Ben Okri Essay - Okri, Ben

Okri, Ben

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Jane Bryce (review date 19 September 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Michelene Wandor (review date July 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

John Melmoth (review date 8 August 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Suzanne Cronje (review date 22 July 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Abioseh Michael Porter (essay date Autumn 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 3885 words.)

Neil Bissoondath (review date 13 August 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Maria Thomas (review date 24 September 1989)

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,...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)

Joe Wood (review date October 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Nadežda Obradovic (review date Autumn 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Giles Foden (review date 17 April 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Nicolas Tredell (review date 25 June 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (review date 28 June 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 2024 words.)

K. Anthony Appiah (review date 3-10 August 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)

Tom Wilhelmus (review date Spring 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Judy Cooke (review date 26 March 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Michael Gorra (review date 10 October 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 795 words.)