‘Respect the craft’ – Discoveries 2022 judge Irenosen Okojie

Our pioneering writing development programme Discoveries invites unpublished women writers from the UK or Ireland to submit the opening of a novel in English, of up to 10,000 words. Unlike most initiatives of this kind, writers are not required to have finished their novel, and Discoveries is completely free to enter.

We are delighted that renowned author Irenosen Okoije is joining our 2022 Discoveries judging panel. We asked her what she’s looking for in a Discoveries winner; her experiences of writing across form; and breaking the publishing industry’s ‘expectations around what Black authors are expected to write about’.

Your debut novel Butterfly Fish won the 2016 Betty Trask Award. Can you tell us a bit about your experience of writing your first novel and your initial path to publication?

I was obsessed with the story. It was originally a short piece in its early incarnation then evolved into a novel while I was a mentee on Spread The Word’s first Flight programme, a development project that paired young writers with established authors. Through the feedback I got from my then mentor during our one-to-one sessions, I grew in confidence. I realised I had so much I wanted to say. Looking back, it was an ambitious endeavour for a first book but I couldn’t stop thinking and dreaming about it, hearing the characters in my head. That desire to render the story into a living, breathing entity propelled it forward. I wrote several drafts over four years before being signed by my incredible agent, Elise Dillsworth. My first short story collection, Speak Gigantular was even weirder than the novel. When we submitted to editors, they were complimentary about the quality of writing but didn’t quite know what to do with my voice which was disappointing but said more about the industry’s expectations around what Black authors are expected to write about. Because my work defied all of that, I had a much harder time getting published. This was before the engagement around inclusivity. Both books were then picked up by independent publishing house, Jacaranda Books. After that, my next two books were signed by Hachette’s Dialogue Books spearheaded by the amazing Sharmaine Lovegrove.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

From the age of nine. I was always writing and observing people. I kept diaries, wrote mini plays, entertained relatives with funny little sketches I put together. I gave myself permission to take it seriously in my mid to late twenties. It was a passion that became such a part of who I am. It felt like an ideal space to explore the different experiences I was going through.

You write both short stories and novels. Is there one form that you prefer over the other?

I honestly love both. It’s like using different sides of the brain. The process of writing short stories is so feverish and addictive for me. There’s this momentum that I can’t stop until it all pours out of me. Meanwhile, in the background, halfway through writing the next idea manifests. With a novel, you sit with it for much longer. There’s room for the characters to have breadth and depth. I think the short form is really exciting. It lends itself to my experimental voice while the novel allows me to be radical in new ways.

Your writing juxtaposes the other-worldly with the quotidian, and experiments with traditional conventions. Where do your ideas come from? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?

“I have very offbeat sensibilities. ”

I have very offbeat sensibilities. It’s been that way since I was a kid, so I lean into that. I’m incapable of writing a straight story. It always comes out skewed. I’m intrigued by combining the everyday with the surreal. The language I create from that excites me, also that the work doesn’t sit neatly into easy categorization. I love art, film and theatre. My ideas come from just being a really curious person and thinking about ways I can push the boundaries. My writing process involves waking up early in the morning then writing in short bursts of two hours three days a week. For me this strikes a good balance. I like a flexible structure that allows for consistency but also room to ruminate so I come back to the page brimming with the joy of writing. I also write at least twelve short poems every day. I love poetry. It opens up rooms in the brain you don’t realise you have.

Your work often explores your heritage as a Nigerian-British writer, how important is the influence of these two cultures in your writing?

Hugely. During my early years in Nigeria, I grew up listening to oral African fables where certain details would change griot style depending on who was telling it. That fluidity, the ability for worlds to mutate is something that I carried with me as a result. It’s ingrained now. Then when I moved to England aged eight, the first books I read at boarding school in Norfolk were Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda which remains a favourite till this day and The Witches. Dahl’s zany sensibilities, his humour and ability to centre young characters in a way that straddled both childhood and adulthood really stayed with me. At the time, I was adjusting to the new experience of being the only black girl at an English boarding school. During term breaks I’d stay with my uncle in Hackney. Both my Nigerian and British identity subtly shift, grow and evolve. I find this dual cultural richness fascinating. You can definitely see its impact in my work. 

6) Who is your favourite fictional character?

There are quite a few but Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston stands out. Her irrepressible nature, zest for life and refusal to be held back by societal expectations speaks to my spirit. She’s so wonderfully complex you can’t help but fall in love with her. 

7) Which books do you always recommend to others?

Toni Morrison’s Jazz, The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Black Vodka by Deborah Levy. These daring books sit in the body. They say in the bone like literary archival memories. I love them. They make me see the world anew. I feel wholly invigorated returning to them.

We’re so pleased to have you onboard as a judge for Discoveries 2022 do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?

I’m thrilled to be a judge for this brilliant programme! Feel the fear but do it anyway. Believe in your voice, polish your work. Respect the craft. Absolutely know that there’s space for your narratives no matter what happens but you have to start taking these leaps of faith so the world can open up for you. 

What will you be looking for from entrants when reading for Discoveries?

“A striking premise, authenticity, a strong authorial voice and a well-crafted narrative with great potential.”

A striking premise, authenticity, a strong authorial voice and a well-crafted narrative with great potential. I also love a writer who takes risks so I’ll be watching for that. I want to be completely immersed in the story. I want to feel that I can’t look away from it. Mostly, I’m keen for us to find some raw talents with lots of room for development. We’ve seen the outstanding books that women writers are producing that have become part of the cultural zeitgeist. I find that hugely inspiring. I think a platform such as Discoveries which is creating a pathway and access for new voices to come through is part of that conversation.

Our panel will again be chaired by Kate Mosse, international bestselling novelist and Founder Director of the Women’s Prize; and includes esteemed writers Ayisha Malik and Irenosen Okojie; Lucy Morris, Curtis Brown literary agent; and Anna Davis, Founder and Managing Director of Curtis Brown Creative writing school.

Submissions are now open Discoveries 2022. Enter via the Curtis Brown submissions portal by 11:59pm on 17 January 2022.

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