Irenosen Okojie is a writer, an art project manager, and columnist. Her bylines have appeared in the Observer and the Guardian. Her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, is a powerful, gripping tale that is interwoven between the present day and Benin Kingdom in the 19th century. The book is making waves all across the digital (and real) universe. She was an invited guest at the recently concluded Ake International Arts and Book Festival.
I caught up with her and below are excerpts from the exclusive chat we had.
Looking at her, all bubbly and smiling, one is immediately cured of the misconception that writers are boring, stuffy people who like to use big words and have little or no interest in anything else. It’s only when she starts talking about her writing that we begin to sense how much enthusiasm and passion she has for the art.
Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Butterfly Fish. What inspired the title and what is it about?
It’s a novel about a character, Joy, who, contrary to her name, is almost always sad, constantly battling depression, and struggles with a sense of self worth. She inherits a Benin Bronze head from her mother, and a diary (belonging to her grandfather) from her dad, and the story pretty much takes off from there.
Why did you choose a name like Joy for your character, considering the fact that Joy is the one thing that she seems to be lacking in her life?
Well, I did it deliberately, to cal attention to the plight of mental health patients, because I know a couple of people who suffer needlessly, and don’t, or cant speak out about mental health and related issues. I feel that enough is not being done to call attention to mental health, so in its own way, this book is kind of a call to action.
What elements would you say are combined in the book?
It’s a deep, absorbing tale, with elements of magical realism.
What’s special about your use of flashback in the book?
Well, I’m African, and I’ve always had a strong love for history, I left Nigeria when I was quite young to study, but I’ve always had this desire to know more about my history, my culture. And while I was writing, I came across the works of Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, Accordion Crimes) and there’s very skillful use of flashback in her book, so I thought, great! The same thing I had in mind.
What inspired the book?
It actually started as a short story I wrote to get into a mentorship program, and after I had sent it in, I kept coming back to it, it was like it kept haunting me, at a point I had to do it bigger and better, and the idea for the novel was born. At a point I had to quit writing, to just take some time and study the character of Joy, and the many levels of complexity she deals with. Then I visited Nigeria twice, to dig up what I could by way of research, and my Dad was very helpful, because he sent me loads and loads of books I needed to use in my research, and bit by bit, line by line, the book was born.
Fortunately for me, I had a choice of agencies to push the book, so I had to settle down and think before making my choice.
So tell us a bit more about the human being, Irenosen Okojie, what is she like?
Irenosen is a happy, creative person, who is obsessed with Sade (musician), because she’s beautiful, looks incredible, despite being over 50. I own every Spike Lee film ever made, and I absolutely love moin-moin and pepper soup. I adore our family’s dog, Gogo. She‘s a very mischievous beagle, and I miss her a lot.
Do you watch sports?
Erm. No. just the World cup, and the African Nations Cup, I don’t have a favorite football club. I watch movies a lot, and I also love watching crime documentaries.
Tell us about one embarrassing moment you’ve had, to prove that you’re human.
Well, once, in boarding school, in England, I pretended I could swim and I nearly drowned. The tutor had to dive in to come and save me! Hugely embarrassing, I tell you.
Thanks so much for the time, it was great talking with you.
The pleasure was all mine, thank you too! By the way, please, please, buy the book and read. It’s an engaging read, and you will have no regrets.
Ikechukwu Nwaogu is a writer, occasional poet, and playwright who lives and hustles in Lagos. An avid lover of books, reading, and poetry. He blogs at www.inkspilla.wordpress.com and tweets via @eyekaywizard
This interview was originally published on www.mainlandbookcafe.com (Nov 2015)