The walk of life: Nigerian Booker-winner Ben Okri on poetry, his mother’s stories, and a new novel
An encounter with Nigerian poet, novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri is always invigorating.
Hailed as one among the foremost African authors today, Okri has been likened to the late Colombian novelist, short-story writer and journalist Gabriel García Márquez and even to British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, with whom he maintains a friendly relationship.
Okri’s success as a writer came with his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, at age 21. He went on to work as as a poetry editor, and was a regular contributor to the BBC World Service.
Okri’s novel, The Famished Road, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991, making him the youngest-ever winner of the prize.
The Famished Road, incidentally, along with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches makes up an engrossing trilogy that follows the life of Azaro, a spirit-child narrator, through the turmoil of an African nation.
For a background note, Okri was born in Minna in west central Nigeria, to Grace and Silver Okri in 1959. He happens to be a member of the Urhobo people — his father was Urhobo, and his mother was half-Igbo.
The exposure that his father had to the Nigerian civil war, and a culture in which his peers claimed to see visions of spirits, did fuel much of Okri’s fiction.
Okri has also spoken about his mother’s peculiar style of storytelling, which has stuck with him over the years.
Okri’s 11th novel, The Freedom Artist, has been called the most highly anticipated book of 2019. The novel was released at a highlight event at the Jaipur Literature Festival, earlier this year.
“I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever written, I’ve been wanting to write it for about 30 years, and finally, I think I have done it,” the author told Indulge.
When asked about the driving force behind his latest literary outing, which is garnering rave reviews across the board for its significance in the present day and age. the author says quite simply that it was, “an impossible quest for truth”.
We sat down with Okri for a chat about writing across forms, the mysterious patterns of life that interest him, and how his mother’s storytelling techniques shaped his own writing style.
You say that ‘mythical subliminal structures’ that underlie any lived experience are what interest you. Can you elaborate on that?
I am deeply interested in the mysterious patterns of life, and the more deeply you look at society and experience it, the more these mysterious patterns become clear — and these patterns contain the past, present and future.
It’s another way of saying that all of time is here. We have to learn to look at it in that way.
It also means that as a storyteller, I am interested in three levels of my art — the level of reality; the level of, for want of a better word, the way in which we intentionally or unintentionally shape our reality; and then the level of language, which is very mysterious.
You’ve also spoken of how your mother’s storytelling shaped how you tell your stories. Tell us more...
Yes, my mother had a very strange technique of telling me stories when she wanted me to remember something. She would tell me a story in such a strange way.
Often, I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I also had a sense of what she was talking about — I wasn’t sure, but I knew.
So she kept me in that double place constantly, and when she would finish her stories, I would find that 20 years later, I’d still be thinking about it. That technique was so powerful that I have absorbed it into my style.
You’ve written across forms — essays, short stories, novels and poetry. Which form is toughest to handle?
They are all tough. Don’t believe anyone who says writing is easy. Bad writing is easy, but writing really well is quite difficult, especially sustaining it through one’s lifetime.
The novel is difficult, because you deal with many characters, and you deal with the unity of vastness...
Poetry is difficult because poetry is difficult. I would say certain kinds of poetry, maybe the sonnet and the short story, are the most difficult to write well.
A good play is very hard to write, but the short story is where the mathematician meets the dancer.
Any authors you admire, or who inspired you?
Too many to mention, but I will give you some names. Obviously Homer, Cervantes for Don Quixote...
I love Tagore, Rumi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Kimball, Toni Morrison, and I like Pushkin too.
Rushdie, he is a bit of a friend. I am someone who is deeply interested in literature, I read a lot.
What’s on your wishlist? What are you reading now?
I am reading a lot of books right now. One of the books I am reading, and you might find this amusing, is a book on Indian mythology by Jan Knappert.
And I’ve had this book on my shelf for about 20 years, and I thought this time, I am going to read every single entry of this book, and it’s amazing.
I am reading this book and I am beating myself up saying, why haven’t I read this book before?
I have been to India so many times… But you know, books open for you when you open for them.
The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri, INR 1,491 (hardcover), INR 1,292 (paperback).
— Simar Bhasin