is a novelist and poet hailing originally from Nigeria. He won the Booker Prize in 1991 with The Famished Road, while Astonishing the Gods (1995) was recently listed by a BBC panel among ‘100 novels that shaped our world’.
Simon Joseph Jones met him in a west London restaurant on 31 October 2002.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Children are quite prominent in your novels, usually as a sort of unsullied counterpoint to the world around them. Is that a literary device or does it reflect something of your own experience?
It’s not got to do with my childhood at all. I think I use children because they give me an opportunity to look at the world in the most truthful way. They give a very clear view of even what is unclear and sullied about the world – not because of their innocence or naivety but because of their clarity of seeing.
What is it that clouds our vision as we age?
So-called knowledge – which is a kind of ignorance. In other words, factual information. It is the stuff they put in that makes us more stupid and more ignorant.
Is that why you have told schoolchildren they don’t need experience in order to be able to write?
What I meant was, you don’t need lots of experience: you don’t need to have travelled a lot and been involved in wars and done this and done so many things, which is an assumption that many people make when it comes to writing novels.
Actually, all you need to have done is lived and been aware of life. To be a constantly open question mark, that’s all you really need. A life of one year can furnish 20 novels: it just depends on the eye that is seeing and the mind that refracts and the spirit that interprets and the imagination that transforms.
You grew up during the Biafran War and its difficult aftermath. It must have been useful to be able to transform that through your imagination.
Most of the things I say are semi-humorous, because one shouldn’t take the human condition too seriously. It’s both tragic and comic – and sublime, all at the same time
These are not things that one is in any way proud of or grateful for: these are traumas, these are things that wounded me, and wound me still. The civil war I have not entirely recovered from; I don’t think I ever will. The political times that I’ve lived through in Nigeria have furnished me with enough pain to last a generation. These are things that one endlessly learns from, about the darker side of human nature and the nobler side.
It’s one of the reasons I find it quite difficult to get on with people of my age group in the West, because the experience of war separates us. I find it much easier to communicate with an older generation that grew up in the Second World War. There is something about having gone through a war in your own land, affecting your own people – close-up, so you can smell dead bodies and see people being shot and see people doing the shooting.
There’s something about that which brands your spirit. I think it’s something one forgets for a long time, because it’s not something one can easily live with. I forgot it for 17 years – I buried it completely – and one day, mysteriously, it just surfaced. And I have been having to deal with it ever since. I’m still having to chew it over, slowly, very, very slowly.
Is that why you have called yourself a ‘war poet’?
Well, I guess so. It was a very serious stance, because I really believe that the nature of warfare in our age has changed and we are in a warzone now, just as much as where the bombs are being dropped. I think that now war takes place in people’s minds and in their hearts and in their dreams. A mentality of war actually creates the reality of war, which is why I say that this peace is a war peace.
You’ve said that you aspire to unite people with your words. Is unity the answer to that state of mind?
I said that semi-humorously. Most of the things I say are semi-humorous, because one shouldn’t take the human condition too lightly or too seriously. It’s both tragic and comic – and sublime, all at the same time. For some reason, the people here who write about my work miss the humour that’s always underneath in it. There’s always a playfulness.
The children in your novels remind me of Dickens’s boys in some ways, and I think you have said that his characters are Nigerians. Is there a kind of transcendence in literature that means that a character is as recognisable in one country as in another?
The transcendence is first of all in the quality of the work – and by that I don’t mean the writing. There is a big error, if you don’t mind my saying so, being perpetrated in the West where it is believed that something is a work of literature solely on the basis of the quality of the writing. It’s like saying that the quality of a car is in its external design, how many fine and beautiful bits it’s got on the outside of it. Actually, the quality of the car is in its durability, the soundness of its engine, its ability to carry you great distances, its internal space, the comfort that it renders you. And it’s true also of works of art, yeah?
