Irenosen Okojie’s first short story collection Speak Gigantular, presents a series of fantastical, unsettling stories which blend magical elements with a powerful emotional insight. Okojie’s skill in identifying the dark truths at the heart of myths and fairy tales, and relocating them in the present day, brings to mind writers like Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, won a Betty Trask award, whilst Speak Gigantular was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
Initially I studied law at university, which is a traditional, respectable profession for a young Nigerian woman to aspire to. I was good at it but I kept falling asleep in lectures and the books were ridiculously expensive! It was a pain lugging those tomes about. To my mother’s dismay, I ended up switching my degree to Communications and Visual Culture which was 100% less useful than law although more fun.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I suppose finding my voice as an artist. I kind of ignored some of the more obvious routes to help cultivate it because I wanted a certain authenticity. Once I got comfortable with my way of viewing the world, then came the worry it could go at any point. As artists, there’s a part of us that’s secretly scared we’ll lose that voice. I think I’ve written as much out of fear as I have for being creative and wanting to tell stories.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
My two books for sure, one a novel, the other a short story collection. Both tested me in ways I could never have imagined but were ultimately rewarding experiences.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
Two I feel. Arriving in the UK aged 8 to attend boarding school in Norfolk. It was so young to be away from everything I knew. You had to learn to be independent quickly. Kids can be cruel in that environment, especially if you appear ‘other’ to people. My differences became my strengths, that was a lesson that stayed with me. The other is my mother being life threateningly ill years back and surviving. She took hold of the situation when she could have collapsed emotionally. That still impresses me to this day.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and excellence, how would you describe yourself?
It’s the untethered Benin Brit architect’s symptom:
Drunk on a conversation with Nefertiti,
Cast from a Dali vision.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
Yes, it was a loss financially. Ultimately I slept better at night.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d
least like to be.
Well I like both Kara Walker and Frida Kahlo as artists; interrogatory, bold, not afraid to show the pain and darkness of the world as well as the beauty.
In terms of who incarnates what I’d least like to be… Hmmm. Reality TV stars, they epitomize a culture of people being rewarded for mediocrity or having zero talent.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
A picture of my family, Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s The Main Ingredient, my notebook of scribblings, all the letters and postcards people sent me.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
“A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.” Fellini
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
The film Killer of Sheep. Director Charles Burnett is an underrated genius.