Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie | Short Stories, Speculative Fiction | Dialogue Books | 216 pages | Review by Niki Igbaroola
Having read Irenosen Okojie’s work, I should have been prepared for the joyous overwhelm that reading Nudibranch has been. On this journey, the reader encounters priests, eunuchs, escorts, and people who move through time and space at will. Okojie tackles loss, identity, government, love, and death amongst other themes. Okojie’s command of language and expert storytelling allows for the extraordinary to come alive in these everyday themes. The worlds Okojie create are mostly foreign to the reader, but the descriptiveness with which she tells these stories allows the reader to quickly connect the dots of her imagination. This short story collection will leave the reader itching for new eyes through which to see the world.
Storytelling and Language
Logarithm sets a definitive, poetic, voice as the first story in the collection. In under two pages, using what can feel like fragmented sentences, Okojie tackles the existential questions of birth, death, our place in the universe and the terror of motherhood.
As an opener to a linguistically powerful short story collection, Logarithm reminds the reader that reading Okojie’s work is unlike reading any other author’s work. Her writing encourages a stretching of the imagination and her mastery of language will stretch one’s vocabulary.
Seeing is a Multi-Layered Activity
The eponymous story, Nudibranch, represents the entire collection. A recurrent theme in most, if not all, of the stories, is that of shedding masks or old selves. Over and over again, we see people becoming other or living dually in an attempt to survive, blend in, or deceive. Okojie reminds us that people are not always what they seem and that appearances and motives do not often align.
In Nudibranch, Kuri, a woman desperate for love, finds herself on an island full of eunuchs. Kuri is repeatedly disappointed by each man she meets and eats their hearts in an attempt to keep a piece of them inside of her. Kuri’s beauty is the beacon that draws these doomed men to her and her ability to transform her appearance allows her to evade detection and thus persecution for her crimes. This story is a perfect metaphor for beauty as a mask. The men who encounter Kuri fail to see how desperately she seeks love, seeing only a pretty face. It is this inability to truly see her that allows Kuri to move about the world, undiscovered and deadly.
The Future: Friend or Foe?
Yearning drives Elmira to adopt Houdini in the story Saudde Minus One (S – 1 =), which reimagines children as government-created weapons of war. In a nod to Orwellian storytelling, Saudde Minus One thrusts the reader into a dystopian world that feels both familiar and unfamiliar. Elmira lives on a farm surrounded by cyborg babies – Elmira’s miscarried children that have been turned into grotesque monsters – for whom Elmira knits clothing. Houdini, Elmira’s adopted child’s non-humanness and a constant feeling of dread shadow the story and present a distinctly frightening imagining of the future.
Desire for something more is also the driving force behind Zinzi’s flight in the story Zinzi from Boketto. Unlike, Saudde Minus One, however, Zinzi gets a glimpse of a possible future that gives her hope for a life much better than that of her present.
Okojie looks at the future from different perspectives in this collection. At times, the future is a thing hoped for, and at others, it is a grim reality. Despite the often heavy, twisted, and sad nature of some of the stories, Okojie leaves space hope, balancing out the experience of the many worlds in this collection for the reader.
Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch is captivating. The collection demands the reader’s full attention and will challenge you as a reader. The worlds Okojie creates are complex and beautiful and ugly all in the same breath. Through Nudibranch, Okojie has stoked my fascination with her brilliance, a fascination I know will probably last a lifetime and for which I am grateful.
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