Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866
Ben Okri (OHK-rih) was born on March 15, 1959, in Minna, central Nigeria, to Grace and Silver Oghekeneshineke Loloje Okri. His father held a management-level position at the Nigerian Railway but wished to pursue a law degree in England. As a result, the Okri family moved to London, where Ben...
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Ben Okri (OHK-rih) was born on March 15, 1959, in Minna, central Nigeria, to Grace and Silver Oghekeneshineke Loloje Okri. His father held a management-level position at the Nigerian Railway but wished to pursue a law degree in England. As a result, the Okri family moved to London, where Ben began his education at the John Donne Primary School in Southwark. He returned to Nigeria with his mother shortly before the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. Okri’s education continued at the Children’s Home School in Ibadan, the Mayflower School in Ikenne, and the Urhobo College (secondary school) in Warri, from which he graduated at the age of fourteen.
Okri’s early years had a profound impact on his writing. His exposure to both European and African cultures gave the future novelist the breadth and richness of perspective that marks his mature work. The experience of the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran war, introduced Okri to the painful reality of contemporary African politics that was to become one of his central literary preoccupations. During the 1967-1970 conflict, which followed a failed military coup and secession attempt, the Igbo ethnic group became the target of violent retaliation. As a half Igbo, Grace Okri was forced to go through a period of hiding, remembered by her son as a time of uncertainty marked by frequent changes of address and the necessity of flight. This childhood experience of destabilization sharpened Okri’s awareness of the strong ethnic and political tensions within the newly independent, modern Nigerian state.
After completing his secondary schooling, Okri worked toward a correspondence degree in journalism while holding a job as a clerk in a paint store. During this period, he wrote poetry, fiction, and journalism, occasionally publishing short stories in newspapers and magazines. He also read voraciously, drawing both on his father’s extensive library of Western literary classics and on the work of his great contemporaries, including Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Okri’s father, having received his London law degree, opened a legal practice serving the disenfranchised populations of Lagos. His clients lived in some of the poorest areas of the city and became the inspiration for Ben Okri’s disquieting depictions of urban poverty and deprivation.
In 1978, Okri was granted a government scholarship to attend Essex University, where he studied philosophy and literature. Because of Nigeria’s economic difficulties, however, the scholarship was cancelled, and Okri went through a period of homelessness and destitution. In the 1980’s, he began working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service as a broadcaster for the program Network Africa and served as poetry editor of West Africa Magazine. His short fiction appeared in a number of journals, including the Paris Review, New Statesman, and PEN New Fiction. His first novel, Flowers and Shadows, was published in 1980, followed shortly by The Landscapes Within (1981). In the next several years, Okri published two highly successful short-story collections: Incidents at the Shrine (1986), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa in 1987, as well as the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), which was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In 1987, Okri became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Okri’s next novel, The Famished Road (1991), brought him worldwide literary recognition, receiving, among other honors, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991 and the 1993 Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize. Following the success of The Famished Road, Okri continued to develop the narrative of its main characters in two more novels: Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998). The 1990’s were Okri’s most prolific decade: Alongside the Famished Road trilogy, he published Astonishing the Gods (1995), Birds of Heaven (1996), and Dangerous Love (1996), which received the Italian Premio Palmi award. He also published work in genres other than fiction, including the 1992 poetry collection An African Elegy and the 1999 epic poem Mental Fight. A selection of Okri’s essays, including meditations on art, literature, and politics, as well as tributes to his contemporaries Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, came out in 1997 under the title A Way of Being Free.
Okri then published the novels In Arcadia (2002) and Starbook: A Magical Tale of Love and Regeneration (2007). His work from this period explores, in allegorical form, the questions of spirituality and self-knowledge that have been Okri’s lifelong interest. Brought up in a Christian family, Okri witnessed his father’s turn to animism in search of a spiritual language better capable of expressing the complex transformations of contemporary African culture. Okri’s own search led him toward martial arts, meditation, and Taoism. He calls himself a “universal spiritualist” and has emphasized, in both interviews and writings, the central importance of spirituality to his political and artistic convictions.
In the course of his successful literary career, Okri has been a board member of the Royal National Theatre, a fellow commoner in creative arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, and vice president of English PEN. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Westminster in 1997 and the University of Essex in 2002; he received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in 1995 and the Order of the British Empire in 2001.