Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Nigeria. He is considered to be one of the best novelist of the postmodernist era. His list of accolades is vindicated with the sheer volume of honours conferred upoun him, with governmental recognition, gaining an OBE in 2001 and Fellowship into the Royal Society of Literature (1997) and he is also the recipient of some esteemed literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker Prize in 1991 (making him the youngest ever winner) for The Famished Road. He has produced 10 novels and 9 books of poetry, The Age of Magic (2014) and Wild(2012) being the last in the two categories respectively.
I had the chance of catching a truly mesmerising discussion with Jerry Pinto at the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2017. His assertion on the spiritual nature of writing was a true and encapsulating insight into his own literary philosophy and his revelation that each writer dies after producing a significant novel and is then reborn anew was a concept I had to further explore. At the author lounge of the DLF I managed to sit down with Ben in order to delve further into his literary psyche and influences. Did he consider himself primarily a poet or novelist? From where did he derive his inspiration from?What ignited his love of literature? What significant event in the modern landscape compelled him to write?Ben was keen and gracious enough to provide The Luxembourg Review with these answers and more.
Syed Shehzar M Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Shehzar: Hi Ben.. first of all a big thank you for doing this interview with The Luxembourg Review. In lieu with the talk you had given today, how many lifetimes ahead do you feel you have?
Ben: I think I have as many lifetimes as I have significant books.You have to understand that a strong book takes life but it also gives life. Every strong book that you write you lose something of yourself into it but it gives you secret energy. So it is both creative and destructive.
Shehzar: And would you say that it is a cycle continuously emanating from within a writer?
Ben: It is a cycle continuously emanating from a writers psyche. But it also comes out of a health. It comes out of your spiritual health and the health of your imagination. Some writers don’t recover as well after significant books.
Shehzar: What would you attribute that to?
Ben: Insufficient spiritual nourishment.
Shehzar: You said you were a lot different growing up. As a writer, what were the axial thoughts? The pivot from where your thoughts gyrated from? What were the central elements that distinguished you?
Ben: An absolute sense that life is infinitely richer than we realise. The central thought for me is that life is constantly self generating. That life is concealed from us, that life is a mystery to us. Life is a revelation to us. Life is a house of many mansions. Life is a house of many universes.That’s where it comes from.It is this feeling I have about something immeasurable about life itself.
Shehzar: And that compels you?
Ben: It keeps me going upwards and inwards.
Shehzar: What would you say are the external factors that recently invoked your writing?
Ben: Many things. One of the things is the Grenfell disaster.
Shehzar: You had written a poem about that.
Ben: The Grenfell tower disaster moved me very very deeply in a way that I’ve not been moved for almost 15 years. It moved me very much because it made me aware that there is a gaping hole in the centre of capitalism and that hole is called humanity.
Shehzar: This reminds me a bit of that famous Yeats poem. The opening of The Second Coming ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ and I feel that movement away from that spirituality is reflected a lot in your writing
Ben: We human beings are many things.we are flesh. We are shadow. We are moonstone. We are tree. We are spirit. We are forgiveness, we are love. We are many things. And where spirituality of one kind or another disappears from the human story we become smaller and we are able to condone all sorts of monstrosities happening to one another.People can still lose spirituality whilst being religious.All you have to do is look around the world right now.Most of the terrible things taking place are taking place among religious people.
Shehzar: As an excuse?
Ben: Not as an excuse but as a blindness. I think sometimes peoples religion gets in the way of their humanity. Or that humanity should come first. A religion without humanity is an insult to God.
Shehzar: You seem to have borrowed from what I understand a lot of the traditional stories. How deep is this embedded in you?
Ben: Stories are deeply embedded in me. I grew up with stories. My mother was a great storyteller. Told me stories all the time. My culture, where I grew up in Nigeria, all the different places are storytelling places, we told stories to one another as kids. Africa is a storytelling land so stories are part of how I breathe, of how I think. But the writing I do, I am interested in oblique stories, in indirect stories. In stories that have more angles that you suspect. I’m interested in secret stories, stories people carry in them and they don’t know they carry. Stories that sometime destroy and sometimes liberates them, sometimes ruins them and sometimes lifts them up. We are always carrying these unknown stories and I think its one of the most important things about novelists and poets, that they bring out these unknown stories in their people, in their times and age. They bring it out so people can see it, face it and begin to deal with it. Grenfell was one of those stories.
(The Grenfell Tower poem by Ben Okri on Channel 4 News)
Shehzar: You had written a poem about it as opposed to writing a novel or short story, in general you are regarded very well as a novelist and as a poet but which one do you feel closer to? Spiritually do you feel your stories are created as a novel or as poetry?
Ben: Everything I do comes out of poetry, I am primarily a poetic being. By poetry, I do not mean metre or syllables and beats. For me it is also angles of seeing, ways of being, the relationship between things, the tangents and spaces, suggestions, the pressure and space around things.
Shehzar: That reminds me of Khalil Gibran’s ‘Let their be spaces in your togetherness’. One of my favourite single lines.
Ben: Thats lovely. I know it very well. There should be spaces in our imagination to. We have gaps but not enough spaces. Big difference.
Shehzar: So what next for you? You had alluded to the success you had with The Famished Road, how it wasn’t there initially but after the Booker prize, things changed, but now when you write a new story, do you still go in with that original feeling of it being not so great. How do you feel about that?
Ben: I don’t particularly care what people think when I start to write. And I don’t particularly care what people think when I finish.I care really, mainly about the truth of what I am trying to say. I care truly about the truth of what I am trying to say and how deeply I can touch one person through this work. One person at a time.
Shehzar: Thank you Ben.