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Ben Okri on the “Mental Tyranny” of African Writers: Truth or Trolling?

Ben Okri Bad Sex
The Age Of MagicThe Famished RoadSongs of EnchantmentInfinite RichesDangerous LoveWildTales of FreedomIncidents at the Shrine

Responses have started pouring in to Ben Okri’s controversial essay, “A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness”.

The Nigerian poet and novelist, who won the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991, has had an eventful 2014, being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria – his first honour from an African institution – as well as the less prestigious Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Okri’s latest essay on black and African writing was published on The Guardian on 27 December. In it, he asserts that whereas “we read Flaubert for beauty, Joyce for innovation, Virginia Woolf for her poetry, Jane Austen for her psychology”, African writers are “defined by their subjects”.

In an argument that seems to recall Njabulo Ndebele’s 1986 essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary”, Okri calls for the elevation of “insight” and “writing” over “heavy” subject matter. Referring to James Joyce, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Homer, Sophocles, Tolstoy and Pushkin to illustrate his point, Okri maintains that such writing works to “illuminate the human spirit and awaken us to the strangeness and magnificence of the human estate” rather than to draw attention to the “horror of their history”.

Great literature is rarely about one thing. It transcends subject. The subject was always the least important element in works that have endured. Sometimes an important work has a significant subject, but it is usually its art, rather than its subject, that makes it constantly relevant to us. If the subject were the most important thing we would not need art, we would not need literature. History would be sufficient. We go to literature for that which speaks to us in time and outside time.

It is time that black and African writers woke up from their mesmerism with subject. By it they gain a brief success, a small flutter of fame. Then with time the work sinks; but other works whose subject was perhaps less sensational, but whose art is more compelling, make their way through time and win the appreciation of eternal readers.

The first freedom is mental freedom. We have to seize the freedom to be what we can be, to write whatever we want, with all the mystery and fire of art. It is our responsibility to illuminate the strange corners of what it is to be human.

Sofia Samatar, Assistant Professor of English at California State University Channel Islands and author of A Stranger in Olondria, responded to Okri in a series of 10 eloquent points on Twitter:


Samatar criticises Okri’s reference to Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, saying that “to castigate African writers using a Joyce story about falling snow is just insult to injury WTF” (sic). Okri praises Joyce’s story for its deft writing, its ostensible subject – a party in Dublin – and the way it exudes “importance” despite not touching on issues such as the Irish famine or nationalism. He goes on to state: “If a novel is about the slave trade we automatically think it is significant, certainly more significant than one about a chap who drinks too much palm wine.” This is almost certainly a reference to Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard, based in part on Yoruba folktales, which tells the story of a man who travels to the land of the dead. The novel was praised in England and the United States – by, among others, Dylan Thomas – but criticised in Tutuola’s native Nigeria, mainly because of its use of pidgin English. On the author’s Wikipedia page, Taban Lo Liyong’s defence of Tutuola, written in 1975, is highlighted, with specific reference to Joyce: “Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language?”

In a response on Media Diversified, which emphasises the unimpeachable link between politics and art and raises questions about the role of publishing in the production of African writing, writer and poet JJ Bola also moves to update the argument. He refers to Afrofuturism and the work of Steven Barnes, Mbuzi Momi, and other writers, such as Musa Okwonga, Yrsa Daley Ward, Raymond Antrobus, Warsan Shire, Jacob Sam La Rose, Tapiwa Mugabe, Nayirrah Waheed and Inua Ellams, “who may not necessarily be attracting the attention of big publishing houses, who are stuck in their rigamortis of representation, but are growing in popularity and gaining the attention of readers through social media and live readings”.

Bola writes:

I am not in complete disagreement with Okri. In fact, I think he does make good points, however, I feel the majority of the article may not have been articulated with the utmost clarity. I agree with the fact that, as Okri suggests, writers should reflect the temper of the age, and that we are indeed living in troubling times. In addition, I am wholeheartedly in agreement that, in regards to writing, the essential thing is freedom. However, this curtailment of expression and castigation of creativity towards Black/African writers almost raises the same contradictions it seeks to oppose. Particularly when there is a whole wave of Black/African writers who have found their voice in the new wave of afrofuturism, and are showing the creativity and freedom of expression that far surpasses the imposed narrow expectations.

DeMisty D Bellinger, Assistant Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, responded to Okri’s piece on her blog, saying she believes black writers are still subject to stereotypes, and are still trying to understand their oppressed past through writing and reading about it, but she insists: “I wouldn’t call it a ‘mental tyranny’.”

I think black people write about other things. Heck, I know we do. But we don’t get noticed as much for those other things. Slavery and racism are what people want. When we write about other things (me included), we are asked why we are not writing about slavery, racism, etc. Or the black experience. Hey: black people experience love, hate, sex, drinking, self-exploration, etc. What if I am writing about the black experience but you just expect it to be something else?

What do you think of Okri’s essay? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.

Predictably, Twitter has also been abuzz with responses:

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