Ben Okri

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Ben Okri

Ben Okri
Ben Okri
Born (1959-03-15) 15 March 1959 (age 62)
Minna, Nigeria
GenreFiction, essays, poetry
Literary movementPostmodernism, Postcolonialism
Notable worksThe Famished Road (1991), A Way of Being Free (1997), Starbook (2007), A Time for New Dreams (2011)
Notable awardsMan Booker Prize

Ben Okri OBE FRSL (born 15 March 1959) is a Nigerian poet and novelist.[1] Okri is considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions,[2][3] and has been compared favourably to authors such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.[4]


Ben Okri is a member of the Urhobo people; his father was Urhobo, and his mother was half-Igbo.[1] He was born in Minna in west central Nigeria to Grace and Silver Okri in 1959.[5] His father, Silver, moved his family to London when Okri was less than two years old[3] so that he could study law.[6] Okri thus spent his earliest years in London and attended primary school in Peckham.[2] In 1968 Silver moved his family back to Nigeria where he practised law in Lagos, providing free or discounted services for those who could not afford it.[5] His exposure to the Nigerian civil war[7] and a culture in which his peers at the time claimed to have seen visions of spirits,[3] later provided inspiration for Okri's fiction.

At the age of 14, after being rejected for admission to a short university program in physics because of his youth and lack of qualifications, Okri experienced a revelation that poetry was his chosen calling.[8] He began writing articles on social and political issues, but these never found a publisher.[8] He then wrote short stories based on those articles, and some were published in women's journals and evening papers.[8] Okri claimed that his criticism of the government in some of this early work led to his name being placed on a death list, and necessitated his departure from the country.[3] In 1978, Okri moved back to England and went to study comparative literature at Essex University with a grant from the Nigerian government.[9][8] When funding for his scholarship fell through, however, Okri found himself homeless, sometimes living in parks and sometimes with friends. He describes this period as "very, very important" to his work: "I wrote and wrote in that period... If anything [the desire to write] actually intensified."[8]

Okri's success as a writer began when he published his debut novel Flowers and Shadows in 1980, at the age of 21.[1] He then served West Africa magazine as poetry editor from 1983 to 1986,[citation needed] and was a regular contributor to the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985, continuing to publish throughout this period.[1]

His reputation as an author was secured when his novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991,[1][10] making him the youngest ever winner of the prize at the age of 32.[11]

Literary career[edit]

Quote from Ben Okri's Mental Fight on the Memorial Gates, London

Since he published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri has risen to an international acclaim, and he often is described as one of Africa's leading writers.[2][3] His best known work, The Famished Road, which was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize,[12] along with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches make up a trilogy that follows the life of Azaro, a spirit-child narrator, through the social and political turmoil of an African nation reminiscent of Okri's remembrance of war-torn Nigeria.[1]

Okri's work is particularly difficult to categorise. Although it has been widely categorised as post-modern,[13] some scholars have noted that the seeming realism with which he depicts the spirit-world challenges this categorisation. If Okri does attribute reality to a spiritual world, it is claimed, then his "allegiances are not postmodern [because] he still believes that there is something ahistorical or transcendental conferring legitimacy on some, and not other, truth-claims."[13] Alternative characterisations of Okri's work suggest an allegiance to Yoruba folklore,[14] New Ageism,[13][15] spiritual realism,[15] magical realism,[16] visionary materialism,[16] and existentialism.[17]

Against these analyses, Okri has always rejected the categorisation of his work as magical realism, claiming that this categorisation is the result of laziness on the part of critics and likening this categorisation to the observation that "a horse ... has four legs and a tail. That doesn't describe it."[3] He has instead described his fiction as obeying a kind of "dream logic,"[7] and stated that his fiction often is preoccupied with the "philosophical conundrum ... what is reality?"[8] insisting that:

"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death ... Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life. I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality."[7]

He notes the effect of personal choices, "Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world."[18]

Okri's short fiction has been described as more realistic and less fantastic than his novels, but these stories also depict Africans in communion with spirits,[1] while his poetry and nonfiction have a more overt political tone, focusing on the potential of Africa and the world to overcome the problems of modernity.[1][19]

