BEN OKRI (1959-)

Contributor:  Nisha Obano

Novelist, poet, and essayist, Ben Okri is considered a Black British writer although his Nigerian affiliations still remain strong. His mother, Grace Okri, was of Igbo extraction, hailing from the ethnically mixed delta region, while his father, Silver Oghenegueke Loloje Okri, was an Urhobo from Warri. At the time of the founding of the Nigerian modern state, the Urhobo situation within Nigeria exemplified the problematic of a minority ethnic group caught between the politics of Yoruba and Igbo rivalry, and Okri’s ethnically mixed background is important when analysing his early fiction. Silver Okri was a railway clerk, and he moved to Minna, central Nigeria, where Okri was born. However, the Okri family soon relocated to London where Silver Okri set about studying law, while the young Okri attended primary school at Peckham. At the age of nine, the Okri family returned to Warri, Nigerian an area that came to form part of the Western Region of the country which came under the powerful influence of the Yoruba. At the age of nineteen Ben Okri regressed to London, a city which has remained his base ever since. Nonetheless, those ten years he spent living in Nigeria have left a profound mark upon the author’s psyche, and the most important body of his fiction can be seen as a re-visiting of those years spent in a politically turmoiled Nigeria.

Despite being a permanent resident in the UK and a British citizen, it is notable that, to date, his fiction has never touched upon contemporary life in Britain. Unlike many writers with similar trajectories, in his work there is an absence of those postcolonial archetypes of alienation, racism, the complexities of double identities, hypersensitivity, etc. The enigma of arrival is something Okri omits from his creative work, and he prefers to give focus to transnational and transcultural motifs, many of which are Pan-African in nature. What is salient within the accrued mass of his fiction is a search for new ways of writing. He has been vocal in his rejection of what he sees as an established orthodoxy within current literary tastes and expectations, and likens his striving towards new literary forms with the conceptual break artists such as Picasso made with contemporary painting at the beginning of the twentieth century. A ferverent admirer of James Joyce, he views the modernist reconfiguring of narrative form as a template for the creating of a distinct contemporary fiction.

When Okri returned to London he set about writing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1979), which dealt with the difficulties of urban existences in Nigeria. His second novel The Landscapes Within (1981) employed the motif of the disillusioned artist which he adapted from James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man through the Künstlerroman motif. The Landscapes Within’s protagonist, Omovo, transforms the grotesqueness he feels he is surrounded by into artistic intention as means to escape the prevailing sense of futility his environment projects upon him. As an adolescent living in Nigeria, Okri had wrote many pamphlets on the social injustices he witnessed, and while none were ever published, he transformed the material into short stories which subsequently found their way into women’s magazines. Okri channelled his preoccupations about corruption, inequality, extreme poverty, kleptocracy, and the other ills of the African postcolonial state into his first two novels, and used the figure of a young male as the narrative focus for these concerns. While on a thematic level, both these novels shared much with the contemporary African novels of the period, formally they were cast within the mould of nineteenth century naturalism. An avid reader of Dickens, Okri would have been more familiar with western forms of writing, due both to his dabbling in his father’s library and his exposure to the neo-colonial curricular within the Nigerian schooling system. While The Landsacapes Within did represent a noticeable advancement on his first novel, Okri was conscious that he needed to develop a new form of writing that was capable of supporting the weight of his Nigerian experiences, now viewed from London.

After a five-year silence, he published Incidents at the Shrine (1986),a collections of short stories. Upon its reception it became clear that Okri was developing a distinctive multi-perspectival narrative capable of transmitting a more profound sense of African reality at a formal level. The author had rejected the genre of naturalism, premised upon cause and effect within the realm of the visible, to favour a West African ontology which focused on the world of the invisible. As Okri states in Wilkinson (1992): ‘These short stories were pressured by the desire to capture as many layers of reality as I could’ (82)[i], and compared to his first two novels we find an indigenising of form and content. Within the narrative strategies he employed we can identify parallels with the trajectory of Christopher Okigbo, the Igbo poet who rejected reductive models of African cultural nationalism in favour of a complex transformation of Modernist poetry that could explore indigenous poetic and rhetorical conventions.

