By Geoff Wisner
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you missed Ben Okri’s appearance on Sunday, you may have a long wait before another one comes along. Okri doesn’t like to fly — “I go by train, by boat, or I swim” — and he has not been in New York for many years. Worse yet, although PEN recorded many of this year’s events, there is neither video nor audio, nor even photographs, for this one.
Ben Okri is a handsome man, not tall, with an intense presence. On Sunday, in the auditorium of the Holocaust museum near Battery Park, he wore a royal blue jacket over a crisp white shirt, and a black beret. He spoke quietly except when reciting his poems, which he read in a powerful voice after getting up and walking to a nearby podium.
More than almost any other writer I can think of, Okri has considered his own purpose and strategies, and his pronouncements on writing and life sometimes come out as a series of neatly crafted aphorisms. Unlike other “conversations” in which both participants were equal partners, Anderson Tepper modestly took the role of interviewer for this one.
Okri is best known for his novel The Famished Road, a phantasmagoric tale about an abiku or “spirit child,” a boy who in Yoruba tradition lives closer to the spirit world than ordinary mortals and who is fated to die young. His later fiction has become more abstract and allegorical, leading Tepper to introduce him as “a conjurer, a dreamer, a healer — if it didn’t sounds so New Agey.”
For Okri, the primary impulse behind a work of literature is “akin to the first feelings when you have a cold coming on, only more metaphysical. A breach, a disturbance in the spirit.” An idea first comes to him in the form of a poem. “Everything is embedded in it as a tree is embedded in the seed.” The poem may remain a poem, or it may turn into a story or a novel.
Creativity, he said, is bound up with destruction — an unpopular idea these days. He once wrote a hundred poems over the course of three months, kept five, and destroyed the rest. “If you’re strong enough to destroy, you’re strong enough to create.”
Okri began his career with a long journey into the Western tradition of naturalism, during which he said he became exhausted and bored. Eventually, he said, “You have to break the box.” The example of Amos Tutuola was very important in showing him another way. Tutuola himself, he noted, was inspired by a movie of The Arabian Nights (presumably the 1942 film, which came four years before Tutuola wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard).
My favorite work of Okri is his fiction — especially the eerie, sometimes nightmarish visions in Stars of the New Curfew. But among the poems he read, this one stood out for me — as good advice, if not for the verse itself.
10 1/2 Inclinations
There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.
Read the books your parents hate.
Read the books your parents love.
Have one or two authors that are important, that speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
Read widely, for fun, stimulation, escape.
Don’t read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
Read what you’re not supposed to read.
Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
Books are like mirrors. Don’t just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That’s where the gods dream, where our realities are born.
10½) Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.
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