Ben Okri and the gratuitous quest to stir!

Celebrating Ben Okri. This week our columnist Maruping “Duke“Phepheng, insists the work of this prolific writer be celebrated.

Ben Okri is a prolific writer. He is in fact considered one of the best post-modern and post colonial authors. Many of us will remember how he became internationally renowned after his first novel called “Flower and Shadows” came out in 1980.

I pen this piece having paused from reading his celebrated “The Famished Road” – work which earned him the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 1991.

I could talk further about his great literary works but Google has all of it readily packaged for you, if you are interested (you should be, silly!).

The Plain Dealer describes “The Famished Road” as “‘A stunning work, suspenseful and haunting, the product of one of the lushest imaginations on record.'”

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry. “is how the first chapter of Section One, Book One, of “The Famished Road” begins. Captivating stuff for one who loves discovering the essence of the narrative through a series of beautifully arranged words.

I therefore briefly suspend my reading journey not because the thrill has dissipated, but because I cannot resist the temptation to have my say on this undisputed master storyteller’s recent attack on black writers. In her piece which appears in titled “Black and African writers don’t need instructions from Ben Okri”, Sofia Samatar neatly captures my views about what I think is an unfortunate piece by Okri (also appearing in titled “Mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness.”

I feel she defends the “freedom” of the black writer admirably. I find her question “‘if, as Okri insists, “we must not let anyone define what we write”, why should black and African writers listen to Ben Okri?'” particularly instructive.

What exactly does Okri want from the black writer? Who defines the “greatness” he refers to in his bluster? And, quite frankly, who aspires to that “greatness”, really?

The environment within which any writer writes plays a role in her construction of the narrative. A Rwandan writer who succeeds in taking a Chinese reader through the terrifying experience of the horrendous Rwandan genocide, climaxing the story with grave silence of death and destitution would indeed have, according to Okri, dealt with “the heaviest of subjects.”
But who is supposed to chronicle such significant historical truth? Put differently, if not black writers themselves, who is supposed to chronicle black plight?

Assuming that this particular writer would have dealt with “the heaviest of subjects”, exactly how would she have failed to “reflect the temper of the age”?

The world needs to know about the Holocaust, about Boko Haram, about Sharpville and Marikana massacres and such like truths over and over again in order to (hopefully) achieve an end to such atrocities. That, “heavy” as it may seem to Okri, in actual fact “reflect(s) the temper of the age.” If black writers are to deviate from writing about “the heaviest of subjects”, where will my one year old son read about these atrocities two decades from now?

The black writer would generally (perhaps unsurprisingly?) be preoccupied with misery because she is part of that misery. So it cannot be that Okri is right to want her to paint a picture of happiness when there is untold misery all over the place. I would understand if we were encouraged to write stories which enjoin the reader to aspire for happiness, but we encounter literature like that already, just like we should be brought face to face with “the heavy subject” that the black world really is without worrying ourselves too much with the “greatness” Okri is so fond of.

Just by the way, a lot of text about hunger and strife and war and corruption is in a lot of cases written beautifully. “Things Fall Apart” would probably be categorized as “heavy”, but Achebe wrote it so beautifully that I enjoy reading it, leaving me feeling a profound oneness with the Igbos. Plus it most certainly “reflect(s) the temper of the age” if you consider the many Okonkwos of today’s world.

It is also rare at least in my reading experience to find literature where the author writes purely about the “heavy subject” without creatively making the text sufferable, even enjoyable at times, for the reader.

Okri speaks of “freedom” which in my mind means the right to act without the hindrance of external control. In fact, he captures freedom well when he says
“(t)he first freedom is mental freedom.” But he at once attempts to become that very hindrance of external control! How amazing!

I agree with Samatar. Black and African writers don’t need instruction from Ben Okri. He should feel free to continue asking for love from white readers, but I will continue to write about anything I feel driven to write about, be it hunger, sex, conflict, Jesus or Zuma. This, for Okri, would seemingly not be the “essential thing.” It would not amount to “freedom.”

But I am black and I live in conditions of unrelenting hardship. I am hardship, and in spite of Okri I will freely write about my hardship when I feel like it.

Well, with that safely out of the way, it is back to reading the already compelling “The Famished Road.”

Maruping Phepheng is author of “What Happens In Hankaroo…” and “Of Anger and
Revenge.” Follow him on Twitter @phephengm.

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