Ben Okri (1959- )

Robert Bennett, Lecturer, Department of English, University of California Santa Barbara

African Postcolonial Literature

Major Works and Themes

Between 1980 and 1995 Ben Okri published eight works: five novels, two collections of short stories, and a volume of poetry. In each of these works, he returns, to a consistent repertoire of common postcolonial themes. In particular, he critiques the ubiquity of corruption and violence in contemporary Nigeria, creates a voice for the poorest and most powerless members of African society, and explores the ongoing cultural confrontation between foreign and indigenous traditions in postcolonial Africa. Since these fundamental postcolonial issues have been repeatedly explored by many postcolonial writers, it is difficult to argue that Okri's works inaugurate new themes for African literature. As soon as one turns away from issues of thematic content and begins looking at issues of literary form, however, one notices that Okri's works immediately depart from the ordinary, predictable, and routine. Each of his works of fiction demonstrates a remarkable sense of formal experimentation, and each work progressively extends his creative exploration of multiple literary styles, genres, and traditions. Each time he revisits these common postcolonial themes, therefore, he finds extraordinary new ways to express them with greater insight, imagination, and complexity. Taken together, Okri's fiction represents one of the most significant explorations of literary form in the canon, of postcolonial African literature.

Okri's works can be roughly categorized according to three phases, each of which is marked by radical shifts in genre, style, and narrative strategy. Okri's first two works, Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within, blend the conventions of realism and modernism to explore the effects of modernization on urban Nigeria. In Flowers and Shadows, he depicts the coming of age of Jeffia Okwe, an idealistic young Nigerian who aspires to be a teacher. Over the course of the novel, Jeffia struggles to retain his youthful idealism in the face of modern society's complex demands. He looks for familial intimacy in a home where business obsessions keep his absent father chained to the firm, and he seeks justice among legions of petty bureaucrats who are constantly trying to improve upon the colonial arts of corruption and hypocrisy. Along the way, Jeffia wanders through lust, love, and the other common attractions of youth.

Jeffia's path toward adulthood is fairly straightforward, but Okri enlivens his description of it with several stylistic twists. In particular, he uses Nigerian dialects to express his characters' different social classes, he makes numerous references to art and painting to reflect on the nature and function of art, and he frequently slips into stream-of-consciousness associations or surrealistic dream images to reveal the inner workings of his characters' different worldviews. Thus Okri effectively combines the conventions of the European Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, with Nigerian English dialects and modernist narrative strategies to explore a modern, postcolonial context. Consequently, Flowers and Shadows has many similarities with other postcolonial versions of the Bildungsroman such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. In many ways, it can be read as a retelling of the conflicts found in Things Fall Apart from an urban perspective. Consequently, it focuses on Nigeria's confrontation with the modern social, political, and existential conditions that have followed in the wake of colonialism rather than focusing on the original confrontation between colonizer and colonized. Okri presents a state in which things continue to fall apart, but his idealistic young hero arrives at a more hopeful resolution than Okonkwo's tragic demise.

In The Landscapes Within, Okri continues to develop a comparable mixture of realistic narration and modernist stream of consciousness as he explores the inner life of a young Nigerian painter named Omovo. The biggest difference between Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within, however, is that The Landscapes Within makes the philosophical exploration of aesthetics more central to its narrative. By making his youthful protagonist an artist, Okri extends the generic conventions of the Bildungsroman toward those of the Künstelrroman, which traces the aesthetic maturation of a young artist. Much like James Joyce's youthful artist, Stephen Dedalus, Okri's artist, Omovo, uses art as a way of creating order and meaning in a fragmenting world. Living the life of a lonely, uncompromising artist who is often at odds with his scoiety, Omovo develops the detached observation and creative expression required of the artist. His aesthetic development culminates in a painting titled Scumscape, which portrays the miserable conditions of Nigeria's urban poor, but the painting is quickly censored and confiscated because of its powerful social criticism. Both Omovo's Scumscape and its censorship demonstrate how Okri adapts the conventions of the European Künstelrroman to fit his own postcolonial context. Instead of describing some abstract theory of beauty, Okri's philosophical reflections on art emphasize the political dimensions of artistic production and destruction in a newly independent nation struggling to free itself from the quicksand of neocolonial authoritarianism. In The Landscapes Within, therefore, Okri not only reinterprets the Künstelrroman from a postcolonial perspective, but he also subtly redirects postcolonial African literature by implicitly arguing that aesthetic responses to colonialism are as necessary as political ones. In this sense, The Landscapes Within resembles other postcolonial variations on the Künstelrroman such as Wilson Harris's Da Silva da Silva's Cultivated Wilderness or Janet Frame's To the Island. Both of Okri's first two novels follow a similar narrative strategy of creatively adapting European novelistic conventions to explore postcolonial issues. However, The Landscapes Within additionally expands the scope of postcolonial African literature by augmenting its political engagement of social realism with the kind of aesthetic engagement found in many modernist texts.

