Irenosen Okojie begins the first in a 3-part weekly guest column series with some insights into how and why she created an unconventional, black female character on the page in her debut novel ‘Butterfly Fish’.
Author Rebecca Solnit states that the ability to tell your own story, in words or images is already a victory. Fitting then that in my novel Butterfly Fish, the protagonist Joy had a story I felt needed to be told. Joy is ironically named. She is lonely, creative, grieving the loss of her mother but also driven to self destruct. A photographer, she likes the insight she gains from observing people through her lens yet employs a distance with others in her own life. She operates on the fringes, where she knows there is less judgement, encountering characters that reflect or temper a particular bleakness inside her. I found Joy an intriguing woman to bring to life, her psychological trajectory exciting to map because of its unpredictability. I never knew how she would react in particular situations until I came to write them although I was aware I had to do it in a way that felt authentic to her character. Her internal dialogue played on my mind repeatedly, in trains to work early mornings. Sitting on the Docklands light railway watching the grey lift off the city’s buildings, I plotted the conflict between that dialogue and the language she really wanted to speak. I got to know her, listened to the things she told me softly, jostling for priority over the sounds of doors sliding shut, mobile phones ringing, over the necessary daily acts that appeared to be interruptions. I couldn’t shake her off.
I looked up the meaning of obsession, the state of being continually preoccupied with something, checked my interpretation of it as though it had somehow transformed. Through this book, I had new knowledge of that word, of its weight and density.
It was important to show Joy in all her multi-faceted glory but also to depict a black female protagonist who is vulnerable, who makes both good and bad choices because she’s flawed, human. And she should be allowed to be. Too often, we’re weighed down by the burden of perfect portrayals as a result of very little representation or not enough variation within those clusters. We should have the freedom to make mistakes in life, on the page and on screen. We should be able to be unapologetically messy.
This novel also gave me the opportunity to explore black female sexuality, the idea of carnal activities as a coping mechanism when things fall apart, of losing yourself in a concoction that’s dark and seductive whilst coming undone. Joy finds herself entangled in the headiness of that, trying to hold something that changes its shape and properties between her fingers. For the most part, black female sexuality is usually ignored or caricatured. We’re just like other women. We have boyfriends, lovers, husbands; fall in love and in lust.
I was fascinated by the idea of the biological and the environmental in shaping personality traits. Are we who we are because of certain experiences and our environment or is it biological? Are we pre determined to unfurl in a certain direction and how does inheritance factor into the equation? I considered elements that had no explanation, like the feeling of passing versions of ourselves on escalators, in doorways, in mirrors. Afterwards, reaching out to them unwittingly, prompted by something in the air, some small ember within sparking amber light around our organs. I tried to reconcile these degrees of difference during quiet periods. Sitting up in bed or on the sofa in the grip of insomnia at night, eyes so heavy I wondered how I’d managed what seemed like a hundred positions as a new day snuck behind them. I passed this restlessness to my female characters as they began to form. Their voices echoed, grew louder, insistent. They wanted to gather in London, in Africa. They needed to hold foreign artefacts on cold roads and stand on the rooftops of an ancient African kingdom already knowing the piercing heat, white seeds on a canvass of dust, the blueprint of intertwined destinies soaked in palm wine. They made me think of Lagos traffic, my hair being braided between brown skinned knees that were interchangeable. Childhood memories I assumed I’d forgotten resurfaced. I thought about ancestry, about the women who’d played their part in my existence that I would never know. What if? What if they left gifts on my tongue that disappeared by morning but whose outlines I pushed into the day. I began to trace the thread of inheritance on the page. I hadn’t seen Joy’s story in fiction so I kept writing. I protected that space fiercely. It became a place where things could be realised. While a number of traumas occurred in my life, the book always steered me back to a centre, even as the catalysts for those devastations orbed around me. I signed with my wonderful agent Elise Dillsworth, who believed in the writing and felt it would challenge readers and perceptions.
You build a woman slowly I think, slyly guided by the lines of destiny assembling in your iris; in fact you’ll constantly be reconfiguring her. That process doesn’t stop. When she comes to you wielding a movable sun you will know the measure of her as an entity that cannot be contained. Equally, she will shrink to a gnarled thing between sentences. Be ready for her to change in the light, the distance, on surfaces bearing fingerprints you begin to recognise.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Apples & Snakes, The Southbank Centre and The Caine Prize. Her work has been featured in The Observer and The Guardian amongst other publications. Her short stories have been published internationally. She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Ben Okri as a dynamic writing talent to watch and was featured in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s most exciting new authors. Her debut novel ‘Butterfly Fish’ is published by Jacaranda Books and was selected as a WHSmith’s travel promotion. Her short story collection’Speak Gigantular’ will be published in 2016.