Interview with Ben Okri, Nigerian Poet: An improperly balanced dialogue of culture today

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Updated: February 3, 2019 6:48:45 AM

The idea of Indians and Africans by western countries has no resemblance to Indians and Africans. They feel we are not educated. We read them more than they read about us.

The author won the Man Booker Prize for his 1991 novel, The Famished Road (Photo by Rohit Jain Paras)

One of the leading voices of world literature, Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri enchanted his audience at the 12th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival held during January 24-28, painting a surrealistic image of writing. The author, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 1991 novel, The Famished Road, talks to Faizal Khan about his novel, Brexit and racism. Edited excerpts:

How would you describe your new novel, The Freedom Artist?
It is the most indirectly political and indirectly spiritual book I have ever written. It is about our freedom. The book says that, eventually, the human spirit will revolt and seek freedom, however imperfect it is.

It is an interesting title, The Freedom Artist, to talk about freedom in a post-truth society.
It took me over a year to get the title. I considered over 200 titles. I have never suffered for a title ever. I looked through the Bhagavad Gita, The Bible and several books of poetry. It was a nightmare. Finally, it is the right title because it asks who is a freedom artist in today’s post-truth society.

You have said this was a novel you had been wanting to write for a long time and described it as ‘a fist of light against a wall of darkness’. What does freedom mean in today’s world of racism and poverty?

People’s minds are closed. They are deeply prejudiced. It comes down to a problem of humanity. If the extreme right thinks that people like you are not human, it becomes easy to demonise us. It is also possibly a form of education. In many of the western countries, while they are very good in science, they are not doing a good job about the truth of history. The idea of Indians and Africans by the western countries has no resemblance to Indians and Africans. They feel we are not educated. We read them more than they read about us. There is an improperly balanced dialogue of culture in the world today.

Is there anything the Third World lacks in terms of understanding the other?
One of the problems of the African past was that we were self-concentrated. We didn’t take any interest in the western people. Back then (in the colonial era), they were curious about the world. Not because of curiosity, but because of money, wealth and economics. The idea was, ‘what can you sell to them’. But that interest, in looking for goods, meant that they came to us. Hundreds of years later, history has reversed. We have gone to them. And they can’t handle the rich irony of history. It is a beautiful irony. The world gets richer when we get to know one another better.

You responded almost immediately to London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017, which had a major impact on English society, with a poem. What is your response to the current crisis in Britain on Brexit?
Yes, I wrote a poem (recites a part of it): ‘If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower’. About Brexit, I think we underestimated the deep resentment in the country. There is resentment among the immigrants. There is also strong resentment at the European project in Britain. Many resentments came together. There is a sad yearning for the Empire in the older generation who voted for Brexit. They want the Empire back. It was a nostalgia for a part that wasn’t really there.

You have talked of the art of writing where the brain has no place. Would you elaborate?
Yes, for a writer, it is the hand that is in harmony with the inside of the person. It is not an activity between the hand and the brain. It is actually not about the brain. It is more about the inside of the stomach, which is telling us what to write and the hand writes responding to the within.

-The writer is a freelancer

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