping with darkness running through the stories.

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