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Books LIVE Exclusive: Ben Okri on Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina and the State of African Writing


Ben Okri talks to Books LIVE about writing in a “new era” of African literature, and reveals what he believes to be the next hurdle for authors on the continent.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road in 1991, was in South Africa to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria – his first honour from an African institution.

Okri recalls how he felt like he was “paddling in this canoe of literature” by himself during what he calls a “hiatus” in African writing in the 1980s. However, he believes writers are beginning to be recognised “on the basis of the book”, and foresees an impending “renaissance”, with South Africa and Nigeria leading the way.

The Famished RoadSongs of EnchantmentInfinite RichesDangerous LoveWildTales of FreedomIncidents at the Shrine

African writers have recently gained wide attention and awards but when you won the Booker you were on your own. Is the path to notoriety for African writers still dependent on winning awards and recognition outside of the continent and, if so, is it becoming easier for writers to do this?

I think that’s changing. When you look at the early modern phase of African literature and you look at the ’50s and ’60s – the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the Ngugis and so forth – that was a literature emerging from newly independent countries. So it was a literature tied very much to politics. And then there was a long hiatus and then my generation and then it was quiet – I was the only one, and I felt I was paddling in this canoe of literature all by myself, with the older generation established and there. But I felt it was a new era because it was no longer a literature tied to independence, it was becoming a literature on its own, literature as literature.

So I was on my own and I was paddling and I helped with the Caine Prize, just to make sure that we got voices and inspired voices across the continent, and then – whoa – suddenly they just sprang up all over the continent and now there’s a renaissance, a chorus of voices. Now they don’t have to go through the same sort of process, it’s easier for a writer from Africa to just succeed really on the basis of the book but it’s taken a lot of work and a lot of neglect and a lot of time to get there. They’re the beneficiaries of what we’ve been doing.

I think it’s very important because people come to the continent through the literature and that’s a beautiful way to come to the continent because literature does many things, but it also seduces. It’s not PR, literature is not PR for anybody, but it attracts a spirit. These new voices are very different and their concerns are very different from the concerns of the first generation. It’s now okay just to write about being in America, living in London, it’s okay to look at the whole of the African presence.

But I think the one thing that still needs to be achieved is for writing from Africans to be received purely as writing. We haven’t got there yet and it’s one of the things that I’m fighting for more than anything else because we are still always prefixed with the continent. I don’t see French writers being prefixed, I don’t see American writers being prefixed – Jonathan Franzen is Franzen, Graham Greene is Graham Greene, they don’t come with prefixes. That’s the next thing for us to achieve, where the work is the work and that’s that.

Through your long-standing involvement with the Caine Prize you must have been exposed to many new voices coming out of South Africa. What’s your sense of new South African writing?

I think after Nigeria, South Africa is the most productive of new voices. Writing here has the same aspects that Nigeria does – again the multiplicity of voices, different groups having a national dialogue, the same tension that gives rise to fiction, plus the fact that your liberation is still quite recent so there’s that transition period where people are still asking questions about how have we done, have promises been kept, have we been betrayed? All those are very good for fiction and rich for storytelling. There’s a renaissance in South African writing and also in South African cinema. I see South African films a lot in London.

Binyavanga Wainaina has just been included on the Time 100 Most Influential People list, shortly after coming out as gay in a time when homosexuality is being threatened on the continent. Do you think there’s often pressure on African writers to address political issues in order to gain international recognition?

That is one of the problems of the perception of the “African writer” in the world – you’re invisible if you’re just writing well. Even if you write as well as Tolstoy you have to be seen in relation to causes, you have to be seen in relation to issues. That’s good, but I think it’s also a kind of stereotype and it’s a kind of limitation of the African genius because it’s putting on us what’s not being put on other writers. Shakespeare’s not been valued because he spoke about this, that or the other, Dickens was a great social commentator but that’s not the main reason he’s valued as a writer. There’s this double sense of the way that third world writers are valued and I think it’s a bit of a disaster. It’s something that we have to write ourselves out of. We have to educate them. Teju Cole’s a very fine writer; we have many fine writers but we have to educate the rest of the world by writing. We have to persuade the world that writers write and tell stories and they tell stories about what they want to write about, not what the world expects us to do.

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Image courtesy of University of Pretoria website


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