There are clear allusions to the onset of the slave trade, but the tale's origins lie, Okri says, in the myth of an ancestor who is captured or disappears, which he likens to the Pied Piper of European lore. "There's a lot about the past that we can't know except by stories," he says. "If these are not passed on, how can we understand who we are, and what we can become?" For him, the book is a mythic attempt to reconfigure a disrupted past, not least through its art. "It is not loss that defines us, but recovery. One has to read the clues of what seems to be lost, in art, artefacts, intuitions, dreams. The artist is a conduit through which lost things are recovered." While on the most obvious level his subject is Africa, its resonance is larger, he insists. "Loss is an inextricable part of what it is to be human."

A Life in Writing

By Maya Jaggi (Saturday, August 11, 2007)

"At the time you don't know what you're seeing; it's too monstrous, but the image is fixed," he says. "I'm very slow to deal with these things; it took me 17 years. I'm crammed full of painful things I witnessed." It confirmed his refusal to "buy into anybody's ideology or worldview. I can't accept any single creation myth. I'm entirely suspicious of majority perceptions. I know from my own life it depends on who you are - what family, what race." -- Ben Okri, Nigerian Writer

Ben Okri has been described as both a 'literary visionary' and 'irritatingly pseudomystical'. In his latest novel, Starbook, he continues his quest to capture the reality of Africa.

When Ben Okri was down and out in London in the 1970s, sleeping rough after his Nigerian scholarship dried up, he made a pact with himself. "It seems you have nothing - no money, no friends", he says. "But at the edge of the abyss, you find you have a choice; that life isn't a given, it's a choosing." He willed himself to keep writing, and by 21 had published his first novel. By 32 he had won the Booker prize.

His resolution partly mirrors that of Azaro, the child protagonist of his Booker-winning novel, The Famished Road (1991). An abiku, or spirit-child of Nigerian lore, is destined to die in infancy, but can remain poised between the living, the dead and the unborn. Azaro chooses the adventure of life, yet retains his insight into the spirit world and the aspirations of the struggling - from his street-hawking mum and carpenter dad to the bar-owning brothel-keeper and politician Madame Koto. Set in the run-up to Nigeria's independence in 1960, and shifting from the tangible world to its spiritual, supernatural parallel, The Famished Road revealed the plight of a country perpetually struggling to be born, by portraying the faith and betrayed dreams of its poor.

The novel "took a long time and was a heck of a gamble", Okri recalls. "I put everything on it. I had to break my hands to remake them." Among the pay-offs was that, if a British literary establishment can be said to exist, Okri, aged 48, is now an influential insider. A former board member of the Royal Society of Literature, a vice-president of the writers' association English PEN and a patron of the Caine prize for African literature, he was made an OBE in 2001, and is the sole novelist on the advisory committee that recommends honours in arts and media. He has also worked as a BBC radio broadcaster and poetry editor of West Africa magazine.

Looking back on the "feast" that followed The Famished Road, he says, "I was hungry, then I wasn't. I got to know a lot of people. I travelled. I had the opportunity of making friends on the page." As importantly, the Booker conferred an artistic freedom. "I'm now Ben Okri - I can be what I am," he says. "It means I can find new methods and attempt impossible things in tranquillity. I've left the gravity of what's felt to be the only way stories can be told."

Okri, who sees his books as "stations on a journey", has published 10 since The Famished Road, including novels, essays, poetry and "aphorisms". The writer Ali Smith is among those who see him as a "literary and social visionary". Others have found his later work by turns profound and portentous, some objecting to a growing abstraction that can tip into what one admirer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, found to be an "irritatingly pseudomystical New Age mode".

Starbook, published this month, is subtitled A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration. It is Okri's first book with Rider, a Random House imprint that has previously specialised in Mind, Body, Spirit. "You go where your work is appreciated," he says. Set in an ancient kingdom, Starbook tells of a prince joining rival suitors for a maiden who hails from a tribe [sic] of master artists, amid intimations of encroaching enslavement by "white winds". While public displays of affection towards an emblematic dying royal seem, at one point, reminiscent of the death of Princess Diana, the book is a parable or fairy tale - though, Okri insists, "one with iron teeth".

There are clear allusions to the onset of the slave trade, but the tale's origins lie, Okri says, in the myth of an ancestor who is captured or disappears, which he likens to the Pied Piper of European lore. "There's a lot about the past that we can't know except by stories," he says. "If these are not passed on, how can we understand who we are, and what we can become?" For him, the book is a mythic attempt to reconfigure a disrupted past, not least through its art. "It is not loss that defines us, but recovery. One has to read the clues of what seems to be lost, in art, artefacts, intuitions, dreams. The artist is a conduit through which lost things are recovered." While on the most obvious level his subject is Africa, its resonance is larger, he insists. "Loss is an inextricable part of what it is to be human."

Okri describes himself as a "universal spiritualist", who draws on Taoism (he is also schooled in martial arts) but finds value in all religions. This book, he says, was "the fruit of a personal transformation through fire and suffering, and eventually through humility". He admits a link to a period of bereavement, when his mother, Grace, died in 1996 (an "appalling, emptying experience") and his father, Silver, in 1998. "It's Mum, it's Dad - it's Africa," he says. "Africa's pain, invisibility, misconception. One's living it all the time. Not just the media perception of it, but in terms of individual lives - the stuff you see in people's eyes. How Africa's perceived; how we perceive, and fail to perceive, one another."

Okri lives by the canal in London's Little Venice, and has a long-term partner, Rosemary Clunie, a painter. "Not a great fan of flying", he loves trains, and went by QE2 to the US. He has not been to Nigeria for some years. "I'm used to Mum being there, and I've got to absorb that," he says. "Home is not just a country, but where you're unconditionally protected and loved."

Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he was brought to England aged 18 months. His father was a railway clerk who won a scholarship to study law in London. Okri grew up in Peckham, "a bit of a scamp, a wild kid and trouble-maker". When the time came for him, aged seven, to return to Nigeria with his parents and three siblings, he had to be tricked on to the boat. Lagos was "both a shock and a delight. I saw it was possible to be a human being in a totally different way. It was like going into a multidimensional world. That gave me my aesthetic matrix, where a sense of alternatives became natural. There was no one world-view, but as many worlds as there are ways of seeing."


Knowledge Project

Africa Knowledge Project is an academic resource that offers journals and databases. Check them out at AKP.

Upcoming Deadlines

CALL FOR PAPERS

Columnists

LivewireRasta Livewire is a leading blog that provides in-depth viewpoints from Rastas in Africa and African Diaspora.

Africa Knowledge Project (AKP) publishes peer-reviewed journals and academic databases.

Ojedi is an online retailer of fine art and exceptional handcrafted pieces from around the world.

Africa House is an Africa and Diasporian gallery. Africa House accepts proposals for submission on a rolling basis.

African Event Posters show posters of events at Africa House.

African Gourmet Dinners shows images of African gourmet dishes.