‘Stories are so infinite:’ In Conversation with Ben Okri at the Bluecoat.
Himself fond of an animal analogy, in conversation author Ben Okri is best likened to a snail: champion of life lived slowly, and liable to retreat into his shell.
‘Stories are so infinite.’ This was an early- on proclamation of Booker-winning author, poet and playwright Ben Okri OBE to a sold-out crowd gathered at Liverpool’s Bluecoat for its annual WoW fest. Unabbreviated, the ‘Writing On The Wall Festival’: literature-wise, it’s all of the action-packedness of a James Bond film without the predictability. This year, we had the black- suited and customarily beret-clad Nigerian-born writer in conversation with an LJMU creative writing professor. The interviewer, incidentally, who triggered above pronouncement as response to enquiries about his latest work, The Freedom Artist– an answer to a question, then, but also a handy soundbite for the stance he defended throughout the evening (as well as catnip from an article title point of view.) His love for a story was evident, in any one of its multifarious forms- oral, written, or… comprised only of a beginning?
Yes, his mother, Okri claimed, had perfected the art of tales that managed only a start. Lapsing into pseudo Nigerian-inflected English, he illustrated the phenomenon: ‘’’There is a story I must tell you, son. Oh, this story, once you hear this story…’’’ (Judging by the audience’s empathic chuckles, a staple of the indomitable matriarch worldwide, from Lagos to Liverpool.) Two of his mother’s parables he did recount in their entirety, though: fables concerning a frog in a saucepan, and a millipede. It was here he seemed most comfortable, least hesitant: other points in the discussion found him weighing his words with a precision only ever necessitated by the Technical Challenge round on Bake Off. He was, for example, reluctant to discuss his creative writing practice- understandably scuppering the agenda of Sarah the interviewer, who ordinarily makes a living doing just that. Hence the cautionary millipede fable’s relevance: the insect should not be made conscious of the synchronicity of its numerous legs, lest it muddle itself and fall over. It wasn’t that he was quarrelsome, so much as evasive. His refusal to answer seemed rooted in a desire to avoid jeopardising the literary je ne sais quoi, the, as he put it, seeds that germinated underground to inspire the stories of his novels. Instead of answering directly he retreated back into his shell with a response of uncommitted vagueness. In fact, Okri appeared more at ease with the roles reversed, quizzing the interviewer.
Another aspect he seemed uncomfortable with was plugging his latest tome. This was a refreshing take from an author in the public eye for over three decades, in an industry increasingly propelled by promotions and profit margins. Artlessly, he observed: ‘The book will promote itself.’ Ironic though the expression may be, he was on the money, too: the book did promote itself. With a little assistance in the form of a choice, unremittingly bleak, but extremely prescient snippet read aloud by Sarah. The society of The Freedom Artist chimes distinctly with our present politically, despite (or perhaps because of!) its dystopia. Best described as the literary lovechild of Rushdie and Bradbury, it charts the fate of a book- banning nation, in prose redolent of myths and legends.
Statute of (no) liberty: His latest work explores a fascist, bibliophobic society.
In interview, as well as in his works, Okri proved extremely politically engaged. If attempts at a discussion of creative writing techniques went a little pear-shaped, conversation in the political arena bore more fruit. Topics ranged from the lunacy of that Brexit bus to the efficacy of our current education system. Here, again, he noted the centrality of telling stories, and indeed which stories we choose to tell: he railed against the rose-tinting of history syllabi, for example. (Resolutely not a Gove groupie.) In fact, it was cast as a worldwide issue, in his estimation: from South Africa to the south of London, a collective inability to discuss and deal with apartheid, civil war, class divides, was hampering our ability to learn from these past mistakes. (The message of his Grenfell- inspired poem is similar; listen here.) He also evinced not only a dislike for fake news, but for fast news, too. ‘Read slowly’ serves as epigraph to his latest novel. He contended that in our frenetically paced and hyperconnected, 24/7 modern world, we need to remember to, occasionally, just… slow… down. His ‘best conversation ever’ consisted of just three words: ‘hi,’ ‘so,’ and ‘yeah.’ Sandwiching these monosyllables? Liberal amounts of silence. Time to breathe, think, be. Life slowed to snail pace.
When himself asked to read from his latest work, Okri went rogue as far as interview etiquette goes, and refused- or, at least, deferred. He wanted more questions- not that he ever appeared fully certain they were answerable, though. This applied both to those from his interviewer, and his audience, as the evening finished with questions from the floor. At least one audience member was mock- berated for a question that was ‘too hard’ to respond to. Ironically, a recent review in the newspaper The Guardian hailed his latest novel as ‘the deeply felt work of a writer who refuses to stop asking the hardest questions.’ Prone to ask them, perhaps, but loath to answer them.
When he did respond, he did so with eloquence, and answers that were considered, slow and deliberate. Snail time again, then. You get the feeling, too, that the words and ideas contained within his politically conscious oeuvre will linger long in the memory after the writings of lesser authors have faded into obscurity- a sort of luminous literary snail trail.