The short story format with its structural limitations became a strategic space within which Okri could effectively experiment with a distinct narrative epistemology. His second collection of short stories Stars of the New Curfew (1988) furthered this endeavour and by its completion Okri had forged a distinct protocol of representation which would be fundamental in the writing of his next full-length novel. The inspiration for most of Okri’s short stories came fundamentally from the author’s first-hand experiences of the Nigerian civil war. In ‘Laughter Beneath the Bridge’ (1986) the narrative gaze contemplates the grotesque spectacle of a corpse-littered landscape, whilst ‘In the Shadows of War’ (1988) the young boy Omovo witness the murdering of a local woman by the militia for the sole pretext of ‘having no shadow’. Okri assures in Jowett (1995): ‘Those people who were killed left such a huge impression on me. In a way that’s the core of almost everything I do and think about; the mysteries of life, justice (28)[ii]. Other short stories explore the violence and destruction of Civil War in a distinct manner. ‘Stars of the New Curfew’ (1988), for example, depicts a nameless and destitute hero who must pedal dubious remedies to an impoverished public suffering from malaria, dysentery, severe malnourishment, and ringworm.

In his Booker Prize winning The Famished Road (1991), Okri further appropriates these motifs of disease and contamination so as to translate the violence of Civil War into a symbolic form. Deformity and chaos in the novel can be traced back to the spectre of Biafra, and it is the incomprehension felt by the author in the face of the violence of those times that inspires many of the hallucinatory episodes within the novel. The Famished Road is replete with fantastic episodes and Okri took inspiration from the work of Amos Tutuola who, in turn, had borrowed many supernatural elements from Yoruban oral narratives. However, The Famished Road departs from archetypal West African folk-tales and myths which clearly make a distinction between the fantastic nature of the forest and the rational nature of the village and town.  In Okri’s fiction, there is a collapsing of this boundary and the cityscape becomes impregnated with the phantasmagorical and terrific which, in the folk-tale, belongs to the forest.

Both in The Famished Road and the following two novels within the trilogy –Songs of Enchantment (1993) Infinite Riches (1998)– we find a move towards a mythical causality that reconceptualises modes of characterisation and the relationship between environment and characters. The Famished Road trilogy abandons archetypal character psychology as conceived by realism in favour of an oral-informed ‘flat character’ which is played off against a paratactic background. Characters take on mythical proportions, and we know them more for their actions that for the inner thought processes. As a gesture to his younger artistic self, Okri made an exception to his reconceptualising of narrative epistemology when he re-wrote The Landscape Within in the form of Dangerous Love (1996). The novel is faithful to conventional dramatic structure, character arc, denouement, etc. and was well received by the critics, garnering the Premio Palmi award. Nonetheless, Okri has, to date, never returned to these formats and has been experimental in his fiction writing.

In Starbook (2007) Okri subverts the Künstlerroman motif by giving priority to the collective rather than the individual. His ‘tribe of artists’ are a group of people who inhabit an unspecified location somewhere in Africa. They ‘create out of dreams but…  make in broad daylight’ (115), yet  anonymity is preferred over an explicit identification of authorship. The book is set around the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, although the four discrete narratives cross temporal and spatial boundaries. The centrifugal force that both disperses the distinct stories and draws them into each other in Starbook is the advent of European slaving practices in West Africa and the subsequent Middle Passage. Starbook seamless narrative constructs a cosmos of interconnecting and interdependent stories that collapse a teleological perspective in favour of a layering of narrative times. This concern has been with Okri for some time and in his essay ‘The Joys of Storytelling’ –found in the collection A Way Of Being Free (1997)– Okri defines this technique as ‘compact narratives, tangential fictions which are in fact whole long periods of folded time’ (Okri 68).

