Ben Okri 1959–
Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Okri's career through 1994.
Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for The Famished Road (1991), Okri is known for works that focus on life in modern-day Nigeria. His tales, often black and ominous in out-look, depict the problems which beset his homeland, particularly poverty, famine, and political corruption. Okri also examines the relationship between the natural and spiritual world in his writings, combining Western literary techniques with elements of traditional African folklore and myth.
Of Urhobo descent, Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. Although he spent his earliest years in England, where his father was studying law, Okri returned to Nigeria with his parents at age seven. He received formal schooling at Urhobo College in Warri, Nigeria, and, after returning to England, earned a B.A. in comparative literature from the University of Essex in Colchester. Working as a journalist, he began writing essays and short stories, publishing his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), before the age of twenty-one. In addition to the Booker Prize, Okri—who has worked as a broadcaster for the BBC World Service and as poetry editor for West Africa—has been awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa for Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Okri has spent much of his adult life in England but acknowledges that "Africa is the only place that I really want to write about. It's a gift to the writer."
Okri's works frequently focus on the political, social, and economic conditions of contemporary Nigeria. In Flowers and Shadows, for example, Okri employs paradox and dualism to contrast the rich and poor areas of a typical Nigerian city. Set in the capital city of Lagos, the novel focuses on Jeffia, the spoiled child of a rich man, who realizes his family's wealth is the result of his father's corrupt business dealings. In The Landscapes Within (1981) the central character, Omovo, is an artist who, to the consternation and displeasure of family, friends, and government officials, paints the corruption he sees in his daily life. Detailing the growth and development of the protagonist as well as that of Nigeria, The Landscapes Within has been classified as a künstlerroman—a novel that traces the evolution of an artist—and favorably compared to other works in the genre, notably James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). Frequently set in Lagos or London, the stories collected in Incidents at the Shrine focus on individuals trying to survive—or at least mentally escape—the violence and squalor that characterize their daily existence. Critics note that the disparate settings of England and Nigeria are unified by Okri's recurring focus on the dangers of modern civilization and on conservative government officials who idly watch the moral and physical collapse of their constituents and cities. Oppression, economic disparity, political repression, alienation, and loss are likewise central to the short story collection Stars of the New Curfew (1988) and the poetry volume entitled An African Elegy (1992), both of which have been recognized for their use of myth and surrealistic detail, and their focus on dreams, visions, and the spirit world. The story "When the Light Returns," for instance, updates the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, recounting a young man's search for his love among the dead; in another piece from Stars of the New Curfew a politician drops coins out of a helicopter onto voters. In the course of the tale, which is based on actual events, people are hurt by the falling currency and the resulting mayhem only to discover that the money is worthless. As Giles Foden notes, the poems in An African Elegy are similarly infused with anger and draw on everything from "African myth to Western scifi." Okri's combination of myth and Western literary traditions is also employed in The Famished Road and its sequel, Songs of Enchantment (1993). Drawing on the culture and tradition of Nigeria's Yoruba tribe, The Famished Road concerns a young Nigerian named Azaro, who is an abiku—a spirit-child torn between the natural and spiritual world. His desire to free himself from the spirit world is paralleled by his father's and people's attempt to rise above their poverty. Though considered less successful than The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment stresses the problems of cultural nationalism and continues Azaro and his community's struggle against corrupt government officials.
Stressing his inclusion of African myth and folklore, emphasis on spirituality and mysticism, and focus on Nigerian society and the attendant problems associated with the country's attempts to rise above its third-world status, critics have lauded Okri's writings for capturing the Nigerian worldview. Okri has additionally received praise for his use of surrealistic detail, elements of Nigerian story-telling traditions, and Western literary techniques, notably the magic realism popularized by Gabriel García Márquez. Placing Okri's works firmly within the tradition of postcolonial writing and favorably comparing them to those of such esteemed Nigerian authors as Chinua Achebe, critics cite the universal relevance of Okri's writings on political and aesthetic levels. As Okri has written: "Politics take their place beside myth and facts, each one in turn has ascendency. People can say this is a triumph for the African novel if it gives them comfort, but I say it is a triumph for the imagination, for what Baudelaire calls voluptuousness, the texture of our sensuality."
