Booker Prize–Winning Author Ben Okri to Deliver Ha Jin Lecture Tonight
Acclaimed for pushing literary boundaries, he says “storytelling is about a higher kind of truth”
Ben Okri has been taking readers on mystical journeys ever since he published his novel, The Famished Road, in 1991. The first of a trilogy, it’s the story of a spirit child, Azaro, who inhabits the shadow world between life and death. The novel brought Okri literary acclaim, including the Booker Prize.
The Nigerian-British writer is the author of three dozen books, among them novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays that explore perceptions of reality and examine some of the world’s most pressing issues, including climate change, the war in Ukraine, race, and social injustice.
Okri is arguably one of the world’s most influential contemporary writers, but American audiences have been slow to discover his work. A recent New York Times story headlined “It Took Nearly 30 Years. Is America Ready for Ben Okri Now?” delineates how US publishers are only now beginning to publish his most recent work and reissuing his earliest books “at a time of deep reckoning and crisis—from the pandemic to political and ecological meltdowns—which has made his work feel all the more prescient.”
Okri will read from his poetry and prose on Thursday, September 21, at 7:30 pm, when he delivers this year’s annual Ha Jin Visiting Lecture at BU Hillel. The event, which will include a conversation between Okri and Louis Chude Sokei, director of BU’s African American Studies Program and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, is free and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A, a reception, and book signing.
BU Today spoke with Okri, who resides in West London and received a British knighthood this spring for his services to literature, about the importance of storytelling, why he considers himself first and foremost a poet, and his growing preoccupation with climate change.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
With Ben Okri
BU Today: Why do you think it’s taken so long for the American publishing industry and readers here to connect with your work?
Okri: It’s a mystery. I first came to attention in America with the publication of my book of stories Stars of the New Curfew and then with The Famished Road. This was in the ’90s. But you know, a people can only hear what they can hear when they can hear it. The register of my art is an unusual one. I sense that America, with its current history, is more receptive to my voice. I think it’s a question of harmonics. This is a golden time for America to get me. I am in the best place in my art for my writing to be enjoyed and appreciated.
BU Today: You came of age during the Nigerian civil war. How did that experience shape your sensibility as a writer and how does it continue to inform your work?
Okri: Growing up during the civil war gave me an existential sense of life and art. The sense of death awoke in me a profound love of life. The civil war attuned me to the underlying condition of things, so that I sense things before they become manifest in the world. It opened my aesthetic sense to the invisible and unseen. But then it also made me aware from an early age that the differences between people are easy to exploit, and to define ourselves by our differences is superficial and plays into the hands of dangerous forces. It made me seek out the core things, that are we human beings first. And that is a state grand in possibilities.
BU Today: You became the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize, for The Famished Road. Why do you think that novel resonated so deeply with critics and readers, and how did winning the prize impact your career?
Okri: It was a novel about the intersection of myth and life. People were ready for a new kind of storytelling. And The Famished Road was a new kind of storytelling, fusing enchantment and politics. The Booker Prize changed my life and made it possible for me to write on my own terms, out of my own freedom. An incredible gift.
BU Today: Can you talk about the importance of storytelling in this moment, and why it’s so vital?
Okri: We live in a time inundated with facts and digital information. A time when truth has been corrupted and perceptions of reality manipulated. Storytelling is about a higher kind of truth, the truth of the imagination, of the soul. But it’s not just any kind of storytelling. What we need most now are stories that help us decode the conundrum of modern life; we need stories that strengthen what is best in us, stories that help us live more truthfully, more fully—stories that bear witness to the horror and miracle of things.
BU Today: Despite your success as a novelist and short story writer, you consider yourself first and foremost a poet. Why is that?
Okri: Poetry is my natural mode of being. I begin with poetry. And it is through poetry that I am best able to express my deepest feelings and take the psychic temperature of the world.
BU Today: One of your best-known poems, “Grenfell Tower, June 2017,” recalls the terrible 2017 high-rise fire in West London that killed 72 people. It’s garnered more than six million views on Facebook. Can you talk about the writing of that poem?
Okri: I went to the burning tower. I watched and listened and talked to people who suffered. Then I went home and surrendered myself to the underlying cry of the dead and the grieving and those who lost everything.
BU Today: How are your challenges when writing a novel different from those when writing a poem or a short story, and does the way you approach a poem differ from the way you approach a novel or short story?
Okri: The novel is a river, the short story is a structured dream, the poem a glass of magic water. With the novel, you are creating worlds, with a story you are illuminating a dream, with a poem you are fusing vision and music. One writes the novel patiently, the short story artistically, the poem rigorously.
BU Today: Your work is increasingly focused on climate change and the lack of political expediency to address it. Can you talk about that?
Okri: It’s the existential core of my work at the moment. It seems to me impossible to evade. We have to deal with it. It is our destiny in our times to face it and to listen to what it is telling us about ourselves and to deal with it. We have no choice in the matter. It is perhaps the single most important issue of our times.
BU Today: You were knighted by the British government at Buckingham Palace in June. What did you feel when you learned the news?
Okri: I was very moved to be knighted. I take the knighthood seriously, in the sense that it connects me with the best of the chivalric tradition. This tradition exists not only in Europe, but has its equivalence in most cultures. It has different names, but the nobility of its implication is the same. It is a path of initiation and quest and the pursuit of justice and the transforming spirit of love. I dedicated my knighthood to the climate change struggle and to literature.
Ben Okri will deliver this year’s Ha Jin Visiting Lecture on Thursday, September 21, at 7:30 pm at Boston University Hillel, Room 227, 213 Bay State Road. The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception.
Listen to Ben Okri read his poem “Grenfell Tower, June 2017” here.
The Ha Jin Visiting Lecturer series, made possible by a gift from former BU trustee Robert J. Hildreth, brings internationally renowned fiction writers to BU to teach master classes and give public lectures. The series is named for award-winning novelist Ha Jin (GRS’93), a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing.