Ben Okri on his ‘unavoidably’ political poems

For novelist and poet Ben Okri, the content dictates the form

  • Published 9.03.19, 10:13 PM
  • Updated 9.03.19, 10:13 PM
  • 7 mins read
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Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri (Wikimedia Commons)

We are at the Jaipur Literature Festival being held at Diggi Palace. It’s a bitterly cold afternoon in Jaipur. We find Ben Okri — who won the Man Booker Prize in 1991 for his book The Famished Road — in his usual mysterious mood, wearing his signature beret. His wife Charlotte is busy running around their little daughter Mirabella, who’s a handful.

Right after his session with fiction heavyweights like Andrew Sean Greer, Vikram Chandra, Sebastian Barry and Tania James as co-panelists — talking about ‘Where Does Fiction Come From?’ — We caught up with Ben Okri for a chat.

Ben, your latest novel, The Freedom Artist, seems to be in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial…

That’s a perceptive insight. It’s unavoidable… I’m probably writing that tradition amongst others. There’s also a tradition of Voltaire’s Candide, there’s a tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson — writers who write fairly dark fables about strange times, partly quest fables and partly question fables. I think we are living in a Kafka-Orwell time, I think we are living in a time when truth is upside down, a time when it’s hard to know what to believe, a time when a lot of things are in doubt, a time of troubles, a time of national disasters. I feel we are in the brink of something, I don’t know what, but it feels like it.

Would you call it a dystopian fiction?

I don’t like the word dystopian, it gives a wrong impression. But I know what you mean. Yes, it’s roughly in that territory, but I wouldn’t use the word dystopian. I do know where you’re coming from.

You won the 1991 Booker Prize for The Famished Road. How would you describe your journey thus far?

When I won that prize, then it was just an extraordinary surprise. I was just pleased to be shortlisted at that time. And anyway, I didn’t write the book for prizes, I wrote the book to touch people, to change people, to transform people, to transform myself. I wrote the book because I had a great story that I wanted to tell. On the day that I won the prize, I remember being stunned and a little bit afraid.

It changed my life, really. It really did. I went from selling 2,000 copies of a book to selling hundreds of thousands of copies and continue to sell as many copies. It gave me languages around the world, gave me a lot of opportunity to travel, brought me a lot of friends. But it came with a heavy responsibility as well.

Your poem Grenfell Tower written about the fire in London’s Grenfell Tower in June 2017 had so much angst and anger hidden in it. What propelled you to write it?

There was a tower of 24 storeys in London where the poor live. That bent down because they put this cladding around it. In this tower, which has been there since the ’60s, but since it’s for the poor, of course, there’s no fire alarm, one staircase for 24 floors, no fire extinguishers… nothing. So, it caught fire and blazed for three days while the whole world watched. It had a huge impact on people. I live nearby and by the second day, you could smell burning flesh. Seventy people were burnt to death in it, many of them were told to stay in their rooms. I was just so moved and outraged and angered by it that I wrote this poem in July… it’s not something that I normally do. But then suddenly I found myself pulling on a great African tradition, of poets who react to contemporary outrages on the people.

You also write poems with hard-hitting greater political statements. How do you balance that — making a statement while writing poetry?

Sometimes. I don’t think the poems are statements. Not all my poems are political but the poems that are political are kind of unavoidable. I just couldn’t be writing about flowers and feeling bad about the fact that no one, you know, affirmed me on that particular day, while a tower was burning and people were burning in there... what was I going to be writing about during that period of time?

You apparently don’t discuss your work in the writing stage because you’re a little superstitious as a writer?

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s just bad luck to talk about your work while you’re writing it. A lot of writers do and it doesn’t do them any harm… but that’s my superstition. I have got a few.

So you’re not going to tell us about what you’re working on next, right?

Of course not. But if you really want to know, I can make up a fake project for you. This is the time of fake truth, so why not a fake project? I’m writing about the mysterious autobiography of the moon, in the first person (laughs).

You’re one of those few writers who’s a novelist as well as a poet. When you have an idea, how do you know which way it should go?

