Tag Archives: Booker Prize

An interview with Ben Okri

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.

Ben signing autographs at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

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

INTERVIEW

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.

With Ben after the interview.

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.

Ben: Pleasure

 

 

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The Luxembourg Review at Dhaka Literature Festival 2017

What is the significance of a literary festival?  Celebrated in abundance across many countries, it is becoming a more pronounced and regular feature of the Asian landscape only over the past decade. Whilst Jaipur holds the distinction of hosting the largest and most globally prominent one in the region, other areas in India are striving to replicate its overwhelming success. The importance of these literary arenas has subsequently spread to places like Karachi, Singapore, Bhutan and beyond. However, in Dhaka, this much needed momentum and gap was addressed with the birth of the Dhaka Literature Festival in 2012. In a press conference I attended for the 2017 edition, the directors expressed their desire for the festival to act as a starting point of important regional and global discussions.  In spite of the haze of censorship in the subcontinent via political clout and overt intimidation blurring open dialogue, the DLF stands united as a focal point in addressing these concerns to expand dialogues and minds with exposure to some of literature’s great modern luminaries. This is evident with a prestigious line-up over the years with authors like Nobel Laureate Sir V.S Naipaul, Pulitzer Prize winning Vijay Seshadri, Man Booker Prize winner Deborah Smith, highly acclaimed poet Sudeep Sen and more. This uncompromising ambition carries onto this year with the inclusion of Adonis, the greatest living Arabic poet, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri , Oscar winning Tilda Swinton, Playwright /BAFTA winner Sir David Hare etc among a distinguished host of Bengali writers and poets.

Inaugural Press Conference for Dhaka Literature Festival 2017 held at Bangla Academy

 

This year will also see the festival announce the winners of the DSC prize for the first time. A truly prestigious award of 25000$ presented for the best South Asian book, comprising of names like Booker winner Aravind Adiga, Anuk Arudpragasam, Anjali Joseph, Karan Mahajan and Stephen Alter making the 5 person shortlist.

What I find wonderful about the festival is the fact that local established and aspiring authors now have the opportunity to engage with and learn from authors of various genres without any distinguishing formalities. This cross pollination of ideas will hopefully lead to increasing the prominence of Bangladeshi writers worldwide. Access to world class literature is imperative towards this dream and the inclusion of literary agents like Kelly Falconer and Granta magazine may help expedite this vision.  This is not a literary festival that panders only to the elite of suburban Bangladeshi society with exorbitant fees;in fact, the festival and all panels remain free of any cost (allowing in the satiation of  any budding intellectual curiosity).  Another topic that was reiterated during the initiating press conference.

Karthika V.K (Former Chief Editor of HarperCollins India) in conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri at Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo:Syed Wasama Doja)

Last year I had the opportunity to be invited to the Dhaka Literature Festival  to launch my book and spread word of the review. It holds a special place in my heart because growing up in Dhaka during my formative years I never would have envisioned seeing a Pulitzer prize winning author casually strolling along the lawns of Bangla Academy in conversation with a host of other critically renowned writers. I am certain this simple yet exuberant sense of joy was replicated in the hearts of many attendees, now able to claim such moments not as some vague mirage from an obscure festival review online but to savour the opportunity  and relish it instead as a first-hand experience.

In conversation with Bangladeshi Cultural Minister Asaduzzaman Noor – Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
(Photo: Syed Wasama Doja)

 

 

Serendipity is often a neglected muse.  However, this year I am hoping to honour her as I find myself coincidentally in Dhaka during the tenure of the festival alongside Luxembourg Review Columnist Ikhtisad Ahmed and with our global team we plan to cover various aspects of the festival whilst eagerly engaging in the festivities and panels.

A link to the official Speaker List can be found here: DLF  2017
A link to the official Programme can be found here: DLF Programme

The Luxembourg Review at DLF 2017 events:

Words of conscience? Poetry and activism
Nausheen Eusuf, Kaiser Haq and Sophia Walker with Syed Shehzar Doja–   16th November 3-4 pm (Lawn)

The Bengalis: A race divided
Sudeep ChakravartiKushanava Choudhury, Ikhtisad Ahmed and Ananya Kabir with David Davidar 16th November- 3-4 pm (Vaskar Novera Exhibition Hall)

From page to screen

Sharbari Ahmed with Ikhtisad Ahmed 16th November – 5-6:30pm (Cosmic Tent)

Ceaseless Chatter of Demons

Ashok Ferrey with Ikhtisad Ahmed 18th November – 11:15-12:15 (Lawn)

 

¬ Shehzar Doja
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Luxembourg Review.