Tuesday, July 28, 2020 9:59 pm
By Nehru Odeh
Nigerian writer, Irenosen Okojie, has won the 2020 A.K Caine Prize for African Writing. She was announced winner of the £10,000 (approximately N4.8 million) prize on Monday, 27 July, 2020 at a virtual unveiling on YouTube, for her short story Grace Jones, “a radical story that plays with logic, time and place”.
The judges praised it as “risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold”. The author, however, said the award has given her confidence as a black and female experimental writer.
Okojie beat four other shortlisted authors from across Africa to win the highly coveted prize. Three of the five shortlisted writers are Nigerians. They are Chikodili Emelumadu for his short story, ‘What to do when your child brings home a Mami Wata’ and Jowhor Ile for ‘Fisherman’s Stew.
Grace Jones, the award-winning entry, tells the story of Sidra, a young woman who becomes a celebrity impersonator wracked with guilt after her family dies in a fire that destroys their London flat. Eponymously entitled after the celebrity, the story deals with Sidra’s psychological and behavioural changes as she tries to come to terms with what has befallen her.
Announcing the award, Chair of the judging panel and director of The Africa Centre, Kenneth Tharp, described the protagonist’s journey as an “exquisite and seamless movement between the exploration of the universal experiences of unspeakable suffering, pleasure and escape, and the particular experience of being black and African in a global city such as London.” Sidra is a young woman who has moved to London from Martinique.
“It is intense and full of stunning prose; it’s also a story that reflects African consciousness in the way it so seamlessly shifts dimensions, and it’s a story that demonstrates extraordinary imagination. Most of all, it is world-class fiction from an African writer,” Tharp said.
Asked why she wrote the award-winning story, Okojie noted: “I write weird experimental fiction. And I think it’s really important to centre experimental fiction by a black woman like myself, because for a long time, I felt like I was operating on the fringes. People were often quite surprised by my writing, just in terms of subject matter and style.
“I’m really passionate about centring the stories of black women and people of colour. It’s important to show their lived experiences. But I like to do it couched within these darkly fantastical worlds, pushing the boundaries of form, ideas and language, so the reader has a different experience.”
Okojie, who writes from the fringes, also said she had always found the actual Grace Jones “hugely inspiring”, and wanted to explore “this idea of trying to subvert the pain of the past by hiding under a different character”.
Grace Jones is one of the stories in Nudibranch, Okojie’s second short story collection and her third book, which came after Butterfly Fish, her debut novel and Speak Gigantular, her first collection. Okojie, who is currently writing a second novel, said she finds the process of short story writing “feverish”, and filled with a “sense of urgency”.
“I never want my readers to be passive. I’m challenging myself as a writer when I come to the page, so hopefully as a byproduct the reader will be challenged and intrigued and it will not be a passive experience for them,” she says. “We’re all human and it’s about showing the breadth and scope of our humanity as well, forcing people to think empathetically about characters they may not necessarily have empathy for,” she maintained.
Okojie was born in Nigeria but moved with her family to Britain when she was eight. She attended Gresham’s Boarding School in Holt, Norfolk and St Angela’s Convent School in east London. She later attended Stamford Boarding School for girls. She returned to London to complete her education and then attended London Metropolitan University, where she studied Communications and Visual Culture.
Okojie, an Arts Project Manager and curator based in London, won a Betty Trask Award in 2016 with her debut novel, Butterfly Fish. She has been published in The New York Times, The Observer, The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post, and is a contributor to the 2019 anthology New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby.