Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ben Okri: Capturing the Living Reality of Life, Spirit, and Community

Saturday 28 January at 10:30 at the Adolfo Mejía Theater in Cartagena, Ben Okri spoke to Rosy Boycott about his work.

1991 winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road, Nigerian writer Ben Okri had been scheduled to speak at an event that the British Council had organized for English language educators. The event ended up being cancelled because not enough teachers registered (Information publicizing the event was not even sent to her school, said Sally). Okri's presentation to the general public at the Adolfo Mejía theater, the largest venue used by the Hay Festival in Cartagena, sounded as if it had been prepared for an audience of young people.

Okri began by looking at the question of why societies need writers. "Authors, as artists, let us step back and look at the whole picture… They show us things about ourselves that we didn't know existed." Writers, he says "keep us connected to the long story of humanity." "Authors are not about finding answers, but rather for holding a mirror up to society." A writer's work can enter the "common consciousness," contributing to the forging of identity. He notes that a country that forbids writers from working or publishing is a country that is at war with itself

Okri discussed different forms of writing. Poetry, he says, is pure, natural response to life; it is a way of "apprehending life" in words. The short story is a more indirect and formulated format. An essay is a form of reflection or meditation. Reflecting on his own creative process, Okri says that when he starts writing he does not know where the story is going to lead him, "You discover where you are going by getting there." Writing drafts represents the process of discovering what you are trying to say, he adds.

Okri talked about his life. Born in Minna, Nigeria, he moved to London with his family at age 1.5 because his father had won a scholarship to study law. At age seven, his family decided to return to Nigeria. His father had already gone ahead to pave the way for the family. Ben did not want to go to that strange African country; he wanted to stay with his mates. His mother said that she understood his feelings, but that she would appreciate it if he would accompany her to the ship. Young Ben agreed to his mother's request. He boarded the ship and was enjoying the tour of the facilities "when suddenly his mother realized that they had cast off and set sail." It took him years to forgive his mother, he said. Their return to the country in 1967 was inauspiciously timed, coinciding with the start of the Nigerian-Biafran War.

The civil war divided ethnic clans and the family spent many years hiding their mother, who was an Igbo, a member of the rival minority in the area in which they lived. The war was brutal. Okri recalls seeing rivers of bodies, and witnessing acts of courage and cowardice. His mother was a major influence in Ben's life, fostering a love for story-telling: instead of telling him things directly, she would tell him a story.

While his mother represented the oral tradition, Okri's father introduced him to the world of books with the large collection he had brought back from England. Every day he instructed his son to dust the books, but warned him not to read them. The forbidden enticement was irresistible. In his early teens Okri began to devour the classics of English and world literature: Aesop's Fables, The Arabian Nights, Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on.

Okri's early attempts at journalism did not meet with much success, so he tried his mother's approach of using stories to tell what he wanted to say. He quickly encountered the African dilemma of how to tell a story using a language that is foreign to the lives of the people. He struggled with the challenge of trying to capture the living reality of life, spirit, and community. He needed to find language, imagery and symbolism that would allow him to tell his stories without having to over-explain. In The Famished Road, Okri seized upon the iconographic image of the spirit-child who is born, sees the injustices of the world, doesn't like them, and dies. Over and over. The spirit child is the vehicle for Okri's story, allowing him to move between the world of the spirits and the living, and to create an African magical realism.

Okri ended with a reading of his 30-point prose poem "Healing the Africa in Us," which begins with the reflection: "Heart shaped Africa is the feeling center of the world. Continents are metaphors…" and goes on to explore how "We have to heal the Africa in us if we are going to be whole again." The piece is a bit long to reproduce here, but it may be viewed at http://lifeinmyyrs.blogspot.com/2011/09/another-post-on-ben-okri.html
I'm not convinced that it helped my find my inner Africa.

Is it too bad that the event for young people was cancelled because Ben Okri's presentation was both exotic and universal in his recounting of his personal history and the way he explained how authors harness their lives and feelings to share experiences through their writing. It was, however, disconcerting to listen to a presentation that had obviously been prepared for a different audience. In fact, as I did some research to double check a few factual details about his life, I encountered articles and interviews in which Okri makes the same points, pretty much verbatim. He has apparently been on the Hay Festival circuit since 2010. No wonder his presentation sounded rehearsed rather than fresh and spontaneous. Nonetheless, Ben Okri is a warm and engaging speaker, and it was enjoyable to hear him talk about his life and work.

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