'Sometimes he fetches me a cold apple to bite on. Afterwards, I hear the apple in the corners of the house, damp from the green sea, bruised from the thing I cannot breathe through'
I like weird fiction. I like fiction that has one foot in reality and the other in some surreal gorgeousness that can disturb, illuminate and expose humanity for what we are: imperfect, often broken, a walking-talking-eating-fucking kaleidoscope of identities that can both create ice sculptures and bomb innocents to ash. I discovered Angela Carter in my college years, quickly I fell down a well of dangerous women, sexual encounters with tree spirits and a good old round of insanity. This was rather quickly followed up by Robert Shearman's wonderful Tiny Deaths (and thank you Robert for signing it!) and many other fantastic writers. To me it seems this surrealist, magical-realismesque fiction is most at home in the short story genre, where the restraints of the medium help keep the beautiful craziness contained, channeled - there are rules to the wonderlands. There are many writers who excel at magical realism in longer forms - Leone Ross, Octavia E. Butler, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman etc - but I find the impact is greater when the length is condensed and the topic shifts from story to story, allowing the writer to keep the reader's interest while not losing the effect of what can be a magically disorientating and dizzying form of prose.
This may be Okojie's first short story collection, but it is not her first ship in the sea of publishing. Irenosen Okojie's (@IrenosenOkojie for you tweeters!) Betty Trask award-winning debut novel Butterfly Fish (Jarcaranda, 2015) was set between contemporary London and 19th century Benin in Africa. It is a multigenerational, dual narrative told in three parts and begins in modern London a depressed photographer called Joy, who is grieving the sudden loss of her mother Queenie. She forms a bond with her neighbor Mrs Harris, who has secrets of her own. The book received enormous praise from not only the judges of the Betty Trask award but also from the likes of Joanne Harris, Maggie Gee, Oliver Zarandi, Alex Wheatle and many others.
In Speaking Gigantular, we are presented with eighteen unpredictable short-stories with an array of vivid, often broken, characters, travelling through themes of love, loneliness, loss and hatred. Nearly ever story has a dark twist at the end and no two stories are alike. In these stories emotions take on physical forms, Loneliness becomes a pet who is 'three months old, had a green head, blank human eyes and a crocodile's tail' (Footer, 94). There is a wonderful dedication on the first page of the book - after all the copyright blurb of course - which I think sums up many of Okojie's characters: 'To all the misfits who dare to tilt worlds'. I find most of these characters to be misfits, they are out of place in somewhere, often looking for some thing they cannot name and this search generally leads to destruction. In 'The Thumbnail Interruptions', Birdy is being stalked by her own thumbnail image off social media. Over the course of the story we gradually discover her boyfriend Jonno has been conducting experiments on her with various drugs and it has damaged her mind so that she sees her photograph ever until they become living, breathing creatures that haunt her. Birdy at first 'wondered if through the lens, he saw not her but a projection of what he wanted her to be, only to print it and discover he was struck with the version he had' (147), which I find not only painfully true of many of us who use social media to fabricate new identities, but also the lengths people will go to make that identity a reality, even if it is not your own. How many of us have dared to navigate dating websites and sought to change the person sitting in front of us, mold them to the image in our heads? Its the 'lost puppy dog syndrome', the idea we can rescue someone and nurture them into a disciplined, happy dog that does exactly what we want them to do.
Okojie starts her collection off very tactfully. She begins with 'Gunk' a diatribe of a mother to her son, desperate to propel him into action by rousing him with her condemning speech. The lines 'darkness motivates men, mobilises armies. Use it. You are a warrior. Show me your roar' (2)' could again be applied to all the characters in this book, who are all roaring, all screaming, all crying out into a nightland for a good time, a saved child, a mortal's love, a happy ending and a sister's forgiveness. This diatribe is very fast-paced and ends with single punchy lines that sounds like motivational orders to the reader: 'fuck governments, fuck systems, fuck everything that tells you if you're good you'll be valued' (2). Following 'Gunk', we have 'Animal Parts', one of my twin favourite stories in this collection, because I could sympathize with the Henri Thomsen, the Danish child who at ten-years-old has a long furry grey tail. Now while I do not possess a tail, this tail can be seen - if you choose to - as an allegory for any part of a child that is making them a target for abuse and bullying. As someone who has experienced various forms of bullying over my life, Henri's desperation and pain was vividly, brutally and honestly conveyed so strongly in Okojie's beautiful writing that it made my eyes leak. In the end, Henri and his mother cut the tale off, begging the question: if you could be normal, if you could cut the part of you out that made you different, would you? That is one theme of the story, as each of these stories embody at least two or three themes that are very clear, while others can be eased out with interpretations.
My other twin-favourite was 'Nadine', a story about a young woman called Cree who suffers from epilepsy and becomes amateur-detective when her fifteen-year-old friend Nadine, who has Down's syndrome, goes missing. Not only is it a painful tale about what can happen to a vulnerable girl, it is about how we carry the parts of others inside us. Cree finds herself waking 'up with Nadine's laugh in my chest' (108) and at the end how she is 'mourning who she [Nadine] used to be. I'm sad that we never see monsters changing their disguises. Sad that teenage conformity can be a knife to the skin and that unspoken things can take the shapes of wolves and men interchangeably' (117). Okojie holds nothing back, the descriptions are honest, captivating and savagely violent.
There are a few stories that I either feel out of place or the surrealism tipped the balance so that it was hard for the reader to keep up. 'Outtakes' - a story about Desiree, who is unlucky in love with the cheating, childish, self-righteous Balthazar - is wonderfully written, the imagery superb, but I couldn't help feeling the ending fell flat, that it did not live up to the rest of the story. At the end, the couple and Balthazar's daughter are propelling off a cliff in a traffic collision. This ending is quite sudden and I felt disappointed at the shock-tactic. However, life is cut short by such events and while I don't necessarily consider it a fitting ending for the story, it is a fitting examination of what can happen, how a story can be tragically cut off without warning. I found 'Vegas' a harrowing anecdote about insanity and the evil within, but I didn't feel its placement as the last story was a fitting end to the collection. However - as I do love to play the devil advocate with my gut feelings - it can be argued that the lasting image of a policeman 'left holding a dead baby, his flaccid penis hanging obscenely out of his trousers and the night beyond the gap hissing sensuously' (201) leaves us with a final, haunting image of the cruelty of human nature, which is a consistent theme within this collection.
If I were to sum up this collection in one word, it would be 'power'. Whether it is Henri who wants to gain control over his existence or Cree who believes she has the power to save Nadine, or Carolina ('The Arrangement of Skin') who locks people in her basement to achieve power over them or Nesrine's power to move statues to life ('Please Feed Motion'), each character is someway losing or seeking power. Each tale is fearlessly told and despite the surrealism, I found these stories incredibly human. Her writing is incredibly unique and different, I would recommend Irenosen Okojie to anyone that wants to be dazzled, disturbed and experience something refreshingly, haunting new.