The tough alchemy of Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born left-handed and was forced, as was the custom in those days, to become right-handed. As Okri wrote the book that would be published under the title The Famished Road, which won the Booker prize in 1991, his right hand gave in.

“When I was writing The Famished Road, which was very long, I got repetitive stress syndrome. My right wrist collapsed, so I started using my left hand,” he said in a 1993 interview with the Independent.

The days in which the right-handed lorded it over the left-handed are past (what with the left-handed Barack Obama in power in the United States and the left-footed Lionel Messi terrorising footballers in Europe).  

Although Okri, in Cape Town to deliver the 13th annual Steve Biko lecture, didn’t want to attach great significance to the hand-switching, he saw something instructive in the change. "It does not have any great significance, certainly in terms of writing. It turned out to be a way of being free. It taught me, among many other things, that you are not just what you were born as; you can be what you want you to be. I find that tremendously freeing," said Okri.

“In terms of identity, it suggests that societies can change, that they are not fatally bound to what they think they are or what they used to be. Freedom begins with the realisation that we have, at any given point, many possibilities, many possible selves. What limits us as artists, as individuals in society, is when we have one past and therefore one future when, in fact, we have many futures. It is just a matter of which one we choose. That’s ­freedom.”

Okri’s lecture, “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa”, commemorated the life of the freedom fighter a few weeks after the Marikana killings, so our conversation inevitably moved to the meaning of Biko in the aftermath of the deaths.

“Even the most casual survey of Biko’s legacy [will bring up] his questioning spirit. He was an uncompromising person with a capacity to ask awkward questions. Questions which, if we don’t ask, will result in us perishing as a people. We are saved by asking these uncomfortable questions and by being compelled to give answers to them.

“One of the questions he would have asked about Marikana would have been: ‘What are you doing? Isn’t there a better way to do this? Isn’t there a more humane and a more intelligent way of doing this? Do we have to use live bullets?’ We need to put those questions in the air in capital letters. Is this the kind of people we want to be? Are we not better than that?”

The interview was conducted at the Pepper Club, a Cape Town hotel. The previous night, a Wednesday, at the University of Cape Town, Okri had asked these and similar questions. He spoke of how Biko continued to find resonance in Britain, Brazil and elsewhere.

“As a child growing up just after independence in Nigeria, one of the first moral questions in the world was posed to me by [one’s] circumstance. That there were countries in which it was enshrined that one race was inferior to another and that one race could dehumanise another posed  to me  questions that went right to the very route of existence,” reads a transcript of the lecture posted on literary website Slipnet. “Are human beings really equal? Is justice fundamental to humanity? Or is justice a matter of law? Is there evil? Can different races really live together? Is love unreal, in human affairs? Why is there so much suffering? Why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Can the will of a people overcome great injustice?”

A mutual space
The late thespian John Matshikiza and writer Dambudzo Marechera fled great injustice in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Matshikiza, the accomplished actor and son of the legendary Todd Matshikiza (of the Drum generation) and Marechera, the celebrated enfant terrible of African literature, were Okri’s friends in London and the three hung out at the Africa Centre. “We were brought together from three different countries to this mutual space that is London, [especially] the Africa Centre. One part of it was exile, the liberation war going on in Zimbabwe [then Rhodesia] and with John it was the pain of South Africa.”

Marechera won the Guardian ­Fiction Prize in 1979 for House of Hunger and Okri would trump that by winning the Booker, more than a decade later. “There was a sense that we had to take on the [Chinua] Achebe, [Wole] Soyinka and Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] generation, not in a bad way, not in the way of killing your father,” he said, breaking into good-natured laughter. “We wanted to take the story and run away with it. And, finding ourselves in London, we had to take on the challenge of Western literature. That was a steep challenge. We had to write in full cognisance of everything that had been written. We couldn’t write as if [James] Joyce hadn’t written Finnegans Wake or [Fyodor] Dostoevsky hadn’t written Crime and Punishment. There was for us a double challenge: the challenge of the older generation of African writers and the challenge of world literature. Maybe the toughest [of the two tasks] was the challenge of world literature at the point we found ourselves. We had to face the challenge and still be ourselves.”

Okri was chirpy and avuncular during our almost hour-long talk and the only moment he lost his joie de vivre was when he spoke of Islamic militant group Boko Haram and its threat to the viability of the Nigerian state.

For a few years now, Islamic literalists have been bombing churches and indiscriminately shooting civilians and security targets such as police stations. Years ago, the American security establishment said Nigeria would disintegrate around 2015. At the time the prediction was made, Boko Haram was virtually unknown; the only threat to peace in Nigeria came from militants in the Niger Delta. “For the first time, we are on the cusp of major danger, something more fundamental than the [Biafra] civil war.”

The Nigerian-Biafran war started in 1967 when the south east of the country, peopled mostly by the Igbo, declared independence. Up to a million people, mostly Igbo, died in the three-year war and those who dodged the bullets succumbed to famine. The writer’s mother, Grace Okri, was of Igbo heritage and would have been personally affected. Indeed, the theme of the war returns again and again in Okri’s work, including his short-story collection Incidents at the Shrine and the novel Dangerous Love.

“I am not pessimistic, but I am not optimistic. I don’t see any dialogue in which all these different people can talk to one another. The Boko Haram situation is so fundamental. I don’t think it’s deep enough to lead to civil war, but I think this is the greatest danger we have faced in 50 years, bigger than the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta militancy can be solved by listening to what they are saying. Theirs is not a quest to break away from Nigeria; it is really a question of justice. Boko Haram is different. It’s an issue of a totally different way of looking at the world, a different way of looking at how societies are run. I am not saying it’s impossible, but until something is done about it, [things] will get worse. There is so much bombing and shooting of children in classrooms that can go on before people react. I am surprised it has not gone up in flames already. It shows there is a deep reluctance for another bloodbath.”

As if staring into an abyss, Okri continues his dark monologue: “If we descend into another civil war, I don’t think the nation will hold together. There are many people who feel that it shouldn’t. I disagree with them. I think Nigeria is better, richer and somehow grander as it is with all its diversity. I guess this [infighting] is part of how a nation becomes itself”.

He is reluctant to blame Africa’s ills on the failure of its leadership. “Whether we like it or not, we get the leaders that we have made space for. Our leaders reflect us. I want to move the focus away from the leaders, to us. They didn’t get there because we have nothing to do with it; they got there because we have everything to do with it. They are our responsibility. We have attacked them so much as if they came out of nowhere. We need to ask questions about how our leaders emerge.” Okri could have been talking about the ANC’s Mangaung conference later this year.

Okri’s later writings (Star Book, Tales of Freedom and so on) have been much criticised for being too ethereal, shamanistic even. (His last few books have been published by an imprint that specialises in spiritual books.) I can see the reason for this trajectory: his turning away from the magical realism that was based on the realistic into a kind of writing that seems to levitate from a hazy, inchoate template.

Dangerous Love, Okri’s 1996 novel, has a line that might explain this metamorphosis: “I live too much inside my head. Maybe it is bad.”

Maybe not. The hard-nosed pragmatists who run this world have messed it up. Perhaps we need more people like Okri, the contemplative kind who inhabit their own heads and hearts; righteous folk (whether they are left- or right-handed) who are trying to make a livable world from the dreams and nightmares that confront us daily.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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