Chinua Achebe, who died aged 82, was Africa's best-known novelist and the founding father of African fiction. The publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 not only contested European narratives about Africans but also challenged traditional assumptions about the form and function of the novel. His creation of a hybrid that combined oral and literary modes, and his refashioning of the English language to convey Igbo voices and concepts, established a model and an inspiration for other novelists throughout the African continent. The five novels and the short stories he published between 1958 and 1987 provide a chronicle of Nigeria's troubled history since the beginning of British colonial rule. They also create a host of vivid characters who seek in varying ways to take control of their history. As founding editor of the influential Heinemann African writers series, he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made good writing by Africans available worldwide in affordable editions.
Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. His writing challenges perceptions of reality. He is also a cultural activist.
He was born in Nigeria and came to England as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War. The war made a defining impact on his life. He finished his secondary school education and wanted to study physics and become a scientist. But he was deemed too young then for university and that summer he read his way through his father’s library and found his true vocation. He began writing at a very early age. He began with poetry and then published articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. Then he wrote short stories and eventually what was to become his first novel, ‘Flowers and Shadows.’
In 1978, Ben Okri returned to London. He studied comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, ‘The Landscapes Within.’ He went through a brief period of homelessness. In 1986 came ‘Incidents at the Shrine’, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. In 1988 a second collection, ‘Stars of the new Curfew,’ cemented his reputation as a powerful new voice. But it was in 1991, with the publication of ‘The Famished Road’ that he attained international stature.
The Famished Road won the Booker Prize that year. It was the first Booker Prize winner to go straight to number one in the paperback bestseller lists. The novel has been highly influential in the decades since its release. When President Clinton went to Africa for the first time, he quoted extensively from The Famished Road. The novel was also the inspiration behind ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead. Recently it was one of the novels cited in an episode of American Dad. It has inspired paintings, music, classical music, plays, films, and dances. It has now been re-issued as a Vintage Classic.
‘The Famished Road’ is the first book in The Famished Road Trilogy, which included ‘Songs of Enchantment’ and ‘Infinite Riches.’ Since then there have been many novels, books of poems, collections of essays.
He is also widely known as a poet. He thinks of himself as primarily a poet, and he maintains that his artistic response to life expresses itself most naturally through poetry. His first book of poems, ‘An African Elegy,’ contains some of his best known poems, including the title poem, which is a set text in schools, and ‘ To an English friend in Africa.’ His epic poem, ‘Mental Fight,’ has been widely read and embraced. Quotations from it are a regular on the internet. ‘ Wild,’ published in 2012, is perhaps his most diverse and life-affirming volume of poems. His most recent collection of poems, ‘A Fire in my Head,’ to be published in January 2021, contains some of his most famous and highly charged political poems. One of the poems, ‘ Grenfell Tower, June 2017,’ was listened to over 6 million times on the Channel Four Facebook page.
In 2009, he invented a new form called the Stoku, which is a cross between a short story and a haiku. This was first displayed in his book ‘ Tales of Freedom’, now re-titled ‘ The Comic Destiny,’ which featured thirteen stokus. Quotations from his work are popular and have appeared in television series like Criminal Minds.
His essays have also been widely read and influential. ‘ A Way of being Free,’ published in 1997, contains some of his best-loved meditations on the power and magic of storytelling. And ‘ A Time for new Dreams,’ published in 2011, was the titular mascot of Grace Wells Bonner’s exhibition at the Serpentine in 2018. It was also a personal book recommendation by the great artist David Hammons in a New Yorker profile of him in 2019.
Ben Okri has written film scripts and plays. He wrote the text to Peter Kruger’s film ‘N: The Madness of Reason.’ The film won the 2015 Ensor Award for Best Film. He is co-writing, with Peter Kruger, the film script adaptation of his novel, ‘The Age of Magic’. He has also written a play called The Outsider, an adaptation of Camus’s famous novel, which was performed to full houses at The Coronet in September 2018. The play won the 2018 Offies Award for Best Theatre Production. In 2020, his play, ‘Madame Sosostris,’ was performed again to full houses at the Pullof Threatres in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Ben Okri has been a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also Visiting Professor of Literature at Leicester University. He is an honorary Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.
In 2019 his novel, ‘Astonishing the Gods,’ was selected as one of the BBC’s ‘100 novels that shaped our world.’