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He was eight when the 1967-70 Biafra war broke out, after a failed coup for which the Igbo people were blamed. Okri's father was an Urhobo southerner, but his mother, "from a royal family", was half-Igbo. "We had to move constantly, hiding Mum," he says. What he witnessed fed child's-eye short stories in Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), in which civilians are slaughtered for speaking the wrong language and the river swells with bloated corpses. "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."

His father represented the residents of the Lagos ghetto where they lived. "There was a heartbreaking procession of people through our house seeking justice," Okri says. "Living among the poor, I came up against murderers, the semi-sane, people who'd had their legs chopped off in factories and nobody would take their cases. It was a great education, and inclined my heart towards the hard-done-by. I saw how easy it was to trample on them, and how we carry on living as though they're not there. That pain never left me."

His parents were Christians, his father an evangelical preacher who showed "the same flair and persuasion as in law". But "Dad re-embraced the religion of his ancestors and became an animist. It made me see that Africa can't be looked at truthfully through an external ideology. You can't wander through the marketplace without noticing both the market women and the goddesses they believe in." It was a "seriously revolutionary moment in my life - though it took time to filter through. I realised you cannot evoke a place truly till you find a tone, a narrative, in tune with the dimensions of that place. You can't use Jane Austen to tell stories about Africa."

When Okri was a teenager his parents separated, and he moved between Lagos and his father's home in Warri, in the Niger Delta, speaking several languages. "Many rivers meet in me," he says. While his father had a library of ancient Greek, French, English, Russian and Chinese classics, Okri also read from "our great tradition", including Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria and Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya. Yet his greatest influence, he says, comes from the streets. "An influence is something that liberates you from the prison of your aesthetic. I want to be out of the cage of my own perception."

Okri left school at 14, and wrote journalism "out of a sense of outrage", as well as poetry and stories. Moving to England aged 19, he had to abandon a degree in comparative literature at Essex University when his funding failed to materialise. His bouts of homelessness were reflected in stories such as "Disparities", in which a man dizzy with hunger is moved on by police and beaten up.

His early novels, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981), skewered corruption and the scum-filled squalor it fostered. Although his later style was likened to Latin American magical realism, others dubbed it "spiritual realism", with a nod to Yoruba literary forerunners such as Amos Tutuola and DO Fagunwa. "Our job as human beings and writers is perpetually to ask questions about reality," Okri says. "One can describe people as they are now, but that's a diminishment. I'm more interested in what they're capable of - what's in their spirit. A camera that shows famine is not showing Africa's people and possibilities."

Recalling his early crisis, when "I sensed the value of life, and what I could do with it", he says, "almost every day the world kicks open that place, and you have to choose again. A rejection, misunderstanding, personal or racial insult reminds you that you're choosing whether to be defined and judged by other people, or to define yourself." For him, paying heed to prevailing views of how stories should be told would be "artistic suicide. You may as well cut your throat as a writer, because you've killed your own inner truth."

Originally appeared in Guardian.


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