Tales of Freedom (2009) takes Okri’s search for new ways of telling stories one step further. He returns to a narrative reduced in size to create what he defines as the ‘stoku’, an amalgam of short story and haiku. In the author’s own words, the stoku ‘inclines towards a serendipities flash of a moment, insight, vision or paradox.’ With a penchant to begin in media res, the collection of ‘stokus’ in Tales of Freedom are moreover skeleton structures from which the reader is invited to fill in details that the pieces might suggest. Its central narrative ‘The Comic Destiny’ employs a series of absurd dialogues and dramatic situations that are reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  The piece has a theatrical feel to it and the language is stripped bare of all description bar that the action takes place in a forest, a  mise en scène that directs the reader to cantos 1&”2 of Dante’s  The Divine Comedy. ‘The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us’ is perhaps the most effective stoku within the collection and its allegorical nature returns us to the themes of social injustice present in Okri’s earlier work.

A Way of Being Free (1997) serves to unify under one umbrella a series of essays the author wrote over a period of ten years.  This collection treats eclectic themes which are dispersed within Okri’s fiction, and the author expounds on subjects related to creativeness and the role of the poet, the mysteries and the perils of storytelling, race and colonisation, the deceptiveness of imperial discourses, spiritual metamorphosis, the power of the invisible etc. The hybridic nature of Okri’s work comes to the fore in this collection; the author simultaneously draws upon a wide range of cultural references belonging to the western canon and his own West African cultural heritage.

There exists a fluid rapport between much of Okri’s fictional work and his poetry. In both we find a strong presence of synaesthesia at a formal level and a penchant for maxims. His epic poem A Mental Fight (1999), whose title is borrowed from William Blake’s poem The New Jerusalem, examines the plight of mankind at the cusp of the new millennium. The work is Blakean inasmuch as it struggles against the oppressive nature of pervading orthodoxies and strives towards the provoking of humanities’ inner transformation towards a higher state of consciousness. The validity of visions hold core value in Okri’s work, and can be traced back to the The Landscapes Within where Omovo pronounces: ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’ (118). In A Mental Fight, Okri assures the reader that, ‘you can’t remake the world without remaking yourself’ (63), a recurring leitmotif often defined as a ‘redreaming’ or ‘dreaming into reality’ which he further explores in his collection of essays A Time for New Dreams (2011). The final stanza of A Mental Fight also concludes with, ‘this is the time to dream the best dream of all’ (68), and it is this mental process of metamorphosis that empowers the transforming of reality. This premise also informs Starbook and was present in Astonishing the Gods (1995) which proposed the founding of a new civilization similar to that found in William Blake. Astonishing the Gods’ narrative epistemology tends to blend spiritual cosmogony with mysticism, and we find an underlying premise that all mystical experience across religions, cultures and historical periods share core similarities and divulge a single truth.

SOURCES

Cribb, T.J. ‘In the Shadow of Language: From Joyce to Okri’. In Imagined Commonwealths: Cambridge Essays on Commonwealth and International Literature in English T.J. Cribb (ed.). 1999. Houndmills / New York: Macmillan / St. Martin’s, 105-124.

Fraser, Robert. Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City. 2002. Horndon: Northcote House.

Mamudu, Ayo. ‘Portrait of a Young Artist in Ben Okri’s The Landscapes Within’. Commonwealth 13.2 (1991): 85-91.

Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri. 1997. Oxford / Bloomington & Indianapolis: James Currey / Indiana University Press.


[i]Wilkinson, Jane. Talking with African Writers. 1992. London: James Currey.

 

[ii] Jowett, Caroline. ‘Writes of Passage: Interview with Ben Okri’.  Sojourn October (1995): 26-31.

 

Flowers and Shadows. 1980. Harlow: Longman.

The Landscapes Within. 1981. Harlow: Longman.

Incidents at the Shrine. 1986. London: Heinemann.

Stars of the New Curfew. 1988. London: Secker & Warburg.

The Famished Road. 1991. London Jonathan Cape.

Songs of Enchantment. 1993. London: Jonathan Cape.

Astonishing the Gods.  1995. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Dangerous Love. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Infinite Riches. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

In Arcadia. 2002. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Starbook. 2007. London: Rider & Co.

Tales of Freedom. 2009. London: Rider Books.

 

POETRY

An African Elegy. 1992. London: Jonathan Cape.