Well, the idea tells you where it goes. It’s very rare, sometime when I was very young, I had an idea for a poem but it really was an idea for a novel but I couldn’t tell the difference. Also, once I had an idea for a novel that really was an idea for a poem. But that’s because I was really young and inexperienced. But when you have an idea it tends to come with a form. It’s very rare that you have the itch for a poem and then you write a play, because a poem is usually a very contained, mysterious soundscape in itself.

What’s your writing process like?

Well, it’s very simple. With a novel, I manifest half the ideas, and if the idea is full and rich you start writing it immediately. And if the idea is not full and rich, if it’s just a scratch or a hint, then I leave it and let it grow inside me. But you don’t want to overdo that because you could be stewing it for the rest of your life. And at one point, I just take a deep breath and leap. When I take that leap, on the very first day when you’re writing the very first sentence of that novel, it’s frightening. Because you could just start on the wrong direction, you could start on the wrong tone and you wouldn’t know it for a long time that it’s not right.

Do you read reviews of your work?

I used to read reviews a lot, I don’t so much any more. My friends tell me about them. When I was much younger, I used to read the reviews and gosh, it used to take such a long time to get it out of your head and I decided that I don’t want that any more. Just write the book. Some of the best reviews are the responses of my readers.

What did you read as a child that shaped you and your thoughts?

I loved reading fairy tales when I was a kid. I used to love myths and legends of this world as a kid and I couldn’t stop reading about them. There was a time I kind of knew the legends of almost every country, I used to just read them. And then the next thing was… I also loved reading those early Greek tales. I read Homer and people like that really young and then I just graduated into reading from my father’s library.

Is there a favourite writing corner in your house?

No, it changes with every book. I handwrite the entire draft... it’s magical to handwrite. It feels like I’m really taking ownership of the book.

How long does it generally take for you to finish a novel?

It depends. If it’s a long novel, it could take you up to seven years. If it’s a short novel, it could take you a year.

So would you call yourself a very patient writer?

Yeah, absolutely. You cannot write well without patience... because writing is a mysterious activity.

Some of your poems have titles that are taken from old poems. How much of an influence...

(Cuts) Give me an example.

I think P.B. Shelley is a big influence in your writing.

Yes, okay (smiles). There are not many places to get titles from but other poets, especially great poets. See, the thing is, what you want in a title is exactly what you want in a good poem. You want few words that suggest an infinity of possibilities. That’s what poetry does. And a good title has to have the concentration and clarity of a good poem... it’s very difficult. And where are you going to find it if it’s not other great poets? Where else would you find it if it wasn’t old books like Bhagavad Gita or the Bible? Sometimes I make up my own titles but they are very difficult.

You have been compared with Salman Rushdie in the past. Do you agree with that comparison?

No, I don’t agree. I think we are very different writers. Yes, he’s more operatic than I am. We come from slightly different writing traditions but we have similar things at the heart of what we do. And I think those similar things have to do with the similarity of our cultures... the fact that we both come from great poetic storytelling cultures. So the aesthetic of our cultures are interestingly similar but the way we write is very different. All you have to do is put a paragraph of Rushdie next to a paragraph of Ben Okri and you’ll see the difference immediately (laughs).

But inside the swirl of our storytelling where one story becomes another story, that’s our tradition... that’s what we do in Africa. African storytelling is like the sea... take the river that goes into the sea that goes into the ocean. That’s how all my books are... it starts with a trickle that goes into a stream that goes into a river that goes into the sea and it just keeps branching out like that. The storytelling tradition that I come from, we believe that if you touch one thing as a storyteller properly, you touch God.

Which is your favourite Salman Rushdie book?

Ah, that’s such an unfair question (laughs)! I still have a soft spot for Shame. I mean I love Midnight’s (Children) but I think Shame is the book where his aesthetics, his opera, his clarity, his anger fuse together the most.

Who are your favourite authors?

I think we’d all have been really poor without Homer.

And your all-time favourite book?

I would choose two all-time favourite books — Don Quixote and The Odyssey by Homer.