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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ben Okri (b. 1959)


Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and poet, one of the leading African writers. In his work Okri has experimented with new literary forms, different styles, genres, and traditions. Okri started as a realist, with postcolonial themes. After exploring with stream of consciousness Okri published novels which mixed realism, modernism, and oral forms, especially those of Yoruba culture. This style has been characterized as an example of magic realism with African flavor, although the author himself has emphasized the realistic dimensions of his work – myths and local beliefs are part of the real world, urban life-world, not that they exist next to the real world.

"We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of earth."

(in 'An African Elegy', 1992)

Ben Okri, a member of the Urhobo people, was born in Minna to Grace and Silver Okri. After his birth his father, Silver Oghenegueke Loloje Okri, a railway clerk, moved to England to study law on a scholarship. Okri spent his earliest years in Peckham, south London. He attended a primary school there but returned with his family to Nigeria aged seven. Fish and chips remained  one of Okri's fondest memories of England.

His father practiced in Lagos among those who could not afford normal legal fees – this later gave material for the author's fiction. Okri's childhood was shadowed by the Nigerian civil war (the Biafran War); "the first sign of the collapse of the African dream." ('Ben Okri: If you're hungry, books seem full of feasts'' by John Hind, The Guardian, 19 Jan 2019) As a child he read widely, and his mother told him many African stories. He attended Urhobo College, Warri, for a few years. Because the war constantly interrupted his schooling, Okri was largely educated at home in Lagos.

After finishing his high school Okri worked as a clerk at a paint store. He failed to get a place at the university and started to write articles on social and political issues. Most of them were not published, but when he wrote short stories based on these articles, they found readers in women's journals and evening papers. At the age of nineteen he completed his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), about a successful businessman whose jealous relatives make his life difficult. The story was written in the broad tradition of Realism.

In 1978 Okri moved to England where he studied comparative literature at Essex University. This period was outwardly difficult in Okri's life. His scholarship stopped, he slept on the floor of his friends' room, but he had a zest for life and later recalled the relative ease of his bohemian lifestyle at that time. Wherever he went, Okri carried a bundle of manuscripts with him. A play of his, entitled Waiting for a Room, was produced by Jan Szafranski and staged at the university theatre. In 1981/82 Okri moved to live with his girlfriend.

Because of lack of funds, Okri was forced to leave the university without taking a degree. From 1983 to 1986, he was a poetry editor of West Africa magazine, published in London, and like many African intellectuals Okri also broadcast for the BBC World Service. One of his early stories, entitled 'Disparities,' set in London, was published  in P.E.N. New Fiction I (1984), edited by Peter Ackroyd, and reprinted six years later in Literary Review 34 (1990). 

Okri's second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), traced the adventures of a young and poor painter in Lagos. "Ghetto-dwellers are the great fantasists," Okri said in an interview. "There was an extraordinary vibrancy there, an imaginative life. When you are that poor, all you've got left is your belief in the imagination." Omovo happily accepts his surroundings but becomes a painter. The novel was followed by two collections of short fiction, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), in which Okri started to experiment with new narrative techniques. Several of the stories dealt with the Biafran War, seen from a child's point of view. 

The Famished Road (1991), decicated to Grace Okri, the author's mother, and to Rosemary Clunie, was Okri's literary tour de force. This Booker Prize winner has been called the classic magical realist novel of West Africa. It was hailed as a pioneering work of a new aesthetic that went beyond the traditional nationalist post-colonian agendas of Okri's predecessors Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. ('Ben Okri, the Aesthetic, and the Problem with Theory' by Sarah Fulford, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, Literatures and Theories of Africa, 2009, p. 233) The story, a blend of Yoruba myth and postcolonial postmodernity, is set on the eve of independence of Nigeria. Its narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child,'' an abiku, a famished baby of ambiguous existence, who is destined to die in infancy and be reborn to the same mother over and over again. Okri describes Azaro's struggle to resist his fate and to survive with his family hunger, disease, and violence. He is determined to make his smile.

