‘Nudibranch’ by Irenosen Okojie

I had to include at least one story that had been selected for Best British Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle. I’ve been reading the series since it had started, and over ten years or so it’s mapped the British short story scene wonderfully, and introduced me to lots of brilliant writers.

It was so great to be included in the 2020 alongside great stories by Luke Brown, Sarah Schofield and David Rose, but I wanted to include the Okojie because it’s so different from many of the other stories on my list. 

Told in the form of a myth it’s a story of transformation, of love, of sexual power, of desire. It’s intensely poetic, yet has details that ground it, even as it gets more and more dreamlike. The Goddess Kiru appears on a beach, and shape-shifts throughout the story, becoming the dream woman that each man she meets would want to meet. The story starts with the description of the “Nudibranch” – “soft-bodied, marine gastropod molluscs which shed their shell after their larvae stage… noted for their often extraordinary colours and striking forms.” 

Published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019, and selected for Best British Short Stories 2020, Salt

‘Grace Jones’ by Irenosen Okojie

And he’d never asked what a girl from Martinique with a degree in forensics was doing moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator, the translated versions of themselves staring at each other silently from the opposite sides of a revolving door.

What happens when the people who look at you see someone else? The lookalike is a fascinating thing to explore in a short form. If the reference point is well-known to the reader (this is Grace Jones for goodness’ sake) you can rely on ready recognition, and scoot along with your own original character; their foundations already laid in reference to their doppelganger. We know that they will move around your virtual world and interact with others within that particular filter. Expectations can be built on…or subverted.

Nudibranch is a stunning collection in so many ways. For me it will always be haunted by this image of Sidra/Grace as ‘translations’ of each other behind this spinning door, watching the violence of past and present flash over and over between them.

In Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019

‘Kookaburra Sweet’ by Irenosen Okojie

Kara has missed her flight from Sydney to London. ‘That was the problem with being late often. It actually changed outcomes when it mattered.’ She buys another ticket, and while waiting in the airport meets an Aborigine man named Kizzy who offers her some Kookaburra branded licorice. She takes a handful and stashes them in her rucksack. Back in London, she finishes the last of the sweets in between the train station and her flat; a metamorphosis of sorts begins: ‘Sure enough she was not herself. Or she was herself, but something different. Something skewed and accidental, something tainted with the margin particles of an incense-smelling man who could mimic the curves of a sidewinder.’ The story made me smile, with its absolute repudiation of what a short story might be for, how it might be shaped, how it might work. Liberating.

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books 2019

‘Kookaburra Sweet’ by Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s stories operate on a plane of reality that is both familiar and groundbreakingly new. She works in that zone of language where a body or a city or an island can be effortlessly conjured as real and solid in one moment, and in the next become vulnerable and facing complete transformation and destruction. I love the license she gives the reader to believe in impossible things without ever having to decide if there is some analogy waiting for them, or something to decode. The whole story is all you need.  
In this story, extraordinary, gorgeous, violent beautiful spill out from an ordinary plan to return home. Sometimes within the space of a single sentence, these sudden changes to the world come at you, and they do not require further explanation or meaning. There is no safety in her work, if you want only to be reassured and told that certain truths cannot be changed. And why should you want that? My feeling when I first read this story was that I wanted to eat the Kookaburra Sweet as soon as possible, and let everything unravel as it sees fit. The story is also typical of Okojie’s generosity to other writers – she gives space to anyone looking for inspiration and routes into the unknown and impossible. Widely acknowledged as an inspirational figure in the business, and a generous friend to so many of us out here trying to write, stories like this confirm Irenosen Okojie as among the very best of us.  

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue, 2019

‘Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?’ by Irenosen Okojie

Okojie’s brilliant and bold writing (which I have just discovered) is a cocktail of dark and comic surrealism stirred with prosaic human tragedy, and a pinch of London. Think of: foot fetishes, a boy who grows a tail, a story about Asda and electric brains.  Okojie’s words light the sky with resistance, resilience and ambiguity. These are tales that explode at the end of our firework show, igniting a questioning sky. To finish this anthology on a cheerful note, or at least with a light display celebrating humanity, read the story, ‘Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?’  about the infamous bank-robber dressed as a chicken, who listens to customers, and leaves behind recipes for coconut cakes, because “If the intentions are good, certain things are forgivable.”

From Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda, 2016

‘Following’ by Irenosen Okojie

I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop run by Okojie a few years ago. A lovely, friendly, encouraging teacher. I was sort of relaxing into myself when she started to read an excerpt from ‘Following’ and I sat right up. How could I not? “I stared at the tiny slit in your miniature penis, growing it with my mouth.”
I still don’t know how to categorise this story, one where the protagonist taunts and tortures a tiny man she has plucked out of her garden after using a resurrection spell. It’s violent, it’s graphic, it’s not an easy read. But it’s enthralling. It’s a great example of pushing ourselves to dark places, of seeing how far you could go as a writer, and then taking it just a little bit further. 

First published in Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda, 2016

‘Footer’ by Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s stories are bold, shimmering with energy and imagination, often with a dash of the surreal or grotesque. This particular story combines both realist and fabulist elements, as well as flirting with a crime format at the very end. The central character Grace has developed an erotic obsession that can only be indulged by foot fetishists. After a series of sexual encounters in parks, studios and attic apartments she goes home to her pet creature, Loneliness. “It was three months old, had a green head, blank human eyes and a crocodile’s tail.” Then – and this is what I love about the story – her mother Merlene comes to stay for a week: uninvited and unannounced, barging into her daughter’s life, and into the story itself, to interrupt and judge and criticize. “‘That dog needs a bath, Grace’”. Loneliness is not a dog, her daughter retorts. They sit together, considering Merlene’s favourite memory of eight-year-old Grace riding her bike. Grace remembers how her mother cried at the end of her sixteenth birthday: “‘You’re not my little girl anymore, Grace’” – this “said with a hint of malice”. The story doesn’t expressly link this infantilising relationship with Grace’s peculiar sexuality, it simply lays these pieces on the table for us to consider as we please. 

First published in Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda Books, 2016

‘Grace Jones’ by Irenosen Okojie

I’m constantly in awe of Irenosen’s talent and where her imagination takes me as a reader. Her stories constantly pleasure, surprise and disturb, and what holds them together is sinuous, captivating writing. Read any of her stories and whatever you follow after that will seem basic as fuck. She’s truly special. This story from her new collection about a girl from Martinique with a degree in forensics moonlighting as a Grace Jones impersonator is the one that’s stayed with me the most: dark, layered, and unlike anything else. 

First published in Nudibranch, Dialogue Books, 2019

‘Walk with Sleep’ by Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie’s 2016 collection Speak Gigantular will be rated a 21st century modern classic in years to come, I’m certain of it. The imagination, wit, energy and bravura in that book is unparalleled and I’ve loved reading and re-reading it over the last couple of years. The literary punch in stories like ‘Gunk’, the pathos in ‘Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?’ and the oddness of ‘Jody’ make her book an unequivocal joy. My favourite story in the book is ‘Walk with Sleep’, a strange tale of limbo in the London Underground. It is told with real elegance and poise. The central conceit is haunting – that those who commit suicide on the Underground meet each other as ghosts, trying to find their way back to the world, and many times I’m waiting for a train at a Tube station I think about it and imagine Okojie’s characters playing in the tunnels.

From Speak Gigantular, Jacaranda Books 2016