Okri's next two works, Incidents at the Shrine and Stars of the New Curfew, mark a new phase in his artistic development. This second phase can be identified by two significant changes. First, Okri begins writing short stories instead of novels; second, he starts experimenting more with African narrative techniques. Okri himself has drawn attention to the importance of his shift to writing short stories by suggesting that writing short stories is an apprenticeship for writing novels. The short story provides an ideal opportunity for an author to perfect his or her mastery of plot, dialogue, and style. This sort of aesthetic development can be seen clearly in the enormous difference between the quality of the two novels that Okri wrote before his short stories and the quality of the third novel, The Famished Road, which he wrote after his short stories. More important, these collections of short stories mark a turning in Okri's aesthetic development because they increasingly use African narrative techniques as an essential aspect of their narrative strategy. Stars of the New Curfew particularly develops the rich imagination, complex mythical imagery, and episodic adventures that are also found in works like Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Gabriel Okara's The Voice, or D. O. Fagunwa's Yoruba novels. This effort to create literary forms modeled after the narrative strategies of African oral traditions continues another important aspect of contemporary postcolonial African writing because it attempts to engage postcolonial aesthetic forms as well as postcolonial sociopolitical issues. By redirecting his experimental energy toward an exploration of African models rather than European ones, Okri prepared himself for a new stage of aesthetic development.

The rest of Okri's novels combine aspects from his two previous literary phases to produce a unique and complex narrative strategy. Okri's most important novel to date, The Famished Road, and its sequel, Songs of Enchantment, brilliantly demonstrate Okri's ability to combine the techniques of realism, modernism, and African oral traditions. In these two novels, Okri describes the adventures of Azaro, an abiku spirit-child who equally possess a spiritual and an earthly dimension. An abiku is a child who has had a hard time deciding, that it wants to be born into a mortal existence, so it keeps coming and going between this world and the spirit world until it finally decides which world it wants to embrace. Usually a child is deemed an abiku when it is born to a woman who has had repeated miscarriages or children who die at a young age. The child who finally survives is called an abiku because it is believed to be the same spirit that tried to be born as the other children. Such reluctant spirits become abiku spirit-children when they finally develop the will to choose life, so parents often perform rituals or do special favors to persuade the abiku child to choose this life over its spirit life.

Like Okri's previous novels, these later novels also explore the consciousness of a child protagonist as he progresses toward maturity. The dualistic spiritual-physical nature of Okri's abiku hero, however, completely alters the trajectory of the Bildungsroman. Since Azaro has a dual nature, he must progress through both earthly and mythical realms so he can mature metaphysically as well as socially, Consequently, Okri greatly extends the narrative action of his later fiction to include mythical journeys, intense dreams, and other African rituals or rites of passage. By extending the scope of the novel to include mythical dimensions, Okri participates in another redirection that is characteristic of contemporary postcolonial literature: he effectively redirects his narrative strategy to minimize the significance of the colonial master and maximize the experiences of the postcolonial subject. Instead of focusing on the colonial destruction of traditional African societies and cultures, therefore, he draws attention to their survival, albeit a precarious survival often lived on the threshold between life and death. Even though Okri remains keenly aware of the tragic destruction that colonialism continues to impose on traditional African societies, he refuses to let his characters admit defeat. He rejects the claim that colonialism has conquered, is conquering, or ever will conquer the deeper mysteries of the African spirit. By making his protangonist an abiku spirit-child who chooses to live, Okri suggests that the African spirit can survive the seemingly endless cycles of colonial and neocolonial violence by choosing to reconcile its spiritual and physical dimensions. Similarly, Azaro's father defeats multiple colonial and neocolonial aggressors in a series of mythic battles that mix mythical solemnity with folkloric bravado. Azaro's mother also aids the survival of her family and community through her less spectacular, but more lasting, character traits: courage, perseverance, hard work, and common sense. Of course, there are also other characters who do not fare so well. Madame Koto, the purveyor of the local, Westernized bar, degenerates with each of her increasingly corrupt political and economic deals. Ade, another abiku spirit-child, chooses to return to the spirit world rather than endure the rigors of mortality; and Jeremiah, an idealistic young journalistic photographer, is so regularly harassed by political thugs that he fades into the background and only pops out for sporadic moments to take a few photos before recommencing his perpetual journey from hiding place to hiding place. Thus Okri faces the many possibilities presented by the postcolonial condition, but he seems to side with the characters who maintain an idealistic, spiritual perspective in spite of their difficulties.

