Just like the mythical phoenix that rises from the ashes renewed, stronger and set to live in an optimal state; Ben Okri gives us reason to believe that truly, there is light at the end of every tunnel and one can write to impact the world if we refuse to give up.
Early Life as a Writer
With over 20 literary publications and 1 film under his belt, with the attendant benefits of publication royalties from various territory publishers, Ben Okri is one writer to admire.
Ben Okri faced numerous challenges like being refused admission at 14 years old to study in a short university program because he was young and lacked the required qualification, writing several articles and finding no publisher, losing his scholarship, homeless, and even living in parks and squatting with friends. It would have been hard to imagine that such a writer would soon have his writing impacting the world.
One of the greatest gifts my father gave me – unintentionally – was witnessing the courage with which he bore adversity. We had a bit of a rollercoaster life with some really challenging financial periods. He was always unshaken, completely tranquil, the same ebullient, laughing, jovial man.
It is also admirable that poetry found a way into Okri’s heart shortly after he was denied admission and he even stated that these trying times, including his exposure to the Nigerian Civil War were vital to his writing as he gained inspiration from them.
His writing would later impact newer generations of writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, author of fantasy novels such as Who Fears Death and the Binti trilogy.
Ben Okri was also inspired by philosophical texts he read from in his father’s library, there he also discovered poems written by William Blake which were later said to be synonymous with Ben Okri’s poems.
Being an Urhobo man, he also attributed his influential writing to the oral tradition of his people, particularly their way of telling stories. Having a first-hand experience with his mother who told him stories as means of correction and education, it was no wonder his interest was kindled in the art of fiction.
On storytelling, he says:
Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.
Success didn’t just fall on Ben Okri’s shoulders but consistency and perseverance made writing profit him as he constantly wrote short stories based on his social and political articles that weren’t initially published and luckily some of the stories were published in women’s journals and evening papers.
As a young lad who spent ample time in Nigeria and England, it is possible the taste of a first and third world nation as well as the mix of varying cultures and lifestyles were the bases for his controversial socio-political views, government criticism or they might have helped open new worlds for Ben Okri’s creative fiction writing which further went on to impact the world.
Finally, writing began to profit Okri even more after the release of his first novel, Flowers and Shadows” at the age of 21. He later got the opportunity to work as the poetry editor of the West Africa Service and was a regular contributor to the BBC World Service while still staying consistent to his writings. This was to be just to be a tip of the iceberg of how much writing profited him.
Prominence rolled in even more in 1991 when Ben Okri became the youngest winner of the coveted Booker Prize for fiction with his novel The Famished Road.
Ben Okri Writing To Impact The Literary World
Ben Okri’s perseverance has brought him prominence and international recognition as he is referred to as one of Africa’s top writers. Though it’s slightly difficult to categorize Okri’s work, he has used his books and characters in his novel to create a literary movement of postcolonialism and post-modernism, and embedded in them, ideas that have influenced the world of literature and beyond.
Using memories from the civil war, pointing back to the time of political clashes in Nigeria, as well as the African belief in the spirit world helped shape Ben Okri’s fiction as this became his tone as a writer while also educating readers of his books globally on the ills of Nigerian governance.
Combining realism with the spiritual world and a touch of magical realism, spiritual realism, existentialism with influences from Yoruba folklore, Ben Okri has showcased the Nigerian belief to the world. His writing has profited even the Nigerian culture.
To see the madness and yet walk a perfect silver line… That’s what the true story-teller should be: a great guide, a clear mind, who can walk a silver line in hell or madness.
His short stories have more reality than fantasy as Okri’s stories portray Africa and the continent’s relationship with spirits. However, his poems and non-fiction writings also challenge the potential of Africa and help overcome the problems of modernity. His writing is also aimed at impacting the world at large.
More accolades poured in as Ben Okri was made an honorary vice-president of the English Centre for the International PEN and a merit board member of the Royal National Theatre. In 2012, Ben Okri was appointed as the vice-president of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Ben Okri’s life shows us that writers and other creatives should not be ashamed of the negative occurrences in their life but should embrace both the good and bad moments in their life and use that to develop their creative voice and with a sparkle of creativity, imagination and truth also create new ideas that could radically impact the world.
© 2018, Demilade Olafisoye. All rights reserved.