Even though celebrated Nigerian author Ben Okri’s new novel is a dystopian nightmare playing out in a police state where books have been erased from earth, there is magic amid the chaos. Charl Blignaut speaks to him about The Freedom Artist and a planet in crisis
Climate disaster, a tyranny of late capitalism and inequality, corrupt despots and brutal religious wars.
The planet, it feels, has slipped from its moorings.
It feels like end times – certainly true if you read the new novel by Ben Okri, the Nigerian-born, London-based poet, essayist and novelist who is perhaps most famous for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road.
How do we stage a fightback? How do we, as the graffiti in the novel reads, “upwake”?
The first revolutionary act is to ask questions, says Okri.
Which is why there is a graffiti question on the cover of his novel The Freedom Artist: “Who is the prisoner?”
It’s one of the questions that appear on walls overnight, causing consternation in a land of great sleepy dystopia.
Because questions – especially about the prisoner – are banned on the planet, as are the ancient myths and stories.
The police appear and take the questioning citizens away until the mental institutions are full of sane people.
Over the phone from London, Okri talks pointedly and earnestly in an accent with a British clip but rounded Nigerian inflections, a trademark beret on his head, I’m sure.
He doesn’t care much to discuss specific lunacies like Trump or Brexit in relation to The Freedom Artist, but he’s happy to talk about farming ...
We’ve had a lot of electricity blackouts recently and so I’ve taken to listening to BBC radio by candlelight. Which is how I came to hear you talking on a panel at the Oxford Literary Festival. The conversation with the authors, curiously, was about food ...
Yeah. But more particularly, for me, was the way in which we have lost control of the human relationship with agriculture, with farming.
The intimacy of farming has now moved into a more industrial scale, which does not respect our relationship with food, because you have chemicals, you have machines, you have things that alienate us from food and even actually poison food for us.
There is a strong feeling that we have lost control of many of our important human processes. I think we’re hostage to many impersonal forces in society and in the world.
Some of your books I wish they were shorter – like Star Book – and some of your books I wish they were longer – like In Arcadia – which is an extremely powerful little book about our gardens, our back yards, as ever-diminishing Edens. Which is part of the same line of thought, where we’ve lost our physical and spiritual connection to the earth.
We have deeply corrupted our world with an excess of history, and by history I mean the imposition of the desire to build, to acquire, to possess, to conquer, to impose that upon nature.
And we’re living with the results.
The world gets smaller every day, we’re losing our resources, the air becomes increasingly polluted.
Bit by bit by bit we are strangling the very life force of the planet that we depend on.
I know you live in the UK, but you were a child in Nigeria, caught in the conflict of the civil war, and this notion that permeates absolutely all your work, of the land, the ancestors, the spirits, is more pronounced because of you being an African inside these powerful traditional belief systems. Or do you not see it that way at all?
Yes, it gets its inflection, it gets its authenticity from my African roots and from the African mental space that I occupy.
But there are many Africans who are not sympathetic to these ideas, who have been so over-Christianised that they have lost the sense of the presence of the ancestors and of spirits and I think that is part of the loss that we are suffering.
They are the actual symbols of the mysterious freedoms of nature, of which we are a part.
The opening quote in your book reads, ‘Everything sacred that intends to remain so, must cover itself in mystery.’ It’s from Léopold Sédar Senghor, the African-socialist Senegalese president, poet and cultural theorist. Why did you choose that quote?
Because The Freedom Artist is a novel about the notion, the reality even, that we have many secular prisons inside of us.
Prisons of history, of ideology, of culture, class, tribe; all kinds of prisons. And the very idea of prisons already carries with it the idea of liberation.
And yet liberation itself is not an easy thing and in some ways is a dangerous thing, because it fundamentally opposes the dominant ideology that runs society.
In many ways society does not really want liberation. It’s a very very curious and paradoxical situation that we find ourselves in.
This liberation is reflected in the gruelling initiation of Mirababa, your character who, after the death of his grandfather, must go in search of the ancient myths and mysteries. Like with a sangoma, it’s through anguish, hardship and deprivation that one becomes a seer, that you learn to see differently?
Absolutely. You’ve got it. The parallel story of Mirababa, it’s almost like a secret story in this dying world that we’re all contributing to. So there’s two stories there.
There’s the story of the material domain, the story of capitalism, of departure from the prisons that we find ourselves in.
Then there’s the other story, the more difficult story, the story of the initiation.
I haven’t used that word in any other interview, because none of the other critics or people that have read this book have any idea of this dimension. It’s quite shocking.
I was in Lagos recently, where capitalism is on fleek, and one day we were taken to the national museum where there was an incredible display of ritual objects, sacred objects from the villages, and our Nigerian hosts were annoyed that we wanted to take so long. They said the objects belong in the past. Yet in many African countries it feels like there’s a reawakening of ancestral belief.
There is an extraordinary overlay of capitalism over the Nigerian – I’m tempted to say the African – spirit. And it brings about a really great tension because it wrenches us from ourselves.
We’re Africans, we’re really good adapters to a reality, at doing whatever we have to to survive and to deal with this world, but it actually heightens our sense of a kind of a lost connection that we had with ourselves, with the history, with the land, with tradition.
