Prize–winning Nigerian-British author Ben Okri is was in Kolkata to attend the
Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, where his latest novel, The Age of Magic, was launched. An
engaged conversation ensued; many issues central to Okri’s writing came up for
discussion – his views on childhood, race, African literature, the Indian
experience and Rabindranath Tagore. All this happened while waiting for two
glasses of orange juice, which took forever to arrive. Excerpts:
Children appear as protagonists in your novels and the world of a child, full of magic and wonder, is crucial to you. Do you think childhood ever ends?
I wouldn’t say childhood features all that much in my work. It just features in The Famished Road trilogy. But I am fascinated by childhood, in childhood as a device for a special kind of consciousness. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the trilogy.
One of the crucial things to understand about it is the lens through which the whole world is seen. The lens is everything – the lens of a special kind of consciousness. I wanted the reader to feel a combination of things and I simply could not think of any other way of bringing it about. Even if I had a saint or an enlightened person, it wouldn’t have that purity of lens that I required.
Does childhood ever end? I think society specialises in bringing childhood to an end as quickly as possible. It is one of the failings of what we consider society, of education. A child is no sooner given to the education system than it sets about bringing childhood to an end – by counteracting the child’s perceptions of the world and putting in its minds a replacement reality. I have not yet encountered any education system which takes an interest in enriching the quality of childhood while allowing the possibility of adulthood to grow within that, to retain the playful way of seeing, a certain openness of heart, a certain unjudgementalism.
I personally think that childhood shouldn’t end. It’s quite possible to grow up and become tough, hard-seeing adults, to be able to look at the world and see it for exactly what it is, while retaining something of the garden of childhood in one’s consciousness. That’s the ideal. Because only then can many of the rich possibilities of society come about. I lament the swiftness with which childhood is brought to an end. You send your kids to boarding school – wide-eyed and fascinated by the world – and when they come back they are cynics. In two or three years the child is gone.
You’ve written about tribe and clan. Do you think tribe is a problem in Africa? Is it a problem created by outsiders?
Tribe is a problem everywhere. Because it has to do with identity, with culture. I am not a great subscriber to this “tribe thing”. I am a trans-tribe person. It’s how I have always wanted to be. Of course I was born into a set of tribes. But my allegiance to them is not tribal. It is just a fact of biography, a fact of sympathy. But my sympathy extends beyond…
I think we are touchy about tribe in Africa. Because of what the colonial presence made of it – something very divisive, something faintly humiliating, something really low in perception. But it was a very good trick by the colonialist.
Tribe very powerfully exists in England as well. You live there long enough and you see huge tribal divisions. People identify themselves in relation to the towns they come from. A Scot or a Welsh or someone from Cornwall – they have very strong identification with a place. It’s worldwide. In America people identify themselves in relation to the tribes that their families come from. They speak of being Italian Americans, or African Americans…
It would be naïve to pretend that this identity thing isn’t there in the world and doesn’t affect its politics. It profoundly does. All you have to do is wander through the world and see how people hold on to their regional languages, their ways of doing things, their ways of eating – they hang on to it, sometimes in desperate ways.
To deny oneself the perception of tribe isn’t going to change the world. But to measure the world by it is wrong. Tribal allegiances are at once very powerful and slightly atavistic. So the future is not tribal. The future is trans-tribal. That doesn’t mean that people lose what they perceive as their cultures. I think another form of tribe is much more interesting, actually – affinity by sensibility, affinity by worldview. There are other ways of constructing relations.
In a recent article, you speak about the ‘tyranny of subject’ among black and African writers…
First of all, I’d like to stress that the title of the article is not mine. But a lot of people have responded to it in the wrong way because of it. To begin with, it was not a comment on what people are writing. Instead, it was a danger that I felt I needed to draw attention to.
Because I felt this trend has become more than a trend – it’s expectation, it’s a perceived responsibility, it’s even acquired the status of a literary law. It is perceived that way by publishers, by reviewers. And if one does not challenge it, it will become something worse than law – it will condemn future writers to this idea that this is the only way they can write, that these are the only things they can write about.
It should have been challenged years ago, shortly after Independence – in the 1970s, when we dealt with the whole business of writers feeling it necessary to change the colonial perception of places, to counter it and then to give the world, in their literature, genuine, authentic worldviews of Africans, Indians, etc. It was important to do that.
But it slowly crept from being “important to do” to “what you must do” – and then to “what you are”. The danger of that is incalculable in terms of our literatures. It leads to monotonous literature, where all the novels, all the poems, all the plays are about our problems, our suffering, our poverty, about what was done to us – as if that were the only thing about us.
Our condition is much wider than our suffering, our failings. I understand that it makes for a sensational literature. But if we have that alone, we end up with a literature that you don’t want to read. Because you’re able to predict it. That’s not what a literature should be. Literature is there to surprise us, delight us, challenge us, annoy us, stun us, startle us, amaze us, to expand our sense of what we are.