The story is simultaneously situated in the world of dream, of those waiting to be born, of dead. "“I grew up with kids seeing spirits," Okri himself has once said in an interview. Arazo's spirit-companions are constantly trying to pull him back into their world. Azaro's father undergoes a series of mythic battles and his mother keeps the family together with her courage and hard work. The sinister shaman Madame Koto, whose bar Azaro visits, degenerates with her corrupt deals. Finally Azaro must choose between pains of mortality and the land of spirits. The title was taken from a poem by Wole Soyinka – "May you never walk / When the road waits, famished." Although Okri has disagreed with the label of magic realism, parallels have been drawn between his narrative technique and that of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The narrative structure of Songs of Enchantment (1993), Okri's next novel, was simpler than in The Famished Road, but it continued to develop the author's mythical and poetical view of the world. An African Elegy (1992) was a collection of poems with the classical themes of love, solitude, and death. In response to reports of the Sudanese famine, Okri published in 1993 in the Guardian the short story 'A Prayer for the Living' in order to generate funds to donate to relief charities. "The hungrier I became, the more I saw them – my old friends who had died before me, clutching on to flies. Now, they feed on the light of the air. And they look at us – the living – with so much pity and compassion in their eyes."

Dangerous Love (1996) was about artistic crisis of Omovo, familiar from The Landscapes Within. He has a doomed affair with Ifeyiwa, a married woman. Ifeyiwa's husband is violent and she dreams of cutting his throat with a knife. Government officials seize Omovo's painting from an exhibition, he is haunted by an image of a murdered girl, and he feels afraid of painting. "In ugliness," Omovo says, "we see ourselves as we never want to." Omovo resigns from his poorly paid work at an office – he feels free and decides never to work in an organization again. Ifeyiwa dies on her way back to her village. Okri's tenth work of fiction, In Arcadia (2002), was a disappointment to Helen Brown from The Independent.. "... In Arcadia reads like the ramblings of a stoned sixth former", she wrote in her review on 20 October, 2002.

"Let everything you're suffering now give you every reason in the world to master your life and your art. Live deeply, fully. Be fearless." (from Dangerous Love, 1996)

Okri has become the leading figure of his generation of Nigerian writers, who have largely abandoned the social and historical themes of Chinua Achebe, and brought together modernist narrative strategies and Nigerian oral and literary tradition. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Booker Prize (1991), the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa (1987), the Paris Review Aga Khan prize for fiction, the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, and the Premio Grinzane Cavour. He is a former board member of the Royal Society of Literature, and he has served as a vice-president of the writers' association English PEN. In 2001 he was awarded an OBE. Okri lives, works, and writes in London, close to the Canal in Little Venice. His long-term partner, Rosemary Clunie, is a painter, and video artist. Okri has been Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1991-93. He is also schooled in martial arts.

In January 2003 Okri argued in The Guardian, that the decline of nations begins with the decline of its writers. "Because writers represent the unconscious vigour and fighting spirit of a land. Writers are the very sign of the psychic health of a people: they are the barometer of the vitality of the spirit of the nation." With his poem, 'Prophecy', Okri joined the world-wide debate on the so-called "preventive war" against Iraq: "A vision of the broken rose / In an inferno of oil and blood / Earth in dying clothes / Unleash the hidden will of God." In addition to such novelists as R.N. Morris, Neil Gaiman, and Melvin Burgess, Okri has experimented with Twitterfiction, posting in April 2009 a poem via Twitter.

Jeremy Corbyn, who has always loved books and reading, cited Okri in his first major speech as Labour leader in 2015, stating: "The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love." In response to this high-profile attention, Okri wrote a poem entitled 'A New Dream in Politics', which he called for a new way observing the world – a subject very familiar from his fiction but this time connected with the image of the "lost angels / Of our better natures". 

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, Okri composed an anguished eulogy for the victims:  "Those who were living now are dead / Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled. / If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. / See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower. (from 'Grenfell Tower, June, 2017') The author's dramatisation of Albert Camus' classic existentialist novel The Outsider from 1942 was described in TimeOut as "an unsettling and surprisingly amusing show". ('The Outsider (L'Etranger)' review by Miriam Gillinson, TimeOut, September 20, 2018) Around the world, there have been many film, television, and stage adaptations of the book, but this was the first major production in England. according to Okri, The Outsider has been considered difficult, "if not impossible" to adapt, because the story is told in interior, first-person narrative. Thus most performances tend to be long monologues. (Ben Okri, Financial Times, September 7, 2018) Moreover, the racial core of Camus' fiction has caused a lot of controversy.

