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Ben Okri (b. 1959)


Nigerian novelist, short story writer, and poet, one of the leading African writers. In his work Okri has experimented with new literary forms, different styles, genres, and traditions. Okri started as a realist, with postcolonial themes. After exploring with stream of consciousness Okri published novels which mixed realism, modernism, and oral forms, especially those of Yoruba culture. This style has been characterized as an example of magic realism with African flavor, although the author himself has emphasized the realistic dimensions of his work – myths and local beliefs are part of the real world, urban life-world, not that they exist next to the real world.

"We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of earth."

(in 'An African Elegy', 1992)

Ben Okri, a member of the Urhobo people, was born in Minna to Grace and Silver Okri. After his birth his father, Silver Oghenegueke Loloje Okri, a railway clerk, moved to England to study law on a scholarship. Okri spent his earliest years in Peckham, south London. He attended a primary school there but returned with his family to Nigeria aged seven. His father practiced in Lagos among those who could not afford normal legal fees – this later gave material for the author's fiction. Okri's childhood was shadowed by the Nigerian civil war (the Biafran War). As a child he read widely, and his mother told him many African stories. He attended Urhobo College, Warri, for a few years. Because the war constantly interrupted his schooling, he was largely educated at home in Lagos.

After finishing his high school Okri worked as a clerk at a paint store. He failed to get a place at the university and started to write articles on social and political issues. Most of them were not published, but when he wrote short stories based on these articles, they found readers in women's journals and evening papers. At the age of nineteen he completed his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), about a successful businessman whose jealous relatives make his life difficult. The story was written in the broad tradition of Realism.

In 1978 Okri moved to England where he studied comparative literature at Essex University. This period was difficult in Okri's life. He slept on the floor of his friend, wrote a play, Waiting for a Room, which premiered in the university theatre and was produced by Jan Szafranski. In 1981/82 he moved to live with his girl friend. Because of lack of funds, he was forced to leave the university without taking a degree. Okri was a poetry editor of West Africa and worked also for the BBC. In 1984 one of his stories was selected by Peter Ackroyd in the PEN New Fiction contest.

Okri' second novel, The Landscapes Within (1981), traced the adventures of a young and poor painter in Lagos. "Ghetto-dwellers are the great fantasists," Okri said in an interview. "There was an extraordinary vibrancy there, an imaginative life. When you are that poor, all you've got left is your belief in the imagination." Omovo happily accepts his surroundings but becomes a painter. The novel was followed by two collections of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), in which Okri started to experiment with new narrative techniques. Several of the stories dealt with the Biafran War, seen from a child's point of view.

The Famished Road (1991), decicated to Grace Okri, the author's mother, and to Rosemary Clunie, was Okri's literary tour de force. This Booker Prize winner has been called the classic magical realist novel of West Africa. The story, a blend of Yoruba myth and postcolonial postmodernity, is set on the eve of independence of Nigeria. Its narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child,'' an abiku, a famished baby of ambiguous existence, who is destined to die in infancy and be reborn to the same mother over and over again. Okri describes Azaro's struggle to resist his fate and to survive with his family hunger, disease, and violence. He is determined to make his smile.

The story is simultaneously situated in the world of dream, of those waiting to be born, of dead. "“I grew up with kids seeing spirits," Okri himself has once said in an interview. Arazo's spirit-companions are constantly trying to pull him back into their world. Azaro's father undergoes a series of mythic battles and his mother keeps the family together with her courage and hard work. The sinister shaman Madame Koto, whose bar Azaro visits, degenerates with her corrupt deals. Finally Azaro must choose between pains of mortality and the land of spirits. The title was taken from a poem by Wole Soyinka – "May you never walk / When the road waits, famished." Although Okri has disagreed with the label of magic realism, parallels have been drawn between his narrative technique and that of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The narrative structure of Songs of Enchantment (1993), Okri's next novel, was simpler than in The Famished Road, but it continued to develop the author's mythical and poetical view of the world. An African Elegy (1992) was a collection of poems with the classical themes of love, solitude, and death. In response to reports of the Sudanese famine, Okri published in 1993 in the Guardian the short story 'A Prayer for the Living' in order to generate funds to donate to relief charities. "The hungrier I became, the more I saw them – my old friends who had died before me, clutching on to flies. Now, they feed on the light of the air. And they look at us – the living – with so much pity and compassion in their eyes."

