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Nigerian Author, Irenosen Okojie Wins 2020 Caine Prize For Short Story ‘Grace Jones’

Nigerian Author, Irenosen Okojie Wins 2020 Caine Prize For Short Story 'Grace Jones'

Nigerian-British author says £10,000 award for African writing has given her confidence as a black and female experimental writer.

Critically acclaimed author Irenosen Okojie has won the AKO Caine prize for African writing, crediting her win with giving her “extra confidence” as a black, female experimental writer who has felt she was “operating on the fringes”.

The Nigerian-British writer won the £10,000 award on Monday afternoon for her short story Grace Jones, following an impersonator of the singer as she mourns the death of her family in a house fire. Judges for the prize called it “a radical story that plays with logic, time and place”, and praised it as “risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold”.

“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,” she said. “When we talk about what’s an African story, stories like mine show it’s really diverse and varied.”

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Caine prize chair of judges and director of The Africa Centre, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, said that the journey of Okojie’s main protagonist Sidra, a young woman who has moved to London from Martinique, “moves exquisitely and seamlessly 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”.

“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,” said Tharp.

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue, he added, Okojie’s story “offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform blackness in the world”.

Okojie 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”.

“I’m really passionate about centring the stories of black women and people of colour. It’s important to show their lived experiences,” she said. “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.”

Grace Jones was published last year in Okojie’s book Nudibranch, her second short story collection and her third book, following her debut novel Butterfly Fish and her first collection Speak Gigantular. She is currently writing a second novel, but 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.”

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Written by PH

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