Look at the literature of other nations, of other continents, and see how much variety they have – comedy, humour, science fiction, playfulness… everything! Whereas with us, it’s just this monotonous literature of two or three subjects, which are of great importance, but which are also all that we are expected to write about. If this isn’t challenged it’ll kill us as writers. A young writer starting to write will not actually look at the world. He will automatically look for a problem.
You see, we also need to train critics out of the idea that our work is important only if we are dealing with “problems”. They don’t expect that out of, say, a French writer, who is expected to be intellectual, who can play games with language. Hey! Why shouldn’t we want to do that? That too is a gift of our aesthetic consciousness. That too is political in its way.
That’s what I was trying to accomplish with that article. People criticised it by saying, oh, you shouldn’t write an essay about it, you should just do it in your work. And I want to say to them that that’s what I’ve been doing. You haven’t paid attention to all my work. You’ve just read The Famished Road but not In Arcadia, Astonishing the Gods, The Age of Magic, in which I’m doing other things. And there are many of us – writers who are doing that.
You have always defied and denied literary categorisation. I read that you came up with this term – “fictive philosophy” – to describe your work. Is that your term?
No, I think it’s someone else’s term. People have been very fertile trying to find phrases for what I do. And that’s good for some of my work…
I think “fictive philosophy” describes your latest novel The Age of Magic pretty well…
It does to some degree. But then it gives the impression that the novel is about philosophical ideas and misses out the magical dimension – magical dimension, not magical realism, mind you. And yes, I do resist categorisation. Because I’m fascinated by the boundaries between things.
You see, just like we teach children a way of seeing the world and replace their openness with our structures, we do that in literature too. If you’re going to write a novel, you need to be sure what genre it should be, you need to be clear into what category it will fall. But I don’t see that life comes in categories. I don’t see the human experience comes so neatly. I see the human experience is the most fascinating where it appears to be the most blurred. I think the truth resides somewhere outside categories.
You have often mentioned your deep interest in India. From what you have experienced of India so far, do you think it might take shape into some kind of writing?
India presents a real danger to the writer. Because India offers a lot of things to the senses. And writers fall into the laziness of senses. They fall into the sounds, the smells, the images – they fall into the richness of things, into list-making, into iteration. They try to chase “Indian reality”.
But if you chase Indian reality, you’ve lost from the beginning. You end up with a novel that is just lists, infinite lists. Because you try to chase a cascading multiplicity. I think that is not the way – I intuitively feel that is just not the way to write about India.
Almost everything I have read about India falls into the same problem – trying to chase the dragon, something that you can’t chase. You’ll need an encyclopedia to catch one moment. And to avoid that – to say, I’m not gonna do all that, I’m just gonna tell the story – you’re caught in a paradox between this thing that you’re telling and the world everyone knows is there.
I have the same problem with people writing about Africa. They turn up with their notebooks and they’re trying to chase the same dragon. They are trying to chase – to describe – this reality. And the more they describe, the less you see of Africa. The more accurate they are in their description, the less you get the reality of it. From Graham Greene, a beautiful writer, to VS Naipaul, an exquisite writer, Africa just goes right through their fingers – like water. Beautiful words on the page, but Africa – whoosh – gone through them.
You have spoken about your connection with Rabindranath Tagore. Could you share more with us?
I came to Tagore’s work quite late. But I’ve been aware of his spirit for a long time. Tagore is one of those names – like [Walt] Whitman – that just somehow gets about. It gets to you before the work does. The spirit of his work is in his name. And that’s because he is in touch with the essence of the Indian spirit. I don’t think there is just one work of his about which you say: This is it. His work pervades like a fragrance.
It’s also his stance, his relationship with words. All I say to people is that you simply need to read the opening lines of Gitanjali. It is so cunning and so profound and so beautiful that we take it for granted. Tagore anthologised his work in Gitanjali and because of that, it seems to bring together the complete universe of his work into a new unity. It hangs together as a volume.
It feels – and this is why I invoked Whitman – like The Song of Myself, like Leaves of Grass. It feels like one of those great poetic projects in which the poet wants to synthesise all that he’s trying to say into this set of linked songs – very hard to do!
So as I said, I was aware of the fragrance of his name from my teens, but I came to read him in my late 20s. By the time you come to read it, you feel he is someone you already know. There’s a timeliness and a timelessness about him. He is demanding to read too – he asks you to rise up to a special place in yourself...
And the opening of Gitanjali in English is something like: “You have made me endless, such is your pleasure.” The reader reading that does not think that Tagore is saying that the poet is endless. The reader reads it as his own endlessness. You didn’t think about your endlessness before. When you read that line, your endlessness is given to you.
That’s the realisation we seek. That’s why we read literature.
That’s why we read literature. Because of our endlessness.