Ben Okri (1959- )

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

African Postcolonial Literature

Critical Reception

Ben Okri is quickly becoming one of the most acclaimed African writers of his generation, and his significant contribution to African literature has been recognized by both African and European critics. In an interview with Alastair Niveh, Chinua Achebe suggested that the torch of Nigerian literature was currently being passed on from his generation to a new, younger generation of African writers. When asked to explain who represented this new generation, Achebe mentioned Ben Okri specifically. Achebe's tribute to Okri, therefore, not only draws attention to Okri's extraordinary talent, but it also signals the emergence of a younger generation of writers who are charting new directions for African literature. Okri clearly belongs in the vanguard of this generation, and his innovative literary experimentations have drawn increasing international attention to contemporary African literature. In the past few years, Okri has received numerous international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Africa, the Chianti Rufino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Premio Grinzane Cavour, and the prestigious Booker Prize.

In particular, critics have praised Okri for his ability to creatively experiment with new literary forms. Even though Okri's earlier novels are not nearly as experimental as his later ones, critics like Ayo Mamudu and Abioseh Michael Porter have shown that they develop unorthodox narrative strategies that, attempt to break from the tradition of social realism, which has dominated the African novel ever since it was first used by Chinua Achebe. Consequently, critics emphasize Okri's use of modernist conventions and make frequent comparisons between his first two novels and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While their comparisons with modernism are certainly valid, Okri's restrained use of stream of consciousness and his exploration of familial relations probably bear more similarities to Virginia Woolf's subtler modernist style than to Joyce's more aggressive experimentation. It is not until The Famished Road that Okri's writing really takes on the kind of epic grandeur, philosophical depth, and sustained experimentation found in Joyce.

Okri's middle works, Incidents at the Shrine and Stars of the New Curfew, have received less critical attention even though they represent a crucial phase in Okri's development as an writer. In the future, more critical attention needs to be given to these short stories in order to show how they create a bridge between Okri's earlier and later styles. In particular, greater critical analysis of Stars of the New Curfew would show more clearly how Okri has developed a uniquely African sense of postmodernism that derives from a creative extension of African folklore rather than being a derivative imitation of foreign postmodernist techniques. A few critics have begun this process, but there is still much more that needs to be done. For example, Alastair Niven's analysis of a short story from Incidents at the Shrine draws attention to Okri's increased mastery of narrative forms, and David Richard's and T. J. Cribb's essays show how Stars of the New Curfew explores more African narrative forms. Nevertheless, all three studies are partially flawed in their conclusions. Niven's study critiques Okri for not following the tradition of Achebe, but what is interesting about Okri's work is precisely the fact that it seeks to explore new directions. To try to hold Okri to the standard of Achehe is, to misunderstand how his, fiction inaugurates new aesthetic issues that require new criteria of critical evaluation. Richard's essay comes closer to the mark by emphasizing how Okri's fiction explores new postcolonial issues, yet it reinscribes these postcolonial concerns too quickly within Western debates about postmodernity, so it fails to adequately develop the African roots of Okri's new style. Cribb's essay more carefully develops Okri's relationship to the tradition of Tutuola and the Yoruba novel, but it simply needs to go farther. Future critics would be wise to follow up on Cribb's essay and systematically develop the relationships between Okri and Tutuola to better understand how African traditions function in Okri's fiction.

Most of the critical analysis of Okri's fiction has focused on The Famished Road, which is unquestionably Okri's most important work so far, The Famished Road is clearly a literary tour de force that virtually defines the vanguard of contemporary African literature. There is something of a critical irony here that bears mentioning. Gerald Moore once claimed that Tutuola's style was a dead end for African literature because it would not be imitated. The Famished Road, however, has turned Tutuola's so-called dead end into the catalyst for exploring new aesthetic directions based on a broader understanding, of African folklore and less dependent on its imitation of the European novel. The powerfully unique style that Okri develops in The Famished Road has made Okri's work very difficult to categorize, though most critics describes it as an example of magical realism because it fuses a realistic narrative with a mythical one. For example, Olatubosun Ogunsanwo compares it to Gabriel García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Jacqueline Bardolph compares it to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Certainly there is validity to these comparisons as evidenced by Okri's fusion of realism and myth, bold imagination, use of exaggeration and hyperbole, detailed description of uncanny events, and explorations of liminal zones and continually transforming characters. Nevertheless, Okri has tried to keep his work from being simplistically labeled as magical realism. In particular, he emphasizes that he is not trying to create a world of magic and myth that exists next to the real world as much as he is trying to extend our sense of the real world itself to include myths and magical events within it. If future critics want to continue reading The Famished Road as a work of magical realism, they would be wise to pay more attention to Okri's comments and, at the very least, take the realistic dimensions of the work as seriously as the magical ones. Ideally, they should take Okri's comments a step further to see the magical events as an African form of realism in which the magical world is part of the real world.

The second label that critics have attached to The Famished Road is postmodern. In particular, John C. Hawley argues that Okri's works are postmodern because they mix genres, cross cultural boundaries, and intertextually parody both African and European traditions. Olatubosun Ogunsanwo also argues that The Famished Road is postmodern because of its postmodern sense of intertextual parody. Both critics further emphasize that Okri's postmodern sensibilities derive from African as well as European sources. Ogunsanwo explains how The Famished Road is a parody of African myths and literature, and Hawley shows how its organizing principle derives from the widespread Nigerian belief in abiku spirit-children. These critics demonstrate that Okri does not present us with an either/or situation: his narrative strategies are not either imitations of postmodern magical realism or sequels to Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Rather, they bring both traditions together into a creative dialogue that reworks the one as much as the other. Consequently, if future critics want to read The Famished Road as a postmodern work, they need to be much clearer about how its use of African narrative strategies and its exploration of African political issues develop a unique sense of postmodernism. Critics who are interested in looking at the postmodern condition from this genuinely cross-cultural postcolonial perspective will need to return to The Famished Road repeatedly to unravel its many-layered mysteries. The key to understanding both Okri's use of magical realism and his use of postmodernism, therefore, is to read his works in the context of the Nigerian oral and literary traditions from which they develop.

© 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