6 minute read

Ben Okri Biography

Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Minna, 1959. Education: In Nigeria; at University of Essex, Colchester, B.A. in comparative literature. Career: Broadcaster, "Network Africa," BBC World Service, 1984-85; poetry editor, West Africa, 1981-87. Full-time writer and reviewer for the Guardian, the Observer, and the New Statesman, all London. Awards: Commonwealth Prize for Africa, 1987; Paris Review Aga Khan prize, 1987, for fiction; Booker prize, 1991, for The Famished Road.



Flowers and Shadows. London, Longman, 1980.

The Landscapes Within. London, Longman, 1981.

The Famished Road. London, Cape, 1991; New York, Talese, 1992.

Songs of Enchantment. London, Cape, and New York, Talese, 1993.

Astonishing the Gods. London, Phoenix House, 1995.

Dangerous Love. London, Phoenix House, 1996.

A Way of Being Free. London, Phoenix House, 1997.

Infinite Riches. London, Phoenix, 1999.

Short Stories

Incidents at the Shrine. London, Heinemann, 1986.

Stars of the New Curfew. London, Secker and Warburg, and NewYork, Viking, 1989.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Dream-Vendor's August," in Paris Review (New York), Winter 1987.

"Disparities," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Fall 1990.


An African Elegy. London, Cape, 1992.


Critical Studies:

Some African Voices of Our Time by Ivor Agyeman-Duah. Accra, Ghana, Anansesem Publications, 1995; Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson, Oxford, J. Currey and Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997.

* * *

Ben Okri's writing career began early: his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, was published when he was 21. The novel recounts the growth into adulthood of Jeffia Okwe, the sensitive son of a corrupt and ruthless businessman and a woman who, from being "beautiful, fresh" with "so much life and vigour," becomes a "walking tragedy" after the death of her husband. Jeffia's discovery of the nature of his father's business and his business associates is economically described and frequently the pathos of the characters—particularly Juliet, his father's former mistress—is all the more effective for its understatement. Okri is exceptionally deft at evoking moments and meetings fraught with emotion, such as Jeffia's tentative falling in love with Cynthia, a night nurse. The social context of a Nigerian town is effortlessly realised.

If Flowers and Shadows was a relatively conventional Bildungsroman, The Landscapes Within, Okri's next novel, takes a similarly conventional form and, as the title suggests, begins to stretch the imaginative properties it holds. The central character here is a solitary painter named Omovo, whose artistic vision leads him into conflict not only with his family and friends but also with the state. Social and political corruption are the condition and context of Omovo's artistic effort. If the clarity and precision of Okri's style owe something to Chinua Achebe, then his vision of social squalor and human degradation is as unflinching and as compassionate as that of Wole Soyinka. Omovo is actually described at one point, reading Soyinka's novel The Interpreters, whose title points up the social significance of his own artistic dedication. Omovo's tender love for Ifeyinwa, the wife of a neighbour, develops towards emotional disaster when she leaves their squalid township and wanders unwittingly to a senseless and anonymous death, shot by soldiers and dumped "into the brackish stream nearby." The novel ends with Omovo picking his way "slowly through the familiar darkness, alone."

This turning out and movement away from conventional contexts is mirrored in Okri's next two books, both collections of short stories which develop the nightmare visions of nocturnal landscapes, filling them with the bodies of spirits, living and dead. Incidents at the Shrine is a slim volume of eight stories, each one a strong but unemphatic marvel. The stories are set in Nigeria during the Civil War, in London among the derelicts and the dispossessed, and in dream-worlds suffused with an African sensibility and experience of Britain in the 1980s, where a ruthless Conservative government oversees urban and industrial collapse. Hidden histories reveal themselves, disparities converge and prayers go crooked in an unkempt, deregulated world. Yet the pace and procedure of Okri's prose is undaunted. He maintains a fluent attention to realistic detail. He is still observant of those moments and places of "very perceptible demarcation." Stars of the New Curfew opens with an epigraph by Christopher Okigbo: "We carry in our worlds that flourish our worlds that have failed." The "worlds that have failed" resurface and submerge. In the title-story, a recalcitrant salesman is forced into dispensing fake ringworm medicines which actually multiply ringworm, then finds work with a new firm called "CURES UNLIMITED." From describing the "nightmare of salesmen" Okri moves to depicting the "salesman of nightmares." In both short story collections, Okri's visions have the vividness of hallucination.

The Famished Road expands the hallucinatory medium of the stories over the length of a 500-page novel. This is Okri's most haunting, entertaining, and challenging work to date. It is as if Soyinka and Amos Tutuola had coauthored a work with the South American "magic realists" Borges and Marquez, although there is also a singularly elegant lightness of touch and a constancy of pace.

The narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child" who is still linked with the protean spirits that lie unborn behind or underneath creation's struggling forms. His innocuous naiveté, unquenchable curiosity, and endless thirst are unchecked by his adventures. His experience is articulated within a limited but shifting constellation of characters and places: his home and his parents; the shrewd, magisterial Madame Koto and her bar; the forest that surrounds the village; and the interstellar spaces into which his wayward imagination sails. Realistic details and dream-scenarios are syncopated and run together. The result is not counterpoint but a unique blend of physical, sensual, and creatural particularities within a radically unpredictable metaphysical context. The staple diet in Madam Koto's bar is hot pepper soup and palm wine. This scalds the palate and the imagination at the same time that it sustains both. The book is populated with grotesque and wonderful characters from the compound, the forest, the world beyond the forest, and the spirit world. We encounter a two-legged dog, a photographer, hundreds of rats, various parties of politicians, the motley inhabitants of Madame Koto's bar, Azaro's Dad (who becomes a champion boxer, a political revolutionist, and a fantastic storyteller), and his Mum, who hawks her wares around the streets of the compound to pay for food and "ogogoro."

Despite the unremitting grimness of much of what Okri describes, the lasting impression of The Famished Road is of the regenerative power of the imagination. Medicines are found for the harshest poisons; fevers rage and die; performances take their exultant forms and shift camp once again. Nevertheless, if the imagination is a source of future hope, it is often unreliable. Azaro's naive perceptiveness, his childlike wisdom and insouciance, undercut the potential banality in his ingenuous pronouncements. He accepts, with some scepticism, his Dad's judgements: "The heart is bigger than a mountain. One human life is deeper than the ocean. Strange tribes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls." Azaro's response brings reality into perspective: "A dream can be the highest point of a life."

Songs of Enchantment returns to the world of Azaro, which is torn by the tension between political factions, and by Azaro's own personal turmoil. Okri's writing here is richly sensual: "His limbs shook and he was bathed in radiance, as if his fit were a sweet juice that he was drinking, or as if it were sunlight to the feverish." Azaro appears once again in Infinite Riches, a novel featuring the characters and conflicts familiar to Okri's readers.

Alan Riach

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - Career