Sheffield writer Akeem Balogun on debut book ‘The Storm’

Exposed speaks to Sheffield-based writer Akeem Balogun about his debut collection, The Storm, which was released on independent publisher Okapi Books earlier this month.

Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into writing?
I’m from Brixton and moved to Sheffield in 2003 when I was about 11 years old. I went to Myrtle Springs school, which wasn’t a great school at the time, and there were people in class who didn’t really want to learn. However, English was something I was quite good at, right from Year 7 when I read a story in front of the class and the teachers and my friends loved it. So, shoutout to my teachers because they always said I was good! That story matters because in 2011 when I was on a gap year – basically playing a lot of Playstation, to be honest – my brother was doing art and animation and I thought I should do something creative like him. I knew I was a good at English, so I went to the local library for inspiration and just couldn’t find a good book. I thought to myself, if I like reading and can’t find a book that interests me I can see why my mates at school were put off. So I went home and started writing some stories, the kind of stuff my mates from school might actually read and think was cool. I continued writing from then on.

You started up your own publishing house called Okapi Books. Can you tell us a bit about the ethos behind it?
We are about getting those infrequent readers. We want to show that reading is just another form of entertainment – the same as Netflix, video games and music. I’m part of the press with Brett, Nathan, and Jade. I met Brett in 2011 at university, and we were talking then about how our friends didn’t rate reading; they did sports, were into music and gaming, but just did everything except reading. We wanted to make something our friends would be into. When I finished this book in 2018/2019 I spoke to people in the industry, and they mentioned small publishers who backed short story collections. I knew of them, I’d read books from them, but the amount they produce and sell can be quite small. I submitted to one or two, got some rejections, but then I updated the story and got accepted by a press in London. I thought of all the things we originally wanted to do with books and getting our mates into reading: the specific style, getting musicians to do the audiobooks, getting artists we liked to do the design, doing the marketing the way we wanted. Realistically, a small press wouldn’t put that money behind it. So I thought, you know what, I’ve had my stuff in magazines, I’ve won some small prizes, I’m confident with the standard of the writing, so we may as well put our money where our mouth is and do the things we have always wanted to do.

“We want to show that reading is just another form of entertainment – the same as Netflix, video games, music.”

So the stories are interlinked by a destructive storm taking place in the background, often throwing the characters into intense situations or causing them to act in unprecedented ways. Straightaway, and particularly in the title story, you can draw instant comparisons with the Coronavirus outbreak.
Yeah, extraordinary people in extreme crisis. But that wasn’t intentional, just a complete coincidence. I started on this in 2015, some stories even earlier, and then by 2017 the stories were done. The next two years were largely spent just tweaking.

It hit me how similar our current predicament was to what some of the characters were experiencing, in terms of facing up and reacting to extreme situations in the best way we can.
Yeah, and I wanted people to respond in a way where they just like got on with it. I think it’s a British thing for people to do – just carrying on, acting like things are normal when they’re not. With other countries, like Greece and Italy, the outbreak felt a bit more real, but the British just wanted to plough through.

I feel like those countries are on the whole better at expressing and dealing with emotion than we are.
It even comes down to language. A lot of languages are more emotive than ours; ours is designed almost as if to get to a point. Not that English isn’t a wonderful language with obvious benefits, but other languages can be far more expressive when it comes to emotion, and this is often reflected in the culture of the people.

In the cover story, the main character is battling against the storm to find a stranded family member. What was going through your head when you wrote it?
I wanted to flex my creative muscle. One of my favourite authors, Richard Ford, his work has crime elements, hints of action, drama, but it’s still really literary. I wanted to bring all these elements in and not feel gimmicky by doing so. I wanted a cool driving scene, but not like in an action movie, something cool and layered. I want to do something different, like the Marc Populaire story.

That’s the story told solely using voicemail messages, a surprisingly effective tool!
Yeah, I wanted to tell a story in an unusual way. I’ve told them in a text message, in a radio interview. I love doing that. I wanted to tell a story in a way that hadn’t been done before. I didn’t want the character to actually show up. I think it helps build the tension better that way.

I wanted to flex my creative muscle. One of my favourite authors, Richard Ford, his work has crime elements, action, drama, but it’s still really literary.

‘Eden’ is another story I really enjoyed, set in a hotel where customers pay vast sums of money to go and reconnect with lost loved ones. There’s plenty of scope for soul-searching with that one.
Yeah, I was thinking if people have the option to see people who’d died, even if they were charged a ridiculous amount of money to do so, would they?

It subverts the idea that everyone is equal in death, no matter how rich or poor, because this story imagines a world where the rich have benefits even in death.
Absolutely. The girl in the story has done it twice; in the introduction you see that she has come to visit for a second time. I wanted to play with the idea of reality, too: is this real? Has this person come from heaven? Is it all artificial? I like putting those questions in there.

‘Soulmate’ is the shortest one. I re-read it a few times. I thought at first it could be a reference to civil war, but then you look into it and it feels more like a relationship break-up, and the effects it has on other people, namely children.
I thought at first it needed to be huge, but I think it works as a short piece. I was thinking about why people break up and why humans fight. It might be dressed up in a big problem but deep down, even with countries, it can be a miniscule problem with people that leads to a massive reaction. In the story you might think it is religion, or national disaster; but if you boil it down, perhaps it’s about a group of individuals who are unhappy because they can’t do the most basic things, but it becomes huge and devastating. It’s interesting how simple things can be at the heart of conflict.

How are things looking going forward for Okapi Books?
We’re going to be doing everything possible to get this book in the hands of people and get all the coverage we can. But outside of book promo, there is the audiobook, and we’ve got poet and dub artist Rider Shafique to do it. My brother is also doing an animated short film for one of the stories. Animation is big amongst my mates too, and again, that could help get people into the book. I call this book the sacrificial lamb because we are going to try everything possible on it and see what works and what doesn’t, then apply what works to the next one. If the book pops, amazing, but we are trying to preach to people that aren’t converted. I think the promo with independent music labels is doing it best, always thinking of the wickedest ways to market, doing really creative things. I feel like independent writers and publishers don’t have the same kind of prestige. In music, it’s cool to be with the independent label; people don’t want to sell out to the big labels. But with book publishing, it’s like everyone wants to be with the big publishers, so shoutout to the small independent publishers out there. I want to see a similar framework within fiction, one which isn’t about trying to win big awards and worrying about the literature industry, but is more about making cool books. I want people to just see literature as another form of entertainment. Some of my mates view reading as a bit challenging and not as relaxing as watching a show, for example; but interestingly research shows that reading can be even more relaxing. If you read something you like, it’s not a chore. Nine out of ten times, the reason somebody doesn’t like reading is because you’ve not liked what you’ve been reading.

The Storm is out now on Okapi Books 

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