Nigerian-British author Irenosen Okojie has emerged as the 2020 AKO Caine prize winner for African Writing for her short story about a Grace Jones impersonator. She won the £10,000 award on Monday.
There were 27 countries represented in this year’s entries and Okojie was shortlisted alongside Sugo Anyadike, Chikodili Emelumadu, Jowhor Ile, and Rémy Ngamije.
The shortlists were determined virtually by the judging panel who described Okojie’s story thus: “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”.
The story, Grace Jones, follows Sidra, a young Martinican woman in London who is afflicted with guilt after her whole family dies in a fire that destroys their flat. She would later find relief working as a celebrity impersonator.
According to the author, Sidra is “hiding under” this mask of Jamaican singer, model and actress Grace Jones. “But under the character she herself is committing dreadful acts.”
“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,” Okojie added.
Caine Prize chair of judges and director of The Africa Centre, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, said that the journey of Okojie’s main protagonist Sidra, “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, Tharp noted Okojie’s story “offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform blackness in the world”.
The London-based writer said her £10,000 ($13,000) prize money will buy her more time to travel, to write and maybe even a garden shed as “a little enclave” to work in. “What I want people to take away from it is not just the pain of tragedy, it’s how we reconfigure ourselves past it,” she told the BBC.
Okojie told The Guardian that 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”.
Published last year in Okojie’s book Nudibranch, Grace Jones is her second short story collection and her third book, following her debut novel Butterfly Fish and her first collection Speak Gigantular.
She is an accomplished writer whose books have won awards. She came into the literary limelight in 2016 with her debut novel Butterly Fish, which won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award.
Okojie, who is currently writing a second novel said she finds the process of short story writing “feverish” and filled with a “sense of urgency”. She said she never wants her readers to be passive. Hence, she challenges herself as a writer and hopes the reader will be challenged and intrigued as well.
“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.”