Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie: Jacaranda Books – Jhalak Prize Shortlist; Edge Hill University Short Story Prize Long List
If there is one thing which defines Irenosen Okijie’s treasure trove of short stories, at times both frustrating and intoxicating, it’s the madcap variety of her first lines. From the sublime (‘Sun-soaked yawns hover in Sal Island, Cape Verde’) to the ridiculous (‘She wanted her feet fucked’), they never fail to be intriguing. Like a box of exotic chocolates, some are sweet, some are sour and many contain a bitter darkness which permeates the narrative and cuts through the deceptive whimsy of Okojie’s prose. The dedication at the beginning of the book, ‘To all the misfits that dare to tilt worlds’, epitomises Okojie’s dextrous and occasionally disorientating use of language to challenge the status quo and keep her readers on their toes.
In stories such as Animal Parts and Nadine, Okojie’s prose is stunningly evocative. In this dark universe, innocence breeds violence and virginity inflames the animal sexuality of men. A woman’s mouth is ‘plump like ripe fruit and all the secrets it took with it into the crevices of winter’. A girl is hunted by men with smiles like ‘one white trap’. The same girl, traumatised by rape, has an ‘unnamed flower inside her […] a fist growing through blood’. This is the language of the fairy tale; richly symbolic and infused with the rhythms of the natural world. In many ways, it’s also where Okojie is at her strongest. Her prose, both stylistic and surreal, seems more suited to the fable than to the confines of realism.
In other stories, the many pop culture references sometimes distract from the semi-fantastical narratives. In Outtakes, Okojie’s lyrical description of a dreamy European odyssey, ‘The shrinking landscape became smaller in the side mirror, blown away by exhaust pipe breaths’, is juxtaposed sharply with the petty mundanity of the narrator: ‘I ate a sandwich, watched a couple of Family Guy episodes, sent a scathing text or two’. Rape is the dark centre of the deceptively light and sweet-toothed Fractures. However, the mysterious suitor of the main protagonist, who writes poetry ‘as though leaning into a storm’, is described in jarringly prosaic terms: ‘Wearing a sheepish expression, he stirred his cookies and cream flavoured Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.’ Although this serves to ground the reader in a particular time and place, it also punctuates the magical realism which makes Okojie’s writing so unique and otherworldly.
In many ways Okojie’s collection of stories, so rooted in the monopoly board of streets that are instantly familiar, comprise a love letter to London. However, she resists the desire to romanticise a city which has reduced so many to haunted, lonely figures. This strange co-dependence, with all its connotations of vampiric and malevolent maternity, is described thus: ‘The city carried you like its infant child then bled you.’ Okojie excels when describing the almost pathological feelings of isolation and disconnection that often plague those living in cities. In Walk With Sleep, an imagining of the ghostly underground world those who commit suicide by tube might inhabit, one of the ‘jumpers’ experiences this sense of dislocation quite literally:
At social gatherings he found himself holding his breath, watching and waiting for the body parts he couldn’t feel to appear at the opposite end of the room, his leg parting through the crowd towards him to claim ownership
At another point in the narrative, she describes the daily commute in almost apocalyptic terms; ‘ The sky snatched facial expressions, turning them grey…Their voices were locusts scratching his throat.’ In Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?, the chicken-suited, bank-robbing Messiah figure at the centre of the story literally uses his feelings of urban anonymity to disappear: ‘Embracing the feeling of painful invisibility, the way he had done many times in an unforgiving city, he vanished.’ In the same story, she describes how ‘the gutted consciences of the city were ghosts pressing their mouths against the keyholes.’ The sense of desolation is palpable.
At times, Okojie’s more disorientating sentences (‘The sound of pens rolling on the countertops was enough an accompaniment to the heavy breathing to jar stillborns crossing over to a separate horizon’) can be hard to unpick. Often Okojie’s simpler sentences are her most effective: ‘He was left with a father who chewed pine nuts relentlessly, barely spoke to him and looked at him as if he were nothing’ is a far more relatable concept than the idea of a Betty Boop t-shirt which spits sassy retorts to its owner (a flight of fancy in Walk With Sleep but one that typifies Okojie’s unconventional approach to reality). When it comes to narrative clarity, sometimes less is more.
However, Okojie’s more lyrical prose imbues her work with a layer of meaning which transcends the everyday. In Walk With Sleep, the main character may be long deceased and living in a strange subterranean purgatory but ‘the memory of he and Nuri carrying atlases and hopping over low fences remained, as if they were holding worlds and crossing them simultaneously.’ This beautiful description of the transient relationships between brother and sister, childhood and adulthood, life and death, ties the strings that bind this narrative together in one deft movement. That is Okojie’s greatest gift: using language to transport us to worlds both unknown and achingly familiar.
About the Publisher
Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house based in London, specialising in adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries. The authors represented by Jacaranda come from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and offer writing that shines a light on issues affecting ethnic minorities, women, and young people, and those people from the Diaspora.
Review by Katie Witcombe
Katie Witcombe is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.