A Mental Fight. 1999. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

 

 

ESSAYS

Birds of Heaven. 1995. London: Orion.

A Way of Being Free. 1997.London: Phoenix.

A Time for New Dreams. 2001. Rider Books: London

 

WORKS IN ANTHOLOGIES AND JOURNALS

‘In Another Country’. West Africa, 25 April (1981): 873-875.

‘Fires Next Time Are Always Small Enough’. West Africa, 25 April (1983): 1020-1021.

‘A Bizarre Courtship’. Granta 43: Best of British Novelists 2, 1 March (1993).

‘A Prayer from the Living’. 2000. In Picador Book of African Stories.  Stephen Gray (ed). London: Picador, 95-100.

‘In the Land of Beginnings’. PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers 6, issue on Metamorphoses (2005).

‘Mysteries’. Sunday Times, 5 April (2009):62-63, 65.

Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) 1987. Incidents at the Shrine

Paris Review/Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, 1987. Incidents at the Shrine

Guardian Fiction Prize. Shortlist Stars of the New Curfew 1988.

Booker Prize for Fiction. 1991. The Famished Road

Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize. 1993. The Famished Road

Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy). 1994. The Famished Road

Crystal Award (World Economic Forum). 1995.

Premio Palmi (Italy). 2000. Dangerous Love.

OBE. 2001.

Broadcaster and presenter BBC (1983-85)

Poetry editor West Africa (1983-86)

Fellow commoner in creative arts Trinity College, Cambridge (1991-93)

Current member of Vice-President Board English PEN

SELECTED BOOKS

Costantini, Mariaconcetta. Behind the Mask: A Study of Ben Okri’s Fiction. 2002. Rome: Carocci.

Elder, Arlene A. Narrative Shape-Shifting: Myth, Humor and History in the Fiction of Ben Okri, B. Kojo Laing and Yvonne Vera. 2009. Oxford: James Currey.

Fraser, Robert. Ben Okri: Towards the Invisible City. 2002. Horndon: Northcote House.

Lim, David C.L. The Infinite Longing for Home: Desire and the Nation in Selected Writings of Ben Okri and K.S. Maniam. 2005. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi.

Moh, Felicia Oka. Ben Okri: An Introduction to his Early Fiction. 2001. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers.

O’Connor, Maurice. The Writings of Ben Okri: Transcending the Local and the National. 2008. New Delhi: Prestige Books.

Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri. 1997. Oxford / Bloomington & Indianapolis: James Currey / Indiana University Press.

 

SELECTED ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS

Armstrong, Andrew. ‘Speaking through the Wound: Irruption and Memory in the Writing of Ben Okri and Festus Iyayi’. Journal of African Cultural Studies  13.2 (2000): 173-83.

Brooks de Vita, Novella. ‘Abiku Babies: Spirit Children and Human Bonding in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, and Tina McElroy Ansa’s Baby of the Family’. Griot 24.1 (2005): 18-24.

Cezair-Thompson, Margaret. ‘Beyond the Postcolonial Novel: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and its “Abiku” Traveller’. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31.2 (1996): 33-45.

Cooper, Brenda. ‘Out of the centre of my forehead, an eye opened: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’. Magical Realism in West African Fiction: Seeing with a Third Eye. 1998. London: Routledge, 67-114.

Cribb, Timothy. ‘Transformations in the Fiction of Ben Okri’. In From Commonwealth to Postcolonial  Anna Rutherford (ed.). 1992. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 145-150.

Cribb, T.J. ‘In the Shadow of Language: From Joyce to Okri’. In Imagined Commonwealths: Cambridge Essays on Commonwealth and International Literature in English T.J. Cribb (ed.). 1999. Houndmills / New York: Macmillan / St. Martin’s, 105-124.

Eccard, Jonathan. ‘Revaluating African Historicities: Okri’s Three-Volume Cycle’. In African Diasporas: Ancestors, Migrations and Borders Robert Cancel and Winifred Woodhull (eds.) 2008. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 143-158.