So the stronger capitalism gets, the more of a crisis happens inside the African spirit and the more we seek authenticity and meaning and connection – and there is nowhere else for us to turn but to the future, which is our past.
In the novel, books disappear from the planet as fewer people read. And the root of the malaise is the removal of lives from story, from myth, which is also about the role of the artist.
I really was watching in the dark with this book. I sense some deep shadow in the world, hovering over us, coming over us, drifting over our skies. I cannot give an exact name to this thing.
This is what it is that I’m trying to say: the waters of the soul, the deep waters of the world, have been poisoned and this is a condition of spirit and it is slowly killing us.
And we need to wake up and we need to do something about it.
Part of your solution is to wake up, to embrace mystery again, to embrace story.
I don’t really posit an answer. I don’t think that’s my role. But what I do posit is an inevitability.
And the real inevitability here is that we do not change our world, we do not change the waters that have been poisoned, we do not change it.
Until we understand what’s been done to the stories that we drink and that we live by, until we understand the mythologies that we make into our lives.
That is the source of how the waters get into our souls and poison us, finally.
This is not about artists at all, it’s about the stories and the mythologies and the propaganda that we live without question, that take over our soul and then inhabit our lives.
So for me the first revolutionary act is asking questions. Not to undermine, but to actually shine a light on this reality, and on the stories that have taken us over.
But every time, in the dystopian book, that a question appears or is asked, there is a sense of hope, of the status quo being challenged. Where does this hope come from?
Hah! The hope comes from the fact that within the world of the book everything that works, everything that is done is done with our conscious or our unconscious collusion.
It’s a dissipation that we have partially enabled, either because we were not present in our lives or present in a dynamic way in our societies.
That exact sign is the same basis for hope, it is a consciousness thing.
I am glued to the people’s uprising in the Sudan, and it’s again the contradictions, the tears and laughter, cos it’s the incredible pain and the battle it took to reach this place to feel the brief joy when Omar al Bashir fell. It’s always complicated by a kind of entropy.
And we have to be comfortable with the paradox, I’m afraid. We tend to ask our artists and our storytellers to give simplistic answers to what are infinitely complex reflections of the human condition in our different societies.
But such an answer is not possible, because any one answer that you give immediately gives rise to its opposite, to its paradox, to its opposition, which gives rise to another cycle of the same thing in another form.
We have to be comfortable to the paradox of the mess of undoing our histories, you know. The journey towards liberation has to pass through darkness. There is almost no other way.
There’s a very cogent moment in the book where we meet the money artist who uses capitalism as his concept to justify his work.
I mean, the book is called The Freedom Artist and one of the artists that you encounter in the book has a dubious question mark hanging over them, and maybe I am saying, consciously or unconsciously, that we should not qualify our look into the artist.
It depends on whether the artist is on the side of a mythology that liberates or a mythology that helps to imprison, it really does.
If you want to see how endemic a system is, one of the best places to look is to see what is happening to the artists, to see how aware and at the same time contaminated they are, to see what risks they’re taking, to see what side of the lot they have chosen to stand on.
I always found it rather confusing that you were co-opted into this fashionable literary thing called magical realism when your works are spiritual. But you have used the word magic in your titles, in two of them recently. What is this magic for you?
Yeah, just because I use the word magic doesn’t mean I’m in any way a friend of magical realism.
When you look at magical realism, you’re not really interested in magic, not really really.
I’m interested in magic, and magic for me has to do with the genuine power of transformation that resides in consciousness and in our connection with the deep traditions of our earth.
For me magic is the the making visible of the invisible forces that permeate our world. Magic is a deeply potent and powerful instrument in the evolution of our selves and our futures.
It’s not the magic of mysticism, it’s not a magic even of the kabbalah, it is certainly not the magic of new age thinkers, and it’s not magical realism.
It is the other side of the entropy that you speak of. These two forces run through my work, the chaos and the magic. Entropy and the transformation.
You have been outspoken about how black writers are expected to write mainly about race and poverty and slavery?
I met a writer the other day who came up to me and she said she wrote this book and sent it to a publisher and the publisher said to her, look this book isn’t African enough.
And she said, hello, what do you mean by that, how can you start giving me gradations of my Africanness?
There is this pressure on us and many of our successes are seen in those lights. All I’m saying is that we want to create a full, rounded, rich literature.
We want a literature that speaks about our rage, that speaks about our oppression, race, gender, but we also want a literature that laughs, that gives us amusement, that gives us joy, that surprises us, we want a literature that’s as varied as anyone else has got in the world.
I’m saying don’t give a damn about the expectations, don’t give a damn about it, just write what you want to write, write from the depths of your spirit, write from your gut, write from your playfulness, write from your hunger and your laughter, write from your silliness and your perversity, write from your rage and your luminosity, write from your surprise.
And in the doing of that we teach the world to see us with immeasurable lenses.
We have to teach the world to be free in relation to us as well. If we are not bold in our freedom the world will constantly imprison us with its perceptions.
Which is what this book is all about, we’re in prison and we don’t even know it.