The Free For All is delighted to wish novelist and poet Ben Okri a very happy birthday today!
Okri was born in Nigeria, but spent his early childhood in London while his father, Silver was studying law. The family returned to their home in Nigeria in 1968, where Silver practiced, doing pro bono work for anyone who could not pay his fees. The family survived the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, an event that would, understandably, have a deep impact on his later work.
Okri applied for university at the age of 14, but was rejected because of his age. It was, according to him, at that moment that he knew that poetry was his calling. Though he eventually made it back to England to study in 1978 (thanks to a grant from the Nigerian government), when his scholarship funding fell through, Okri found himself homeless, living off the support of his friends and often sleeping in parks. This didn’t deter his desire to be a poet, however–if anything, Okri has said that this period actually solidified his desire to write. And it was writing, in the end, that saved him. He published his first book, Flowers and Shadows in 1980 at the age of 21, and quickly found work as a poetry editor and reported for the BBC World Service. His reputation as an author was secured when his novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991, making Okri the youngest-ever winner for that prize.
Okri is one of those rare writers who can blend folklore, myth, philosophy, and all these other academic, deep-thinking concepts into a writing style that is touching, accessible, and deeply engaging. In discussing his writing, Okri stated in an interview (quoted here from The Patriotic Vanguard from Sierra Leone), “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.”
So today, in celebration, we share with you a poem by Ben Okri, courtesy of The Patriotic Vanguard:
An African Elegy
By Ben Okri
We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.
There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things
And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.
That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.
And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here
And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.