OK, having said that, all true works of literature are universal because they speak to one place that is in all of us the same: that is, a resonating chamber of the soul, of the heart and spirit. Not the mind, not the intelligence, not the eyes, not the senses, but that resonating chamber of the spirit inside. That’s where art gets to, whether the artist knows it or not, whether it’s deliberate or accidental, it really doesn’t matter. If it gets to that chamber and resonates, and then lets the space inside do its own work, it has done the greatest job it can do, regardless of whether it’s fancy footwork in the writing or not.
The part of nature that we see is a very small part, and the most important part of nature is the part that we don’t see – and it’s this part that exerts the greatest influence on us
That is universal literature, that is true literature, that leaps across boundaries effortlessly. The best of Dickens is not British, I’m sorry, just as the best of Tolstoy and the best of Shakespeare…
You’ve said that Shakespeare is an African, I think.
Yes, and so is Homer. And in the same way Chinua Achebe is an English writer, and the authors of The Arabian Nights are German and Italian and French and Nigerian. They belong to all nations and none. They speak to that which culture grows on, which is human being.
At the end of the day, there is just humanity. We bang on far too much about culture and make it out to be this hugely defining force that divides human beings: my culture’s different from yours, therefore we can’t talk to one another. To my mind, this is an appalling error.
In Songs of Enchantment,1Jonathan Cape, 1993 you tell the story of a culture without language that develops harmoniously until somebody speaks. They say, ‘I saw the rainbow first. It’s mine’ – and the culture then descends into violence. It seems odd for a writer to say that language can be a threat in that way.
The whole business of writing is an odd thing, to be quite honest with you. I can’t speak for other people but I find I am dealing with an impossibility. Language is both the vehicle and the obstacle. One so wishes that one could use a medium that is more invisible than language. We have freighted words with too many meanings, so one word does not mean the same thing to everybody. Words that are intended to unite end up dividing, and those that are intended to be innocent actually end up being insulting.
The difficulty here is how to use words in a way that transcends words, to get to what words are, at the end of the day, trying to get to, which is silence, stillness and that resonating chamber. The final destination of ‘words’ is to render itself invisible, to remove itself into a higher vibration, which is thought and therefore the condition of being.
It’s a strange paradox. Everywhere I turn, I hear people talking about language as if it were brick, as if it were this thing that is never absorbed into the spirit. It’s not a physical thing, it’s abstract marks on a page, it’s a set of sounds. It’s intangible. The only effect it has on us is that it resonates in us. That’s it.
And after you’ve read, the repercussions change and continue. It’s one of the most extraordinarily dynamic processes, much more complex than the ripples when you throw stones into water. That is why the power of storytelling, and its mystery, is something I pay the greatest attention to.
Your writing is often described as ‘magical’, and you subtitled Mental Fight2Phoenix House, 1999 ‘an anti-spell for the 21st century’. Are you trying to bewitch the reader?
This is a very, very important question.
I think that a work of art acts upon us best the way nature acts upon us at its most mysterious – which is to say, without our being entirely aware of it. The part of nature that we see is a very small part and the most important part of nature is the part that we don’t see – and it’s this part that exerts the greatest influence on us.
I think it is the saving grace of humanity that we are dual beings. We are flesh and spirit, reality and dream, material and immaterial, words and silence, fact and fiction. We are mysterious
Literature must function the same way (and the same is true of art). It just has to. It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see. So, the method by which we deliver this enchantment, this possibility of revelation, to the reader is to use a vehicle that appears to be visible and concrete but inside it carries something mysterious that is invisible and not concrete. The outer bit goes in and is absorbed, and then the inner bit, unabsorbed, delivers its transcendent core to our transcendent core.
Deep speaking to deep.
Quite. How this is done in the work, that’s another matter. It can’t be talked about. But this is what I posit, because of my view on life itself. I don’t have a primarily materialistic view of reality and so I cannot have a primarily materialistic view of art. This is why I diverge from many of my contemporaries.
I understand that the way Azaro moves between the worlds of the flesh and of the spirit in The Famished Road3Jonathan Cape, 1991 is typical of how Africans see the world.
