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Africa Literary Legends: Ben Okri

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The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.

Taken from his Man Booker Prize for Fiction winning novel, The Famished Road (1991); novelist and poet, Ben Okri has used his works to express his concerns for humanity through magical realism, which was fuelled by his mother’s (Grace) preference to tell stories as a way of correcting him. Okri’s writing style varies as he bounces off spiritual realism to magical realism, to African folklore and post-colonial traditions – simply put, Ben Okri writes fantasy literature, which focuses on the early post-colonial history of Nigeria. ben 2 Born 15th March, 1959 in Minna, Niger State, Nigeria, Silver Okri (Ben’s father) moved his family to England, before Ben was two years old and moved back in 1968, when Ben was nine. Okri’s foray into writing began when the civil war ended when he began to write articles on social and political issues of the time, though none of his articles were published. Ben later decided to use his early articles to form short stories and – alas – success was on the horizon, his works began to get published in evening papers and women’s journals. Much of his early fiction explores the political violence that he witnessed firsthand during the civil war. He left the country in the late 1970s when a grant from the Nigerian government enabled him to read Comparative Literature at Essex University in England. But funding for his scholarship suddenly stopped, and Okri found himself homeless, living on the street which strengthened his writing, as he described it – “I wrote and wrote in that period... If anything [the desire to write] actually intensified.” Not long after his plight on the streets, Ben Okri’s book Flowers and Shadows (1980) was published; and with it came international recognition as a writer. By the end of the 1980s, Ben Okri had written and published two collection s of short stories in Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988). Both collections were set in Lagos and London touching the different aspects of life in Nigeria, by reflecting on the child’s eye view of the Nigerian Civil War, a depressed Taxi driver who finds two hundred thousand pounds left at the back seat of his cab by a ‘big’ Nigerian (perhaps a politician) or stories of shanty towns and of men from the villages seeking their fortunes in the streets and filthy gutters of the new town. His exposure to the Nigerian civil war and a culture in which his peers saw visions of spirits at this time later provided inspiration for The Famished Road (1991) - Okri's most popular work till date - about Azaro, a stubborn spirit child (aka abiku), who refers to himself as ‘an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into the dreams of the living and the dead.’ The Famished Road is the first of a trilogy (with Songs of Enchantment – 1993 and Infinite Riches – 1998) that explores ‘the rotten milk of politics’, violence, traditional rituals, human-animal hybrids, sudden transformations and a ‘delirium of stories.’ The Famished Road Okri’s work has been influenced as much by the philosophical texts in his father's book shelves as it was by literature, and Okri cites the influence of Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s influence can be seen in his 2002 adventure – In Arcadia, where freedom becomes a major theme, something that also reflected in his last novel – Starbook (2007). Okri’s accomplishments do not stop at being a novelist; he is also an accomplished poet whose works (An African Elegy – 1992, Mental Flight – 1999 and Wild – 2012) have been highly praised for ‘beauty of language and sweep of subjects.’ His poems are carefully rhymed, as they speak about an enhanced vision of nature. DID YOU KNOW THAT… 1.      Ben Okri’s first hand experience of the Nigerian civil war would go on to influence his writing, especially his earliest works - Flowers and Shadows (1980) which was published when Ben was just twenty one, and The Landscapes Within (1981). Both stories were set in Nigeria and featured two young men as central characters struggling to make sense of the disintegration and chaos happening in both their family and country. 2.      He was rejected to study physics in university because of his age – 14. 3.      Ben Okri, today, has been awarded by the Queen of England an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2001. 4.      He is a fellow at The Royal Society of Literature (FRSL). He has also been awarded five honorary doctorates, all from different schools. 5.      Ben Okri is the Vice-President of the Caine Prize’s Council members. He was the chairman the first panel of Caine Prize Judges, in 2000. Ben Okri still writes till date, remaining a vital figure in the ongoing dialogue between Africa and the West.   Written By: Olusola Agbaje

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