Sir Ben Golden Emuobowho Okri is one of contemporary literary world’s greatest cultural figures: an accomplished screen playwright, a path-breaking essayist, an innovative poet, a clear-headed and erudite thinker, a public intellectual with an unwavering moral compass, and above all, the most extraordinarily gifted novelist of all times. Born in Minna, Nigeria, in 1959, Okri received his primary education in London before the family’s return to Lagos where his father continued to practice law. After finishing school, Okri began his career as a poet and essayist until he moved back to England and enrolled in comparative literatures at the Essex University. His success as an author came through with the publication of Flowers and Shadows, his debut novel in 1980.
It was not until the success of The Famished Road that went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 1991 that critics started comparing Okri to Marquez. Together with the sequel in 1993 called Songs of Enchantment, the three novels formed a trilogy that charted the life and times of a young man, Azaro.
On a whirlwind visit to Lahore for LLF 2022, talking to TNS, Ben Okri provided a candid glimpse into his life-shaping experiences taking a cue from myth and folklore. The unique window that he deigned to open on his childhood is marked with a patronising tone. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday (TNS): Do you subscribe to the notion that all great literatures of the world are born of childhood memories? If so, what role has your childhood played in your work?
Ben Okri (BO): I don’t subscribe to the notion that all literature is born of childhood memories. However, I think childhood memories form an important invisible and immeasurable foundation to one’s writing; if not to one’s writing, then certainly to one’s angle towards the world. I don’t think at all that one can ascribe everything to one’s childhood. There are writers who are writers of childhood; there are writers who open themselves up to the influence of their childhood; and there are many writers who don’t – they are contemporary in looking at the world.
For me, I am partly a writer of childhood because I am fascinated by it in terms of its openness. That is not to say that I am fascinated by ‘my’ childhood but by its childhood quality of intensity, of looking at things always with fresh eyes. There’s a certain innocence about it too but innocence in childhood and innocence as an adult are, no doubt, two different kinds of innocence. And to maintain innocence as an adult is an extraordinarily heroic act. If it’s not heroic, then it’s stupid. Innocence in adulthood means that you can see what the world order is, you can see how treacherous it can be, you can see how full of betrayals it can be, how unfair and unjust it is; yet you still choose to live it. You still choose to trust certain fundamental things. It’s a choice.
Genuine innocence is not stupidity, it’s not backwardness. It’s choosing hope over limitation, choosing what is infinite inside us over what is limited.
TNS: Who did you model the character of Azaro after?
BO: Azaro wasn’t really modelled after anybody as such – I kind of invented him. The character of Azaro was invented using various sources but it came into being out of necessity. That necessity was a necessity to renew life.
There’s been no allegiance to Yoruba folklore in my character. As a matter of fact, I am interested in all folklore, in the folklore of the Rebels and the Forest People of Albers, in House of folklore, etc. I’ve been widely reading Greek, Roman, English and Scandinavian folklore, and am fascinated by myths and fables from all over the world, especially India. One of my abiding passions has been to try to understand life through the lens of myth, and to try to understand myth through the lens of life.
TNS: How does your interest in myth and folklore inform your work?
BO: Myth, which is in my work, is not because I am trying to reproduce anybody’s myth. It’s because I am constantly trying to look for the mythic in life. It’s very important that I stress that. I read widely in myth because I want to understand the contours of myth. So, when I come to write about the life as I know it, I can find and collate the contours of myth within that life without classifying what I am writing about.
I am interested in myth because it touches the eternal in us; it touches the universal in us. It comes from one place but actually its wings touch all of our bodies and all of our dreams. Myth is extraordinary, and I am fascinated by it in life because all lives have mythic elements. Even if a child lives for one day, there is a mythic element to that one day of life.
TNS: You’ve been quoted as saying that you defy magical realism in your writings; instead, you refer to your fiction as dream logic. Comment.
BO: That’s one of the descriptions I use. I don’t call what I write, magical realism even though sometimes it does resemble magical realism. I’ve explained that to people by saying that not every animal with four legs and a tail is a dog – I use horse as another example.
Dream logic is one of the many things I do. I wouldn’t dare to give a name to the variety of things I do – it changes from one book to another because I am constantly looking for new ways of getting to the magic essence of life in the midst of suffering in the society and death.
TNS: How do you see fantasy intertwine with realism in your work?
BO: I wouldn’t call it fantasy; I would call it a different kind of realism. I always wonder, in the work that I appear to be doing, in book after book, that there’s a clear logic. When you hear me talk of dream logic, I take the externals of a situation and just see where it could lead me. And I follow its logic rigorously. That’s because I feel life has a dream-like quality that we don’t pay much attention to. I want to describe a dream as a dream and a life as a life. I think we miss the way they both inter-penetrate. I don’t think there’s one way of looking at the sequence of events that we experience, what we call life. There are little new ways of constantly analysing this mysterious thing that we are living in society, and in our bodies.
TNS: How did The Famished Road happen?
BO: That’s too complicated to tell, and will take long. It involves the story of my life, the story of African literature, the story of most of African nations, the story of art and music. It’s not just about childhood. I read the literature of the whole world in order to be able to write that book. I listened to music from places as far-flung as Georgia, Timbuktu and Russia. I looked at art of all peoples. So many things have gone into that book that it’s a little compendium without being one.
TNS: You’ve been quoted as saying: “Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” How should we interpret this?
BO: We are constantly being changed by stories. Every given poem tells different stories that are working in us that we aren’t even aware of: stories your mother told you; stories that you read in newspapers; terrible stories that someone has told you about some other people – a strange alchemy of stories is working on us. Sometimes our own stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are working on us. There are stories that people tell you about you; there’s a laboratory of stories working through us. Sometimes, these stories work through us in a climax towards being a certain kind of person or a certain kind of people. That’s why I feel we have to be very careful about stories because sometimes we do things (behind which) we don’t know what stories were acting out. We don’t know what stories are playing in us.
Take the case of Brexit in Britain. What stories gave rise to Brexit? Stories make people take certain decisions that are crisis points in history. After all, we are flesh and blood and stories. There are dominant stories that shape us; stories unknown to us that are shaping and affecting us. It’s a mighty subject.
A story is more complex than an anecdote. An anecdote does not have the same power to shape us. The curious thing about stories is that they imply a destiny. They have a complete logic of a future. If I tell you an unpleasant story about somebody, you’d listen to it. If you are not careful in how you process that story, the next time you see him you might behave in a certain way towards him. The next time you talk about him, you talk about him in a certain way without his being aware. Stories can be insidious or they can be liberating. They are very powerful. They are the root of cultures, politics, heroes and wars. You can’t make war without telling an unpleasant, nasty and negative story.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad