When it comes to poetry, one name that readily comes to mind is Ben Okri. This poet and novelist was born on March 15, 1959, in Minna, Niger State, to an Igbo mother, Grace and an Urhobo father, Silver Okri. Silver moved his family to London when Ben was less than two years old. While there, he studied law at London while his son, Ben attended primary school in Peckham. In 1968, he (Silver) and his family returned to Nigeria where he practiced law in Lagos, providing free or discounted services for those who could not afford legal fees.
Ben started writing at the age of 14. This was after he was denied admission to do a short university programme in physics because of his age and lack of qualifications. He came to realise that poetry was his chosen calling. How?
It was a rainy day. Everyone was outside and he was alone. This day changed his life. While sitting in the living room, he took out a piece of paper and drew what was on the mantelpiece. That took him about an hour. Again, he took another piece of paper and wrote a poem. This took him about 10 minutes. He took a look at both pieces, the drawing was dreadful, and the poem? It was tolerable. It then became clear to him that, that was his area. It was something in his nature, something he could do with ease. He was naturally a story teller.
Ben began writing articles on social and political issues but these articles never found a publisher. He could have given up but he did not allow this deter him. He rather went on converting these articles to short stories, some of which were eventually published in women’s journals and evening papers. He got inspiration for his fiction from his exposure to the Nigerian civil war and a culture in which some of his peers at the time, claimed to have seen visions of spirits. The oral tradition of his people and particularly his mother’s storytelling also influenced his writing. According to him, “if my mother wanted to make a point, she would not correct me; she’d tell me a story.”
Some of his early work criticised the government. This criticism, Ben claims, led to his name being placed on a death list, necessitating his departure from the country.
In 1978, he moved back to England where he studied comparative literature at the University of Essex. When funding for his scholarship fell through, he found himself homeless. Sometimes he lived in parks while at other times, with friends. This was the period he described as being “very, very important” to his work. He added that he “wrote and wrote” in that period and that his desire to write intensified.
Okri’s success as a writer began when he published his first novel, ‘Flowers and Shadows,’ at the age of 21. He became a regular contributor to the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985 and continued to publish throughout this period. He also served ‘West Africa Magazine’ as poetry editor from 1983 to 1986. However, his reputation as an author was secured when his novel, ‘The Famished Road,’ won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991, making him the youngest winner of the prize ever.
Okri’s work is particularly difficult to categorise. Although it has been broadly categorised as post-modern, other categorisations of his work suggest an allegiance to Yoruba folklore, magical realism, visionary materialism, existentialism, etc. Of all these analysis, Okri has always rejected the categorisation of his work as magical realism – a genre of narrative fiction and more broadly, art, that while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, expresses a primarily realistic view of the real world while also adding or revealing magical elements.
He claims that this categorisation is the result of laziness on the part of critics. He likened this categorisation to the observation that a horse has four legs and a tail, adding that this does not describe it. He instead describes his fiction as obeying a kind of “dream logic.”
For Okri, there is nothing like absolute reality. “I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality; legends and myths, ancestors and spirits and death… which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality, we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it. But something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.”
He therefore warns when it comes to personal choices “beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.