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Ben Okri: ‘War taught me as a kid that there is no certainty in this world’

At just 32, Ben Okri was the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize in 1991, a far cry from his early life in a country scarred by conflict.

Ben Okri spent his early years in London and attended primary school in Peckham, before his parents moved back to Nigeria where his father was a lawyer.

Okri began writing poetry and short stories as a teenager, but had to return to the UK after being put on a ‘death list’ for criticising the government. Years of study and a period of homelessness followed, before he won the Booker Prize with his first novel, The Famished Road.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, he explains how literature helped him survive his worst times, and how his education began in the slums of Lagos and took shape on the streets of London.

I was 16 in 1975, living in Lagos. The Nigerian civil war had been ended for five years and we were all dealing with the aftermath. I had finished secondary school about two years before and was preparing for my A­Levels. I did a lot of reading. I read the Russians and the French, Maupassant and Chekhov, as well as Ibsen and Somerset Maugham, Jane Austen and the Brontës. I had discovered a lot of Penguin Classics in dusty bookshops. I had developed an interest in eastern philosophy – Zen Buddhism – and in art. I was painting a bit at the time but I kept that quiet.

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My dad was a big influence on my formative thinking. He became a lawyer for the poor. We had had some financial difficulties and had to move from the elite part of Lagos to a poorer part. Our neighbours were the poor folk of the city, who didn’t have proper running water. I got to live among them, and share their lives on the bad roads that turned to rivers when it rained. Dad represented the poor because there’s no legal aid. If you don’t have money, you cannot get rep­ resentation. That became his thing.

I saw these people passing through the house. It was one of the most transforming aspects of my personal education. It completely changed me. As a result of that I began writing about issues that affect the poor, living in bad housing and on bad roads. I learned about the autocracy of landlords, the way in which they can just chuck people out on a whim, and throw their stuff into the streets. In that respect, it was lawless. I found myself writing about it.

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I’d tell my younger self, yes, you’ll miss your mates when you move. And there will be this sense of a fall. But actually, it won’t take long to get used to the new environment, which is so much more vibrant. The first thing that struck me when we moved was the abundance of characters. The affluent area was nice, with friends in the latest American fashion and everybody in their expensive cars. But when we moved to this new area, on the outskirts of Lagos, everyone you met was a character. They were people with tough faces and pungent proverbs. It was extraordinary. I think those people began my fascination with psychology, the relationship between personality and living conditions.

It took me a long time to express it like this, but the poor folk were simply more real. Around the same time I discovered in my father’s library the great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and the Stoics. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I found the philosophy that helped me understand the change I was going through. That’s when I really began to think.

With his daughter Mirabella at Tate Modern Photo: Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images

The war taught me as a kid that there is no certainty in this world. That made me aware of the vicissi­tudes of life, what Shakespeare called the whirligig of time. It also made me aware of the great lie of the world, that one set of people was better than another. I was exposed to it all because my mother’s family was from one tribe and my father was from the other and the war was supposed to be between them. I saw the propaganda and lies, of tribes and races and genders. And out of all that emerged my fundamental sense of… how can I put it… the inevitable equality of being human, the fact that a human being is a human being is a human being, to adapt the great Gertrude Stein. I became aware that they tell us lies which lead to appalling violence. I saw the dead in the street, dead young men with bloated eyes. Those traumas stayed with me. That’s how my sense of justice was born.

My mum and dad broke up but I remained close to both of them. My mum had a wonderful influence on me through her philosophy and her stories. And my dad was a bit of a hero to me too. Because of the dignified way he bore adversity, he had a big impact on my outlook. You could never tell by looking at him that he was going through hard times. I admired that. He was a solid man, with a tremendous aura, joie de vivre and a great gift for people.

He picked up the newspaper one day and, turning to the essays on contemporary conditions, was surprised to encounter a familiar name in the byline. He saw his own name first. Okri. Then he saw, ‘Ben’. I think he was taken aback. “When did you write this?” he asked. And then he said, “Goodness, you want to write? You want to be a journalist?” He had hoped I would inherit his chambers, that I’d be a lawyer. But when he saw my first piece of published writing in the newspaper he read every day, he was impressed.

I came to Britain to study, but the funding from my government scholarship suddenly stopped, with no explanation. I became homeless. I had nowhere to go and bit by bit just found myself on the streets. I slept on park benches and in the doorways of banks because they had that draught of warm air above the door. I wandered from place to place; in the morning I would find somewhere to wash my face. It was hard in those cold winters. I didn’t have a scarf or an overcoat. I just had a jacket.

I don’t know how I got by. I think I was saved by the romantic attitude to life I had back then. If I’d been a realist I might have had a nervous breakdown. But it seemed a strange adventure in a life full of ups and downs and ups. I coped. I had books. I always had books. By then I had already published my first two novels. I did some of my best reading on those nights. I had notebooks and I made notes. I wrote many poems about starvation and cold nights and empty streets. I wrote my way out. It was another level of my education into being human.

Ben Okri
1991 Holding his newly published novel, The Famished Road
Photo by AP/Shutterstock

If you told my teenage self he would have a book published that would have been the most amazing thing. Because back then we all considered that books are written by people who are dead. To have a book published was incredible; I just wrote a short story, it grew into a novel, I brought it to England, but I didn’t really think it could become a book. If I told him he was going to win the Booker Prize [in 1991 for The Famished Road] – well, he wouldn’t even know what that was. I only found out when Salman Rushdie won it in 1981. I think because it was a non­white winner, it reached beyond the normal resonance. But if you’d told me at the age of 16 I’d have books published and win prizes, I would have laughed in your face.

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If I could have one last conver­sation with anyone, I’d like to talk to my father. I had a lot more time with my mother. We shared a lot of laughter. I’d like to sit down with dad and open a bottle of his favourite whisky and just listen. And thank him for, you know, the indirect way he helped me go through life, just by the way he carried himself through it. And I’d like to tell him I’m OK. Yes, I would give a lot for that… sorry, that’s just made my voice break.

If I could relive a single moment from my life, I think it would be the birth of my daughter Mirabella. I was in Stirling giving a reading when I got the call to say she was coming and I should get to the hospital. I wanted to hire a helicopter but they’re hard to get, so I was on the very last train. I remember going to the train driver and saying, you couldn’t go any faster could you? But fortunately I was there in time. Something weird happens to you when you see that, like suddenly going into a hallucinatory state. I felt like I was stoned, like I was absolutely smashed, breathing in the atmosphere on Venus. It was a wonderful unreality.

Ben Okri delivered a keynote speech on the role of ‘Art in a Time of Crisis’ at the London Book Fair 2022
@janeannie

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