Novelist Ben Okri on the childhood trauma that drives his creativity
People shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations killed - Nigerian's searing memories of civil war, of how brave, but also how awful, men can be, and of the injustices of a 'mad' world have influenced him deeply
Our interview with Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri at a cafe in a Wan Chai hotel starts smoothly enough. We talk about Okri's first visit to Hong Kong, his planned visit to a Bruce Lee exhibition later that day - he's a martial arts fan - and the buzz of the book fair that was winding up at the exhibition centre next door, book lovers filling the hotel lobby and many probably oblivious to the fact that there was a literary heavyweight in their midst.
Okri, who wrote his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, in 1980, gained international acclaim when The Famished Road, the story of Azaro, an African spirit child living between the real and spiritual worlds, won the 1991 Booker Prize. Azaro's narrative is also found in Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998). His other novels include In Arcadia (2002), Starbook (2007) and The Age of Magic (2014).
Okri's poetry is equally loved, but admitting to having read his poems but not his novels - this was, after all, to be an article about his life story and not a review or feature for the books section - was a regrettable move in hindsight.
What are you working on now? "A novel." Can you give a little bit away? "No, you never talk about novels that you're writing." Noted.
"Do you want to go for a walk?" he says to the British Council representative who had joined us in the lobby cafe. "There's two pairs of eyes on me - it makes it difficult."
Okri was in Hong Kong as a guest of the British Council to coincide with the book fair, and a berating for not attending his seminar in Wan Chai on the Sunday before soon followed.
A few awkward silences later and Okri, a cup of Earl Grey tea in hand, starts opening up about the all-consuming life as a writer. "As a writer you don't have time to make journeys. You can't be writing a novel and be flying all over the place. You just have to be in one place to write a novel. A novel takes anything from six months to five years to write - sometimes it's 10 years. You can't be visiting cultures and running around else you'll never get the work done." So what do you do if you're not writing? "I'm always writing. Okay, in the time I'm not writing I'm living - meeting friends, going for walks."
Luckily a mention of London changes course. "London is one of the greatest cities in the world … to write in. Not just because of its creative people but because of its underlying solidity. If you need to do steady creative work, London holds you. It has enough variety so you can really wander around the world in London. All the communities of the world are there.""There's not as much integration as there should be, but there are rich cultural centres - Indian, Irish, African communities. You feel expressive. That's very important for a writer. Writing is a solitary thing. When you're not writing it's important to feel a sense of community. To be able to experience the rich communal life. That's important, else you go crazy."
But it's the conversation about his home country - he was born in Minna in west central Nigeria in 1959 - that transforms Okri. "As for my favourite city for living, I'd say Lagos - it's where I grew up. I left Nigeria twice. The first time I was aged 1½ when my father went to London to study law. Yes, he wanted me to study law but I wanted to be a writer. My parents were not so happy about that at first, but they got used to it.
"I have clear memories of my early years in London. I went to primary school in Peckham [southeast London] - it was very strange because I was the only black kid at school, although another joined later. It took some getting used to."
At the age of seven, Okri returned to Nigeria just as the civil war broke out (it would last from 1967 to 1970). The war greatly affected his family. "My mum was on one side [she was half-Igbo, an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria] and on the other side my father was Urhobo [an ethnic group from southern Nigeria]. I almost got killed - I was nearly shot because of my language.
"I have very crucial memories from that time - people shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations were killed.
"What I saw had a very important influence on me because it made me aware of how awful people can be and how brave people can be and how kind people can be and how mean people can be. People who are neighbours one day can just suddenly - because of racial or tribal differences - become murderers. The world is mad - I just didn't understand why the world had to be like that. It made me aware of the injustice of the way people think. I could not understand why we had to hide mum. Why was I being questioned at gunpoint about my father's language? When you look at it from a child's perspective it's not scary, it's just strange, weird, confusing. To this day I'm still struck as to how silly people can be because of colour or racial differences - wherever you are in the world, people are capable of being both wonderful and really silly."
When the civil war ended Okri studied journalism. But when he discovered books in his father's library and devoured his favourite books - Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - he made up his mind. "I was going to become a scientist but everything changed because of a couple of books I read. I got bitten by literature."
His life events and love for literature have given him great insights - in particular on how family tragedy or illness at a young age can impact the sensitive young mind. His philosophy is deeply spiritual, rooted in wisdom whether talking about politics or education. "My idea of education is very different form the normal idea of education. It's not just about going to school - going to school is the best place for making people uneducated. It's the best place for making people conformists, for indoctrinating people, for putting certain ideas in people's heads that will stay there for the rest of their lives. School should be an arena for training and opening minds, but it's become an arena for fixing and limiting minds."
As the British Council representative approaches, I ask Okri about the intricate metallic pendants hanging from his necklace. "They're just various chains." Something tells me there is a deeper personal and spiritual story behind them, but it felt best to just leave it at that.