Divining his reality by re-dreaming the world
Tell us about your latest book of essays, A Time for New Dreams.
It's really about where I sensed the world right now was going. For the last 20 years, I have sensed a breaking down, in different parts of the world, of old dreams and the old ways of looking at things. People seemed to be crying for a new way of being. A new kind of society, a new package of social justice, a new sense of our relationship with the environment. [I've written] meditations on education, freedom and even the way we are taught to read books ... I keep equating reading with life. While we're living, as T.S. Eliot said quite clearly, we don't actually appreciate the implications of the experiences that we're going through. We think that we understand a moment that we're living through, but when we look back on that moment, say, 20 years later, it's with a completely different perspective. The same thing is true in novels. You meet a character on page 20 and by the time you see him on page 40, the implication of the meeting on page 20 is completely different. So reading is a layered experience. It is one of the most complicated and magical things that we do. For me, writing is fatally linked to two things: consciousness and reality. Words, at every point, engage our consciousness. And the quality of our reading is linked to the quality of our consciousness. Reading and writing are acts of freedom because they are acts of consciousness ... Our most essential responsibility as readers and writers is to re-dream this world.
Do you set out to teach or enlighten through your writing?
I don't set out to teach, because I actually don't think people can be taught. At first I thought it was a sad discovery, but I've realised that it's just the way we are. You can't teach a child something. They will not learn it. What you can do, really, is open up, inspire, awaken curiosity and enthusiasm. Stun the mind into questions. Surprise perception. That's all I try to do: open up boundaries and shine an awkward light on something. To me, the basis of all this is the way in which consciousness operates. Left to ourselves, people are fundamentally curious. If there were three kids sitting here, and a guy walked past with half his beard shaved off, they would ask why. That's how we are. Consciousness is a dynamic thing. I seek to do anything which encourages that dynamism.
Did someone encourage that in you?
My mum taught me that a story is not about the story. It's just a way of inclining your head in a certain direction. That a story is designed to make you ask a question. If a story does not make you ask a question, [it] has not worked. So she'd begin to tell me a story, and then she'd stop. And when I asked, 'Why did you do that?', my question became part of her story.
How has your mother influenced your writing?
She's influenced the matrix of my writing ... I learned from her the art of telling stories elliptically, that actually the indirect is much more fascinating than the direct. I like to be a bit deceived, slightly misled and surprised into discoveries. It's now become a part of the way I write.
What inspired you to begin writing fiction?
I was at school in London, when I was about four. We were doing Shakespeare plays, and the one that really started something in me was A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was struck that human beings and [magical creatures], they all inhabited the same sort of space. My earliest pre-literary influences were the wonder stories, like The Arabian Nights.
You talk and write often about dreams. Have you always had a connection with that realm of consciousness?
No. I found it, after a long time. When I started writing stories, I learned from the French and Russian masters, people like Chekhov and Maupassant ... I was a realist. I dealt with things in the world as everyone saw them and as everyone said that they were. Then something strange happened to me. I used to get into arguments with my father, and he one day caught me reading Plato's Timaeus. He said, 'You know, we have our own Plato and Socrates.' I said, 'Yeah, where?' And I didn't pay much attention to him. Then I came to England. One day I was trying to write a story about back home [in Nigeria] and I remembered what he said. I understood what he meant. The pre-Socratic philosophical tradition was an oral one. And the wisdom of Africa is in its oral tradition.
What is special about the oral tradition?
Ezra Pound said poetry loses its way when it wanders too far from music. I think literature loses its way when it wanders too far from the oral tradition. The written tradition is full of thought; the oral tradition is full of gods. What is literature? Literature is about the heart and the mind and compassion and tolerance. Literature is an act of civilisation.
Ben Okri's new collection of poetry, Wild, is to be published by Rider Books on March 22. Small parts of this interview are quoted from Okri's lecture at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year