Certainly that’s the way it was in Africa – but you have to understand that capitalism and materialism have so infected the cultures of Africa that we now have just as much a materialistic and material way of looking at reality as anybody else. The literature of Africa does not really in any way resemble what I’m doing in The Famished Road.
And it was as controversial in Nigeria as it was here. The thing is, people do not necessarily know how they see the world, until a work of art comes along and shows them and just resonates so normally with the way they see the world (though it’s the first time they’ve actually been aware of it) that they say, ‘Oh my goodness! This is us. This is us.’
It took some seeing, and the seeing came out of a great pain and a great sense of injustice, a desire to renew not only a culture and a people but the world. It came out of a very deep, a huge commitment to a project of humanity. It is not something that came about because I just wanted to write a book and win a prize, or make some money or even a name for myself. It came out of a very deep suffering and a deep rage at the condition of the world as I found it – and as I find it still, really.
Were you surprised by the way that people in the West, or the North, also responded to it?
I thought when I was writing it that people would think I had lost my mind. And yet at the same time I was working out of a very simple intuition, that will not go away, that we live our lives in duality. I think it is the great saving grace of humanity that we are dual beings. We are flesh and spirit, we are reality and dream, we are material and immaterial, we are words and silence, we are fact and fiction, we exist and yet we also transcend existence, we are mortal and yet we are immortal. We are mysterious. We are mysterious. We are mysterious multiplied.
This intuition of a duality I feel is universal. The most hard-headed materialist can’t resist it, can’t avoid it, can’t even argue against it – they wouldn’t know how. They may say that we are pure matter and our thoughts are just material things, and yet they are moved by things they can’t see, they are dealing with elements they can’t touch. Things like love and thought and sensibility and hope, the thing that passes between two people when they look at one another with empty space between them and yet communicate something, are all mysteries that haunt our lives. It’s this, I think, that is the greatest appeal of art that endures and it’s this that is one of the resonating intuitions behind all of my work and it’s this that is the arcadia I seek. It is the real.
Materialism will not do: the world is more than just evidence and fact and provable stuff. A great portion of the world is symbolic – not in the sense of not being real but that it has to be read
So, when a materialist says, ‘Be real!’ and when I say, ‘Be real!’, we are talking two different ‘reals’ – and mine is a damn sight bigger than theirs, because their ‘Be real’ at the very most is limited to stoicism, whereas mine has that plus, plus, plus.
The way you express yourself often has echoes for me of a biblical rhetoric. What use does biblical language have for you?
I think maybe that when you start to deal with material and immaterial things you fall into the realm of what Christianity also deals in, and what all great religions deal in: I think, the highest parts of us. This is the language of our best and truest sense of life. Even the materialist writer, when they are most inspired, strays into this incantatory language, which you call ‘biblical’, because it’s unavoidable. It’s the highest level of expression of what it is to be human. It’s just unavoidable.
It’s wonderful and extraordinary that when we want to speak of the highest things – whether it’s courage, whether it’s nobility of spirit – we push against the very boundaries of the material. So, we stray into poetry, and into what you call ‘biblical’, what is spiritual. It’s almost as if materialism is defeated by materialism. It’s very touching in a way.
In your novel In Arcadia,4Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002 Lao longs for a new Bible that would ‘help get us out of the mess we’ve got ourselves into’. Why can’t the old Bible do that?
First of all, it’s Lao saying that. But maybe, just as the world is made new with every dawn, just as we need the old stories told with the voice of a new day, maybe also we need new bibles.
What am I trying to say here? Have we become increasingly distanced from its language? Has the language become so familiar that we don’t hear it any more? Does it need to take a new form to get to us, to say what it has always been saying? Because we have got here to this impossible place, in spite of the fact that we have this Bible and many bibles.
By which you mean the texts of other faiths?
