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Ben Okri

Ben Okri, is a poet and novelist who was born March 15, 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, to an Igbo mother and Urhobo father. He spent his early childhood in London, and his family returned to Nigeria in 1968. Okri later returned to England, embarking on studies at the University of Essex. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Westminster (1997) and the University of Essex (2002), and was awarded an OBE in 2001.

Ben is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Translated into more than 20 languages, Ben has been awarded numerous international prizes including the Booker Prize in 1991, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the Aga Kahn Prize for Fiction, and was presented with a Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum.

 

Ben is included in the ground breaking anthology Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature

Author Interview, Newsday, July 1992

Sitting at ease in a New York City hotel room, far from the central Nigerian town where he was born, the novelist Ben Okri remembers how he began writing at the age of 14. "On this particular day, it rained," he says, "and this day changed my life. Everybody was out and I was in, alone. I was sitting in the living room and I took out a piece of paper and drew what was on the mantelpiece. That took me about an hour. Then I took another piece of paper and wrote a poem. That must have taken me ten minutes. I looked at the drawing and I looked at the poem. The drawing was dreadful and the poem was … tolerable, bearable. And it became clear to me that this was more my natural area." Stories have always been at the heart of his writing. The Famished Road, a novel, is a nearly encyclopaedic collection of tales about its boy-hero, Azaro, as he moves easily between the world of the flesh and the world of spirits. This generous storytelling comes naturally to Okri.

"You see," he says, "I was told stories, we were all told stories as kids in Nigeria. We had to tell stories that would keep one another interested, and you weren't allowed to tell stories that everybody else knew. You had to dream up new ones.

And it never occurred to us that those stories actually contained a unique worldview. It's very much like the river that runs through your backyard. It's always there. It never occurs to you to take a photograph or to seek its mythology. It's just there; it runs in your veins, it runs in your spirit.

And for me, it was only after I had made too deep a journey into modernism, after I had begun to feel that my ambition was better than my craft, after a period of loneliness and homesickness away from Nigeria, that slowly all those old stories came back to me with new faces and new voices. And I saw that all human beings have their signatures stamped in the stories they tell themselves in dreams, the stories that are embedded in their childhood."

Also embedded in Okri's childhood are memories of civil war in Nigeria, of the constant high-life music of his youth, of his secondary education 400 miles away from his family in Lagos (the sheer travelling involved was a good experience because, he says, "it earthed me among my people") and of his later move to England, where he studied at the University of Essex.

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18 Books by Ben Okri











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