“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once famously said. But what magic do words possess to bestow order to a chaotic world? Ben Okri’s visit to Cairo’s 41st International Book Fair – where Britain is the guest of honor – provided an opportunity to contemplate that puzzle.
Booming with confidence in the human potential to break the shackles of the past, reading Ben Okri’s poetry created a strong first impression of him as an alchemist of the imagination.
Okri – often dubbed as Africa’s greatest writer – had reinstated the ethos of hope long before Barack Obama came up with slogans promising “Change and “Yes We Can.
When I went to meet the Nigerian poet and author, I was clutching my copy of “Mental Fight, aiming to get it autographed.
I was not the only one. Before one could even have a word with him at the Literary Café, the 49-year-old Okri was surrounded by a crowd of people waiting for him to sign their copies of his 1991 Booker Prize winning novel “The Famished Road.
It was only natural that the first question I asked the author of titles such as “Astonishing the Gods was about his faith in hope and change, which appeared salient in his work.
“It is a very complex theme, he said.
“My work is a long journey, said the author, whose travels between his home country Nigeria and his host country Britain have informed a large part of his writing. “Each book is a station in that journey.
What waves carry the shore is what Okri would like to present as his writing. “Sometimes I move to hope, sometimes towards frustration, sometimes I am angry, sometimes I believe in the possibility of transformation, he said.
Writing must not be uniformly uplifting, not solely about hope and change.
“Life brings out so many things and all of them are true, Okri said, insisting that his work should not be categorized.
“Literature is not about a single resolution, he said, “sometimes it’s about turning these resolutions on their head. Breaking it all down allows you to build again, by “re-dreaming, re-imagining the world through the power of imagination and myth.
Drop “myth in the conversation, and Ben Okri’s association with magic realism instantly arises. Such labeling of his work – along with authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, who use magical elements in otherwise realistic milieus – is what Okri diagnoses as a lack of intellectual exercise.
“Because it is not naturalism like Western literature, contends the author, “it is magic realism, which is quite lazy. “When people label you, said the author, they fail “to see the specifics of what you’re doing.
Sure, his writing does have magical and transformative qualities, says the author, but so do the Arabian nights and African folktales that find their roots in ritual and mythology.
So what does he do when he looks at the past, to the Civil War in Nigeria?
Is he trying to reclaim history through prose?
“I’m actually a magical analyst, said Okri, “analyzing the make up of a people through story.
“We live perpetually, unavoidably in stories, said the author, and from this we imagine our past.
“History is colored by our inner makeup. Hence the conflict of history, contends Okri, is a conflict of the imagination.
Politics speaks from the standpoint of facts. Literature, however, speaks to the world from the interior, and it is the interior that makes the world.
History cannot be objective, he said: “The world is charged by what we bring from our past and imagination.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for example, is a debate between two mythologies, two interpretations of the past, according to Okri.
“The place from which the problem comes is where it needs to be solved, he said. “Imagination is the only true basis of dialogue for people.
While it is difficult to disagree with Okri, I cannot help but feel the secrets of his magic have escaped me. I want to come away with something bold, something brave, something of the person Okri’s poetry demands to be.
Only later did I realize this can be revealed in the basics of negotiation – listening.
But while Okri is happy serving to parlance of politics, he’s happier reading poetry, with which the Literary Café began and ended.
It was in reading a poem titled “To an English friend in Africa from his collection “An African Elegy that the poet came into his own.
“To an English friend is a desideratum telling a friend not to judge the people he sees, but to be happy to see other people’s dreams. Perhaps there are no words for that place of magic.
“I’m a big fan of silence, Okri says, commenting on the five-year gap he took after publishing “In Arcadia before returning to the literary scene with “Starbook.
Okri would rather not be among those that “can talk and write oneself into stupidity.
“Sometimes an artist can be too productive. It’s only in the silence that the true self emerges.
Asked what Britain has gained from its immigrant literature, Okri said that one of the major lessons is that a literature and a people is richer the more it conducts dialogue with other cultures.
“A literature dries up feeding only on its own tradition, he said. “We seem to have forgotten that.
Time has run out. He signs my copy, wishing me a life joyful, to be blessed.
I stand puzzled because here is a person who does not claim to believe that all is blessed. But then I remember an important observation made by an audience member: While one may like the poets to give us decisive answers, there are contexts and situations.
Okri is “more interested in the process of creativity and imagination. But he’s not far removed from everything.
Okri calls it perception. Everyone has the same experience, he says. “Our experience is charged by our perception; that makes it magical.
In his next work, Okri said he will embark on a “new direction altogether.
Set for release in April this year, “Tales of Freedom is pitched as a collection of short stories where odd, magical characters find themselves in odd, magical situations.
But that’s not magical realism. Analyze that.
Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on January 29, 2010.