This year, in collaboration with Manchester Writing School, Comma Press hosted the first online National Creative Writing Industry Conference, an adaptation of the annual National Creative Writing Industry Day. Between the 26th and 30th of November, a range of panel discussions and workshops went live to aspiring writers across the UK.
The conference was opened by award-winning Nigerian British writer Irenosen Okojie talking about her own journey to publication and offering invaluable advice to writers at the start of their careers.
Irenosen’s debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask Award, and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular, published by Jacaranda Books was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her new collection of stories, Nudibranch, published by Little Brown’s Dialogue Books, was longlisted for the Jhalak Prize. Irenosen is also the winner of the 2020 AKO Caine Prize For Fiction for her story, ‘Grace Jones’.
You can read the opening section of her inspiring keynote speech delivered at The National Creative Writing Industry Conference 2020 below.
The process of writing is elevating oneself to a higher consciousness. It is a political act, an eye in the crowd, a marauding wind from a ventriloquist’s pocket, a form of alchemy encouraging us to wrestle with the existential infringing on the everyday. It is a series of intimate processions unlike any other. I write from the disruptive space. There, I find the outlines of stories caving into each other. There, I lift up creased papers waiting for the ineligible scrawl of my handwriting to make them blueprints. There, I know that writing is a conduit to alternate lives being. Stories live, breathe. They convert our imaginations into a multiverse.
Once upon a time, June Jordan meets me in the disruptive space. She hands me a prism which becomes:
A series of openings
A plot in a miniature painting of a drowning
A kaleidoscopic fall into the cosmos
She tells me there are no shortcuts writing to one’s potential. You must do the work. Gather the parts of narratives in the dark, blindly if necessary, to make them sing in the mornings. You must ask yourself whose stories you need to tell, then decide when you want to tell them. If there is no table to write on, build it. If there is no path trodden, carve it yourself. Here are the echoes I created with a feverish hand. You will make your own. June passes me a leaking pen to fell the inevitable doubts.
Once upon a time Sun Ra, CLR James and Ntozake Shange exchange passages on that disruptive, warm plane, imbued with the power of writing foremothers, knowing that they themselves will become literary ancestors. If art shows us ways of being, then I want to absorb the incandescent spirit of Octavia Butler’s morning manifestations, inherit the daydreams of James Baldwin wandering the streets of Paris, then conjure some of my own and hold Ursula K. Le Guin’s carrier bags when I want my visions to defy definitions.
The first stories I heard were fables around fires in Benin. I remember the laughter, elements of surprise, sharing food, the gathering of our bodies towards the stories’ centre, the feeling of satisfaction. And afterwards, we were left with kernels for other possibilities, somehow changed by the wonder and power of storytelling. The next time I heard versions of those stories again, they were told slightly differently, reclaimed by other cavernous mouths. This is the joy of stories whose meanings multiply, finding different entry points into our souls.
How does one begin to write? Transforming the everyday into symphonies on the page is an art form, showing the hidden lives of the disenfranchised is a quiet uprising. For some of us, writing is a need, not an indulgence. It is an act of bravery to make yourself vulnerable to an audience. You tackle your fears head on, forging onwards until you have an offering you can hold firmly. To want to capture something of this world and the next, we must write.
We must write to explore our better selves, our base selves, our hidden selves. We must leave our stories like innumerable etchings breathing on the walls of the Kalahari’s Dragon Breath Cave. We must write for the street disciple speaking Sanskrit, who travels to Kinkakuji in winter to discover multiple truths, yet only takes one book. We must write for the boy being bullied who sees the same copy of The Fire Next Time in underground stations around the city, and hears the words ringing in his ears through the garbled frequency of naysayers. We must write for the battered woman who views the company of books as a safe haven, and for the young man in prison who one day, in his greatest act of transformation reaches for a copy of your novel. We give the girl who thinks she may be a Tarantula in the evenings a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Our stories have to be told, from the oral traditions of griots, to the men on speaker’s corners having epiphanies, to the youth using language as protest.
Books change lives. Books are pilgrimage routes. They are energy forces fuelling our imaginations. We must write for our sanities. Books are comets which reappear in every possible version of reality. They sit in the body like jewels in the blood. Literature is for everyone, no matter your background. Your ideas matter. Every single one. Find ways for them to be beating hearts, to flourish, to speak to you in the crack of dawn. Allow your stories the room to shift before eluding you, then appearing again, forming bit by bit. They can be optical illusions you reach for through the mundane of the everyday, the tiny embers gathering dimension in between breaths, the irrepressible flame in the dark which bends at your instruction.
There are histories to be written, futures to leap into, the present to process in whatever fashion suits you. Your writing rhythms are waiting to infiltrate your bodies. They just need your pen, your fingerprints, steps of faith that double as anchors.
A man trapped in the ice hotel in Jukkasjarvi, northern Sweden loses his head at the bar. He does not know how this happened. A mute woman rescues an unharmed baby after an earthquake in California, A man in a hot air balloon hovering over the San Fernando Valley is without memory. These are characters awaiting their cataclysms on the page. What lies in the absences? They need their iterations of Samsara. You can build worlds with a sense of urgency or create slowly practising a measured consistency. There is no right or wrong way to tell a story. Scribble the ending down then work your way to the middle. Write beginnings until you find the correct one. Do things in the wrong order to see how it feels. Follow your instincts. Challenge yourselves. Embrace the anarchic spirits of literary ancestors urging you to look beyond perceived limitations. Start with the first sentence. Let it become an obsession. This is a clarion call. This is a moored siren sitting in the silence. We must write our multitudes into existence.
Irenosen Okojie, 2020
You can watch Irenosen’s keynote speech in full for free here.