26 September 2023

Author Kelechi Okafor: ‘Black feminism has been very integral and instrumental to my imagination’

26 September 2023

Kelechi Okafor has undeniable hopes and dreams for black women.

The actress, orator, host of Say Your Mind podcast and owner of London’s Kelechnekoff pole dancing studio, wants the “iterations and manifestations of black womanhood to be experienced as limitless”.

She adds: “Right now it feels so confining, people telling you what a black woman is and isn’t, and what black women can and cannot do. People have so many limiting descriptions on black womanhood.

“But the black women who have come before me said no, and outlined what they are going to do instead – that’s what I really want; seeing black women doing different things. [Black women] are souls, expansive souls. They do what they want.”

Born in Nigeria and raised in south-east London’s Peckham after moving to the UK at age of five, Okafor – who recently won the Cultural Hero Of The Year award at this years GUAP Gala – is now also a debut author.

Shortly before her short story collection – Edge Of Here: Stories From Near To Now – was published however, the writer was addressing crowds at a peaceful protest at Peckham Hair and Cosmetics in September. The protests took place after video footage of a shop staff member physically restraining a black women, with an eye witness claiming she was “strangled” and “dragged”, reportedly following a row over a refund.

“When we look at the system and what black women have been through… in order to navigate a white supremacist society, we have died at the hands of beauty,” Okafor told an attentively listening crowd.

“When we saw that black woman with the store owner’s hands across her throat, that is a reminder to us of the ways they symbolically hold their hands to our throats. They do not want us to breathe… We have to restructure the [hair and beauty] industry as a whole. An industry that is taking billions from us.”

In Edge Of Here, her stunning debut book, Okafor’s hopes for black women are magnified through eight short stories that allow readers to enter a world very close to our own.

Merging Yoruba cosmology, science-fiction and technology to explore tales of contemporary black womanhood, the “baby girl” — as she likes to call herself — poses a series of questions to readers about the way we choose to live our lives.

For Okafor, our imagination lets us be as free as we want to be.

“I didn’t want to tie up the ending of each story with a nice bow. The path to our liberation is our imagination,” she explains.

“We’re conditioned and socialised to look for rules and regulations in everything, so a lot of people aren’t used to having autonomy or agency. I think that scares a lot of people, because they don’t know what they’ll find there [in their imagination].”

It’s no surprise that when I go on to ask Okafor about what feeds hers, as we talk via video link, she cites two things: social justice and black feminism.

“Black feminism has been very integral and instrumental to my imagination, because through it, I got to see black women through another lens… I got to see a world that’s not just this structure we’ve been told we have. And I started exploring that, and thought about what other worlds do we have? What other ways should we be?

“That’s why I think activism — to a certain degree — and all these other things, are as important in terms of us [black women] being bigger and larger than life.”

In one of the short stories, titled The School Run, we see a character named Alicia shaken by an encounter with a new parent at the school gate – a man who is somehow both a stranger and a past lover. Using her husband’s ‘Story Story 2.0’, a headset that recalls memories, Alicia is shocked — and delighted — to watch her and the stranger’s life together. Okafor explores the nuances of black motherhood through the relationship Alicia also has with her kind and witty seven-year-old son, Jet.

“There are elements of Jet that just remind me of my son,” says Okafor, who welcomed her baby boy in 2019.

“Children are extremely intelligent, pick up on things, and are pathways to our own healing, so I wanted to bring that through [the story] as well. Even when I think about my own mum, the things I’ve gone on to explore and discover about myself have helped and liberated her,” she continues.

“I also feel like there are some elements of myself in Jet, because there were so many things I was just underwhelmed by as a child, that I was told I should be excited about. He has a little bit of that, but I didn’t want to take away his innocence,” says Okafor.

“He’s a light, a joy in [Alicia’s] life, who challenged her to know more. I want other [black mothers] to experience that.”

Edge Of Here: Stories From Near To Now by Kelechi Okafor is published by Trapeze, priced £18.99 in hardback. Available now.

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