Irenosen Okojie is the author of two books. Speak Gigantular, a collection of short stories shortlisted for several awards including the Edgehill Short Story Prize and the Jhalak Prize and Butterfly Fish, a novel which won the prestigious Betty Trask Award. She has been widely hailed as an exciting new talent, and we are delighted to introduce her as one of the judges of this year’s 2017 Berlin Writing Prize in collaboration with the Circus. We are also very excited that Irenosen will also be joining us in September for an exclusive reading at the Circus. In the meantime, we caught up with her to ask her a few questions about her work, which we are sure is bound to get you excited about putting pen to paper yourself.
Irenosen, we’d love it if you told us how you came to be involved in the competition and how well do you know Berlin?
I was in Berlin earlier this year for a British Council seminar. It was a short visit but I really enjoyed my experience. The audiences were very engaged, curious and genuinely interested in all the writers. I liked the feel of the city, the Turkish areas, it’s a good habitat for artists. When Victoria Gosling from The Reader asked me to be involved with the prize, I said yes because I like what the Reader does, what it offers writers. I also love the reward of the prize, a room at a hotel to write. It’s perfect, it’s exactly what you need to just get some work done: space, time, a bit of money to survive. Plus hotels are weird, fascinating spaces anyway so plenty of fodder there to spark some writing.
The theme of the competition is ‘Home is Elsewhere’. What, where, or who means home to you?
Home is London and Nigeria for different reasons. London since I currently live here. I like the pace of the city, the mix of people, the fact that there’s always something to discover. It’s a city of contradictions too, and can be both joyous and hard to live in. Nigeria because I immediately feel at home when I’m there. It’s like my body knows it has a past there having left when I was eight. The colour, the vibrancy, the zest for life not only feels like home it makes me feel alive. My family are home to me, my sister’s constant chatter, my mother’s pepper soup, our dog Gogo whose always happy I’m home whenever I walk through the front door.
Your first novel Butterfly Fish has received rave reviews and won a Betty Trask award. What kind of writing personally inspires you?
Writers generally are quite inspiring. It’s not easy facing the blank page. Whatever genre they write in, they have to produce several drafts before you see the finished book. That takes drive, determination, a certain courage, love of writing and a desire to tell a good story. I love writing that’s compelling, stretches the boundaries of genre and somehow leaves you transformed, even if it’s in a small way. The power of literature can’t be underestimated. There are people who’ve written themselves out of difficult circumstances or writing has saved their life. Also books that are funny, it’s hard to write funny stuff. The Lunatic by Jamaican author Anthony C. Winkler is one of my favourite books. It’s the funniest book I’ve ever read. I almost injured myself laughing reading it. It’s jaw droppingly hilarious, peculiar and outrageous. In Aloysius, the protagonist, Winkler creates an unforgettable character whom you have great empathy for, who consistently finds himself in ridiculous situations. It’s a superb examination of island life, characters on the fringes and taboos.
The Reader Berlin is a platform for English-language writers in Berlin, many of whom are working towards getting their first piece published in a journal or finishing a book. Can you name one particular thing or the things that helped you on your journey?
Writing itself can be a very alienating process. Try to create support systems around you so you don’t feel alone or cut off. Performance poets are very good at this. Having worked in the spoken word scene in London for several years, I noticed they strike a good balance by the nature of what they do. They tend to be social creatures. And because they’re performing regularly, interacting with other poets, the work gets validated quickly, really often, which builds confidence, a network of other poets and audiences. For writers, it’s very different. You could be writing for years, writing prolifically, going through lots of rejection, writing draft after draft and people might not know. Essentially in the dark trying to find your way.You don’t get to know you’re ready until an agent or publisher takes a risk on you. Writing a novel is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That process can never ever be fully articulated. It’s odd, mysterious and shifting. You can be supported so it feels less daunting. That support can come through a writing group, a writing development agency, a mentor. It’s about figuring out what you need then creating structures to keep you going and most importantly, excited about the writing process.
What words of wisdom do you have for emerging writers who worry that their work – for whatever reason – won’t find a place in the publishing world?
Believe in your work and your voice. That sense of value in your writing will help you weather those difficult periods. Listen to feedback, learn from it, just don’t let anyone destroy your confidence or desire to get work published. People still say no to authors who are considered successful so that doesn’t necessarily stop once you’re published. Editors and agents can turn down good writing for all sorts of reasons. It may not always just be about the writing. It’s worth noting that there are independent publishing houses publishing brave, exciting work so there’s that option. Eimear McBride is a good example of this. Ten years of rejections for her novel, A Girl is A Half Formed Thing then an independent publishing house called Galley Beggar Press publishes it,it goes on to win and be shortlisted for awards. The rest is history. I’m sure she’d have been told along the way that the novel wasn’t accessible enough. Look what happened in the end because she dared to take risks. The novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea but who wants to be everyone’s cup of tea? There are good editors out there looking for interesting voices. My advice is to take heart, do the work, find your champions. It will come. Just be patient. Timing and luck also play a part but you have to do the writing for those factors to make a difference. Get some credits in journals, magazines, anthologies etcetera. Read at literary events when you can, it’ll build your confidence. Concentrate on the thing you have control over which is the work, the actual writing. Everything else will fall into place in time.
Finally, what are your major turn offs as a reader? What will be getting the thumbs down from you during the judging process?
Stuff that doesn’t go anywhere in terms of trajectory, plot, character development. Also writing that feels hollow. Someone could have a really good idea but it’s just not fully realised and that’s fine, they may need more time. You can work on a story on and off for a while until it feels right. I’m open. I’m looking for strong writing, different styles from various genres that holds my attention as a reader.
We are really looking forward to the contest and hosting the lucky winner at the Circus for 4 weeks. Thank you Irenosen for taking the time to speak to us.
If you feel inspired, pick up your pen and start writing! You have until July 31st to submit your entry. We are looking forward to reading them. For more details check out on the upcoming competition click this link.