Yes. In spite of all of these exalted and inspired gifts of God, still we have got here, to this time and place where we’ve got nations making nuclear bombs and disgusting chemicals by which to kill one another, more and more wars, division, hatred, the depletion of the rivers, the pollution of the planet. Come on! We ought to ask some questions here. Something’s gone wrong, or something’s not speaking to us any more, or we have lost our way. And maybe we need something else to help us find our way back.
We have to make a choice: we are on the brink of the precipice. The materialist reading of the world will not do: the world is more than just evidence and fact and provable stuff. A great portion of the world is symbolic – not in the sense of not being real but that it has to be read.
I think we have to go back to reading the Bible in the way it was intended to be read, as of the spirit: resonating its truths within our selves so we read it inside our own spirit. When we return to that kind of reading of the Bible, and of the world and of one another, then the possibility of regeneration begins.
It’s like we’ve lost our sense of colour and we now only see the world in – not black and white but blue and white. Materialism has infected even our poetry, our art, everything
We’ve come to a point where we have to admit that the way we are reading the world is wrong: we are asking the wrong question, we are asking for the wrong evidence, we are asking the wrong thing from one another and from the universe. We say to each other: ‘Prove to me that you love me.’ We are asking for more and more yields, so we’re making our science distort everything, so everything has become unnatural…
You see what I’m saying? It’s infecting every aspect of our life, not just our reading but our living, the food we eat, the way we even think of love. It’s become cancerous. Maybe we have to go back over the ‘rubbish’ we’ve thrown out of our spiritual and psychic and cultural houses and bring back some very useful modes of being and of thought that we threw out in what we thought was our new knowledge, which in fact was a new kind of ignorance.
Do you trace this right back to the Enlightenment?
You tell me when we lost the language of the spirit and I will tell you when it all started to go wrong. It’s like we’ve lost our sense of colour and we now only see the world in – I’m not going to say ‘black and white’, I’m going to say ‘blue and white’. Materialism has infected even our poetry. Our art has been infected by it. Everything.
That sense of something lost is very biblical – that sense of corruption, of being separated from God.
Well, you see, now you’re talking the language of materialism. I mean, hello, Simon! You used the phrase ‘separation from God’, and yet you’d be the first person to say that God is all things, so how can we be separate from God? It’s like saying a drop of water is separate from the ocean around it.
I’m not sure that I would say that God is all things.
Then what are you saying? That there are parts of this universe that are not God? Because that’s weird.
If you are saying that, you are saying that God is incomplete in the spaces in this world where there are things that are in contention with God. And so God is not all-powerful, all-seeing and omnipresent. That is a problematic reading.
Can there not be a Satan, say, that challenges God?
I can’t accept that reasoning. It may be a challenge to humanity but not to God. Nothing can be a challenge to God, full stop. It’s out of the question. You see, you either believe in God or you don’t believe in God. You either believe that there’s some immanent force in the universe that is all-pervasive and contains all and has given birth to all, or you don’t.
So, what does evil mean or represent?
Well, that’s it! Every time I hear some materialist, here comes their coup de grâce: they’re bringing out their real big guns now, folks, and it is, da-dum, da-dum, the question of evil! Hello! What are we talking about? They say that something monstrous that some ants did to one another challenges the remotest stars, and all of that which surrounds that which surrounds that which surrounds, which you cannot even begin to conceive of. Think about it!
Suffering should make us ask more questions. It should set us on a journey towards finding out a higher and truer understanding. It ought to start a quest, not end it
Do you see what I’m trying to say? What’s taking place here is an overextension of the imagination of our horror – overextending it so much that we want to throw it high up beyond and beyond and beyond, when in fact it is a moral horror that is applicable to us, human beings.
I encounter too many people who have terrible things happen to them and it makes them stop believing in anything. They have the perfect excuse to be as disenchanted and as cynical as they want to be, to – well, not to ask questions about the mystery of life, not to seek. But the highest and noblest point of suffering, I think, is that it should make us ask more questions. It should set us on a journey towards finding out a higher and truer understanding of it all. It ought to start a quest, not end it.
