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Talking With Ben Okri


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SITTING at ease in a New York City hotel room, far from the central Nigerian town where he was born 33 years ago, the novelist Ben Okri remembers how he began writing at the age of 14.

"On this particular day, it rained," he says, "and this day changed my life. Everybody was out and I was in, alone. I was sitting in the living room and I took out a piece of paper and drew what was on the mantelpiece. That took me about an hour. Then I took another piece of paper and wrote a poem. That must have taken me ten minutes. I looked at the drawing and I looked at the poem. The drawing was dreadful and the poem was . . . tolerable, bearable. And it became clear to me that this was more my natural area."

Okri's latest novel, "The Famished Road," won Great Britain's Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991 and was greeted with great praise when it was published here this past May by Doubleday. Only one of Okri's earlier books, a collection of stories called "Stars of the New Curfew," has appeared in this country, winning high praise but few readers when Viking published it in 1989.

In Great Britain, two other novels (the first in 1980) and one other volume of short stories have appeared, and Jonathan Cape published his first collection of poetry earlier this year.

Stories have always been at the heart of his writing. "The Famished Road," a novel, is a nearly encyclopedic collection of tales about its boy-hero, Azaro, as he moves easily between the world of the flesh and the world of spirits. This generous storytelling comes naturally to Okri.

"You see," he says, "I was told stories, we were all told stories as kids in Nigeria. We had to tell stories that would keep one another interested, and you weren't allowed to tell stories that everybody else knew. You had to dream up new ones.

"And it never occurred to us that those stories actually contained a unique worldview. It's very much like the river that runs through your backyard. It's always there. It never occurs to you to take a photograph or to seek its mythology. It's just there; it runs in your veins, it runs in your spirit.

"And for me, it was only after I had made too deep a journey into modernism, after I had begun to feel that my ambition was better than my craft, after a period of loneliness and homesickness away from Nigeria, that slowly all those old stories came back to me with new faces and new voices. And I saw that all human beings have their signatures stamped in the stories they tell themselves in dreams, the stories that are embedded in their childhood."

Also embedded in Okri's childhood are memories of civil war in Nigeria, of the constant high-life music of his youth, of his secondary education 400 miles away from his family in Lagos (the sheer traveling involved was a good experience because, he says, "it earthed me among my people") and of his later move to England, where he studied at the University of Essex.

In England, he won quick acceptance of his work but little money. After the university, he says, "I lived rough, by my wits, was homeless, lived on the streets, lived on friends' floors, was happy, was miserable." He also worked as a BBC broadcaster and as poetry editor of West Africa magazine. "I had very high standards and I was finally fired because I wasn't publishing enough poetry."

Although Okri's writing is certainly very African in its material and style, he resists labels. His earliest reading, for example, was Greek legends, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Sophocles, Shaw, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Isaac Newton - "I was going to be a scientist" - and the dictionary.

It was his love of books that took him to London, with his first novel in his suitcase, at the age of 19. "I went to London because, for me, it was the home of literature. I went there because of Dickens and Shakespeare. No, let's say Shakespeare and Dickens, to get them in the right order."

Okri describes himself only as a Nigerian-born writer who lives in England and writes in English. But he becomes animated on the subject of African writing, perhaps because he himself came to it late.

"I am a great Okigbo evangelist," he says. "Christopher Okigbo is a great poet whose lines everybody should know by heart. They are tremendously beautiful."

He stresses, for example, that if we want to talk about Garcia Marquez, we should also talk about Chinua Achebe. If we think Lorca should be a matter of common discussion, so should Wole Soyinka. "It distresses me," he says with great emphasis, "to meet people who can speak very readily about, say, Vargas Llosa but haven't read Achebe. It's absurd."

And how does he describe himself?
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"I think Ben Okri is a writer who works very hard to sing from all the things that affect him. I don't know if he's an African writer, a British writer. I never think of myself in terms of any classification.

"Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer. His Falstaff, for example, is very African in his appetite for life, his largeness of spirit. The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens' characters are Nigerians. Do you see what I mean? Literature may come from a specific place but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."
 


GRAPHIC: Newsday Photo by Ari Mintz- Ben Okri

Reported by Alan Ryan in Newsday July 19, 1992.

Ben Okri can be contacted through his publishers. Click on this icon to


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