Flowers and Shadows (novel) 1980
The Landscapes Within (novel) 1981
Incidents at the Shrine (short stories) 1986
Stars of the New Curfew (short stories) 1988
The Famished Road (novel) 1991
An African Elegy (poetry) 1992
Songs of Enchantment (novel) 1993
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SOURCE: "Out of the Earth," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4042, September 19, 1980, p. 1047.
[In the following favorable review, Bryce discusses the themes, characters, and setting of Flowers and Shadows.]
Flowers and Shadows is a first novel by a young Nigerian of nineteen. A striking feature of the book is its sureness of touch, the self-confidence with which the author handles both characterization and events. Above all, the language reflects a keen ear for the cadences of speech, whether pidgin or standard English.
Some aspects of the setting are familiar from such novels as Violence, by another young Nigerian author, Festus Iyayi: squalor, filth and poverty reduce the inhabitants of Lagos's poorer quarters to despair, yet ultimately refine them. Okri spares us no detail of the smells, the jostling for buses, the excreta in the gutters, the clamour of the maimed, begging for coins. These details emerge as the physical correlative of the social reality of Lagos, the mental violence practised by the powerful, the dog-eat-dog struggles for political and financial survival. Poverty is a curse, and in the face of such poverty luxury is a flagrant denial of humanity. The two are skilfully juxtaposed in passages such as the description of a Lagos go-slow, in all its confusion, from the interior of a chauffeured, air-conditioned limousine.
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SOURCE: "Terrors of Civilisation," in Books and Bookmen, No. 369, July, 1986, p. 36.
[Wandor is an English playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, poet, novelist, editor, and nonfiction writer who frequently writes on feminist themes. In the review below, she presents a thematic discussion of Incidents at the Shrine.]
A series of oppositions form the themes underlying this collection of short stories [entitled Incidents at the Shrine]: black/white; civilisation/superstition; survival/destruction. The war between indigenous African culture and white civilisation is laid out in the first story, 'Laughter Beneath the Bridge', where a group of children are left behind, abandoned after an unnamed civil war in an unnamed African country. Violence comes from all sides, and is there in the threatening presence of the ordinary and everyday, as the young boy hero finally survives, but not before having seen violence done to others.
A young boy is also the hero/observer of another story, 'A Crooked Prayer', in which the anguish of African family life is played out through the desire of his uncle for a child. These children embody a sort of innocent eye, but it is an innocence which is not just confined to Okri's child characters. The adult men all seem in many different ways to be caught at the meeting point of social conflicts, and some survive more intact than others.
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SOURCE: "From Ghetto to Badland," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4349, August 8, 1986, p. 863.
[In the following highly laudatory review, Melmoth briefly describes the plots and themes of some of the short stories contained in Incidents at the Shrine, concluding that Okri's Lagos stories are his best.]
Reversing the more usual course of events, Ben Okri has followed the two novels he wrote while in his teens—Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within—with a collection of short stories [entitled Incidents at the Shrine]. Whereas the novels could be regarded as juvenilia, the stories are terse, poised, poetic. Flowers and Shadows was oddly reminiscent of Lawrence's The White Peacock; the stories owe more to Joyce and Chekhov and, less to their advantage, to Hemingway. With them Okri has found a voice and established a style of his own.
Not only is Okri working in a different medium, he is also exploring a different milieu: the ghettoes of Lagos and the badlands of London. Flowers and Shadows toyed uneasily with the haute arrivisme of manicured lawns, cocktail parties and Japanese cars. Although Omovo in The Landscapes Within had to work for a living, as an artist he escaped the class system. This new volume [Incidents at the Shrine], in contrast, immerses itself in poverty and deprivation, and the ways of...
