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Biography of Ben OKRI

Nigeria > Literature : Ben OKRI

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Biography :

Ben Okri. Born March 15,1959 in Minna (Nigeria).

Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and poet, one of the leading African writers. In his work Okri has experimented with new literary forms, different styles, genres, and traditions. Okri started as a realist, with postcolonial themes. After exploring with stream of consciousness Okri published novels which mixed realism, modernism, and oral forms, especially those of Yoruba culture. This style has been characterized as an example of magic realism with African flavor, although the author himself has emphasized the realistic dimensions of his work - myths and local beliefs are part of the real world, urban life-world, not that they exist next to the real world.

    "We are the miracles that God made
    To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
    We are precious.
    And one day our suffering
    Will turn into the wonders of earth."

    (from 'An African Elegy')

Ben Okri, a member of the Urhobo people, was born in Minna to Grace and Silver Okri. After his birth his father moved to England to study law. Okri spent his earliest years in Peckham, south London. He attended primary school in London but returned with his family to Nigeria aged seven. His father practiced in Lagos among those who could not afford normal legal fees - this later gave material for the author's fiction. Okri childhood was shadowed by the Nigerian civil war (the Biafran War). As a child he read widely, and his mother told him many African stories. He attended Urhobo College, Warri, for a few years. When he was constantly being withdrawn from various schools he continued his education largely at home in Lagos.

After finishing his high school Okri worked as a clerk at a paint store. He failed to get a place at the university and started to write articles on social an political issues. Most of them were not published, but when he wrote short stories based on these articles, they found readers in women's journals and evening papers. At the age of nineteen he completed his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), about a successful businessman whose jealous relatives make his life difficult. The story was written in the broad tradition of Realism. In 1978 Okri moved to England where he studied comparative literature at Essex University. This period was difficult in Okri's life - he wrote, slept occasionally on office floors and was forced to leave without taking a degree because lack of funds. He was a poetry editor of West Africa and worked also for the BBC. In 1984 one of his stories was selected by Peter Ackroyd in the PEN New Fiction contest.

Okri' second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), traced the adventures of a young and poor painter in Lagos. "Ghetto-dwellers are the great fantasists," Okri said in an interview. "There was an extraordinary vibrancy there, an imaginative life. When you are that poor, all you've got left is your belief in the imagination." Omovo happily accepts his surroundings but becomes a painter. The novel was followed by two collections of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), in which Okri started to experiment with new narrative techniques. Several of the stories dealt with the Biafran War, seen from a child's point of view.

    There is a cold fire in the air.
    I hear it
    consume the groins
    of heroes
    and shrivel the guts
    of martyrs.
    The name of the fire
    is printed on grave stones:
    names squeezed from tubers of life
    and collective cowardice.

    (from 'The Incandescence of the Wind')

The Famished Road (1991) was Okri's literary tour de force and it won the Booker Prize. It has been called the classic magical realist novel of West Africa. The story is set on the eve of independence of Nigeria. Its narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child,'' an abiku, a famished baby of ambiguous existence, who is destined to die in infancy and be reborn to the same mother over and over again. Okri describes Azaro's struggle to resist his fate and to survive with his family hunger, disease, and violence. The story is simultaneously situated in the world of dream, of those waiting to be born, of dead. Arazo's spirit-companions are constantly trying to pull him back into their world. Azaro's father undergoes a series of mythic battles and his mother keeps the family together with her courage and hard work. The sinister shaman Madame Koto, whose bar Azaro visits, degenerates with her corrupt deals. Finally Azaro must choose between pains of mortality and the land of spirits. The title was taken from a poem by WoleSoyinka - "May you never walk / When the road waits, famished."

The narrative structure of Songs of Enchantment (1993), Okri's next novel, was simpler than in The Famished Road, but it continued to develop the author's mythical and poetical view of the world. An African Elegy (1992) was a collection of poems with the classical themes of love, solitude, and death. In response to reports of the Sudanese famine, Okri published in 1993 in the Guardian the short story 'A Prayer for the Living' in order to generate funds to donate to relief charities. "The hungrier I became, the more I saw them - my old friends who had died before me, clutching on to flies. Now, they feed on the light of the air. And they look at us - the living - with so much pity and compassion in their eyes." Dangerous Love (1996) was about artistic crisis of Omovo, familiar from The Landscapes Within. He has a doomed affair with Ifeyiwa, a married woman. Ifeyiwa's husband is violent and she dreams of cutting his throat with a knife. Government officials seize Omovo's painting from an exhibition, he is haunted by a image of a murdered girl, and he feels afraid of painting. "In ugliness," Omovo says, "we see outselves as we never want to." Omovo resigns from his poorly paid work at an office - he feels free and decides never to work in an organization again. Ifeyiwa dies on her way back to her village.

    "The Greeks have a saying that the skylark buried its father in its head. Bury this girl in your heart, in your art. So live, my son, live with unquenchable fire. Let everything you're suffering now give you every reason in the world to master your life and your art. Live deeply, fully. Be fearless. Be like the tortoise - grow a hard shell to protect your strong heart. Be like the eagle - soar above your pain and carry the banner the the wonder of our lives to the farthest corners of the world. Build your strength. Destiny is difficult. The people without knowing it will always be on your side. They will nourish your soul. Never forget that the people suffer too and struggle, and you will be safe in art." (from Dangerous Love)

Okri has become the leading figure of his generation of Nigerian writers, who have largely abandoned the social and historical themes of Chinua Achebe, and brought together modernist narrative strategies and Nigerian oral and literary tradition. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Booker Prize (1991), the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa (1987), the Paris Review Aga Khan prize for fiction, the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, and the Premio Grinzane Cavour. Okri lives, works, and writes in London and he has been a visiting writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Cambridge. In Arcadia (2002), Okri's tenth work of fiction, was a disappointment to Helen Brown from The Independent.. "... In Arcadia reads like the ramblings of a stoned sixth former", she wrote in her review on 20 October, 2002.

In January 2003 Okri argued in The Guardian, that the decline of nations begins with the decline of its writers. "Because writers represent the unconscious vigour and fighting spirit of a land. Writers are the very sign of the psychic health of a people: they are the barometer of the vitality of the spirit of the nation." With his poem, 'Prophecy', Okri joined the world-wide debate on the so-called "preventive war" against Iraq. "A vision of the broken rose / In an inferno of oil and blood / Earth in dying clothes / Unleash the hidden will of God."

 Selected bibliography:

    * Flowers and Shadows, 1980
    * The Landscapes Within, 1981 (rev. ed. Dangerous Love, 1996)
    * Incidents at the Shrine: Short Stories, 1986
    * Stars of the New Curfew, 1988
    * The Famished Road, 1991
    * An African Elegy, 1992
    * Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political, 1992
    * Songs of Enchantment, 1993
    * Astonishing the Gods, 1995
    * Birds of Heaven, 1995
    * Dangerous Love, 1996
    * Infinite Riches, 1999
    * Mental Flight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century, 1999
    * In Arcadia, 2002

Last update : 06/21/2007

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