Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“In the Shadow of War,” like much of Okri’s work, contains a good deal of surrealist imagery and phantasmagoric happenings, which has led some critics to compare his works to those of Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel García Márquez, all known for their use of Magical Realism, which mingles realistic and fantastic details. This melding of worlds also defines Okri’s work. However, Okri argues that his stories realistically represent people’s consciousness of life in Nigeria, a country that is inhabited by three hundred different tribal groups and therefore at least this many belief systems. What seems surreal or fantastic to one group, Okri insists, will not seem so to another group.
The art of storytelling comes naturally to Nigerian people, Okri explains. As a child growing up in postcolonial Nigeria, stories were an intricate part of daily life and every aspect of culture. Parents and other authority figures, he remembers, would tell their children stories as parables to teach a moral or to manipulate them to do what they wanted. Likewise, children were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and to invent stories.
Okri shifts between the material world and the world of spirits with seamless grace. Although the protagonist, Omovo, is grounded in reality in his solid village world—the radio plays; people shave, leave for work, carry briefcases, and catch buses—the boundaries between...
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Okri and Nigeria
Okri was born in Nigeria and spent much of his childhood as well as his adult life living in England. Despite his predominantly western residency, Okri’s writing has been deeply informed by the years he spent in Nigeria during the country’s three-year civil war and the subsequent, highly turbulent postwar years. Writing for the South African Literary Review in September 1992, Carolyn Newton writes that Okri’s novel The Famished Road “could not have been born of England’s green and pleasant land; his is a heady cocktail of African legend and western classicism.” The same can be said of his short stories, which served as the testing ground for the writing style that he popularized with The Famished Road.
From 1967 to 1970, Nigeria was embroiled in a bloody civil war, also known as the Nigerian- Biafran War or the Biafran War, during which an estimated 1 million people were killed. Okri lived in Nigeria during the violent war and postwar years up until 1978. After this time, he remained deeply connected with his country’s ongoing political and social struggles.
Okri has been and continues to be deeply affected and engaged in the issues, challenges, and injustices faced by his countrymen. In 1985, following a visit home, he published several essays about Nigerian political concerns and the state of the nation. Ten years later, Okri remained active in Nigerian events, including those...
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Okri’s work belongs to the ever-growing canon of African literature, which in the United States and Europe refers to literature written in English or French by writers from Africa. Africa has a long history of oral literature and literature written in indigenous languages; however, as African nations began to achieve independence in the 1950s and 1960s, a collection of writing began to emerge that was written in the languages of nations who had colonized the continent. West Africans, especially Nigerian writers, have been particularly prolific. First-generation-African writers, like Chinua Achebe, wrote in response to the stereotypes that colonial nations had long created about Africans. While these efforts were effective in redefining Africa and its people and cultures, early African writing, which was largely written by men, has been criticized for failing to accurately represent women. Hence, in the 1960s and beyond, female African writers, including Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and Ama Ata Aidoo, began to write literature that exposed not only colonial repression and oppression but oppression of African women by African men. Okri belongs to the second generation of African writers. As a group, these writers have focused not only on the social, cultural, and political ramifications of colonization but also on post-independence challenges, failures, and opportunities for change throughout the continent.
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1960s: There are fewer than ten Nigerian novels published per year.
1980s: There are approximately fifty Nigerian novels published per year.
Today: There are approximately twenty Nigerian novels published per year.
Late 1960s: Civilian administration in Nigeria ends following two successive military coups d’etat.
1980s: General Ibrahim Babangida overthrows Major General Mohammed Butari, stating his intention to return Nigeria to civilian rule in the 1990s.
Today: The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo issues a press statement about his unwillingness to accept any actions aimed at destabilizing his democratically elected presidential administration.
Late 1960s: Famous Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo resigns from the Cambridge University Press and enlists as a major in the Biafran army.
1980s: Because of governmental changes in Nigeria, Okri’s Nigerian-sponsored scholarship at the University of Essex ends. Okri leaves for London, where he is homeless before finding a flat in Seven Sisters.
Today: Author Ken Saro-Wiwa is taken into custody by the government, charged with treason, and hanged despite protests and appeals by Okri and South African president Nelson Mandela.
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Topics for Further Study
Locate a copy of the first version of ‘‘In the Shadow of War’’ that appeared in the magazine West Africa in 1983. Compare and contrast this version with the one that appeared in the 1989 collection, Stars of the New Curfew. What are the most noticeable changes? Why do you think that Okri made these changes? Do you think Okri was trying to communicate the same things in both versions? If not, what is different about the two versions, and how do those differences make you arrive at different readings?
Have a debate about whether Omovo behaved admirably in this story. Consider whether he should have taken the ten kobo from the soldiers, whether he should have told them the truth about seeing the woman in the veil, whether he should have alerted the woman to danger, and whether he should have protested more as his father took him back to bed.
Civil war is a reoccurring event in world history. Aside from researching the Nigerian Civil War, choose another country that has been involved in a civil war in the last one hundred years, and prepare an overview of the conflict for your classmates. How did the causes of the Nigerian Civil War and those of the country you chose differ? In what ways were they similar? How does each of these events compare and contrast to the American Civil War?
Do you think that the soldiers or Omovo believed that the woman with the veil was a witch? Research the Salem witch trials, which...
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The BBC maintains a Web page about Okri (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/books/author/okri/index.shtml) that contains a brief overview of his work and life. The site also includes a link to an article about one of Okri’s poems, as well as information about other postcolonial authors, including Chinua Achebe.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Famished Road, which was first published in 1991, is one of Okri’s best-known works. He earned the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction for this novel, and in 1993 and 1998 respectively he published sequels to the work titled Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is known as one of the founding novels of African fiction in English. In this novel, Achebe considers the social realities faced by his people in the wake of colonialism. Published in 1959, Things Fall Apart is a must read for anyone interested in becoming more familiar with African fiction, specifically that which is written by Nigerian authors.
War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra (2002), by John Sherman, is a first-person account of the author’s time in Nigeria as a Peace Corp volunteer in 1966 and later, during the country’s civil war, as a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sherman’s story provides a graphic account of the impact of the Nigerian Civil War on children.
Flora Nwapa is the first Nigerian woman to be published in Nigeria and the first black African woman to be published in England. Efuru (1966) is about a woman who, despite failure in marriage and child rearing, is an example of female independence and spiritual transcendence.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is from Zimbabwe (formerly part of Rhodesia), is another African...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bissoondath, Neil, “Rage and Sadness in Nigeria,” in New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 12.
Fraser, Robert, “Incantatory Beauty,” in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, April 1989, pp. 181–83.
King, Bruce, “Okri, Ben,” in Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Vol. 2, edited by Eugene Benson and L. W. Conolly, Routledge, 1994, p. 1178.
Moh, Felicia, Ben Okri: An Introduction to His Early Fiction, Fourth Dimension Publishers, 2002.
Newton, Carolyn, “An Interview with Ben Okri,” in South African Literary Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 5–6.
Okri, Ben, “In the Shadow of War,” in The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 477–80.
———, “The True Issue of This Century Is Not Terrorism, or Religion. It Is Freedom. We Need to De-censor Our Minds,” in the Herald (Glasgow, UK), August 11, 2003, p. 9.
Onwordi, Sylvester Ike, “Beneath the Waves,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 5–11, 1988, p. 857.
Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne, eds., in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 367–70.
Thorpe, Michael, “Nigeria,” in World Literature Today,...
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