Written by Phakama Mbonambi
An act of freedom (Part 1)
The son of a judge, Okri was born in 1959 to a half-Igbo mother and Urhobo father from the Delta region.
Ben Okri walks into the second floor of the National Library of South Africa with purposeful strides, a posse of handlers hovering around him.
This colossal Nigerian writer, who won the Booker Prize for The Famished Road (1991), delivered a stirring and eloquent public lecture the night before on “Summoning the African Renaissance: A Vision for the Individual” at the University of South Africa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies in Pretoria, then stayed up late into the night with friends and colleagues but he is chatty and full of energy, showing no trace of fatigue.
With his signature black beret and a white shirt hanging loosely over his black slacks, Okri’s casual appearance belies his tough-as-nails intellect.
For our talk, we sit in brightly coloured, cavernous armchairs. A feeble autumn sun streaks in through the glass wall next to Okri, illuminating his well-trimmed beard.
The son of a judge, Okri was born in 1959 to a half-Igbo mother and Urhobo father from the Delta region. After a spell of living in London, he returned to Nigeria with his family in 1968.
He read voraciously as a youth while nursing an ambition to write, and studied Comparative Literature at Essex University in England.
From the outset, Okri clarifies that even though he has been living and writing from London for many years, he has no qualms about being labelled an African writer.
To him the label is accurate in indicating his origins, but he points out that his work transcends the description.
“I’ve written books about Africa and I’ve written books about Europe, about middle space, about the imaginative realm. I’d like to think of myself as an African and a world writer,” he says.
Coming from a country with a long line of prominent writers including Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Kole Omotoso and many, many more, Okri knew early on that he had big shoes to fill.
He had to find his own voice early, lest he fell into the trap of rehashing old themes or be crippled by provincialism.
Writers of a generation before his had been concerned with the ravages of colonialism and were notable for literary masterpieces that asserted the continent’s intellectual independence and the need for Africans to be treated as sovereign beings like everyone else. It was a literature that marched to the drumbeat of calls for political independence.
Okri, whose formative years were after Nigerian independence, had different concerns. He preferred opening the lens through which he looked at the world a bit wider, giving his imagination total freedom to reflect on larger issues in the world, not just on his little corner in Africa.
Today, he still stands by this conviction.
“I feel that it’s necessary, as a writer, to look at the conditions of the world in which I find myself. I think it’s important to look at Europe, look at America, to look at the imaginative sphere of the world we live in as well as look at Africa.
"I think that’s an important freedom for the writer to have, because an African writer is also affected by the world.”
For Okri, situating the African writer in the larger global context would eliminate the tendency of African literature – and indeed the [African] continent’s – of being insular.
“One of Africa’s weaknesses is that we are too inward-looking. When the world comes to us, we are completely unprepared as to what it is we are dealing with. We don’t know the psychology of the people we are dealing with.
"We don’t know the history of their intentions. But we should, because we are modern nation states. We should try to understand everything.
"So when a writer writes about the world, it’s very important information to African nations and to their readers at home and abroad.”
As a result of giving his imagination free reign, Okri can be regarded as a ‘trans-boundary’ writer.
“One of the important things a writer does is to constantly show you that you are in one place but intermingling with all places at the same time.
"The realm of the imagination has no boundaries. That’s the freest part of us - it constantly reminds us that we are bigger than the space we inhabit,” Okri says.
So much has been said on many platforms about the proliferation of new talented names on the African literary scene. What’s Okri’s assessment of the current African writing scene? Is he happy with the quality of output?
A pause. Then a torrent.
“I think there’s cause for celebration in the sheer quantity of gifted young writers. But I like to delay my celebrations till the seed has become a tree. So, there are a lot of gifted writers dealing with secular themes of our times – poverty, exile, women’s issues, travel.
"I don’t see very many new themes, new angles, but I see good stories. What I would like is a surprise of a completely new vision, a new tone of voice. There are one or two writers who have immense promise, but I won’t mention them just yet.
