Irenosen Okojie’s intoxicating short story embraces cosmic metamorphosis and imagines a moment of Black transcendence.
‘Black Planetarium’ is award-winning fiction writer Irenosen Okojie’s response to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s exhibition, Alienarium 5, currently on view at Serpentine South. As Okojie’s protagonist, Modu, embarks on a journey of radical self-acceptance, we follow her into a realm of all-encompassing transformation and awe-inspiring multiplicity.
Modu whose being is of unearthly body,
of planetary cycles
of jewels in Black menstruation spillage
commands her multiple mouths at the border of Shesnagehu. Luminous, unruly, they cluster in the newfoundland, in the ether to gather their sustenance. Hovering in an orbit possessing intricate blue lines crossing like electric veins. She instructs these parched entities, separate from her to open for neon bulbs shaped like tentacles after passing an orange-coloured sign that reads “Alienarium 5, gallery in the orbit, this way.” Dazed, Modu is unsettled from Earth’s toll on her Black body. She places one hand on the pulsing sign with her fangled heart inside it, the purple lettering leaking into her fingers. A cold air grazing her neck, a slight prickling on her skin. A cut on her tongue from the hexagon-shaped glass gallery throbbing, rotating, the artworks inside fluttering on the walls as mercurial liquid ravens ready to catapult into accidental rebirths. The doors glimmering, sliding, opening, then dropping a playing card in her hand with a gold asymmetric triangle as well as a riddle from Shesnagehu that asks ‘how does the Black woman sustain her core when she is forced to give her rich dams to an earthly world that offers her false currencies for resources she produces?’ Modu stuffs it in her frayed trouser pocket, the card damp as if she has pressed it against her marauding heart which likes the company of signs, of new blood gained for intergalactic travel purposes. The scent of burning lingers in her nostrils. The sweetness of demerara sugar fades in her throat. The mouths contort before mimicking traces of ancestral language. They are just mouths for now, named as new Black civilisations who are women.
Mouth 1 – Diawara
Mouth 2 – Xolani
Mouth 3 – Hadiza
Mouth 4 – Ife
Mouth 5 – Mecca
Mouth 6 – Fatumata
Mouth 7 – Kirabo
Modu is hallowed, gutted by those painful earthly days. Her hands achy from catching grenade pins disguised as silver flowers in the wind. Her spirit flickering in its imitation of a drunken hologram searching for sight, her stomach attempting to grow seeds to disintegrate in blood vessels, in rhythms moving as rituals between her organs. For now, she has left behind the taking, the mule-work the world expects of women like her who find ways to thrive on the periphery, who battle to come alive again following temporary deaths, shaping their brinks to make malleable centres long before the world recognises their true power. She has left behind the hustle of the city, the sirens cracking in rear-view mirrors, the slip roads of painful legacies following her like a ventriloquist’s instrument on cold streets, the distorted histories crafted to cripple her, the trickle from the dark nub nipple that is slow poison imitating mother’s breast milk.
Parts of Shesnagehu have been infiltrating Modu’s consciousness on earthly shores; emissaries dispatched by the metaverse; bright fluttering wings, rushing mercury with inky outlines, slippery night brooks of heady water for spectral anointings, ceilings of constellations with parts crumbling into signatures on the tongue.
The mouths, her other openings, have yet to gain their bodies. They are anagrams on this plane that could be the renegade sky of another. They begin to sing an incantation gathered from the bends of their travels: difficulties they succeeded through like forms of ascension.
The matter is Black
Blackness as truth
Black intergalactic marauding
Black Mars shebeen of unknown address
Black flight as sustenance
Black as source
She is here to refill the mining of her kind which occurs frequently on Earth. The taking from the Black woman’s body is
Kinetic jackfruit turned inside out
Now the mouths hovering like last rites inherit the confessions of their future selves, sustained by this sporadic ether.
Modu continues on her divine odyssey. She threads her way through the gallery to arrive at Shesnagehu. The weariness stored in her body accosts her as a bullet would a daydream, a reminder of the limitations placed upon her, but Shesnagehu has prickly cartographies with which to share her internal bruises. Blinding slipstreams wind between porous, multi-coloured cacti. Unidentifiable shapes bob in the surface of the streams, wielding her fingerprints like wings. They share a heartbeat with the playing card. Her pocket throbs in recognition.
In the end, Modu knows the playing card in her pocket is an edible seer, a riddle with legs. She fishes it out in a frenetic moment of revelation, shrouded by fragmented light. She eats it then sips from one starstruck slipstream with an intergalactic cactus as a conductor. The seven mouths orbit around her while the outlines of their bodies begin to form, joining to become a chorus of bright, ephemeral renewal. She feeds, chanting her incantation in a magnificent declaration of transformation, Black matter rushing through her like new alphabets.
About Irenosen Okojie
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian British author whose work pushes the boundaries of form, language and ideas. Her novel Butterfly Fish, and her short story collections Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch, have won and been shortlisted for multiple awards. Vice Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Okojie won the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for her story, ‘Grace Jones’. She is the co-presenter of the BBC’s Turn Up For The Books podcast alongside Simon Savidge and Bastille frontman Dan Smith. A Contributing Editor for The White Review, her work has been optioned for the screen. In 2021 she was awarded an MBE for Services to Literature.