Dangerous Love (1996) was about artistic crisis of Omovo, familiar from The Landscapes Within. He has a doomed affair with Ifeyiwa, a married woman. Ifeyiwa's husband is violent and she dreams of cutting his throat with a knife. Government officials seize Omovo's painting from an exhibition, he is haunted by an image of a murdered girl, and he feels afraid of painting. "In ugliness," Omovo says, "we see ourselves as we never want to." Omovo resigns from his poorly paid work at an office – he feels free and decides never to work in an organization again. Ifeyiwa dies on her way back to her village. Okri's tenth work of fiction, In Arcadia (2002), was a disappointment to Helen Brown from The Independent.. "... In Arcadia reads like the ramblings of a stoned sixth former", she wrote in her review on 20 October, 2002.

"Let everything you're suffering now give you every reason in the world to master your life and your art. Live deeply, fully. Be fearless." (from Dangerous Love, 1996)

Okri has become the leading figure of his generation of Nigerian writers, who have largely abandoned the social and historical themes of Chinua Achebe, and brought together modernist narrative strategies and Nigerian oral and literary tradition. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the Booker Prize (1991), the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa (1987), the Paris Review Aga Khan prize for fiction, the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, and the Premio Grinzane Cavour. He is a former board member of the Royal Society of Literature, and he has served as a vice-president of the writers' association English PEN. In 2001 he was awarded an OBE. Okri lives, works, and writes in London, close to the Canal in Little Venice. His long-term partner, Rosemary Clunie, is a painter, and video artist. Okri has been Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1991-93. He is also schooled in martial arts.

In January 2003 Okri argued in The Guardian, that the decline of nations begins with the decline of its writers. "Because writers represent the unconscious vigour and fighting spirit of a land. Writers are the very sign of the psychic health of a people: they are the barometer of the vitality of the spirit of the nation." With his poem, 'Prophecy', Okri joined the world-wide debate on the so-called "preventive war" against Iraq: "A vision of the broken rose / In an inferno of oil and blood / Earth in dying clothes / Unleash the hidden will of God." In addition to such novelists as R.N. Morris, Neil Gaiman, and Melvin Burgess, Okri has experimented with Twitterfiction, posting in April 2009 a poem via Twitter.

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Magical Realism in West African Fiction by B. Cooper (1998); Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Causality & History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka & Ben Okri by Ato Quayson (1997); Ben Okri: Vom Erbluhen der Verwesung im Verborgenen der Geschichte by Thomas Bruckner (1993); 'Ben Okri' in Talking with African Writers, ed. Jane Wilkinson (1991); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1990) - See also: Amos Tutuola and Wole Soyinka who have used Yoruba tradition in their works.

Selected bibliography:

  • Flowers and Shadows, 1980
  • The Landscapes Within, 1981 (rev. ed. Dangerous Love, 1996)
  • Incidents at the Shrine: Short Stories, 1986
  • Stars of the New Curfew, 1988
  • The Famished Road, 1991
  • An African Elegy, 1992 (vol. of poems)
  • Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political, 1992
  • Songs of Enchantment, 1993
  • Astonishing the Gods, 1995
  • Birds of Heaven, 1995 (essays)
  • Dangerous Love, 1996
    - Vaarallista rakkautta (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1996)
  • A Way of Being Free, 1997 (non-fiction)
  • Mental Fight, 1999 (epic poem)
  • Infinite Riches, 1999
  • Mental Flight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century, 1999
  • In Exilus, 2001 (play)
  • In Arcadia, 2002
  • Starbook: A Magical Tale of Love and Regenration, 2007
  • Tales of Freedom, 2009
  • A Time for New Dreams: Poetic Essays, 2011
  • Wild, 2012

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