Ben Okri’s unique Booker Prize-winning epic, narrated by ‘an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into the dreams of the living and the dead’

The narrator, Azaro, is an abiku, a spirit child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death. The life he foresees for himself and the tale he tells are full of sadness and tragedy, but inexplicably he is born with a smile on his face. Nearly called back to the realm of the dead, he is resurrected to confront the tension between the land of the living, often joyful despite violence and political struggles, and the temptations of the carefree kingdom of the spirits.

The Booker Prize 1991
Published by
Jonathan Cape
Publication date

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Ben Okri

Ben Okri

About the Author

Sir Ben Okri is a poet, playwright and novelist. His novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991
More about Ben Okri

Watch our video interview with Ben Okri

How Ben Okri wrote The Famished Road

While living through my own childhood – listening to stories the elders told, having herbalists treat my glaucoma – I was aware that it would make a magnificent book. I began reading early and always had a sense of life as something that would be read. This does not mean that The Famished Road, my third novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1991, was autobiographical, only that the strange realities of life seemed already to belong to the magical world of reading.  

The novel was begun before I realised it. At the University of Essex, in 1981, I wrote a long short story set in London. It later grew into a novel. A good friend said there was something unusual about the early passages set in Africa. This comment set me on the path to The Famished Road, a novel about a spirit child in Lagos around the time of independence. 

This is why I believe in the power of indirection. Our authentic path may exist in things not yet discovered, waiting for us in what is already there. 

In the years before working on the novel, I had been dissatisfied with the way I was writing. I was applying the realistic narrative tradition to Africa, but the techniques used to describe western life were inadequate for depicting the multidimensional world of my childhood. This led to a crisis. I needed to find a new way to convey the imaginative richness of Africa. The existing techniques simply would not do anymore. I needed to renew my hand. 

Read Ben Okri’s full article here.

The song inspired by The Famished Road

The Famished Road struck such a chord with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke when he read it on tour that he wrote a song inspired by the book.

Originally called Three-Headed Street Spirit, the song eventually became Street Spirit (Fade Out) and appears on Radiohead’s second album, The Bends.

Speaking on the Canadian TV show Musique Plus in 1993, Yorke said: ‘The image that I had in my head when I wrote the song was from a book by a guy called Ben Okri… It’s a very weird book, and I like it so much I wrote a song from it.’

The winning moment

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road ‘gives us an idea what it would be like to be a spirit-child, growing up in the struggles of modern Nigeria’, chair of judges Jeremy Treglown said in his speech at the 1991 ceremony.

Accepting his award, Okri referred to the cheque he’d received and said: ‘When my first novel was published I went home and my father rather cunningly got together all the elders of our town and they contributed a certain amount of money impromptu to buy me a pen to carry on writing. I suppose this will buy me quite a lot of pens.’

Okri also read a poem he’d written, saying he did ‘not have any talent for speeches’.

Ending his remarks, he said: ‘I dedicate this prize to all those who struggle and who suffer in silence and in public and who never stop fighting and always keep on dreaming.’

Ben Okri wins the 1991 Booker Prize