In our new film, Ben Okri, the first Black winner of the Booker Prize, explains how he had to create fresh techniques to tell a story rooted in his African childhood
When The Famished Road was published in the UK in March 1991, it received a mixed reception - and its author, the Nigerian-British poet, playwright and novelist Ben Okri, was not surprised. ‘It’s not the kind of book you can be in tune with that quickly,’ he says. ‘I thought maybe it would take about 20 or 30 years. Reviews were divided. Some people were like, “What’s wrong with him?”, but there were also some extraordinary reviews. When people got it they really got it, and when people didn’t get it they really didn’t get it.’
Thirty-two years after the book’s publication, it seems that more and more readers are ‘getting’ Ben Okri. After 30 years without an American publishing deal, he has recently found a new and growing audience in the United States. A New York Times article published in January, with the headline ‘Is America ready for Ben Okri now?’, observes that his work suddenly feels ‘all the more prescient’ against a backdrop of ‘deep reckoning and crisis — from the pandemic to political and ecological meltdowns’. It seems a good time to revisit perhaps his best-known work.
It needed a new technique, so I had to “break my hands”. I went back to the roots of language, back to being a child
The quotes above are taken from a new video interview with Okri, produced exclusively for the Booker Prizes, on the writing of The Famished Road, which won the Booker in 1991. At 32, Okri was not only the youngest winner of the prize at the time, but the first Black author to win. An extraordinary achievement, although Okri ‘didn’t get the fuss about that’. ‘It seemed to be anchored in some kind of amazement that a Black person can write well. I took that for granted. Most of the best writers in the world, in the period when I was growing up, were Black writers.’
In the film, Okri joins writer Jo Hamya as they revisit some of the locations in London where he wrote the book, including the home of publisher Margaret Busby in Notting Hill. He offers fascinating and deeply personal insights into his creative process, including why he preferred to write at night (in the early hours of the morning, he says, ‘There is this incredible availability of energy, imagination, inspiration and wildness’) and why a writer’s desk should never face a window.
He also explains that the story of an African spirit child that he wanted to tell could not be expressed through the dominant, inherited, sequential techniques of the Western tradition. ‘It needed a new technique,’ he says. ‘So I had to “break my hands”. I went back to the roots of language, back to being a child, constantly looking for a tone that was elastic to the mysteries, the strangeness, the simultaneity, the chaos, the vigour, the silences, the ritual quality of my African upbringing. And it took a long time.’
It was not a given that he would succeed. There were moments while writing, late at night, when he would panic, or worry that he might send himself mad. He was also writing under extraordinary personal pressure. ‘It was a make-or-break time. It was “you either do this or you die”. It was that serious, it was really that existential.’
Looking back through his old notebooks for the first time in decades, Okri recalls the young man ‘who was writing to save his life’. ‘I couldn’t do this again,’ he concludes. ‘I had to be a writer in my late twenties. I had to have that energy and freshness and madness of youth to attempt something like this.’