Irenosen Okojie: ‘June Jordan reminds me of the irrepressible power and spirit of black women’
The first time I remember reading.
At the age of eight, I attended a boarding school in Norfolk where I read Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr Fox. It was delightfully unconventional and full of clever humor. I was grateful that it didn’t talk down to young readers like myself. This was during my first term at the school, a time of significant transition as I had recently moved from Lagos to England. While I missed my parents, reading this book brought me immense happiness. It sparked my imagination and ignited a love for reading that has stayed with me ever since.
The book I enjoyed the most during my childhood.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a mesmerising book. I love its exploration of complex familial ties; what living in a rigid, suffocating environment can do to adolescent minds.
The book that had a profound impact on me during my teenage years.
Toni Morrison’s Jazz – the verve and audaciousness with which it captures the multiplicities of black lives. I was 14, back home in London on a break from school. To see black characters given such depth made quite an impact on me. It was so rich and complex I was deeply affected for weeks after reading it.
The author who influenced my perspective.
The talented poet and activist, June Jordan, who identified as bisexual, was ahead of her time. She showed me that it was possible to switch between different forms of expression without sacrificing my identity as a writer. Her poem “I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies” has left a lasting impression on me. Whenever I need to feel empowered, I turn to it. It serves as a reminder of the unbreakable strength and resilience of black women.
The book that made me want to be a writer
In my 20s, my ex-boyfriend gave me the book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler as a gift. Ironically, I initially avoided reading it due to our past relationship. However, when I finally read it, I was amazed by Butler’s creativity and the breadth of the book’s themes and concepts. It showed me the limitless possibilities of storytelling. As a black woman, Butler’s courage to write science fiction at a time when black voices were not represented in that genre was truly inspiring. She marched to the beat of her own drum and defied expectations.
I returned to the book.
I was not a fan of Ulysses by James Joyce during my teenage years because I found it to be overly complex and slow-paced. In my 20s, I attempted to read it again but ultimately set it aside once more. While I recognize the skill of Joyce’s writing, I am not willing to suffer through a book for the sake of literary merit.
I read the book again.
Maggie O’Farrell’s “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a collection of essays that delve into her life-threatening encounters, leaving a profound impact. Her bravery and lack of sentimentalism are remarkable. I frequently suggest this book to fellow women as it provides a unique sense of empowerment.
The book I could never read again
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor. It’s an unforgettable young adult novel about a black family growing up in Mississippi during the Great Depression – told through the voice of a feisty African American girl protagonist, Cassie Logan, who must contend with the realities of racism. There’s no denying its power but it is also emotionally devastating. I would find it difficult to pick it up now. It’s an indictment of horrific histories, which don’t seem that long ago.
The book I came across later on in my life.
Jamaica Kincaid’s “At the Bottom of the River” is a remarkable piece of literature that cannot be easily categorized. While technically a collection of short stories set in Antigua, it defies traditional expectations. The settings are constantly changing and some stories have a dreamlike quality, while others read like visual art. What I find most intriguing is the way it challenges traditional notions of gender and gives consciousness to inanimate objects like a table or a pen. It also delves into the impact of memory on childhood and the power and danger of nature.
is “The Great Gatsby”
The novel I am presently perusing is titled “The Great Gatsby”.
I am currently revisiting The Emperor’s Babe, a remarkable novel written in prose poetry by Bernardine Evaristo. This imaginative and eloquent piece exemplifies her exceptional talent and solidifies her reputation as a formidable writer.
My comfort read
Let’s Sing Regardless. Leone Ross has a fantastic selection of brief narratives that are peculiar, humorous, and alluring. I find Leone’s creative and sensual portrayal of bodies to be incredibly invigorating. She is a writer who truly captivates me.