WordFactory Logo

Write up of the March Short Story Club

By Karen Featherstone

In a session of contrasts, Irenosen Okojie’s short story, Gunk, taken from her collection Speak Gigantular, is a challenging read most of us agreed, and our lively discussion about it raised more questions than we could answer.

The “story” takes the form of a monologue written in the second person (we commented on how great it would be to hear this text read aloud, with different emphases and interpretations to bring out its nuances). A mother addresses her son, and we got the impression that they had probably at some point been immigrants or refugees in search of a better life, only to have their hopes sunk by the reality of trying to make it in the UK: “Once you wanted to be an engineer. Those dreams died in the Thames.” An irrepressible bitterness is never far away: “I showed you how to plant, how to sow seeds in concrete, yet your seeds don’t grow.”

Is the story a set of instructions? Is it blame? Fierce love? Abuse? A call to war? Is it memories of a mother’s harsh reprimands, or a manifestation of a son’s mental illness, with the mother’s voice being an internal expression of the son’s self-hatred?

We thought that the language has a vital energy. At times, it’s aflame with anger. There are reproaches for wasted talents and opportunities missed, and suggestions, in small details, of the damage caused by cultural displacement, for example, in the mentions of an afro comb and of how: “Choice is an illusion. Its sibling conformity met you at the airport.”

We found it uncomfortable to read the repeated berating of the son: he is a “waste of space”. He’s told: “This unending humiliation of you to yourself facilitates nothing.” We considered whether this mother is admonishing her adult child in order to galvanise him into doing better; to be proud of his heritage and – by refusing to take medicine – not to “follow the script”, however, on a second reading, more sinister themes appeared.

“Darkness motivates men, mobilises armies. Use it… People are scared of your power, frightened of what you can do with it.” We questioned whether the son might end up committing violence. It was suggested this his mental state seems ripe for radicalisation – could this be illustrative of a terrorist’s state of mind before he acts? Or is it that we readers were making this interpretation because of the context of the times we live in?

The story ends with the conflict in its content cleverly mirroring its form. The mother pleads: “Don’t make me transform. Don’t make me re-configure,” signalling a change of format, with the final section taking the shape of a poem.

On a final reading, we detected a redemptive quality that hinted that the son could forge a better future. The torrent of words could come from a place of uncompromising maternal castigation, or from a need to control and maintain dominance, but we perceived the mother’s love for him, however uncompromising it is.

Karen Featherstone writes plays, screenplays and prose. She has helped to write storylines for Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Her work has been shown on Channel 4 and on stages around the UK including the National Theatre Studio. She’s won a Northern Writers’ Award for part of a novel and her short story Calvo Marsh will be published this year in an anthology by Retreat West.