Tag Archives: Nigeria

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

 

 

Advertisements

THE WORDS OF MY MOTHER – A REVIEW

Final-Cover-anthology-377x600
To purchase  the book, click on the picture

 

Chukwudi Okoye’s anthology of poems is steeply didactic. A greater portion of it is also retrospective, Eurocentric, and, in some lines, pantheistic; although, the breath of metaphor conjures up a panoply of imagery plumbing deep the African core. In his book, one finds the “Niger” and the “frogs”; the “broken bamboo” and “black columns of ants”; “flutes” that are “urged to speak”, and “palm fruits ripe with fear”; “divine secrets from stones”, “sorrowful psalms of birds”, and “the rustling anguish of falling  leaves”.

The technique of the poet is to make these landmarks the vestige of a lost story, “the ancient rhythm of the land”, which suffers repression from the acts of “scavengers”. In The Music of the Flute, a long poem which preludes the collection of twenty-three poems, there is the lyrical and gruelling canvassing for a people’s awareness against a season of anomie. The apprehensions of the speaker, densely woven into a revue of parables and allusions, are based on the socio-cultural progression of his society; of its coming-of-age from a pilfered identity, a “plundered soil”; and of the need to, as the Music of the Flute urges, “remember” and “speak”.

. . . Shadows wait at the corner of evening.

Shadows pay homage at the feet of decay (82).

This first poem is a story of Shadows, and the poet is generous with the defining details of their essence: they came from a “distant” and “foreign land”; are devious, “come from the corners of the evening”; are “organised”; they “infiltrate the watchmen’s bones” and, “giving life to them” as stooges, “become the watchmen we know”. These Shadows are also portrayed as the “scavengers” who are everywhere, entrenched among the people, perpetrating common anguish.

The western wind has blown us away

The eastern waves have torn us apart (152).

The poet’s knowledge of colonial history is evident in his lines and filters into his stream of consciousness. His retrospection is most likely inspired by—as the title of the book points—the words of his mother, one who certainly must have lived in the time he has chosen to philosophise about.

Ezeamalukwuo; the name you gave

Me, Dearest Mother, so that I may speak (4).

His account of the Shadows speaks volumes about the imperial divide-and-rule system the English devised to colonise the poet’s native Ibo land in Southeast Nigeria in the early part of the twentieth century. This system placed absolute power in the hands of warrant chiefs who spoke for the black man and conquered for the white man. The fruit thereof was a pseudo-aristocracy, a subversion of the democratic political structure of the Ibo, one which turned the land against itself. Connotative words and phrases such as putrefaction, infiltrate, watchmen, outline of the land, strange voices, and plundered soil illustrate colonialism. Okoye’s choice of the evening as the fateful period of the day when the Shadows invade is symbolic; as that period is associated with rejuvenation, a time when a community is reformed to vacate its toil. His description of the western wind is reminiscent of Okonkwo’s discerning frustration in Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart: “The white man… came quietly … and we have fallen apart.”

It goes without saying that the effects of colonialism were extremely evident in the Ibo region of Nigeria, as after the entry of the White ensued a dramatic evisceration of the people’s cultural values and political institutions which were a sharp antithesis to the culture of the colonists.

. . . Green hopes of our generation

They fall on the cemetery of dreams,

To die and decay,

To reincarnate in time (270).

In the latter parts of The Music, there is an inquiry into the roots of redemption (of “land” and of “self”). It is asked, “Who knows the significance of the frog/Running about in day-time?” “It is not for nothing,” the flute replies (214). The poet strikes a stoic re-affirmation at the core of a reparative spirit.

The palm fruits have come of age

Not in the perennial passage of time

But in the sprouting of the spirit (319).

At the heart of his proposal for redemption, Okoye stages “a second coming”. It is not the literal apocalypse of the Bible that he refers to, but a political allusion to a revolutionary Day of Reckoning against the corrupted watchmen of the void, “butchers of dreams” and “betrayers of day”; a day which, according to him, would emerge if ignorance of the past be banished from the land, and actions for originality enthroned above intentions.

