/ 31 August 2007

Free spirit

Ben Okri has been described as a 'literary visionary' and 'irritatingly pseudomystical'. His latest novel, <i>Starbook</i>, continues his quest to capture Africa, writes Maya Jaggi.

When Ben Okri was down and out in London in the 1970s, sleeping rough after his Nigerian scholarship dried up, he made a pact with himself. “It seems you have nothing — no money, no friends,” he says. “But at the edge of the abyss, you find you have a choice; that life isn’t a given, it’s a choosing.” He willed himself to keep writing and by 21 had published his first novel. By 32 he had won the Booker Prize.

His resolution partly mirrors that of Azaro, the child protagonist of his Booker-winning novel, The Famished Road (1991). An abiku, or spirit-child of Nigerian lore, is destined to die in infancy, but can remain poised between the living, the dead and the unborn. Azaro chooses the adventure of life, yet retains his insight into the spirit world and the aspirations of the struggling — from his street-hawking mum and carpenter dad to the bar-owning brothel-keeper and politician Madame Koto.

Set in the run-up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and shifting from the tangible world to its spiritual, supernatural parallel, The Famished Road reveals the plight of a country perpetually struggling to be born, by portraying the faith and betrayed dreams of its poor.

The novel “took a long time and was a heck of a gamble”, Okri recalls. “I put everything on it. I had to break my hands to remake them.”

Among the pay-offs was that, if a British literary establishment can be said to exist, Okri, aged 48, is now an influential insider. A former board member of the Royal Society of Literature, a vice-president of the writers’ association English PEN and a patron of the Caine Prize for African Literature, he was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2001 and is the sole novelist on the advisory committee that recommends honours in arts and media. He has also worked as a BBC radio broadcaster and poetry editor of West Africa magazine.

Looking back on the “feast” that followed The Famished Road, he says, “I was hungry, then I wasn’t. I got to know a lot of people. I travelled. I had the opportunity of making friends on the page.” As importantly, the Booker conferred an artistic freedom. “I’m now Ben Okri — I can be what I am,” he says. “It means I can find new methods and attempt impossible things in tranquillity. I’ve left the gravity of what’s felt to be the only way stories can be told.”

Okri, who sees his books as “stations on a journey”, has published 10 since The Famished Road, including novels, essays, poetry and “aphorisms”. The writer Ali Smith is among those who see him as a “literary and social visionary”. Others have found his later work by turns profound and portentous, some objecting to a growing abstraction that can tip into what one admirer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, found to be an “irritatingly pseudomystical New Age mode”.

Starbook, published this month, is subtitled A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration. It is Okri’s first book with Rider, a Random House imprint that has previously specialised in mind, body, spirit. Set in an ancient kingdom, Starbook tells of a prince joining rival suitors for a maiden who hails from a tribe of master artists, amid intimations of encroaching enslavement by “white winds”. While public displays of affection towards an emblematic dying royal seem, at one point, reminiscent of the death of Princess Diana, the book is a parable or fairy tale — though, Okri insists, “one with iron teeth”.

There are clear allusions to the onset of the slave trade, but the tale’s origins lie, Okri says, in the myth of an ancestor who is captured or disappears, which he likens to the Pied Piper of European lore. “There’s a lot about the past that we can’t know except by stories,” he says. “If these are not passed on, how can we understand who we are, and what we can become?”

For him, the book is a mythic attempt to reconfigure a disrupted past, not least through its art. “It is not loss that defines us, but recovery. One has to read the clues of what seems to be lost, in art, artefacts, intuitions, dreams. The artist is a conduit through which lost things are recovered.” While on the most obvious level his subject is Africa, its resonance is larger, he insists. “Loss is an inextricable part of what it is to be human.”

Okri describes himself as a “universal spiritualist”, who draws on Taoism but finds value in all religions.

This book, he says, was “the fruit of a personal transformation through fire and suffering, and eventually through humility”. He admits a link to a period of bereavement, when his mother, Grace, died in 1996 (an “appalling, emptying experience”) and his father, Silver, in 1998. “It’s mum, it’s dad — it’s Africa,” he says.

Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he was brought to England aged 18 months. His father was a railway clerk who won a scholarship to study law in London. Okri grew up in Peckham, south London, “a bit of a scamp, a wild kid and troublemaker”. When the time came for him, aged seven, to return to Nigeria with his parents and three siblings, he had to be tricked on to the boat. Lagos was “both a shock and a delight. I saw it was possible to be a human being in a totally different way. It was like going into a multidimensional world. That gave me my aesthetic matrix, where a sense of alternatives became natural. There was no one world view, but as many worlds as there are ways of seeing.”

He was eight when the 1967 to 1970 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 world view. 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.

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.” 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.” — Â