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Ben Okri: Books that changed my life

BY READERS DIGEST

31st May 2023 Meet the Author

Ben Okri: Books that changed my life

Ben Okri is a Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet and playwright who has even invented his own poetic form, the Stoku (a cross between a short story and a haiku)

Ben Okri is perhaps most famous for his novel The Famished Road which won the Man-booker prize in 1991 and forms the first in a trilogy. Most recently, his book Every Leaf a Hallelujah was adapted by Chinonyerem Odimba for the stage at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. 

After a few technical difficulties (blame Zoom), a brief maths lesson with his daughter about polygons (very informative), and a conversation with Every leaf a Hallelujah itself (yes, the book), Ben and I settle down to discuss why he prefers “enchantment writing” to “magical realism”, how poetry is a way of making sense of the wonder of the world, and which books have changed his life. 

The Odyssey by Homer 

Homer's The Odyssey front cover Credit: weidenfeldandnicolson

Plunging straight in, with not a little formidable title, The Odyssey, attributed to Homer, is a travel epic written in the 8th century BC, and translated into English in 1614.

Occupying a prominent position not just in the classics canon, but as one of the most famous surviving pieces of Ancient Greek literature, the poem follows the decade long struggle of the protagonist Odysseus as he battles mythical creatures and the wrath of Greek gods in order to return home after the Trojan War

"I read all the kinds of books you’re supposed to read at the time as a child, then I did my own reading as well and discovered quite early on many of the great travel epics"

“As a child I loved reading, something I’m very pleased that my daughter has developed herself…I read all the kinds of books you’re supposed to read at the time as a child, then I did my own reading as well and discovered quite early on many of the great travel epics.” 

He reminisces on his youth, reading through “the myths and legends of the world”, when he was very young, and this love for legends having carried through to his “myth infested” writing. 

One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan al-Shaykh

One Thousand and One Nights Penguin Ltd book cover
Credit: Penguin Classics 

Offered with reluctant honesty, Ben names One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) as his second life-changing title. What The Odyssey, and this anonymous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales have in common, he says pointedly, is that they are both “a great piece of storytelling”. 

“It’s perfect for anybody who loves to curl up in bed at night with a torch and read under the blanket…the kind of reading where you just want to go somewhere else, there’s nothing quite like One Thousand and One Nights”. 

Despite admitting that he nearly didn’t mention it because he was thinking of other more literary titles, he confesses that he is truly, a One Thousand and One Nights kind of person”.  

Comparing the collection of short stories to childhood fairy tales like Cinderella, it is one of “those great children’s stories, that just leak into the house almost wherever this childhood manufactures them”. 

He tells me that even now, as an adult, he still dips into One Thousand and One Nights every so often, reading it “with the same childhood sense of enchantment” that is perhaps what makes these books so magical and so life-changing in the first place. 

"Enchantment reading is done from a part of your mind that’s not fixed, not frozen in childhood, but is a territory that is open to childhood more than any other"

“These books are enchantment readings, and enchantment reading is done from a part of your mind that’s not fixed, not frozen in childhood, but is a territory that is open to childhood more than any other”. 

Ben and I discuss how unfair a choice of only three books is, but that nevertheless he feels the need to include a Shakespearean play, because of the prominence of poetry in his life and his writing from such a young age. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare 

Rakuten Kobo cover of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Credit:  Rakuten kobo  

Linking back to his first choice, Ben talks about the’ “territory of wonder” within A Midsummer Night’s Dream and discusses the play’s presence of Greek legends through Theseus’s marriage, the world of fairies, a word that he “just recognises”. 

Having read all of these books as an African boy growing up in London, Ben points out the African elements inherent in each of his choices, and tells me how the worlds of fairies in Shakespearean plays are like the worlds of spirits in African culture that he read not as fantasy, but as reality. 

“The pure fun, the comedy, the way [Shakespeare] laughed at the folly of us human beings, so many wonderful things in there...the wonderful elements of those Shakespeare wonder plays was never continued in the English theatrical tradition and I think that was a great loss”. 

He describes A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the “last echo of the fading ancient, Saxon world…the last of Old England”. 

Ben Okri, the author 

Ben explains that although he doesn’t have a preferred medium of writing because “every medium becomes preferred when I’m writing it”, when he says that his “natural mode is poetry”, he's not talking about metre and verse, but about the “poetic state of being…as a way of seeing the world”. 

“True poets just see the world differently, language is a part of it but it actually is just a way of seeing the world, seeing the richness of the world and the wonder…that is natural, I don’t have to strain for that, to try and be poetic. It’s there in my poems, it’s there in my stories, it’s there in my letters, it’s there when I’m writing shopping lists”. 

We laugh about the impossibility of shopping with Ben's shopping lists. 

Grenfell Tower 

I ask Ben about how he uses this sense of enchantment and wonder in order to write about more politically charged themes, as he does in his poem about the many lives tragically lost in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Preferring  the term “enchantment writing” rather than “magical realism” to describe his work's difficult to categorise genre, Ben sees “what people call political writing is just another aspect of enchantment writing because these conditions insult us as human beings, they are an insult to the wonder of what we are."

"Political writing is just another aspect of enchantment writing because these conditions insult us as human beings, they are an insult to the wonder of what we are"

But this realism, he tells me, is narrower than reality. While “enchantment sees possibilities of things…when these possibilities are betrayed, abused, when humanity is reduced, and people are looked at from the point of view from their finance…when they’re treated badly because of gender, race, money, or class…when that happens, you are reducing the enchantment of that.” 

Florence Odumoso and Hannah Akhalu in Every Leaf a Hallelujah Florence Odumoso and Hannah Akhalu in Every Leaf a Hallelujah. Credit: Marc Brenner 

Every Leaf a Hallelujah is aimed at children aged 4+ and is currently running at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London until June 10, 2023. Tickets can be found here.

Banner credit: Mat Bray 

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