‘To all the misfits who dare to tilt worlds’ – Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular

It really is true what they say about the universe: you ask and it delivers. Just when I was thinking I needed to find more BAME/ethnic minority (I hate both these terms but am forced to use them) writers from the UK, specifically from London, Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular landed in my lap.

I don’t know why Amazon categorises this book as ‘erotica’, yes there was like ONE story about a foot fetish, but Speak Gigantular has many more layers. While I can immediately draw parallels to the work of Isabel Allende, Helen Oyeyemi and Angela Carter, it is SO much more. It is a weird and wacky collection of short stories with elements of magic realism, feminism, erotica overlaid with a big chunk of horror. Okojie has managed wildly diverse but well developed characters ranging from vigilante chickens, serial killing women and ghosts that haunt the Victoria line.

What is this book about?

A startling debut short story collection from one of Britain’s rising literary stars. These stories are captivating, erotic, enigmatic and disturbing. Irenosen Okojie’s gift is in her understated humour, her light touch, her razor-sharp assessment of the best and worst of humankind, and her unflinching gaze into the darkest corners of the human experience…Sexy, serious and at times downright disturbing, this brilliant collection sizzles with originality. (Read more here

Reading this book reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a friend. We came from different points of view; literature spoke to me, as cliché as it sounds stories are like long lost friends that I am yet to discover. They are old pairs of jeans that I put on to make me feel like I belong. For him they spoke an alien language because “who really writes about our lives and our realities?”. I think books like Speak Gigantular bridges the gap between our two perspective. Okojie’s writing is local to East London and its intricacies but also transcends not only the boundary of genre but the local-global space that I seem to straddle but don’t neatly fit into.

For me a writer is someone that writes to reach out to people. I cannot underestimate the importance of a book, a paragraph or a line that sparks a light of recognition in them with someone somewhere and makes them feel loved and less lonely. Okojie’s book does this in so many ways, it is a beautiful work of that blends together race, gender, the city and so much more. But I want to draw on three things that struck a cord with me:

1.Normality

The word ‘normal’ is as good as a curse word to me. It is used to draw boundaries and put you back in your box. Okojie’s book, and especially her female leads, is a slap in the face of normality and it’s champions. The book is aptly dedicated to ‘all the misfits who dare to tilt worlds’.

Through the ‘genre’ or style of magic realism Okojie highlights the challenges of dealing with the rigidity of social niceties and boundaries. Many of her stories feature characters who have visions, who realise the fragility of seemingly solid things such as time, space, identities and above all ‘normality’. From murderous women, women who saw ghosts, women who were ghosts and even to teleporting vigilante chicken her characters had one thing in common; they weren’t normal, they were extraordinary. I loved this.

2.Horror and Race

Although I can’t sit through any horror film, I find it really interesting as a tool that brings back control to the ‘diverse’ reader. The blog Graveyard Shift Sisters[1], talks about how horror challenges the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype, subverts it and highlights the multiplicity of WoC. One such story in the Speak Gigantular collection is the alternative love story of October and Haji, two ghosts stuck in eternity in the bowel of London’s Tube network. Reading this book on the tube, I looked up a couple of times to see if they were staring at me through the glass. The MC, October’s journey to her afterlife shows her as a struggling actor and moves away from the stoic and all suffering image of WoC normalised in the media.

3.Bad Women

There were also some straight up messed up, evil, villainous women in Speak. Many times I physically wanted to recoil from the characters and their psychopathic antics, but I loved the way this challenges our notion of the feminine. Taking this back to horror, Modelski [2] points out that women are often constructed as symbols of ‘specious good’, so that this same image can later be the victim of horror. By subverting the genre and presenting women as perpetrators of horror Okojie has granted women the power to perform the full range of the human emotions – the good bad and the ugly. I was surprised by the extent of Okojie’s deviant imagination which featured female serial killers who slept with their victims before killing them and cute grannies that drugged and abducted oblivious trick-or-treaters; these women dropped kicked the sugar and spice and everything nice symbolisation of women as nurturing maternal figures only.

This is a beautiful book with something in it for everybody. Read Before You Die.


* This book was sent to me in exchange of an honest and open review*

This book is also nominated for the Jhalak Prize  Book of the Year which seeks out the best BAME literary talent in the UK. Check out the longlist here and see of there are any other books you fancy!

[1] http://www.graveyardshiftsisters.com/2017/01/horror-blackademics-race-gender-in.html – this an amazing blog that discusses issues of race and gender and much morei n the context of horror and why horror as a genre has much to offer in diversifying media cultures.

[2] According to Tania Modelski women are constructed as symbols of ‘specious good’, as mothers, wives, daughters and virgins. In the context horror, this image is constructed only as a focus of attack, as a victim. (Modleski, T. (1986). The terror of pleasure: The contemporary horror film and postmodern theory. In: Studies in entertainment: critical approaches to mass culture, pp. 155-166.)

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