Ben Okri: “Reality is a bit more than what we think it is.”

“4am is a good sport.” says Ben Okri apropos Murakami’s no alarm clock early risings. “I have my best dreams at 4am,” he adds.

Time stretches and brims over the edges of yet another unforgettable afternoon at Auckland Writers Festival. This time the magician is Ben Okri, author of eight novels as well as collections of poetry, short stories and essays. He has won many international prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991. His work has been translated into over 20 languages. Okri is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. He was born in Nigeria but lives in London. And if you are still wondering – he gets up between 7 and 8.

Cover of The Famished Road      Cover of Starbook     In Arcadia     Infinite Riches

He is in New Zealand to talk about his work and latest book The Age of Magic. Each book explores a particular universe, he believes, and his last one talks about evil and fame, but also – like most of his books – the reality, which resonates magic in its deeper tissue.

The latest book nests many silences, pauses, gaps, spaces. The book as a page-turning machine is not Ben’s notion. Books are about the mood, the internal journey:

“Reading is not about the book, it is about reader’s mind, mood, heart, history.”

Ben talks about the leitmotiv of his work – comprehension of reality and relativity of what we perceive as real. Unexplainable coincidences, perceptions of each other, time as emotional construct, evanescence of dreams, (in)capability of our senses, configuration of reality through our consciousness – what intrigues him in life, finds a form and a voice in his work.

His writing is often associated with magical realism, but Okri prefers to avoid this categorisation. “What you find in One Hundred Years of Solitude, you will never find in my novels.” When a possible connection between his works and the world of myth is suggested from a listener in the audience, his reaction is dubious yet indicative: “I love those myths where bird turns into a fish – that’s how I want to write.” But he is more interested in the quiet magic of life itself and he describes his work as “extraordinary things, happening on the page with internal logic.”

First page of The Age of Magic with dedication and signature
First page of Okri’s latest book – with his own dedication and signature!

Ben is convinced that reality is a bit more than we think and while (con)figuring it, we are not employing all the senses we could. Our relationship with reality works like a boomerang effect: what we put out, seems to come back.

Our perception and understanding of reality stems from what we are taught in early years. “We teach our children, what reality is. When you’re young you just see, what you see, you are not told, what reality is.” Ben refers to endless childhood afternoons, when time did not yet exist and reminds us how time slows down, when we are in special emotional states: “Time runs differently if you are on your way to the dentist or if you are about to meet your loved one.” It bends, stretches and expands according to our emotions.

Ben generously stretches the time of his session – he steps to the edge of the stage and amplifies the magic that we have just bathed in – he thanks us. His gratefulness to be in Aotearoa shines from his face:

“New Zealand is myth-infested land. Stories pop up everywhere.”

I could not agree more, Ben!

If you like stretching time by reading long novels, check out Ben’s Man Booker Prize Winner The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.  If you prefer something shorter, go for Tales of Freedom. And if you are a poetry junkie, make sure to read some of Ben’s poems on his website.

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