Biblical allusions, parallelisms, conceits, and repetitions are major devices of the poet. His repetitions engender an incantatory rhythm which enriches the epic voice. He uses parallelisms, conceits and allusions to strike emphases and embellish his storytelling; though artfully, yet to a point of near-weariness. Somewhere, there is a reference to the biblical Rachel in Ramah, “weeping for her children”; and the poet compares her mourning to that of his, for his native land. Elsewhere, “it is not by power, it is not by might/But by the sprouting of the spirit” (311); and “on enlightenment pathways of meandering roots/The flesh is weak; the flesh is weak” (325). However, it is those who heed the Music of the Flute that “shall possess the riches of the land”. His verses are also rife with indigenous aphorisms; the reader could pass them for a compilation of proverbs than a spontaneous flow of poetic thoughts.

But, as the pages turn, “Mother” is not always Mother, in the literal sense of the word. In Ezeamalukwuo, a poem on patriotism, Mother is Country; a nation the poet belongs to, but is, in a way, regrettably estranged from.

. . . Oh Mother! My eyes were little and blind. . .

No I did not understand you at all.

All I saw was your nakedness, Mother!

All I knew was wars, famine, death and dust

Your harsh sun, your Harmattan and your rain

That beat constantly on our leaking roof. . .

Thus I abandoned you, Dearest Mother (25).

In The Discovery, with a sombre tone as in Kofi Awoonor’s Songs of Sorrow, Mother is Life itself: “Oh Mermaid, oh Mother/In your presence alone have I come to see/That all my quests and questions/Are but a chase after the wind” (47).

Okoye explores a humanistic array of themes with the poems that emerge in the second section of his collection. They are, one time, a tribute to pensive joy; and, at another, a song of questions from a stricken heart. His language is unhappy, but his vision is bold.

Little Child, I Wish, and Remember, Soul Brother are poems on youth and innocence. In them are “the brownish recollections of a child” to a distant season of equality and freedom; and a hundred noble wishes to, with simplicity, “cross-pollinate the flowers of every mind”. I Love to Take a Walk, I Shall Go, Little Cherry Gold, The Bicycle Repairman, and A Plea for Paradise are powerful statements on the subject of death and origin. The poet’s position on death is a stoic and open-minded one, as he illustrates it to be an important mystery which is the punch-line of life. In two poems, he uses stories of bereaved characters to also mirror the stunning transience of human life. One is “a little ebony child”, “a sweet girl” whom the poet says was “stolen in Harmattan’s whim”. The other is “the bicycle repairman”.

The bicycle repairman was my friend

We bonded over a bicycle wheel. . .

Tomorrow we shall break more words and tears. . .

Someone was dead. . .

The next day I met a man pedalling his bicycle.

He looked familiar;

So I stopped him, and I asked:

“Who died yesterday?”

“The Repairman,” he replied,

And cycled away in time (20).

Yet, the poet would “prefer the wild uncertainties of life/To the deafening silence of certain death” (53). While his disposition towards death is enduring, his attitude towards life is adventurous. I Prefer the Wild Uncertainties of Life, All I Know of Life, and In the Midnight Hour are poems that undermine the “seriousness” of life, and, at the same time, celebrate its possibilities. The poet does not wish to make absolute sense of life; he is only interested in living it, open-mindedly and courageously.

. . . I walk the land of the living

In search of the secret of the dead

Before me is the fountain of hope,

But my path is covered in red (36).

Among other sarcastic poems on religion, science and the very fragile politics of identity; Okoye extols love as the bottom line of life. The Pilgrim Song, There is Something in a Song, and Woman of the Niger are love psalms. Through them, authorial assertion is vivid on the nature of love as a grand neutraliser; a plain where all philosophical waves of confusion are, for a moment, silenced.

You said: “Death is in the air. Death is on the earth. . .

I replied: “Life raised us up, then cut us down.

Death bound us to the underworld, but

Love raises us again, this time a zombie.” (59).

A glimpse of the grief that embodies the sensitive African soul is an achievement and cause for rejoicing at a postmodern evening of senile sensibilities. Chukwudi Okoye’s The Words of My Mother is, for this reality, and for the post-colonial African, a clamour for the restitution of lost Ideals on countless grounds.

—-

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: A Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly (SLQ).

Of Rebellion, Genesis and Refuge…

The author writes this article “In Honour of Ashraf Fayadh”…

It is simple enough to recognize the poet as a being, as no glamorous exception to that entity of human flesh. We can, of course, eschew variant cases of Shakespeare or Ovid to whom evidences of actual portraitures are lost. One cannot completely discard the wild possibilities of alien mutations. But then, we merely depict ‘WILD’ to push forth such staggering notion. Somehow, the poet is an embodiment of this curious wildness; and it is, in most instants, not simple to recognize him as such. In other words, it is easy to gaze upon a poet, relish conviction and say, ‘This is a man!’ Yet, it is oft a herculean task to demystify the motif around the next evaluation which is: ‘What sort of man is he capable of being?’

