Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist whose work is a celebration of artistic valour. This was on display when the award-winning author met his readers at the Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, on February 23, as part of the 2019 Perth Writers Festival. Okri discussed life, arts and politics with Sisonke Msimang of the Centre for Stories, and read portions of his newest novel The Freedom Artist.
Currently living in London, Okri was born in Nigeria. He won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road, and has since published ten novels, four volumes of short stories, four books of essays, and four collections of poems. His works can also be read in more than 26 languages.
The political depth of his ideas was demonstrable in his characterisation of Brexit and the divisive politics of our time, which he puts down to the work of fraudulent nostalgia about nationality—or, in his words, “hidden stories” or “silent stories” about nationalism.
But nostalgia, he said, is a sign that “the present is not fine”—a sign of present “unacknowledged failures”. This suggests that those who peddle nostalgia may be afraid of dealing with the real problems of the present. Nostalgia then presents an easier option than dealing with issues in the realm of the “real”, even if nostalgia is based on a collective story which could be “true, false, imagined or simply made up”.
A symbolism that most animated discussion was that of “prisons”, a symbolism around which his newest novel is themed. Is our life in a post-truth world akin to living in a prison? The story in The Freedom Artist pivots around Amalantis, a young woman who is arrested for asking the question “who is the prisoner?”, and her lover, Karnak, who goes searching for Amalantis when the latter went missing. Of course, readers of the novel would find answers to these questions and more—Okri is indeed “incapable of writing a boring sentence.”
However, for those interested in African politics, the symbol of prisons and idea of nostalgia seem to present an ingenious coincidence with current political events in the continent. Is ethno-religious nostalgia in some African societies a sign of present failures?
Looking beyond Brexit, Europe and America, could the state in Africa be a “prison” for most of its people? And is “the state as a prison” forcing segments of African society to resort to nostalgia—out of all available options? Would nostalgia about the past be necessary if the present is a palace, and not a prison?
Researchers and other actors across the globe are dealing with such complex African questions. Thus, although Okri did not directly touch on African politics, the themes of prison and nostalgia remain relevant depending on how one looks at them.
Celebrating Okri at this time in Perth is telling that there is hope for a better, freer and more supportive environment for current and prospective African writers and authors in Australia, to be creative, and artistic—not only in Okri’s footsteps, but also those of his forerunners like Ama Ata Aidoo, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the many others.
by Muhammad Dan Suleiman, AfREC Postgraduate Coordinator.