Okri was made an honorary vice-president of the English Centre for the International PEN and a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre.[1] On 26 April 2012 Okri was appointed the new vice-president of the Caine Prize for African Writing, having been on the advisory committee and associated with the prize since it was established 13 years prior.[20]


Okri has described his work as influenced as much by the philosophical texts in his father's book shelves, as it was by literature,[8] and Okri cites the influence of both Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne on his A Time for New Dreams.[21] His literary influences include Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream,[7] and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".[8] Okri's 1999 epic poem, Mental Fight, also is named after a quotation from the poet William Blake's "And did those feet ...",[22] and critics have noted the close relationship between Blake and Okri's poetry.[16]

Okri also was influenced by the oral tradition of his people, and particularly, his mother's storytelling: "If my mother wanted to make a point, she wouldn't correct me, she'd tell me a story."[7] His first-hand experiences of civil war in Nigeria are said to have inspired many of his works.[7]

Awards and honours[edit]



Poetry, essays and short story collections[edit]

  • Incidents at the Shrine (short stories; London: Heinemann, 1986)[50]
  • Stars of the New Curfew (short stories; London: Secker & Warburg, 1988)[51]
  • An African Elegy (poetry; London: Jonathan Cape, 1992)[52]
  • Birds of Heaven (essays; London: Phoenix House, 1996)[53]
  • A Way of Being Free (essays; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 1997; London: Phoenix House, 1997)[citation needed]
  • Mental Fight (poetry: London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999; London: Phoenix House, 1999)[citation needed]
  • Tales of Freedom (short stories; London: Rider & Co., 2009)[54]
  • A Time for New Dreams (essays; London: Rider & Co., 2011)[55]
  • Wild (poetry; London: Rider & Co., 2012)[citation needed]
  • The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling (West Hoathly: Clairview Books, Ltd., 2015)[citation needed]
  • The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age, with paintings by Rosemary Clunie (Apollo/Head of Zeus, 2017)[citation needed]
  • Rise Like Lions: Poetry for the many (as editor; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018)[citation needed]
  • Prayer for the Living: Stories (London: Head of Zeus, 2019)[citation needed]


Online fiction[edit]

