In 1991 Ben Okri became the first Black writer to win the Booker Prize and its youngest winner. Here he explains how his novel, The Famished Road, was written on a magic tide of freedom

Written by Ben Okri

Publication date and time: Published

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. 

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I wrote because I wanted to alter the inner way we saw our realities. I wanted to open up the narrow limitations imposed upon our lives

My father’s belief in the enduring presence of the ancestors, things I saw that could not be rationally explained, the reality of ogbanjes or abikus, the enigmatic way my mother told stories, the flamboyant way people narrated their experiences, all made it clear to me that I had to reconfigure my language and my storytelling. I had to invent a tone that could accommodate the ordinary and the mythical, the poetic and the uncanny. 

For some time I had known that there is no objective reality that is true for everyone. There is only the reality perceived through culture, traditions, education, consciousness. We don’t see what is there. We see what we are taught to see. Our reality is a product of culture and consciousness. 

One culture had evolved literary techniques for describing their world. But to use those techniques to describe a different world was to impose one way of seeing on another.  

In Africa, for over a century, we have described our reality through the language and perception of others. But to observe our reality through our own eyes requires a purification of mind and re-invention of language. The solution was to find a way of telling stories that was truer to our realities. The nature of storytelling and the nature of the novel had to change. This meant going back to the beginning. It meant going back to the beginning of language itself, the way a child learns to speak and write, then putting it all back together again in a fresh way. I have been doing this repeatedly through the years, in subjects that are not African, in books whose true themes are freedom and higher truth. The short story was the laboratory for this early alchemy.  

Ben Okri

My first two volumes of stories were important in developing the new tone and the new forms of storytelling I needed. The realistic technique is sequential, but the realities of which I speak are often spiral, sometimes tangential, possibly simultaneous. Time is not just time. It is myth, belief, perception. Consciousness has a profound impact on time. Time warps and stretches in accordance with the weight or lightness of events, with our perceptions and our histories. Time in one culture is different from time in another; time in one literature operates differently from that of another. Cultural time needs its Einsteins. Many elements of fiction have to undergo rigorous alterations under the impact of these investigations.   

By the time I started to write The Famished Road, in the spring of 1986, I was ready. My hand was changed.  

I was living then in Lorraine Road in North London, in a maisonette belonging to a BBC executive who had split up with his wife. I had a big sunlit room in which to write and a large desk. It was my first real accommodation after my brief homeless period in London, in the early eighties. The Famished Road was conceived there. I wrote in a black A4 notebook. 

Then that year I had to go to Nigeria, to write about forthcoming elections for a newspaper. I was there for a few weeks, during which time I published essays critical of the political situation, before suddenly being advised to leave immediately as my name was on a wanted list. 

I returned to the Lorraine Road flat with new inspiration. That was when The Famished Road really came into existence. I kept the new tone I had discovered, writing with a mixture of innocence and knowledge, the knowledge of one who has transcended death.  

I wrote because I wanted to alter the inner way we saw our realities. I wanted to open up the narrow limitations imposed upon our lives. I wanted to transfigure our perceived pre-determined fate with an explosion of freedom. I wanted to give voice to the extraordinary nature of our deeper possibilities and reveal the strength of our resilience. I wanted to alter our road and save my life. 

The novel is about Africa and childhood and imagination and suffering and what we must become to change our destiny and the traps of history and the unsuspected powers that can transform our lives and a hundred other things. There was even an environmental theme, the devastation of forests. All this was complicated by telling a real story and walking a tonal tightrope every day. Most of the first draft of The Famished Road was written in Lorraine Road. It is one of the places I’ve been happiest writing in my whole life.   

Then I moved to Axminster Road, near Finsbury Park. My finances were running low, so I broke off from the novel to finish a book of short stories, Stars of the New Curfew, for which I got a helpful advance. But my landlady was difficult, and I had to move out. I went on to rent a flat from Margaret Busby, the celebrated publisher, whom I had known for years. It was in her flat, in Notting Hill Gate, that I started re-writing The Famished Road.   

I wrote in a small room with a little bed on which I spread manuscripts and notes and items of research. I listened to jazz and African and classical music. I read everything: the literatures of Africa, Europe and the Americas, French semioticians, obscure texts, art books, literary criticism, books on mythology and history, volumes of poetry. I soaked myself in movies. I wrote steadily, surrendering myself to infinite innovations. Each day gifted me with new and amazing possibilities. The novel was written on a magic tide of freedom.    

I worked all night and slept most of the day. I walked everywhere. When my brain was overwrought I would wander round the Serpentine, staring at water and sky. It seemed to me that I didn’t sleep for months. My sleep rhythms were damaged for years to come. 

Ben Okri

No one knows what I went through writing that book. You would have to have grown up in Nigeria when I did, with all those beliefs, fears and terrors, to understand what it took to push through that spirit material

There were times, writing at night, when the story I was telling would spook me. Those where nights when I feared for my sanity. I couldn’t shake the feeling that when people read the novel they’d think something was wrong with me. It must have taken a species of madness to write The Famished Road. It certainly took a stronger psyche than I realised I had to work on that taboo-breaking material, and to withstand the horrors involved. Writing about the spirit world at night, for a long period, is dangerous if you come from a land that believes in them. Spirit children, born several times to the same mother, have a special mythology about them, part dread, part magic. 

No one knows what I went through writing that book. You would have to have grown up in Nigeria when I did, with all those beliefs, fears and terrors, to understand what it took to push through that spirit material. While I wrote, I saw them - the spirits. They crashed through the doors of my sleep. I just kept on writing. 

I was at Margaret’s flat for about a year. When she needed it back, I moved to a basement flat in Little Venice. That was where The Famished Road was finally completed. It was while I lived there that the novel was accepted and published by Jonathan Cape. 

And it was there, one afternoon, that I saw a van going past my window. It had BOOKER written on the side of it. An hour later I had a call telling me that The Famished Road had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I remember that my mood was particularly fine at that time. I felt some magic condition of life, as if I had reached a sort of beatitude. I can still remember the clarity of the moment. I have had moments like it since, but none as pure. I have since then seen vans with BOOKER on the sides of them, but they didn’t presage anything.  

That fine mood might have had something to do with being 31 and having taken control of my life, after an epic struggle, through the power of writing alone.      

I had pushed the rock of Sisyphus to the top of the hill and had gone back down to do it again. 

Ben Okri wins the 1991 Booker Prize