Okri's 11 novel, The Freedom Artist (2019), tells of a dystopia, where – like in Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – literacy and independent thought have disappeared. "This could sound like a rather heavy-handed satire on the state of literary culture from a writer who is now part of its old guard, but in the context of the story, such a recognisable erosion of reading and independent thought is chilling." (Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian, 12 February 2019)

For further reading The Literature and Arts of the Niger Delta, edited by Tanure Ojaide, Enajite Eseoghene Ojaruega (2021); 'Ben Okri's The Landscapes Within (1981): The Unfinished Story' by Rosemary Gray, in: Analecta Husserliana: the Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, Volume 119 (2016); Re-inventing Oral Tradition in Ben Okri's Trilogy: The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches by Michael Oshoke Irene (2015); Magical Realism in Postcolonial British Fiction: History, Nation, and Narration by Taner Can (2015); 'An Interview with Ben Okri' by Charles Henry Rowell, in: Callaloo: a Journal of Afro-American and African Arts and Letters, Vol. 37; Numb. 2 (2014); Stylistic Approaches to Nigerian Fiction by Daria Tunca (2014); The Famished Road: Ben Okri's Imaginary Homelands, edited by Vanessa Guignery (2013); Ways of Being Free: Authenticity and Community in Selected Works of Rushdie, Ondaatje, and Okri by Adnan Mahmutović (2012); Magically Strategized Belonging: Magical Realism as Cosmopolitan Mapping in Ben Okri, Cristina García, and Salman Rushdie by Kimberly Danielle Anderson Sasser (2011); Narrative Shape-shifting: Myth, Humor & History in the Fiction of Ben Okri, B. Kojo Laing & Yvonne Vera by Arlene A. Elder (2009); The Infinite Longing for Home: Desire and the Nation in Selected Writings of Ben Okri and K.S. Maniam by David C.L. Lim (2005); Behind the Mask: a Study of Ben Okri's Fiction by Mariaconcetta Costantini (2002); 'Okri, Ben' in  Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Magical Realism in West African Fiction by B. Cooper (1998); Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Causality & History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri by Ato Quayson (1997); Ben Okri: Vom Erbluhen der Verwesung im Verborgenen der Geschichte by Thomas Bruckner (1993); 'Ben Okri' in Talking with African Writers, ed. Jane Wilkinson (1991); 'Okri, Ben, in World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1990) - See also: Amos Tutuola and Wole Soyinka who have used Yoruba tradition in their works.

Selected bibliography:

  • Flowers and Shadows, 1980
  • The Landscapes Within, 1981 (rev. ed. Dangerous Love, 1996)
  • Incidents at the Shrine: Short Stories, 1986
  • Stars of the New Curfew, 1988
  • The Famished Road, 1991
  • An African Elegy, 1992 (vol. of poems)
  • Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political, 1992
  • Songs of Enchantment, 1993
  • Astonishing the Gods, 1995
  • Birds of Heaven, 1995 (essays)
  • Dangerous Love, 1996
    - Vaarallista rakkautta (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1996)
  • A Way of Being Free, 1997 (non-fiction)
  • Mental Fight, 1999 (epic poem)
  • Infinite Riches, 1999
  • Mental Flight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century, 1999
  • In Exilus, 2001 (play)
  • In Arcadia, 2002
  • Starbook: A Magical Tale of Love and Regenration, 2007
  • Tales of Freedom, 2009
  • A Time for New Dreams: Poetic Essays, 2011
  • Wild, 2012
  • The Age of Magic, 2014
  • The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling, 2015
  • The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age, 2017 (illustrated by Rosemary Clunie)
  • Rise Like Lions: Poems for the Many, 2017
  • The Outsider (L'Étranger) by Albert Camus, 2018 (adapted for the stage by Ben Okri)
  • A Time for New Dreams, 2019
  • Freedom Artist, 2019
  • The Comic Destiny, 2019
  • Prayer for the Living: Stories, 2019
  • Changing Destiny, 2021 (drama)
  • A Fire in My Head, 2021
  • Every Leaf a Hallelujah, 2021 (illustrated by Diana Ejaita)

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