myths and legends

Nigeria’s Ben Okri: ‘At its best, poetry draws our attention away from smallness’

By JP O’ Malley

Posted on December 9, 2022 14:34

 Nigerian-British author Ben Okri (photo  © Mat Bray)
Nigerian-British author Ben Okri (photo © Mat Bray)

Ben Okri is talking about Africa. “It’s a mysteriousness, old, old entity, that goes way back, connecting us to things that we don’t quite understand anymore,” the 63-year-old Nigerian-British writer explains from his home in London. “There are only bits and pieces of [Africa] that remain with us: the myths and the legends.” He further explores this theme in his upcoming collection of poetry ‘A Fire in My Head’.

In April, Okri will publish across the US his collection of poetry entitled: A Fire in My Head.

In the poem ‘Africa Is a Reality Not Seen‘ Okri describes the continent as “a dream not understood.”

“[Africa’s] wars are the scab of a wound/ its famine the cracking of seeds,” he writes.

“That poem is speaking deeply about what Africa is, and its tremendous ancientness,” Okri explains.

He describes poetry “as a force of energy and an unconscious analysis of the human spirit”.

“I am a spiritual and religious person,” he says.

“I believe there is something inside us human beings that is immeasurable. At its best, poetry draws our attention away from smallness, connecting us to this mysterious vastness that we are all part of.”

Responding to signs

The collection brings together many of Okri’s most critically acclaimed and politically charged poems, including ‘Grenfell Tower‘, which was first published in the Financial Times, in late June 2017, less than 10 days after a high-rise fire broke out in a 24-storey block of flats in West London, killing 72 people.

“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower,” Okri writes.

He performed a version of it that was broadcasted on the UK’s Channel 4. The poem subsequently received more than six million plays on Facebook.

“As I have gotten older, I have begun to feel more and more that writing can be a political [act],” says Okri.

“Language has great power to create a kind of mediation, and a slow transformation of our thought, because the world comes from our thought. And the world is not going to change if we don’t change the quality of our thoughts.”

Okri gave a public reading of the poem ‘Notre Dame Is Telling Us Something‘ on Britain’s BBC Radio 4, in April 2019, just days after a fire had nearly destroyed Paris’ famed Notre Dame Cathedral.

“When Notre Dame was burning, I immediately saw it as a sign,” says Okri.

“The fire was saying: something is wrong. That’s how we poets respond. We respond to signs and images because we see the world as a metaphor. Sometimes the world just speaks to us.”

‘A tradition of legend and satire’

Okri was born on 15 March 1959 in the small town of Minna in northern Nigeria.

His mother, Grace Okri, was part of the Igbo ethnic group, while his father, Silver Oghekeneshineke Loloje Okri hailed from the Urhobo tribe.

“The Urhobo [culture] and tradition that I come from is a tradition of legend and satire,” Okri says.

Because the real writers are not writing for prizes, which are just an illusion and nonsense … You write to change and transform something intangible – something that you can’t even put into words.

“We are a very pragmatic people. But we’re also a myth-infested people. We look at today, and we see the past. We look at the past and we see today.”

Okri also spent some time in England as a child.

He returned to Nigeria on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War, and then came back to England later on.

“Living in both countries has led me [to accept] being this person who is between the different ways of the world,” he says.

“I cannot allow myself to be swayed by the certainties of, say, one tradition, religion, race, or tribe.”

Spirit child

In 1991, Okri won Britain’s Booker prize, for his third novel, The Famished Road.

The story is told by Azaro, who is an abiku, which in English translates into a spirit child.

In the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria an abiku exists between life and death.

The novel’s title was inspired by a poem, ‘Death in the Dawn‘, written by Nobel prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka. Specifically, the line: “May you never walk / when the road waits, famished.”

In books such as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka and Poems From Prison, Soyinka described his experience of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70).

For 22 months of the fighting, he was imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement.

War through literature

Okri also tried to make sense of the Nigerian Civil war through literature.

Most notably in his collection of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine which won the Commonwealth Prize for Africa in 1987.

“At first, I didn’t understand what war was. How can you when you are seven years old?” he asks rhetorically.

“Nevertheless, the killings I saw during the conflict had an incredible impact on me. I was severely traumatised, but the trauma healed in time because I got taken to a shaman, among my mother’s people.”

Okri says the trauma of witnessing war as a young boy in Nigeria led him to question everything.

Those questions inevitably led him to a path of writing and storytelling.

‘Living in strange times’

“I was trying to make sense from an early age of the madness of war especially this idea of wanting to force somebody else to conform to your own idea of the world through violence.”

“We are living in strange times,” says Okri.

“Violence towards an artist is never an answer. Right now, there seems to be great distress in the collective human spirit.”

“The attack on [Salman] Rushdie might make some publishers wary. But the real writers will just get tougher and rise to the challenge in their work,” Okri says.

“Because the real writers are not writing for prizes, which are just an illusion and nonsense. You write to raise the level of your language and to create stories. But above all you write for the thing itself,” says the author, adding: “You write to change and transform something intangible – something that you can’t even put into words.”

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