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SOURCE: "Powerlessness Corrupts," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 1, No. 7, July 22, 1988, pp. 43-4.
[In the following positive review, Cronje examines Okri's focus on Nigeria in Stars of the New Curfew.]
In the title story of Ben Okri's book, Stars of the New Curfew, two local politicians, both millionaires, hold a crude contest for power. This consists of distributing money to the crowd. One of them produces an air-conditioned Rolls Royce with a large refrigerator which stores and cools his banknotes: "The fridge was brought on stage and the stacks of notes were unloosened from their bindings and thrown at the crowd." This goes on for a while, until the rival chief makes his counter-bid: "The helicopter hovered over us. Then a door opened and coins were emptied over us. No one moved for a while … The silvery sparkles floated down through the air like tangible stars … The coins rained on us as if it were our punishment for being below". In the end the crowd disperses: "We were the garbage carried away on the waves of mud." The torrential rain in the town misses the houses belonging to members of a secret cult.
The nightmarish setting of this scene may disguise the fact that it actually took place, money-helicopter and all, during Nigeria's 1983 election campaign—before the military rule so angrily denounced by Okri in this book. (I noted with some amusement in the...
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SOURCE: "Ben Okri's The Landscapes Within: A Metaphor for Personal and National Development," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 28, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 203-10.
[In the following essay, Porter analyzes how Okri uses elements of the künstlerroman in The Landscapes Within to discuss problems of contemporary Nigeria. He also briefly compares the story line of The Landscapes Within to other novels within this genre, notably James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968).]
Although African writers have often treated the subject of national and cultural development in their writings, very few of these authors have focused specifically on the role or contribution of the young artist towards national development in modern African society. My aim in this essay is to demonstrate how Ben Okri, a promising young novelist from Nigeria, successfully uses the literary conventions of the künstlerroman—a novel portraying the early learnings and growth of a young artist—in his work The Landscapes Within to address some important questions dealing with national and cultural development in Nigeria. Okri's text is different from several of its other West African literary cousins—Bildungsromane such as La Pauvre Christ de Bomba, Mission terminée, Kocoumbo,...
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SOURCE: "Rage and Sadness in Nigeria," in The New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 12.
[Bissoondath is an Trinidadian-born short story writer and novelist. In the following review, he offers a highly favorable assessment of Stars of the New Curfew, praising the volume's universal relevance.]
"That afternoon three soldiers came to the village. They scattered the goats and chickens. They went to the palm-frond bar and ordered a calabash of palm-wine. They drank amidst the flies."
This first paragraph of the first story—"In the Shadow of War"—in Ben Okri's collection Stars of the New Curfew beautifully illustrates the power of his writing. The language is simple, the details striking, the whole powerfully observed scene pulled together by the final sentence.
Mr. Okri, a Nigerian who lives in London, is a natural storyteller, to the point where these stories if read aloud would acquire yet another dimension, and possibly their greatest effect. With rare exceptions, he maintains this quality of narrative focus throughout.
"In the City of Red Dust," a relentless tale of exploitation and degradation, is probably the most effective story. Men make their way through their surreal and chilling lives by selling their own blood, by picking pockets, by drinking themselves into a stupor. A woman once the victim of a rape by soldiers...
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SOURCE: "The Forest in the City," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 1989, pp. 3, 13.
[The pseudonym of the late Roberta Warrick, Thomas was best known for her fiction and nonfiction writings about Africa, where she spent numerous years working for the Peace Corps. In the following favorable review, Thomas lauds Okri's use of detail, his blending of realism and surrealism, and his focus on West African life in Stars of the New Curfew.]