You know, the most noble thing about us is that desire to find out who and what we really are, and to not stop asking that question, to just go on asking it. And when I come to somebody who has found a reason not to do that any more, I’ve found a person who has found a damn good reason to be dead.
What influence do you think a poet can have?
The influence a poet can have is only in relation to how much light they’ve got. That’s it, bottom line.
What sort of light?
Inner light. Inner light. That’s it. Not the quality of their language, not how many connections they’ve got, whether they are Cambridge chaps, streetwise chaps, whether they’ve suffered in the greatest wars or this, that or the other… There’s nothing else. It’s just the quality of light that they have within them. There’s a mastery of your art in terms of the craft, the techniques and so on, but that’s actually quite secondary. The value and the power of the poet depends finally on the depth and the truth, the mystery and the majesty, the simplicity and enchantment of what it is that they’ve got to awaken in us; and that depends on what is already awakened in them. You can only do in accordance with what you are.
What is the source of that light?
I think it comes from what you intuit about life, it comes from the quality of the questions you ask and your sense of life’s mystery and power. It can’t come from anything else.
Surely you can apply that light of intuition to anything, not just to poetry or fiction?
Absolutely! Thank you very much! You can apply that light to politics, to carpentry, to cooking, to being a mother (please, I hope to God they’re doing that!), to being a father, to being a friend, even to just not doing anything. Just to the quality of how you live, just how you are.
So, what’s so special about poetry?
I don’t want to make poetry out to be more special than anything else. It’s just one route by which the treasure gets to the heart. It’s just one route. It has a special place, of course, by being part of the family of art. It has a very special place in what it can do for humanity, I don’t doubt that at all. But I don’t want to over-exalt it: it really is the humblest of all the forms of serving the spirit of humanity.
I don’t know what Mr Armitage thinks, so I wouldn’t comment on it. All I’ll say is that one ought not to pay that much attention to what poets say. Their work is quite separate from what they profess. A poet can say, ‘Oh, you know, there’s no meaning in the universe, da da da,’ and yet the work they do may have within it elements that are transcendent.
The minute I say, ‘There is no meaning in the world,’ I have rendered myself null and void, finito. Poetry included. You can’t say, ‘The world is meaningless but my poetry can have meaning.’ Existentialism defeats itself.
A longer version of this interview was published in the January/February 2003 issue of Third Way.
Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, in central Nigeria, to an Igbo mother and Urhobo father, but spent some of his childhood in London. He was educated at Urhobo College in Warri and then studied privately in Lagos.
He returned to Britain in 1978 (with the manuscript of his first novel, already complete) and worked for a while as a staff writer and librarian for the current-affairs magazine Afriscope. In 1980, he embarked on a BA in comparative literature at the University of Essex.
In 1983, after a period of homelessness, he was appointed poetry editor for the weekly West Africa and was engaged by the BBC World Service as a presenter on Network Africa.
In the following year, he was awarded a bursary by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Since 1986, after the publication of his first book of ‘shorter fictions’, he has earned his living as a writer.
He has had eight novels published: Flowers and Shadows (1980); The Landscapes Within (1981); The Famished Road (1991), which won the Booker McConnell Prize as well as the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize and the Grinzane Cavour Prize; Songs of Enchantment (1993); Astonishing the Gods (1995); Dangerous Love, a rewriting of The Landscapes Within (1996); Infinite Riches (1998); and In Arcadia (2002).
He is the author of two collections of stories, Incidents at the Shrine (1986), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for fiction, and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award; a volume of poetry, An African Elegy (1992); two collections of essays and speeches, Birds of Heaven (1995) and A Way of Being Free (1997); and the epic poem Mental Fight (1999).
He is a vice-president of the English ‘centre’ of the writers’ organisation International Pen, and sits on the board of the Royal National Theatre.
In 1995, he received a Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum for his contribution to the arts and to cross-cultural understanding. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998, and has been given honorary doctorates by the Universities of Westminster and Essex.
In 2001, he was created an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Up-to-date as at 1 December 2002