We chat with talented writer Irenosen Okojie about weird fiction, writers we admire and writing tropes that are just the worst…
Tell us about a writing moment of yours that you’re most proud of
Probably winning a Betty Trask Award for my debut novel, Butterfly Fish. It was completely unexpected, a really nice acknowledgement of years of hard work, not just for me but for all the people who supported me getting to that point. I remember walking around in a daze that day thinking there must have been some error! Maybe they meant another Irenosen Okojie, my doppelganger who’d written a book with the exact same title. What a nightmare! The thought made me feel as though I’d break out in hives! I managed to calm myself down though and the paranoia went away once my publisher confirmed.
Tell us about your favourite short story
Any story from Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. I always mention him because it really is a tremendous piece of work. It’s still my favourite collection. These surreal, dark interconnected stories make you reassess your ideas around empathy, loss and what it means to be human.
Aside from him. It’s a toss-up between Lesley Nnekah Arimah’s Who Will Greet You At Home and Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka. Who Will Greet You At Home for it’s capturing of young, working Nigerian women, the desire to have children and the shocking turns that takes. It’s completely bonkers. Arimah is a masterful short story writer. There’s not one bit of fat in that piece. Levy’s Black Vodka, about a deformed man looking for love is delicate, mysterious and dazzling. It’s stayed in my bones. Even years later, I still think about that story. I read it every now and again, each time I see something new in it.
Who’s your favourite female author and why?
Impossible to select just one! Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Buchi Emecheta, Miranda July, Shirley Jackson, they’re all up there. I have to say that this year, I was absolutely blown away by Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches. It’s an exploration of black girlhood and womanhood through narrative prose, poetry and visual art. It left me stunned by its imagination, it’s experimentation with form, it’s weirdness. It nourished me during a tricky time in my life. It expanded my concept of what texts should look like and feel like, reminding me of why I write. It explores difficult subject matters yet there’s so much nuance, so much freedom. I’ll buy anything she ever writes, I really find her a fascinating, unusual artist.
What does weird fiction mean to you?
Weird fiction means skewed writing that pushes the boundaries in terms of ideas and form, often quite uncomfortable too but highly imaginative.
What’s a trope of fiction that gets on your nerves and why?
It’s not only a trope in fiction but a trope in life. The strong black woman trope. I really find it a damaging idea which doesn’t make room for the complexity of black women, the nuances of our stories, how we live and the ways we negotiate our identities in the spaces we move in. In my fiction I try to unpick that, I try to expand the perceptions around that in ways that are hopefully interesting and illuminating.
Where can readers find out more about you?
Keep your eyes peeled for Disturbing the Beast
Disturbing the Beast is a collection of weird fiction stories by some of the best women writers in the UK, featuring Kirsty Logan and Aliya Whiteley.
Submit to the collection by the 14th September
Support the Disturbing the Beast Kickstarter campaign: Weird fiction from women writers featuring Aliya Whiteley, Kirsty Logan and more.