Elder, Arlene A. ‘Narrative Journeys: From Orature to Postmodernism in Soyinka’s The Road and Okri’s The Famished Road’. In Multiculturalism and Hybridity in African Literatures Hal Wylie and Bernth Lindfors (eds.). 2000. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 409-416.

Fernández Vázquez, José Santiago. ‘Recharting the Geography of Genre: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road as a Postcolonial Bildungsroman’.  Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.2 (2002):  85-107.

Garnier, Xavier.  ’L'Invisible dans The Famished Road de Ben Okri’. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 15.2 (1993), 50-57.

Garuba, Harry, ‘Ben Okri’s Animist Realism and the Famished Genre’, Guardian (Lagos), 13 March 1993, p. 23.

Gray, Rosemary. ‘”Domesticating Infinity” in Ben Okri’s Mental Fight and Astonishing the Gods’. English Academy Review 24.1 (2007), 85-101.

Hawley, John C. ‘Ben Okri’s Spirit Child: Abiku Migration and Post-modernity’. Research in African Literatures 26.1 (1995): 30-39.

Hemminger, Bill. ‘The Way of the Spirit’. Research in African Literatures 32.1 (2001), 66-82.

Kehinde, Ayo. ‘Narrating the African City from the Diaspora: Lagos as a Trope in Ben Okri and Chika Unigwe’s Short Stories’. African Identities 5.2 (2007): 231-246.

Mamudu, Ayo. ‘Portrait of a Young Artist in Ben Okri’s The Landscapes Within’. Commonwealth 13.2 (1991): 85-91.

McCabe, Douglas. ‘”Higher Realities”: New Spirituality in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’. Research in African Literatures 36.4 (2005): 1-21.

Nnolim, Charles E. ‘The Time Is out of Joint: Ben Okri as a Social Critic’. Commonwealth Novel in English 6.1-2 (1993): 61-68.

O’Connor, Maurice. ‘A Journey Towards Stillness: Modes of Renewal in Ben Okri’s Starbook’. Wasafiri 54 23.2 (2008): 17-22.

Ogunsanwo, Olatubosun. ‘Intertextuality and Post-Colonial Literature in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’. Research in African Literatures 26.1 (1995): 40-52.

Oliva, Renato. ‘Re-Dreaming the World: Ben Okri’s Shamanic Realism’. Coterminous Worlds: Magical Realism and Contemporary Post-Colonial Literature in English in Elsa Linguanti, Francesco Casotti and Carmen Concilio (eds.). Amsterdam: Rodopi, Cross/Cultures Series, 1999), 171-196.

Palmer, Eustace. ‘Ben Okri: The Famished Road’. In Of War and Women, Oppression and Optimism: New Essays on the African Novel. 2008. Trenton: Africa World Press, 225-258.

Phillips, Maggi. ‘Ben Okri’s River Narratives: The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment’. In Contemporary African Fiction Derek Wright (ed.). 1997. Bayreuth: Breitinger, 167-179.

Porter, Abioseh Michael. ‘Ben Okri’s The Landscapes Within: A Metaphor for Personal and National Development’. World Literature Written in English 28.2 (1988) 203-210.

Quayson, Ato. ‘Esoteric Webwork as Nervous System: Reading the Fantastic in Ben Okri’s Writing’. Essays on African Writing II: A Re-Evaluation Abdulrazak Gurnah (ed.). 1995. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, Studies in African Literature Series, 144-158.

Quayson, Ato. ‘Looking Awry: Tropes of Disability in Post-Colonial Writing’. An Introduction to Contemporary Fiction: International Writing in English since 1970 in Rod Mengham (ed.). 1999. Cambridge: Polity Press, 53-68.

Upstone, Sara. ‘Writing the Post-Colonial Space: Ben Okri’s Magical City and the Subversion of Imperialism’. Partial Answers 2.2 (2004): 139-159.

Whyte, Philip. ‘West African Literature at the Crossroads: The Magical Realism of Ben Okri’. Commonwealth SP5 (2003): 69-79.

Wright, Derek. ‘Interpreting the Interspace: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’. CRNLE Reviews Journal 1-2 (1995): 18-30.