Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. His writing challenges perceptions of reality. He is also a cultural activist.
He was born in Nigeria and came to England as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War. The war made a defining impact on his life. He finished his secondary school education and wanted to study physics and become a scientist. But he was deemed too young then for university and that summer he read his way through his father’s library and found his true vocation. He began writing at a very early age. He began with poetry and then published articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. Then he wrote short stories and eventually what was to become his first novel, ‘Flowers and Shadows.’
In 1978, Ben Okri returned to London. He studied comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, ‘The Landscapes Within.’ He went through a brief period of homelessness. In 1986 came ‘Incidents at the Shrine’, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. In 1988 a second collection, ‘Stars of the new Curfew,’ cemented his reputation as a powerful new voice. But it was in 1991, with the publication of ‘The Famished Road’ that he attained international stature.
The Famished Road won the Booker Prize that year. It was the first Booker Prize winner to go straight to number one in the paperback bestseller lists. The novel has been highly influential in the decades since its release. When President Clinton went to Africa for the first time, he quoted extensively from The Famished Road. The novel was also the inspiration behind ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead. Recently it was one of the novels cited in an episode of American Dad. It has inspired paintings, music, classical music, plays, films, and dances. It has now been re-issued as a Vintage Classic.
‘The Famished Road’ is the first book in The Famished Road Trilogy, which included ‘Songs of Enchantment’ and ‘Infinite Riches.’ Since then there have been many novels, books of poems, collections of essays.
He is also widely known as a poet. He thinks of himself as primarily a poet, and he maintains that his artistic response to life expresses itself most naturally through poetry. His first book of poems, ‘An African Elegy,’ contains some of his best known poems, including the title poem, which is a set text in schools, and ‘ To an English friend in Africa.’ His epic poem, ‘Mental Fight,’ has been widely read and embraced. Quotations from it are a regular on the internet. ‘ Wild,’ published in 2012, is perhaps his most diverse and life-affirming volume of poems. His most recent collection of poems, ‘A Fire in my Head,’ to be published in January 2021, contains some of his most famous and highly charged political poems. One of the poems, ‘ Grenfell Tower, June 2017,’ was listened to over 6 million times on the Channel Four Facebook page.
In 2009, he invented a new form called the Stoku, which is a cross between a short story and a haiku. This was first displayed in his book ‘ Tales of Freedom’, now re-titled ‘ The Comic Destiny,’ which featured thirteen stokus. Quotations from his work are popular and have appeared in television series like Criminal Minds.
His essays have also been widely read and influential. ‘ A Way of being Free,’ published in 1997, contains some of his best-loved meditations on the power and magic of storytelling. And ‘ A Time for new Dreams,’ published in 2011, was the titular mascot of Grace Wells Bonner’s exhibition at the Serpentine in 2018. It was also a personal book recommendation by the great artist David Hammons in a New Yorker profile of him in 2019.
Ben Okri has written film scripts and plays. He wrote the text to Peter Kruger’s film ‘N: The Madness of Reason.’ The film won the 2015 Ensor Award for Best Film. He is co-writing, with Peter Kruger, the film script adaptation of his novel, ‘The Age of Magic’. He has also written a play called The Outsider, an adaptation of Camus’s famous novel, which was performed to full houses at The Coronet in September 2018. The play won the 2018 Offies Award for Best Theatre Production. In 2020, his play, ‘Madame Sosostris,’ was performed again to full houses at the Pullof Threatres in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Ben Okri has been a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also Visiting Professor of Literature at Leicester University. He is an honorary Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.
In 2019 his novel, ‘Astonishing the Gods,’ was selected as one of the BBC’s ‘100 novels that shaped our world.’
Okri’s work is particularly difficult to categorise. It has been widely categorised as post-modern. Some scholars have noted that the seeming realism with which he depicts the spirit-world. Alternative characterisations of Okri’s work suggest an allegiance to African folklore, spiritual realism, magical realism, visionary materialism, and existentialism.
Okri has always maintained that the categorisation of his work as Magical Realism is the result of laziness on the part of critics. He likens this categorisation to the observation that “a horse … has four legs and a tail. That doesn’t describe it.” He has instead described his fiction as obeying a kind of “dream logic,” and stated that his fiction often is preoccupied with the “philosophical conundrum … what is reality?” He says:
“I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death … Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.”