"I have a quiet interest in one of them. He could be something special. It depends where he takes his lens of sensibility to: sometimes a great sensibility doesn’t realise itself if it doesn’t find the right story.
"So, it’s an explosive moment. It’s a moment rich in potential. It says something wonderful about the state of Africa right now – that there’s more freedom, there’s more creativity, that a new generation is blossoming.”
Talking about the enlarging of themes, Okri rattled a few feathers late last year in an essay titled “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness” that appeared in The Guardian.
In the essay he worried about African writers being read by Western audiences primarily for the painful subjects they write about – slavery, colonialism and other African troubles.
“Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness?” Okri asked.
He warned that Westerners’ fixation with this kind of literature might lead to “distortion and limitation”.
It seemed a fair warning from a well-read writer who knows that “Flaubert is read for beauty, Joyce for innovation, Virginia Woolf for poetry, Jane Austen for her psychology”.
Okri simply wanted African writers to stop being pigeonholed or allowing themselves to be pigeonholed.
Despite his good intentions, reaction from some quarters was harsh.
“The essay was much misunderstood because of the title given to it by editors. And most people only read the title, which is unfortunate. I was a bit disappointed… The warning in the essay is this: just because we go through difficult situations doesn’t mean that our literature should constantly be about those difficult situations.
"This would be saying our literature is no greater than our circumstance. Literature is an act of freedom, an act of the imagination. It should transcend our circumstance. We should not only write about what is hurting us. We should write also about what we dream of. What we would like.”
He stresses that the warning in the essay is directed at young writers whom he believes should “widen the canvas, open the tone of their trumpets”, so they can find joy, pleasure and beauty in literature.
On the issue of African writers being shunned by top literary prizes, an issue some observers have raised repeatedly when various long lists and shortlists are announced, Okri feels– or rather, moans – that African writers need to take it upon themselves to submit their books to judges of international prizes.
“Judges can only deal with books that are sent to them. If you are writing from the continent, send your books to all prizes you are open to,” he says.
But he does concede that some of the best work about Africa – work that succeeds in garnering international acclaim – presently comes from writers of African origin who do not necessarily reside on the continent.
A quick scan of the current African literary landscape shows that new heavy hitters include writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Uzodinma Iweala, Chika Unigwe and Taiye Selasi. All of them live abroad and tend to look homewards in their work.
Does writing away from home, often about home, help a writer’s creative process? Does living in other lands make shapes clearer?
“I don’t know whether there’s a change in scope. I don’t know whether sometimes leaving home frees you to see much wider,” Okri says reflectively.
“I remember writing a short story about a street I was living in in Lagos. I’d write a paragraph and I’d walk down the street and I’d take note of things and I’d come back. In the end it was a very bad story. It had too much detail in it. I couldn’t see the essence of the street.
"Years later, in England, when I went back to the story it came out effortlessly. I needed just four or five details for it to come alive. Sometimes it’s difficult to write about a place when you are in it because you are overwhelmed by the details.
“Distance gives perspective. I admire writers who are able to get perspective while being in situ.
"Also, I think many writers abroad have had the benefit of writing schools, which you don’t have in many places in Africa.”
Even though he’s clearly a writer of the world, one shuttling between spheres, geographic and ideological, Okri isn’t taken by the term Afropolitan.
In the crudest sense, the term refers to Africans who are global nomads, with fluid domiciles.
“I don’t feel it applies to me. My perception is very fluid. But I see its usefulness with a generation of people who live very in-between the two places.
Also, the term is important because a new group has come into being that wasn’t there 20 years ago.”
Interestingly, even other African thinkers such as Achille Mbembe and younger African writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina have issues with the efficacy of the term.
Most fault it for promoting commodification and rapacious consumerism at the expense of identity politics.
Okri seems to be on the “right” slate, then.
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