By the Book: AKO Caine Prize winner Irenosen Okojie 

Irenosen Okojie won the 2020 AKO Caine prize.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • The Nigerian- born British writer’s winning story, Grace, elicited the question on the yardstick for African Literature for the hundredth time.
  • It’s argued that African writers in the diaspora are awarded at the expense of their Africa-based. Irenosen spoke to Life&Style on her writing journey, and what connects her to Africa.

Irenosen Okojie won the 2020 AKO Caine prize. The Nigerian- born British writer’s winning story, Grace Jones, elicited the question on the yardstick for African Literature for the hundredth time. It’s argued that African writers in the diaspora are awarded at the expense of their Africa-based counterparts. Irenosen spoke to Life&Style on her writing journey, and what connects her to Africa. 

Take us through the first few moments after your win.

It came as a shock, but it was delightful. The judges had a strong shortlist and you never really know who they will pick. But I was going to be happy for whoever would carry the day. My announcement as the winner was overwhelming. It was so thrilling. 

We are going to talk about your short story in a bit. But first, how is winning Caine different from other awards that you have won before? 

All the prizes are an acknowledgement of hard work. It is an encouragement for the writer to keep writing. But Caine is very special to me because it is an African prize for African writers who live in the continent and within the diaspora.

It is introducing me to a new audience as well, especially the African audience, because my books have not been published in Africa yet. I’m thrilled to connect to the African audience because it’s my heritage, and I love it. It also means more people will have access to my work. 

Your writing comes across as bold, fearless and distinguished. Is the depth in your story, Grace Jones, something I’m likely to see in your personality?

Precisely. I weave my experiences as a black person, as an African and as a woman in my writing. 

The chair of the judging panel acclaimed your short story as “a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform Blackness in the world.” What does it mean to explore blackness for you? 

I find blackness fascinating. A year ago, I did a video on Black Joy for the BBC because I felt like when people talk about blackness, they associate it with pain. I needed to celebrate the beauty of blackness. You know, we are very innovative people, and that aspect of our identity is worth celebrating and exploring. 

When I talk about blackness, I feel that it is intrinsic in my work. Mainly, I am drawn to what it means to be black in the West, to be considered “other.” Living in England has made me aware of all the nuances of what blackness means. And I write about those experiences in my short stories. Blackness is strong imagery that I love to explore. 

Does that mean that the Black writer has a role in defending the black identity? Do you feel compelled to keep proving yourself as a black writer living in the West?

That’s an interesting question. I learnt to appreciate blackness from my parents at a very young age. My parents are so proud of being black that they celebrate the idea of blackness in all its forms. I had to pick that from them. What I do is to celebrate blackness on my terms and not anybody else’s. For example, I write stories about blackness that are audacious and have a strong element of freedom about them. This is present in the theme, use of language and style n my experimental writing. 

You tweeted that Nudibranch, your most recent anthology in which Grace Jones was published, was written during a difficult period in your life. 

Yeah, life was happening, and I was trying to find time to write. Family issues were going on, and I was fighting to defend my creative space to keep writing. This meant I could wake up early in the morning to write short stories. Writing the book was an accomplishment for me. 

Why do you think that Africa seems to lose at the hands of the West?

It’s unfortunate, and I think it is as a result of colonialism. For example, in Benin state, in Nigeria, artefacts and art was looted in the 16th and 17th century. That was a huge loss, and it’s a history I will write about in my novel because I feel like that legacy is so important to celebrate and think about. 

I also feel that we have African governments that work for the West as opposed to working for the people. That is why you see people using a boat trying to reach abroad to look for better opportunities, but they end up drowning in the ocean. And the few who make it to Europe, end up like Alrik- devastated. 

I think the beauty and potential of Africa are incredible, and we need to strengthen our economic, structural and political systems and make them work for the African people. 

Sidra, during her adult life, impersonates Grace Jones to “live with herself.” Why is it that she should only deal with her ugly, painful past by trying to be someone else?

Sidra is hiding behind the character of Grace Jones because she doesn’t love herself. It is a way of relief and reframing how she sees the world. Again, no man is an island. We all need someone to acknowledge our pain and our challenges. We need to see ourselves, our love and desires validated. We assume the identities of other characters to cope with our challenges. The journey of confronting our scars is very personal. And some point you have to attempt to be someone else to survive. 

It was great reading the story. Is there something that we should look forward to? 

Thank you so much. I am working on a novel that will be out in 2022. I hope it will be out in Africa as well, fingers crossed.