He notes the effect of personal choices, “Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”
Okri’s short fiction has been described as more realistic and less fantastic than his novels, but these stories also depict Africans in communion with spirits, while his poetry and nonfiction have a more overt political tone, focusing on the potential of Africa and the world for self-transformation and overcome the problems of modernity.
Okri was made an honorary vice-president of the English Centre for the International PEN and a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre. In 2012 Okri was appointed the new vice-president of the Caine Prize for African Writing, having been on the advisory committee and associated with the prize since it was established. He is a member of the board of the Booker Prize Foundation.
Awards and honours
1987 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) – Incidents at the Shrine
1987 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction – The Dream Vendor’s August
1988 Guardian Fiction Prize – Stars of the New Curfew (shortlisted)
1991 to 1993 Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts, Trinity College, Cambridge
1991 Booker Prize – The Famished Road
1993 Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize – The Famished Road
1994 Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy) -The Famished Road
1995 Crystal Award (World Economic Forum)
1997 Honorary Doctorate of Literature, awarded by University of Westminster
2000 Premio Palmi (Italy) – Dangerous Love
2001 Order of the British Empire (OBE)
2002 Honorary Doctorate of Literature, awarded by University of Essex
2004 Honorary Doctor of Literature, awarded by University of Exeter
2008 International Literary Award Novi Sad (International Novi Sad Literature Festival, Serbia)
2009 Honorary Doctorate of Utopia, awarded by Universiteit voor het Algemeen Belang, Belgium
2010 Honorary Doctorate, awarded by School of Oriental and African Studies
2010 Honorary Doctorate of Arts, awarded by the University of Bedfordshire
2014 Honorary Fellow, Mansfield College, Oxford
2018 Shared winner of The Offies Award for Best Theatre Production for The Outsider
2019 BBC’s “100 novels that shaped our world,’ for ‘Astonishing the Gods.’
2020 Honorary Doctorate of Literature, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa
Flowers and Shadows (Harlow: Longman, 1980)
The Landscapes Within (Harlow: Longman, 1981)
The Famished Road (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991)
Songs of Enchantment (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993)
Astonishing the Gods (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995; re-issued by Head of Zeus, 2014)
Dangerous Love (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1996; re-issued by Head of Zeus, 2014)
Infinite Riches (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
In Arcadia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002; re-issued by Head of Zeus, 2014)
Starbook (London: Rider Books, 2007)
The Age of Magic (London: Head of Zeus, 2014)
The Freedom Artist (London: Head of Zeus, 2019)
Poetry, essays and short story collections
Incidents at the Shrine (short stories; London: Heinemann, 1986)
Stars of the New Curfew (short stories; London: Secker & Warburg, 1988)
An African Elegy (poetry; London: Jonathan Cape, 1992)
Birds of Heaven (essays; London: Phoenix House, 1996)
A Way of Being Free (essays; London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson: 1997; London: Phoenix House, 1997; re-issued by Head of Zeus, 2014)
Mental Fight (poetry: London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999; London: Phoenix House, 1999)
Tales of Freedom (short stories; London: Rider & Co., 2009; re-issued as The Comic Destiny; London: Head of Zeus, 2019)
A Time for New Dreams (essays; London: Rider & Co., 2011; re-issued by Head of Zeus, 2019)
Wild (poetry; London: Rider & Co., 2012; re-issued Head of Zeus, 2021)
The Magic Lamp (London: Head of Zeus, 2017)
Rise Like Lions (London: Hodder and Stoughton 2018)
Prayer for the Living (short stories; London: Head of Zeus, 2019)
Mental Fight (poetry; revised edition; London: Head of Zeus, 2021)
A Fire in my Head (poetry; London: Head of Zeus, 2021)
2018 The Outsider (L’Étranger)
2019 Madame Sosostris
2015 Artsnight (TV Series) – Himself – Presenter
2012 Artsnight (TV Series) – Himself – Interviewee
1997 Behind the Mask (Short) – Himself
1996 Great Railway Journeys (TV Series documentary)
1996 The Brains Trust (TV Series) – Himself
1995 Bookmark (TV Series) – Himself – Poet & Novelist
Poetry (2021) - Apollo
A powerful collection of new and recently completed poems by Ben Okri covering topics of the day, such as the refugee crisis, racism, Obama, the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Corona outbreak. In our times of crisis The mind has its powers This book brings together many of Ben Okri’s most acclaimed and politically charged…