Ben Okri is Nigerian. His collection of six stories, Stars of the New Curfew, is made of Nigeria—heat, rain, car crashes, tyrants, millionaires, raw sewage, zinc huts, soldiers, rubbish mounds, palm wine, ghosts, music, forests. This is not an Africa of travel writers of journalist-fiction: It's an Africa of its own myths, thronged and bewitched.
In style and imagery Okri follows closely in the footsteps of Amos Tutuola, a strange and amazing writer from Nigeria who emerged in the late '50s, totally unfamiliar with Western culture, whose English was the simple and relentless language of incantation but whose imagination was wild and supercharged, a devastating formula.
Tutuola wandered in fabulous territories of mind where metamorphosis was a way of life and the land of the dead and its secrets was as immediate as the next tree or the other side of the river.
Okri is an updated Tutuola, his stories...
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SOURCE: A review of Stars of the New Curfew, in VLS, No. 79, October, 1989, p. 8.
[In the following review, Wood discusses Okri's use of language and thematic focus in the short story collection Stars of the New Curfew.]
Once, when traveling in Africa, I asked a friend whether he ever confused the languages he knew. "Do you sometimes, for instance, find yourself speaking English when you're thinking Twi?" No, he said: "Languages to me are clothes, and I'm a natty dresser wherever I go."
Ben Okri sports his languages, too. Born in Nigeria, Okri lives and writes in London, the dying heart of Nigeria's erstwhile oppressor. Stars of the New Curfew, his second collection of short stories, measures the remains left behind by colonials—and the decay administered by their African inheritors—in a distinctly African-English idiom, a choice combination of Nigerian and European styles, politics, and myths. The elements never clash, but they don't pack a serious wallop either—though if the reader were Nigerian-English instead of Afro-American, the concert of voices might feel richer than it does.
Sleep plays a central role in Stars: the book's eyes, Nigeria's citizens, tour epic-style among the dreams and nightmares that roam and rule ruined Nigeria. Having risen from British colonialism, Okri's Nigeria finds itself overwhelmed by rot—in its leaders, in...
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SOURCE: A review of Flowers and Shadows, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, p. 687.
[In the following review, Obradovic gives a brief plot summary of Flowers and Shadows.]
"Little flowers in the shadows that's what we all are. Nobody knows what the larger shadows will do to the flowers; nobody knows what the flowers will become," says the mother to Jeffia, the protagonist of Ben Okri's novel Flowers and Shadows. The titular leitmotiv iterates through the entire book, in variants spoken by different characters, as an omnipresent scorching sun beats down upon them all and surveys their actions.
Jeffia, an eighteen-year-old boy, suddenly starts noticing things about himself, as if the hushed, smooth life of his big home with its well-kept gardens, nicely furnished and air-conditioned rooms, servants, three cars, and other luxuries of well-to-do Nigerian society had ceased to exist. He is faced with the squalor of his surroundings, the filthy roads full of beggars and hungry people, the corrupt police, and suspicions about his father's integrity. The death of his best friend aggravates the situation even further and deepens his insight.
Parallel with his discovery of his father's various machinations and shady transactions, the latter's downfall begins: he is tricked in several deals, is culpably implicated in his partner's death, loses...
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SOURCE: "Speaking for Africa," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4646, April 17, 1992, p. 8.
[In the following review, Foden presents a mixed assessment of An African Elegy, questioning the collection's relevance for non-Africans since "every poem contains an exhortation to climb out of the African miasma."]
In an essay in the Guardian in August 1990, Ben Okri wrote of how the suffering of the oppressed could make them farmers of their dreams. "Their harvest could make the world more just and more beautiful. It is only the oppressed who have this sort of difficult and paradoxical responsibility." Dreams are the currency of Okri's writing, particularly in this first book of poems, An African Elegy, but also in his books of short stories and Booker Prizewinning novel The Famished Road.
Okri's dreams are made on the stuff of Africa's colossal economic and political problems, and reading the poems is to experience a constant succession of metaphors of resolution, in both senses of the word. Virtually every poem contains an exhortation to climb out of the African miasma, and virtually every poem harvests the dream of itself with an upbeat, restorative ending.
