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Speak Gigantular: Learning to Read in Okojiean

Marcia Lynx Qualey By Marcia Lynx Qualey Published on February 12, 2017
This article was updated on April 4, 2017
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The title of Irenson Okojie’s debut short-story collection, Speak Gigantular, makes it sound like a textbook teaching a wild new language. Indeed, part of the joy of Speak Gigantular is learning to read in Okojiean as we make our way through her simultaneously familiar and alien landscapes. It is her second book, and was just shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize, which celebrates works of “literary excellence” of black, Asian, and minority ethnic writers (BAME) in Britain.

Okojie’s debut, Butterfly Fish, was a novel. But her shift to the short form shows a great love of fun as she lavishes affection on her full-to-the-rafters, upside-down stories.

In an email interview Okojie said, “Short stories can change your idea of what literature can be and do. They're miniature worlds, they allow for experimentation despite the restrictions. When a short story forces you to have a deep engagement with it, to me that's genius, because really are they supposed to be able to do that?”

Okojie’s stories borrow all sorts of shapes, occasionally reading like a riotous prose poem.

“Some years back,” Okojie said, “I used to read excerpts of poetry before I'd start writing. I don't do that much now but it opened up my brain in a certain way. It meant I could play around with the shape of things and not feel intimidated doing it. I'd read some June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni or Grace Nichols and feel armed to tackle the page and the world.”

Okojie has a clear affection for strange titles. Many of her stories have quick, evocative ones like “Gunk” or “Please Feed Motion.” She wants a title to “make you pause, pique your interest. If someone's already anticipating and imagining what the story will be like as a result of a title, even better.”  Her eighteen short stories are crammed with sounds and smells and objects, like a second-hand shop full of the strange and amazing.

Okojie said that she loves charity shops. “I love the colour, the kaleidoscopic junkyard feel, the poetry, the element of surprise, the weird wonder of them. Even the sort of people you find working there. There's a lack of pretension about them. I used to buy some of my books from there because it meant that choices weren't dictated by my tastes but by what was on offer, it meant reading authors I may not have normally picked up. It makes sense that all of this shows in my work.”

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Okojie has, elsewhere, called her writing style hybrid. Each hybrid is different, and the reader hardly knows what to expect from story to story: a boy in a Danish town who’s born with a tail; a beloved bank robber who shares recipes and can dematerialize; ghosts living in a tube station. The stories pull from a raucous variety of story-traditions—from oral-folk to realist to afterlife-spiritualist to fantasy-surrealist to demi-detective—and is populated by characters from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds.

“That's the greatest gift of being a writer,” Okojie said. “The ability to enter into the lives of people from different backgrounds. It's so rich, exciting, challenging, full of wonder and discovery. The space of writing beyond yourself forces you to have great empathy I think, to explore the multiplicity of what it is to be human. It also takes you out of your comfort zone all the time, which makes for a more varied writer and a more exciting body of work.”

“If you look at writers like Rupert Thomson and Bernardine Evaristo,” Okojie added, “it's hard to predict what they're going to write about next which is great. There's an element of risk in that. You might alienate certain audiences, it may not sell well. Taking risks is the whole point for me, do it and see where you land.”

In Okojie’s stories, there is often real surprise. Most stories embed their conclusions in the plotting, leading the reader to the “surprise” that is not really so surprising. Here the characters cross boundaries—through death, travel, sex, and shape-changing—and the surprises are real.

“I deliberately write via a loose structure that fosters surprise,” Okojie said. “So surprise is intrinsic within my actual process. Some people do complicated diagrams and detailed breakdowns of what will happen. This also works, whatever helps you be productive. I avoid detailed planning because it kills my excitement. If I'm bored, the reader will be bored.”

Unsurprisingly, the books Okojie loves to read are the ones that don’t neatly fit into categories, that are “shape shifters”: “Everything from Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo by Ntozake Shange, which is part poem, part cookbook, part novel to Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, which is a collection of stories each based on a scientific principle create whole other worlds.”

And what about a book she’d love to write, but hasn’t yet? Okojie said it involves:

“A man called Malik wakes up to encounter two other versions of himself from two separate dimensions in his bedroom one morning. As they struggle with the challenges of co-existing and discovering each other's weaknesses which Malik is the best for our time and what does he do about the others?“

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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