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."