For a first time author, winning an award after penning your first book can feel like the stuff of dreams. This is exactly what Irenosen Okojie, a Nigerian writer felt this June when her first novel, Butterfly Fish, bagged her the prestigious Betty Trask Award for first novels written by authors under the age of 35, who reside in a current or former Commonwealth nation.
When she learnt that she had been shortlisted for the award, Okojie says that she was surprised and it felt ‘unreal for weeks.’ “But winning the award was not just a pleasant surprise.” – it was an acknowledgement of the hard work that went into writing the book, as well as getting it published. For her, the award also means that more people know about the book.
“It took me four years of actual writing, with several drafts,” says the budding writer, who was born in Nigeria. Her novel, Butterfly Fish is a scintillating piece of work that contrasts modern day life in London with that of 19th century Nigeria. It was published by Jacaranda Books in July 2015. “I hadn’t seen a book like it in the UK so I wrote it. I was passionate about bringing the Benin kingdom to life.” Having penned short stories which have been published in the US, Africa and the UK, she says that she was inspired to write a fictional novel which was broad in scope with complex, messy, and dynamic female characters at the heart of it. She has certainly achieved this with Butterfly Fish, which revolves around Joy, a fictitious London photographer who struggles to get her life back together after the death of her mother.
The intrigues come into play after she receives an unexpected inheritance from her mother, involving a huge sum of money, her grandfather’s diary and a unique brass warrior’s head from the nineteenth century Benin. How did she come up with the main character? “Joy was there from the beginning. Butterfly Fish started with her speaking to me in all sorts of surprising ways. I felt like her tale was something different. “The African American Literature Book Club describes the novel as a ‘richly told story of love and hope, of family secrets, power, political upheaval, loss and coming undone.’
Okojie, who moved to England at the age of eight, has had passion for books from a young age. As a young girl, she could read anything from Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor and Fantastic Mr Fox by Roahl Dahl, books which could always ‘blow her mind away.’
She recalls her formative years” I always wrote, kept diaries and poems but I didn’t fully realize I could be a writer until I hit my twenties.”
Writing a book is not always easy, but this has been Okojie’s preoccupation ever since she realized she could write. Doubt, rejection, writer’s block and frustration at how slow the process of writing is are some of the challenges that she faces in her writing career. When you rope in the fact that getting published is not a walk in the park, and the rejections from publishers, things start looking complex.
Okojie says that once a writer realizes the fact that writing is a long game, everything starts to fall into place. As a young writer, the experience itself is joyous, though writing is also incredibly difficult.“It is probably the hardest thing I’ve done yet one of the most rewarding in some ways. Certain – experiences can also really test you. Even with the challenges, Okojie has had a few highs in her writing career. One of these was when Ben Okri, a celebrated Nigerian poet and novelist endorsed her writing and selected her to do an event with him. “This was really unexpected. There is an element of luck that comes into play,” says Okojie, who enjoys reviewing films and theater.
Then there is the collective ownership that comes with publishing a book. ”Once you get an agent, a publisher or an editor, it’s no longer just your thing. It becomes more than you because other people are invested in it. These energies and resources pooling together means the book is on its way but it also means along the journey, you have to learn to rise to certain expectations.” She says she is influenced by many authors, like Amos Tutuola, Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta, and James Baldwin among others. Asked what she thinks makes a good story, she says “a good story has a strong plot and three dimensional, relatable characters with good pacing.” An interesting habit she learnt from writing a book, she says, is about paying attention. She watches people a lot more because people are fascinating even the ones that think they have the most ordinary, mundane lives. “As a writer, you can shape the context. You need a good ear for dialogue so it helps doing this. Writing makes me think about space a lot lately, like how the environment we frequent shapes our work. Some writing makes me seek out different spaces more. I think there’s a link between that and feeding the imagination.” And connecting with audiences and readers, listening to their stories and some of the interpretations of some of the intentions behind the book has always illuminated the youthful writer, who says that she loves swimming.
But balancing social life and writing career has not always been easy. She says that her social life suffers most, since writing is a solitary act which is very isolating. Her advice for young and upcoming writers to continue reading and writing to sharpen their works. “Try to discover your voice though, not mimic someone else’s,” she says, urging them to find platforms to share their work and good people that can enable them to keep heading in the direction they want.
For Okojie, the Betty Trask Award is just the beginning of good things to come. A short story collection called Speak Gigantular published by Jacaranda Books is in the pipeline, and will come out later in the year.
Irenosen Okojie’s book Butterfly Fish is published by Jacaranda Books. Her collection of Short Stories, Speak Gigantur also by Jacaranda is out in late 2016.