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Nigerian-British author Irenosen Okojie’s story about an impersonator of the singer Grace Jones has won the £10,000 AKO Caine Prize for African writing. Her winning story, simply called ‘Grace Jones’, is from her 2019 collection Nudibranch, published by Dialogue, part of the Hachette group.
The story is described as a “heart-wrenching account of loss, fractured identity and bereavement”. It tells the story of Sidra, a woman whose life is consumed with guilt. When she is 13 she loses her entire family in a fire and years later finds herself working as an impersonator of the famous Jamaican singer, model and actress Grace Jones.
The chair of the judging panel, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, director of London’s Africa Centre, said: ““This year’s winner of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is a radical story that plays with logic, time and place; it defies convention, as it unfolds a narrative that is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. It is risky, dazzling, imaginative and bold; 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.”
He also said: “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted deeply powerful questions about race, justice and equality in the world today, this story offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform Blackness in the world. This is a story of tremendously delicate power and beauty, and one in which we recognise the tradition of African storytelling and imagination at its finest.”
Okojie says she has always wanted to write about Grace Jones. “I went to see her in concert years ago and that was a really mind-blowing experience…. The idea of writing a story about a Grace Jones impersonator just really struck me because it did that thing of wanting to write about somebody who has a really traumatic past. You know, the way they process and have dealt with that trauma manifests in lots of interesting ways. And one of the ways is kind of having another persona to hide behind. I thought it could work on multiple levels. It made sense that the idea came to me. It made sense that Grace was the person that I wanted [the character in the story] to imitate as an artist because obviously, I’ve had that love for her. So, it felt like there was a real synchronicity about getting the idea.”
On receiving the award she tweeted: “Beyond delighted and overwhelmed that my story Grace Jones has won the 2020 Caine Prize. Mind-blowing. Massive thanks to the judges and the prize for this honour. Big love to Elise Dillsworth [her agent] and @SharLovegrove [Sharmaine Lovegrove, her publisher at Dialogue].”
Okojie’s debut novel Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda) won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular (Jacaranda) was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Saboteur Awards, and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
Born in Nigeria Okojie moved to England aged eight where she attended boarding school. She studied Communications and Visual Culture at London Metropolitan University and has worked as a freelance writer and as a freelance Arts Project Manager and Coordinator. She was the National Development Coordinator at Apples & Snakes, England’s leading performance poetry organisation and as a Publicity Officer for The Caine Prize For Fiction tour.