It Took Nearly 30 Years. Is America Ready for Ben Okri Now?

Ben Okri, the prizewinning Nigerian British author, has never been easy to define. Throughout his 40-year career, critics have struggled to place him, labeling him a magical realist, an African realist, even a spiritual realist. And he’s often forged new paths entirely.

His novel “The Last Gift of the Master Artists” is a case in point. It was originally published in Britain in 2007 as “Starbook,” and ahead of its first release in the United States, Okri decided to completely refashion the text, accentuating aspects that he felt had been overlooked.

The novel opens in Africa before the arrival of European colonizers, but soon a “white wind” appears, threatening to wipe out a group’s way of life and scatter “the tribe, its dream, its people, its art.” Okri was surprised, he said, that early critics had missed its allusions to the Atlantic slave trade. “They used words like ‘magical,’ ‘fairy tale,’ ‘enchantment’ — wonderful words,” he said, “but they missed that political edge.”

Reworking the novel took seven years; in the process, he said, the story took on a new urgency. “This book has been rewritten under the fire of our times,” Okri, 63, said over Zoom from his home in West London. “I thought I was revising one book, but I realized that I was actually writing a book about a world that was on the brink of catastrophe.”

This month, Other Press will — finally — publish “The Last Gift of the Master Artists” in the U.S., and a poetry collection, “A Fire in My Head,” will follow in February. Both books feature Okri’s characteristic cosmic and mythic lens, and carry an existential weight in tune with the present moment.

American readers are getting a full sense of the breadth of Okri’s work, which spans genre, including novels and plays as well as poetry, essays and stories. His writing takes on the great riddles of existence — freedom and consciousness, truth and illusion, suffering and transcendence — spinning them into shimmering, allegorical texts.

“I’m an orchestral writer. I’m meant to be read on many, many levels,” Okri explained. “People expect me to be one kind of postcolonial writer, which I am, but I’m also many, many other things as well: I’m a stylist, a Cubist, an innovator, a spiritual writer, an activist and environmental writer. I’m all of these things.”

Okri went unpublished in the U.S. for nearly 30 years. The reappearance of his work here comes 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.

In early 2020, Akashic released his novel “The Freedom Artist,” set in an “age of anxiety” that is beset by plagues, tyranny and rampant disinformation. An underground resistance movement swells into a mass uprising, spurred on by wizard-like bards and a single, cryptic line of graffiti: “Upwake!”

“The Freedom Artist” immediately resonated with his Akashic editor, Ibrahim Ahmad. “The novel felt restorative to me as a reader — I had been craving a piece of writing that could so perfectly express both the utility and the primacy of fiction in a time of crisis,” Ahmad said. “Ben compels us out of our collective stupor, showing how easily our freedom — whether psychic, spiritual, or political — can be imperiled.”

“I’m older and something has happened to my own voice as a writer — it’s deepened and gotten abridged and simplified at the same time,” Okri said.Credit…Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times

Okri has long been hailed as a literary and social visionary. His groundbreaking 1991 novel “The Famished Road,” about a spirit child named Azaro who navigates the shadow realms of contemporary Nigeria, received the Booker Prize and opened the way for a vibrant new generation of African writers. It was recently reissued in an Everyman’s Library edition on its 30th anniversary, the first African novel to receive such a release since Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” In another first, it was also adapted for the stage by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden with an all-Black cast.

According to the novelist Helon Habila, readers may be ready to move beyond a “narrow understanding of Africa and African literature” and appreciate Okri’s humanistic “craft and artistry.”

The French scholar Vanessa Guignery, who wrote a book about Okri, called him a “vocal town crier against injustice,” whose elliptical approach encourages “reflection and even meditation.” She believes the renewed interest in his work reflects a “need for forms of writing and thinking that differ from what prevails in contemporary American literature.”

Okri is more enigmatic about his republication in the U.S. “These things are a complete mystery,” he said. “Books have their own lives. Maybe nations go through a time when they just can’t hear certain kinds of voices.” But he also feels that the increasing divisiveness in America has, paradoxically, made it more receptive to his “open tone.”

“I think the tremendous polarization that has taken place now kind of makes my voice easier to hear,” he said. “Because I don’t speak from either polarity. I’m speaking in the middle, in this profoundly human voice.”

The Nigerian writer Okezie Nwoka finds Okri’s work more relevant now than ever. “His themes strike to the core of the human experience and get us to examine the metaphysical underpinnings of our day-to-day realities,” said Nwoka, who was inspired by Okri to “be audacious” in his own writing. “Ben has shown me that African writing does not have to follow a single style — that it can be as fluid and diverse as African people.”

The poems collected in “A Fire in My Head” exhibit a decidedly sharpened political edge, too. There are reflections on Boko Haram, the plight of the Rohingya and the death of George Floyd. One of the most striking poems is “Grenfell Tower, June 2017,” which Okri wrote in the immediate aftermath of the London apartment fire and which bears the refrain, “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower / See the tower, and a world-changing dream flower.” Okri’s reading of it was viewed more than six million times on Facebook.

One of Okri’s other significant preoccupations is his daughter, Mirabella, 6, whom he celebrates in several poems. “Of the many fires in my head, one of them is the fire of fatherhood,” he said. “Late fatherhood is one of the strangest and most beautiful things I know.” His daughter, who he says is already an “environmental warrior herself,” has had a profound effect on his writing, he said, compelling him to “distill even more.”

She also played an important part in the creation of “Every Leaf a Hallelujah,” an ecological fable published last year about a girl named Mangoshi from an unspecified African country who fights to stave off the destruction of her village’s trees. (The artist Diana Ejaita illustrated the text.)

“She used to turn up at my desk every day and ask, ‘How’s Mangoshi going? Has she saved the forest yet?’” Okri said of his daughter, feigning exasperation. “Not yet, but we’re getting there.”

Okri remains philosophical about his work and its shifting fate. “I’m older and something has happened to my own voice as a writer — it’s deepened and gotten abridged and simplified at the same time,” he said with a grin. “I think this is a wonderful time to be reintroduced to America. You’re getting golden Ben, you know!”

Anderson Tepper is a chair of the international committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival and curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh.

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