But these are not the poems of a placard-carrier, nor of an escapist. As Okri documents the slum-life of Lagos, the dusty tropical lassitude of a sleepy country town or the lonely life...
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SOURCE: "Uncertainties of the Poet," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 12, June 25, 1992, pp. 22-3.
[In the excerpt below, Tredell argues that the poems collected in An African Elegy are better suited for public oration than the printed page.]
Violence, and the resistance to it, are important themes in Ben Okri's An African Elegy: but his declamatory mode largely proscribes subtle registrations like those of [John] Burnside. Okri's greatest public exposure as a poet came on the 1991 Booker Prize night, when he read what is now the title poem of this collection; that public reading, indeed, prompted this volume's publication. But a poetry effective on the podium can seem doubtful on the printed page. Okri often deals with some of the most serious of public themes: above all, the sufferings and conflicts of the post-colonial world, whether 'post-colonial' is understood to apply to the formerly colonised countries or the old Imperial centres—in Okri's case, Africa and London. He makes much use of abstraction and personification, which are, as the 18th century recognised, right for public poetry: but, in a manner more like that of a certain kind of 19th-century Romanticism, that of Shelley and Swinburne, those abstractions and personifications tend to float loose from semantic and syntactic armatures. The result is a weak phantasmagoria, a vague simulacrum of England and Africa. Okri...
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SOURCE: "Between the Living and the Unborn," in The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1992, pp. 3, 20.
[Gates is an American educator, critic, editor, and nonfiction writer who frequently writes on race relations and culture in America. In the following review, he examines Okri's use of African lore and myth in The Famished Road.]
Perhaps because of the literary authority it has earned, we can easily forget that the black African novel in English is (a few scattered anomalies aside) only some three decades old—as old, or as young, as African independence itself. This relationship isn't just a matter of parallel time lines, for many of the earliest of these novels were infused with the spirit—sometimes heady, sometimes rueful—of nation-building in a postcolonial era.
With the self-consciousness of an educated elite, the authors of such novels announced the arrival of a new burst of literary creativity. A generation of the formerly colonized would write themselves into being—but on their own terms, and as subjects rather than objects. Consider, for example, the sheer energy that Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart—the most widely read book in any genre by a black African—breathed into so-called Commonwealth literature when it was published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence. The relationship between nationhood and narrative voice in African literature...
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SOURCE: "'Spiritual Realism,'" in The Nation, New York, Vol. 255, No. 4, August 3-10, 1992, pp. 146-48.
[An English-born educator, editor, novelist, and critic, Appiah specializes in African studies. In the following review, he discusses the plot, characters, and stylistic features of The Famished Road, noting, in particular, Okri's focus on the spiritual world.]
Ben Okri's The Famished Road is nothing if not audacious. It is 500 pages with only the barest semblance of a plot; a postmodern Thousand and One Nights, with a boy Scheherazade who refuses the ordinary courtesies of the realist narrator. In three sections, eight "books" and seventy-eight chapters, through episode after episode, we follow the travails of Azaro, an abiku, or spirit-child—one who, according to a Nigerian tradition, is born and reborn, only to die in infancy and return to the joyful play of the spirit world.
And indeed, Azaro almost dies at the start of the life that begins in this book. As an infant he is very ill, spending "most of the time in the other world trying to reason with my spirit companions, trying to get them to leave me alone." Returning to his body one day from playing with these companions, he wakens in a coffin, weeping fiercely in the hubbub of his own funeral: His parents have given him up for dead. From then on, his mother calls him not Lazaro, as she and her...
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SOURCE: "Time and Distance," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 247-52, 254-55.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus examines stylistic and thematic aspects of The Famished Road.]
