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Good writing teaches us to ask questions: Ben Okri

Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

Ben Okri's intense eyes mirror the mood in his novels, but his speech is a far cry from the philosophical insights that impregnate his oeuvre.

The Nigerian Booker Prize winning novelist, poet, essayist and short story writer speaks straight from the shoulder and puts on no airs.

Inarguably one of the greatest living authors, Okri, 59, believes good writers are those who deal with what is hidden and unravel the "underlying structures" of the societies.

"Writing is difficult if you are doing well. It is a challenge if you are doing it really well and if you are doing it badly, it is not a challenge," he told PTI in an interview.

Okri won the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road' in 1991, becoming the only black African writer to receive the prestigious literary award.

Considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions, he has often been compared with writers such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His new book 'The Freedom Artist' has been called Okri's "most significant novel since 'The Famished Road'. He has described it as a "fist of light against a wall of darkness".

"Literature helps us to understand the underlying structures of the societies, the underlying psychology and spirits of a people. Good writers bring it out, they also deal with what is hidden. They give it a voice, a shape," Okri said.

"Also, really good writing teaches us to ask questions. And part of the problem of our times is that we have not been asking enough crucial questions. Good writing also teaches us to see clearly, not what we want to see but to see what is there," he said.

Okri, who also won the 1987 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region for his short story volume "Incidents at the Shrine", said it was important to read the best works of good writers to know them intimately.

"When you read writers' works you get to know them in a strange sort of way. What you know of them is the most secret, most intimate and most mysterious inside of them. The best part of good writers is in their work. To really know a writer is to read his work. Their deepest DNA, the signature of their spirit is in their best work," he said.

Talking about his Booker Prize win, Okri said the coveted prize had transformed his life.

"Before, I had a very small but loyal following. I had a deep concentrated status and I was always on the edges of poverty, but with the Booker Prize my readership exploded overnight. It has opened up life to me in an extraordinary way, also it has put more pressure on my writing, forced me to grow very fast as a writer and intensified my evolution," he said.

The acclaimed writer said unlike before when hardly anyone paid attention to his work, everyone started noticing what he wrote after winning the prize.

"The judgement was more intense. The critics are slightly kinder to you after you have won the Booker. Mostly because they would like to have won it themselves," Okri said.

"I felt the burden of expectation immediately after winning it, but that was more than 25 years ago. Now I don't feel the burden anymore. I feel the pleasure of expectation," he said.

While his poetry and nonfiction have a more overt political tone, Okri's short fiction has been described as more realistic and less fantastic than his novels.

"Poetry is most natural to me and because of that the most difficult. You have to be very careful about what is natural to you. You have to bring more craft and more consciousness to it, but in terms of the form, short story is very very difficult, he said.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Okri has served on the board of the Royal National Theatre and as vice president of the PEN International English Centre. He lives in London.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, February 01 2019. 14:10 IST