This abstract nexus of inquiry is perhaps the essential gulf that lies between the poet and the poem, between one area of identity and another. It is impossible to probe this space without fortuitous inferences from the primal debate of beauty as a poetic component, of whether knowledge spawns imagination or vice versa. In the case of concrete self, it is the debate of whether the poet breeds the poem or vice versa! Such rumination—as is expected of any serious artist to accommodate—begets resolutions which, in turn, beget the very foundation upon which poetic artistry must be consecrated.

Usually, it is a complex phase, one where the poet either steers away from hubristic overtones as escape from that restrictive sedition for logic or surrenders to intuitive powers and risk self-willed severance from real life. And yet the poet does not, for that reason, fail to distinguish between himself and his energies, between his realm and the realities, or sacrifice his aesthetic independence on the temple of a hysterical and heterogeneous audience. After all, poetry is beauty. Beauty is self-terming. To co-opt Lisa Samuels—perhaps, one of the fiercest critics of the vintage Bysshe Shelley—I like to poise the poet on the same axis with the very nature of beauty. The duo are resistant structures, imaginative structures that present an impenetrable model of the unknown. Beauty, like the poet, is therefore endlessly talk-inspiring, predictive rather than descriptive, dynamic rather than settled, infinitely serious and useful.

In morally fragile societies, while every possible effort is made to thaw the pen, to glaze fissures on that creative cauldron of cosmic powers, poets must understand that the communal journey to conscience is not a smooth passage of rapid rectifications, but prone to  the penchant of cynics and invasion of monsters. A firm reconciliation with one’s own ‘ideo-poetic’ choices is thus imperative to transact the business of identity from external interrogations. That principle of reconciliation is every bit as important as the impulse that nerves the aesthetic faculty. The most passionate impulse has not resolved stylistic instabilities, alienation, lingual dissonance and strictures for the poet, not even essentials such as virtues. How then can anyone answer the question of what sort of man a poet is capable of being, or prescribe limited definitions for his limitless artistry if the poet himself has not asked his heart, reconcile demarcations between concepts and non-concepts?

What gives hope for reconciliation is the very unique capacity of the mind for self-dialogue, and the budding poet must indulge. I use the word ‘indulge’ deliberately, because this act of inquiry is internal and inculcates definite methodologies of questioning. These are found within the precincts of what I term the ‘trilogy of poetic identity’. You must exonerate the overreachingness of that coinage. It is amazing that contemporary poetry has contented itself with merely trivializing established valuations—a blind concession to determinism—since it cannot altogether comprehend the ‘rigidities’ of conceptual forbears. Even within the liberal festivities of contemporariness, it is vital to teach identity, to impart the need for poet and poem to reconcile themselves upon the makeup of rebellion, genesis and refuge.

So, what are these terms? What are these stances? What exactly are their imports and how precisely have they sprung into existence as sole determinants of poetic identity, or say, reconciliation?

Well, there are no superfluous denotations to these except that I, a poet, have only asked myself: why are you a poet? Is it fostered or genetic? Assumed, perhaps? Fortuitous ordainment from an anonymous divinity? A poet should be as fascinated with himself as his audience! That self-impelled curiosity leads to direr revelations: I am a poet because I must be; and because I must be, I must also become a rebellion against life’s reality, a genesis against life’s mortality and a refuge against life’s hostility!

So there it goes – the triple bulwark of inevitable circumstance. Should a poet deform his daily challenges or should his daily challenges form him? Should he be a creator of experiences or should experiences create him? Should he console or be consoled?

The poet only begins to exist—that is, transcend the basic recognition of “being”— after he has answered these questions. I have answered mine.

___

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: a Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

 

Attempted Speech and other Fatherhood Poems- A Review

Click on the photo to download a free copy of the chapbook
Click on the photo to download a free copy of the chapbook

Attempted Speech and other Fatherhood Poems is a chapbook of fifteen poems written by Nigerian linguist cum teacher, Kola Tubosun. It was published by Saraba Magazine in September 2015 as the fourth title in its individual poetry chapbook series.