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the animals say to Nietzsche's philosopher-mystic:
"Look, we know what you teach: that all things return forever, and we along with them, and that we have already been here an infinite number of times, and all things along with us."
According to Milan Kundera, this "mad myth" is Nietzsche's means of forcing us to contemplate the horror as well as the beauty and sublimity of life's events in a way which prevents our overlooking them because they are so fleeting. Without some such concept—that an event may return again and again to haunt us—"We would need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment" (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Repetition, recurrence, the myth of eternal return show the weight of history and create the awareness that life has significance and depth. In some fashion, this fact is illustrated in … [The Famished Road. It] is concerned with time, and [it] creates perspective and distance....
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SOURCE: "Strong Spirits," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 6, No. 245, March 26, 1993, p. 41.
[In the following review of Songs of Enchantment, Cooke favorably assesses the novel's themes and characters.]
"Sometimes we have to redream ourselves," declares the narrator of Ben Okri's new book, which in many ways continues the exploration started in The Famished Road. Songs of Enchantment is closer to a collection of short stories, or rather folk tales, than to the novel form. It describes a pilgrimage through danger and violent struggle into some kind of stasis—not a retreat, since Azaro's redeemed world remains as astonishing as any nightmare, but an acceptance that "to see anew is not enough. We must also create our new lives, everyday, with will and light and love."
This very personal statement, centred on the reconciliation between man, wife and child, conveys a familial warmth and provides a necessary weight of feeling. The richness of the descriptive writing—"sprawling ghommidinfested alabaster landscapes of the recently dead"—might otherwise leap away into a purely Blakean text in which everything is of equal significance.
"The world is holy", Azaro's Dad concludes, having won an epic victory against demonic possession, blindness and the anger of a corpse: the unburied carpenter who is confined at last, shut in a cave and kept there by a...
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SOURCE: "The Spirit Who Came to Stay," in The New York Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 24.
[Gorra is an educator. In the following unfavorable review of Songs of Enchantment, he faults the novel's focus and structure.]
I had looked forward to reading the Nigerian writer Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road. It had won England's Booker Prize for the best novel of 1991, people I respect had admired it, and reviewers had compared Mr. Okri to other writers I enjoyed.
So when I was asked to look at its sequel, I happily sat down with both books, ready to follow the adventures of its child narrator, Azaro, a boy who can step into the realm of the spirits, into "the mesmeric dreams of hidden gods … susurrant marketplaces of the unborn … alabaster landscapes of the recently dead." For Azaro is an abiku, a child who, in the cosmology of Nigeria's Yoruba people, is born only to die in infancy and then to be reborn, "often to the same parents." Such a child is "unwilling to come to terms with life." His attachment to the spirit world is too strong; it allows him "to will [his own] death," causing "much pain to mothers." But sometimes these children "grow tired of coming and going," and without fully losing their links to the land of the spirits, they decide, like Azaro, to stay alive in this one.
Well, I sat down—and almost immediately wanted to...
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Brent, Frances Padorr. Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Chicago Tribune—Books (14 June 1992): 1, 9.
Describes the characters, imagery, and plot of The Famished Road.
Johnson, Charles. "Fighting the Spirits." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4594 (19 April 1991): 22.
Offers a mixed assessment of The Famished Road. Discussing the novel's characters, setting, and focus on history, Johnson asserts that "Okri is, if not yet a careful craftsman, a gifted poet of the African experience."
Miller, Faren. Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Locus 29, No. 2 (August 1992): 15, 17.
Relates Okri's focus on magic and fantasy in The Famished Road.
Olshan, Joseph. "Fever Dreams from Nigeria's Troubled Soul." Chicago Tribune—Books (16 July 1989): 6.
Thematic analysis of Stars of the New Curfew.
Onwordi, Sylvester Ike. "Beneath the Waves." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4453 (5-11 August 1988): 857.
Compares Okri's writing style and focus as evinced in Stars of the New Curfew to those of African writer Ken...
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