One of the stars at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Nigerian author Ben Okri talks about identity issues, what it means to be an African writer and his India connection.
Best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road (1991), Ben Okri was one of the biggest draws at this year's Jaipur Literature Festival. In this interview, he discusses his life, his journey as an African writer and the special kinship he feels with India.
You were born in Nigeria, moved to the U.K. when you were very young, then moved back to Nigeria at seven-and-a half, and then back to the U.K. at 19. It sounds like a chaotic first 20 years. Or was it exciting to experience two very different countries and cultures?
It was chaotic. It was confusing. It was exciting. It gave me a permanent sense of the relativity of life, the feeling that has never left me that every way of seeing the world, whether it is national or tribal, is provisional, not definitive or absolute.
I became a sceptic of one way of seeing the world. And I think it is what started me in my awareness that any worldview is superstitious.
On top of the constant moving about, you had parents who came from different backgrounds. Your mother came from the Igbo people, while your father was Urhobo. Was there any confusion in your mind while growing up? Am I Igbo? Am I Urhobo?
A little bit. Not profoundly, though. There is a sense in Nigeria that you are your father's son. The Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), however, changed all that. My mom, being Igbo, suddenly became an endangered species in that circumstance. I became aware I was not just my father's son in a way that had profound implications.
One day when my mom came to collect me from school I was stopped at a checkpoint. I was seven or eight then, and had just come back from England and could not speak my father's language well, which was the language on my identity card. In those days, people were being killed for not being able to speak their father's language, and I came close to being killed for not speaking the right language.
I suddenly became aware that you are not just your father's son or mother's son and that the whole nature of identity shifts and changes.
You are a pre-eminent novelist. However, you have mentioned as early influences two major short story writers, Chekhov and Maupassant. What drew you to them?
Their discipline. For instance, Maupassant had one of the sternest masters in Flaubert who wouldn't let him publish his stories until he was a mature man. That was the first time I learnt that writing literature is more than expression. It is shaping, listening, rewriting, inventing… It is finding the one seed of truth in the piece of writing and letting that seed of truth grow into the full flower.
Did you also have literary influences that were closer to home, such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe?
Yes, I read them. They were an important part of my growing up. They made me aware that my reality, our reality, was capable of being transformed into literature. It was one thing to read Chekhov and Maupassant. But I had no idea of what they were shaping because they were not working with my reality, unlike Soyinka and Achebe. That said, what Soyinka and Achebe were shaping was my historic reality rather than my intimate or every day reality. In that sense I am different from them, since I am more interested in shaping intimate reality.
Your first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), was realistic. From there to the magical realism of The Famished Road is a giant leap. How did that happen?
I began with, what I call, 19th and 20th-century realism — plot, character, development, the event-plot narrative, the logical connection between what happens. But over the years I looked at the novel form and saw that the problem of realism is that it does not catch the full richness of reality. For instance, I saw the presence of myth which does not have any place in conventional realism. My long investigation into how to catch the full richness of reality led me to conclude that the reality is not in the realism, that a different approach and a different tone were needed.
Though tensions continue to flare up, the Nigerian civil war that affected you as a child is long over. The bloody dictatorship of Abacha also finished in 1998. How do you see Nigeria today?
I am one year older than Nigeria at 51. In a human life, 51 might be old. But it is very young for a nation. By that I mean a Nigeria conscious of itself as a nation. The civilisation has been in existence for centuries. Currently, Nigeria is wandering through its evolution as a young nation. And in this age of the global media and the Internet it is experiencing its growing pains in the full public glare, unlike much older nations that were able to evolve in relative anonymity.
You were one of the leading figures in the establishment of the Caine Prize for African Writing, also known as the African Booker, in 2000. What do you think the prize has done for African writing?
Without a doubt, it has helped bring about a renaissance in African writing. The decision to make it a short story prize rather than one for the novel was inspirational. I say that because a novel can be daunting in the amount of time and effort it demands. If you are working in an office, where do you find the time to write a novel? But you can finish a short story in five pages. Furthermore, a short story is a perfect place to learn the craft.
What do you think of the generation of Nigerian writers that have followed you; Helon Habila and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?
They are a very vibrant generation. They are aware of the social responsibility of literature and the fact that writing is not just about yourself. They carry on the tradition that has been intrinsic to African literature where the writer is more than just the writer. The writer is also the teacher, the social critic.
You have said you felt instantly at home when you first came to India in the 1990s. What was it about India that was so familiar?
I am not sure. There are, of course, the superficial things such as a shared colonial history, bad government, corruption, diversity… But I don't think that explains why I felt so comfortable when I first stepped in India. I think, perhaps, I was Indian in a previous life.