At first glance, a compilation around the theme of fatherhood promises marvels; although Kola’s claim to thematic divergence is essentially one of approach. In weaving a string of poems that “are not as much a dedication to this (fathering) process however as they are personal reflections on that”, one encounters a cryptic yet compelling passage of nostalgia, excitement and anxieties. With an embrace of fine language, Kola’s collection promises all of these.

While the bard’s caveat of impending tangents (in the course of reading) announces itself by the turn of each page, most of his poems embody the experience of the budding father—emotional and cognitive—around private orbits of hope and transitions. The motion is aesthetic and subtle; one is tempted to contemplate chronology, though directly no claim is made by the poet for such implement.

What gives, for instance, the foremost poems – “Macedonia”, “Greener Grass” and “Couvade” – their fervent, near-surreal melancholy is the fact that they may be poems of early bereavement. Moods of deprivation are imbued by hopeful desperation. To quote the bard: In “Macedonia,” his invocations are for a soul to rebound to life: “Speak you must… / As with a lost wing, flap on white winds.” In “Greener Grass,” a trance of loss later accosts his afternoon as “Hair strands / On my hands break / From my lover’s head.” In “Couvade,” “As a churning stomach, rumbles the dour sky / Of the morning, the news reaches me, cold” and then, “Bile pushed saltiness to the home of tears.

One prominent quality of Kola’s poetry, as it is with Lola Shoneyin’s, Jumoke Verissimo’s and others, is that it is structured within a fluid framework which very effectively navigates the core of the sentiments of human consciousness. What ensues is a powerful interfusion of muse, thought and story.

“Five Days of Warmth” is a testimony to the above-said form, considering its titled stanzas and references to actual figures:“Jojolo”, a quiet child who is thought to be male in the womb of his mother; a hospital “diviner”; and then, a child who is again thought to be female, whose presence would be the “presence of light”, and of a feast, “ofada / On the palates of a famished guest.” It is commendable how Kola chronicles a five-day experience of looming fatherhood (in the preceding moments of childbirth, perhaps): he names the stages across the progression of “knowledge”, “warmth” (of womb), “dread”, “love” and “acceptance.”

Yet, waiting is also a part of fatherhood – a transient phase of fantasy that almost crushes the bard in the battle between hope and worry. This is what a wait feels like:

Is like a knife, slowly cutting

A dead limb of recurring expectations…

(A Wait, p9)”

As the pages flip, an earnest message is brought to bear upon the reader; and it is the fact that there are lots of apprehensions for “A Father of a new son / In a new age with new knowledge (A Cutting, p11).” In a poem, Kola introduces rather interesting reflections on the subject of human choice, and that as it concerns the new-born. On issues of pleasures, beauty, tradition and difference, a big question mark is placed on the notion of a young human’s power to make free choices unconstrained by society, by the external “Wide constituents of entitled opinions.

However, Kola believes that the child soon and always finds his own path; even though such path is a summation of a thousand existent ones; even though “each new step is a beginning into the cold wild, / With the certainty of the unsure steps of a walking child (Life, Like a Bus Terminal, p16).” For the bard, the discussion on the dynamics of his theme is inexhaustible: “I believe it quite unlikely that anyone is able to fully express fatherhood in words (Preface, p4).” Even more, the rumination of it as a mantle of guardianship is an extremely dicey trajectory for conclusions. In another poem, one finds a confession of honest wonder:

What does one write on a

Brown slate of bouncing flesh

What poem of such complex

Rhyme will explain the colours

Of his new-found views?

(Blank Slate, p20)”

But all of this does not deprive a father of the joys of his child’s “Attempted Speech.” “The syllables arrange / Themselves into tones, like staccato beats / On a metal drum” and the exciting scene “charms the tears off his mother’s eyes.”

A deductive examination of the bard’s musings reveals that he is more likely to be a liberal father than a conservative one. The omens are overlapping and recurrent. It could also be that his sinuous lines of conscientious restraint are equally cries for broad-mindedness in parenting – a redefinition, too, of what it means to be a father. Kola’s “Fatherhood” is not afraid of temperance, neither is it troubled by discretion. Clearly, it is tolerant of change, not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition. Or, at least, it most likely will be. A reviewer—like me—is far from being a prophet.

_____

Oyin Oludipe, Nigerian writer, edits nonfiction at EXPOUND: a Magazine of Arts and Aesthetics. His poems and essays have been published in various national and international journals like Ijagun Poetry Journal and Sentinel Literary Quarterly.