In order to narrate such a journey, Okri fuses his earlier realist and modernist style with the mythical style that he developed in Stars of the New Curfew. This mixing of realism with myth and folklore creates a powerful dialogue between European and African literary traditions as it seeks to extend the possibilities of both traditions. Thus Okri extends his engagement of postcolonial issues to the realm of aesthetics by demonstrating that African aesthetic sensibilities, cultural traditions, and narrative strategies will not allow themselves to be colonized by the literary norms of the colonial center. In some significant sense, therefore, the mature experimentation in Okri's later fiction represents a movement for cultural independence that parallels and complements the movements for political independence that swept the postcolonial world during the 1960s and 1970s. 0kri's later fiction also exemplifies what Homi K. Bhabha describes as a postcolonial aesthetic of cultural hybridity because it explores the liminal border between diverse cultural traditions. In The Famished Road, Okri displays his own mastery of realism, modernism, and African mythical traditions, thereby demonstrating that these diverse cultural traditions can coexist within new hybrid forms. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has accurately described Okri's unique style as "engagingly lyrical and intriguingly postmodern" (3). The Famished Road is clearly a literary tour de force that will soon become a classic of twentieth-century fiction.

Since Songs of Enchantment is a sequel of sorts to The Famished Road, the themes and techniques used in The Famished Road generally carry over into Songs of Enchantment as well. The primary difference between Songs of Enchantment and The Famished Road is that Songs of Enchantment's narrative structure is simpler and more rigorously edited. Consequently, Songs of Enchantment is easier to read and understand, but at times this ease of access is paid for by a reduction in lyrical grandeur and philosophical complexity. Nevertheless, Okri's characters undergo many subtle changes and reevaluations in the second novel, and these reevaluations are integral to Okri's Afrocentric and mythopoetic worldview. They demonstrate how openness and transformation are central to both Okri's political agenda and his aesthetic experimentation. In imagining the history of Africa in terms of a mythical road that must always be kept open and characters who are always changing, Okri suggests that the survival and development of the human spirit require a continual openness to new possibilities. Similarly, Okri's radically experimental style promotes an equivalent openness for African aesthetics. Consequently, even though there are significant continuities between The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment, the sentient reader must be very careful not to reduce Songs of Enchantment to a mere continuation of or sequel to The Famished Road. If Songs of Enchantment is a sequel, then it is a sequel in the sense that it keeps looking for new possibilities rather than in the sense that it follows the same trajectory as its predecessor.

Okri's latest novel, Astonishing the Gods, continues to develop the same kind of spiritual, mythical vision and lyrical aesthetic that Okri develops in The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment. Unfortunately, however, it lacks much of the political engagement, experimental energy, and complexity found in Okri's previous novels: its characters are less developed, its narrative structure seems more amorphouse than complex, and its mythical vision fails to develop the same intensity because it is not as counterbalanced with a realistic dimension. Nevertheless, even though Okri's latest works seem to suggest that his talent is waning, it seems unlikely that he will simply continue to produce simplified versions of his best work. Instead, it seems more likely that Okri is simply in a transitional period preparing the next evolution of his style. Okri is a fiercely intense writer who is still very young, and one should expect that The Famished Road will not be his last monumental work. Hopefully, it will not even be his best.

Always exploring new aesthetic possibilities, Okri has also published a volume of poetry titled An African Elegy. Throughout these poems, Okri meditates on various aspects of the human condition: love, solitude, pain, death, faith. In treating these themes, he moves seamlessly between philosophical reflection and the description of intimate details of everyday life. His rich lyrical voice once again demonstrates his ability to continually explore new literary forms, and his intense personal vision creates an atmosphere that is spiritual without being sentimental.

© 1998 Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne. All rights reserved. Bennett, Robert. "Ben Okri (1959- )." Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Puspa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. 364-373. This article is reprinted with the permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. and Robert Bennett.

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Last Modified: 6 June, 2002