This Thing We Have with Royalty

Author of Butterfly Fish, a debut novel

Author of Butterfly Fish, a debut novel

Lost Worlds, an essay —

I’ve always had a fascination with kingdoms. As a child in Nigeria, one of my earliest memories is of storytellers holding court before gatherings of excitable children, sharing tales of larger than life characters in kingdoms that always inevitably ended up toppled, to kids with fruit smeared mouths held rapt by every twist in their sun soaked setting. There is something magical and other worldly about kingdoms. Some sprinkle of fairy tale dust that’s lacking in today’s increasingly frenetic world of aspirational advertising and technological obsession, where we count our facebook friends but don’t talk to neighbours. Perhaps I’m looking at it through the rose tinted glasses of distance. There was darkness in those periods too; unscrupulous power plays and strategic manoeuvrings within political power structures that would make today’s politicians seem like Buddhist monks in comparison. I often consider how I would adapt going back in time. What would I have made of the Decembrist revolt which occurred during the first day of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia’s reign? What sort of welcome or lack thereof would a dark skinned woman have received? And would I have secretly been able to obtain copies of banned political works by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest black poet who’d repeatedly clashed with the government. I think of the Aya Sophia building in Istanbul, the Byzantine Church and former Ottoman mosque filled with colourful mosaics and tall marble pillars, boasting a grand, opulent design that takes your breath away walking through the rooms. I wonder how I would have persuaded my way into seeing its stunning interior in 1453, after Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror invaded the city of Constantinople triumphantly. Or maybe I would have fared better in the court of King Mansa Musa, a Malian King who reigned from 1312 to 1337. Whose power over Niger cities included Gao, Djenne and Timbuktu. Musa ruled the Mali Empire shrewdly and was thought to have acquired a fortune of $400 billion, gaining his wealth through Mali’s supply of ivory, gold and salt. Musa was also pivotal in the success of the University of Timbuktu, the world’s first university and a major hub for artists, scholars and poets from Africa and the Middle East. I know I would have thrived in such a setting, learning from creative thinkers and visionaries, then scribbling ideas down during hot nights to the sounds of unidentifiable insects chirping.

In the eighteenth century West African kingdom of Dahomey, elite female warriors and friends fought in battles together. They were trained to handle weapons and rushed to war fearlessly, fighting with passion and honour. Considered worthy adversaries by men in their lives, they also played musical instruments, danced and hunted. These spirited amazons were brave soldiers but were I to travel back in time and find myself in one of their bodies, a la Quantum Leap, I’m not sure I would have gone to battle. I probably would have been their cheerleader, an ancient equivalent of a hip hop hype man, only from a much safer distance.

It’s these lost worlds, these bygone periods that sparked part of the plot for my debut novel published by Jacaranda Books in 2015, where I re-imagine an eighteenth century kingdom of Benin, rich in art and culture. As part of my research, I received old books from my father full of fascinating details and evocative photographs. I have a personal connection to Benin; some of my ancestors were from there. There is something about exploring this inheritance on the page that feels fitting. I’m addicted to the brilliant historical fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes consuming several episodes in one sitting. I’m convinced that George R. R Martin has hacked into the brains of fans to ensure this addiction continues.

We look to the past, for lessons, for inspiration, to hold some tenuous link. Everyday we fight our small wars.
The young woman who rushed to battle in the kingdom of Dahomey is not so different from the first pioneering female physicians and not so different from the girl who fights through her pen.

Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish and short story collection Speak Gigantular will be published in 2015 by Jacaranda Books. She lives in London.

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