  • Okri, Ben (1 February 2021). "A Wrinkle In The Realm". The New Yorker.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Ben Okri", British Council, Writers Directory. Archived 2 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b c "Ben Okri," Editors, The Guardian, 22 July 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Stefaan Anrys, "Interview with Booker Prize laureate Ben Okri," Mondiaal Nieuws, 26 August 2009.
  4. ^ Robert Dorsman, "Ben Okri", Poetry International Web, 2000. Archived 16 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ a b Maya Jaggi, "Free spirit," The Guardian, 10 August 2007.
  6. ^ Juliet Rix, "Ben Okri: My family values," The Guardian, 25 June 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Anita Sethi, "Ben Okri: novelist as dream weaver", TheNational, 1 September 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h "Interview: Ben Okri – Booker prize-winning novelist and poet",, 5 March 2010. Archived 16 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ Venning, Nicola (3 August 2014). "Time and place: Ben Okri". The Sunday Times.
  10. ^ "Ben Okri: 'The Famished Road was written to give myself reasons to live'", The Guardian, 15 March 2016.
  11. ^ "Ben Okri", The Cultural Frontline, BBC World Service, 1 May 2016.
  12. ^ "The Booker Prizes Backlist | The Booker Prizes". Retrieved 8 January 2021.
  13. ^ a b c Douglas McCabe. "'Higher Realities': New Age Spirituality in Ben Okri's The Famished Road." Research in African Literatures, vol. 36, no. 4 (2005), 1–21.
  14. ^ Ato Quayson, Transformations in Nigerian Writing (Oxford: James Currey, 1997).
  15. ^ a b Anthony K. Appiah, "Spiritual Realism." Review of The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. The Nation, 3–10 August 1992, 146–148.
  16. ^ a b c Matthew J. A. Green, "Dreams of Freedom: Magical Realism and Visionary Materialism in Okri and Blake", Romanticism, vol. 15, no. 1 (2009), 18–32.
  17. ^ Ben Obumselu, "Ben Okri's The Famished Road: A Re-Evaluation." Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, vol. 48, no. 1 (2011), 26–38.
  18. ^ "A Thought for Today ... Ben Okri",, 15 March 2017.
  19. ^ Ben Okri, "A Time for New Dreams" Archived 19 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine, an interview with Claire Armitstead, RSA. London, 4 April 2011.
  20. ^ Katie Allen, "Okri made Caine Prize vice-president", The Bookseller, 26 April 2012.
  21. ^ Saskia Vogel, "Interview: Ben Okri", Granta Magazine, 7 April 2011.
  22. ^ Ben Okri, Mental Fight: An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century (London: Phoenix House, 1999), 1.
  23. ^ a b "Ben Okri |". Retrieved 19 May 2021.
  24. ^ Editor, Chief (16 September 2014). "Acclaimed Author – Ben Okri - Created by Chief Editor - In category: Spotlight - Tagged with: Ben Okri - The London Nigerian - Community News and Events for Nigerians in UK - A Nigerian Community portal offering latest news, Nigerian news, comments, sports, events, entertainment, for the Nigerian in the United Kingdom | London Nigerian". The London Nigerian - Community News and Events for Nigerians in UK. Retrieved 30 May 2020.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Flood, Alison (13 February 2012). "Ben Okri erupts at editor over 'rewriting' claim". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  26. ^ "Creative Arts Fellowship marks 50 years". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  27. ^ "The Famished Road | The Booker Prizes". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  28. ^ "Ben Okri - Literature". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  29. ^ "Ben Okri". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  30. ^ Aghadiuno, Eric. "Ben Okri -". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  31. ^ "UniVerse :: A United Nations of Poetry :: Ben Okri". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  32. ^ "Ben Okri features in Glo/CNN African Voices". Vanguard News. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  33. ^ "Honorary Graduates - Honorary Graduates - University of Essex". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  34. ^ "Ben Okri". CCCB. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  35. ^ "Novi Sad International Literature Festival - Literature Across Frontiers". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  36. ^ "Honorary Degree in Utopia for Ben Okri - Antwerp, Belgium 2010", Youtube, 10 March 2015.
  37. ^ "SOAS Awards Honorary Doctorate to Mr Ben Okri OBE". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  38. ^ "Booker Prize-winning author in conversation for Ken Hom annual lecture - Oxford Brookes University". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  39. ^ Jonathan Beckman, "Twitching Fairy Penguin", Literary Review, December 2014.
  40. ^ "Bad Sex in Fiction: Ben Okri scoops 2014 prize", BBC News, 3 December 2014.
  41. ^ Okri, Ben. (1989) [1980]. Flowers and shadows. Longman. ISBN 0-582-03536-8. OCLC 1043417403.
  42. ^ "The Ben Okri Bibliography: Primary Sources". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  43. ^ "Nigerian Wins British Fiction Award". The New York Times. 23 October 1991. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  44. ^ "Ben Okri, Writer, Author, Nigeria Personality Profiles". Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  45. ^ "Ben Okri: A Selective Bibliography". Callaloo. 38 (5): 1004–1005. 2015. doi:10.1353/cal.2015.0165. ISSN 1080-6512.
  46. ^ Hickling, Alfred (12 October 2002). "Review: In Arcadia by Ben Okri". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  47. ^ Jaggi, Maya (10 August 2007). "Free spirit". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  48. ^ "Author Okri receives bad sex prize". BBC News. 3 December 2014. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  49. ^ "title". Head of Zeus. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  50. ^ "Ben Okri Biography". Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  51. ^ Alleyne, Richard (11 February 2012). "Ben Okri 'disappointment' at editor he claims re-wrote his work". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  52. ^ mjs76. "Visiting Professor - Ben Okri OBE FRSL — University of Leicester". Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  53. ^ Gray, Rosemary (1 July 2018). "Ben Okri's Aphorisms: "Music on the Wings of a Soaring Bird"". Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. 7 (2): 17–24. doi:10.2478/ajis-2018-0042.
  54. ^ Daniel, Lucy (30 April 2009). "Tales of Freedom by Ben Okri: review". Daily Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  55. ^ "The Ben Okri Bibliography: On the Internet". Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  56. ^ "N – The Madness of Reason", Blinkerfilm, 9 March 2015.

External links[edit]