Ben Okri talks to Ajachi Chakrabarti about love, life and literature.
The Greeks had a number of words for love to account for the multiplicities contained in the word—eros for sexual love, auteros for requited love, pothos for idealised love, philia for friendship, agape for unconditional, selfless love, storghe for the love of belonging. How would you define the word, as we use it in English? What power do you think love wields?
Love is the source of everything, for me. When we think of love in human terms, we limit its power. I think love is greater than human. We live in a sea of love, a universe of love. How would I define love? Love is what makes this table exist. It’s what makes this glass a glass. It’s the wonderful, mysterious nature of cohesion, the wonderful bringing together of mysterious parts. It is spirit made manifest. It is the motion of the stars, the drift of the planets in infinite space. The ant on the floor, the stone on the street. All of these are versions of love, you know?
I think one has to perceive love as being almost synonymous with creation, because then, when we talk about human love, it does not become a divisive thing. The human perception of love can be very divisive—I love this person, so this person cannot love that person; I love this person, so I cannot love that person. I’m not talking of some hippie notion of universal love. I’m just talking about the fact that love is maybe the most difficult thing for the human consciousness, because it requires that we be very humble. It requires that we be very open. Love requires that we should allow our worlds to be turned upside down.
Love is maybe the most difficult thing for the human consciousness, because it requires that we be very humble. It requires that we be very open. Love requires that we should allow our worlds to be turned upside down.
Because that’s what love is—love is a turning upside down. Love is a tearing down of the old temple. Love is the enemy of fixed structures. The way you were before, once love comes into it, you cannot be that person any more.
If you are, it is not love.
If you are, it is not love. If you somehow are able to be the same person you were before and be in love with someone, then love has not entered your house. It has not entered your heart; it has not entered your mind. Love brings people to the edge of what seems like a nervous breakdown. You think, “Oh my God, I’m becoming someone else. What is happening to me? I don’t know who I am any more.”
That’s what love does. It dissolves the old self. Why? Because it is bringing into your heart and into your blood and into your nerves and into your mind a higher, newer, freer element. It is bringing into you a higher spirit. Love says that what you are is enough, but what you have been is not sufficient. Love for me is a universal force; it is a force of civilisation. It is the true force of civilisation. Where there’s love in a people, where there’s love in a land, where there’s love in the heart, war is not possible. And war is not possible not because you say, “Oh, they’re human beings like me.” War is not possible because love reconciles differences. Love makes us tolerant. Love makes us understanding.
I cannot believe there is love in any religion that sanctifies war—whatever name they give it—that sanctifies destruction, suicide bombings, terrorism of any kind, Crusades, inquisitions, discrimination, oppression, the division of people into superior and inferior, the division of people into castes.
I cannot believe there is love in any religion that sanctifies war—whatever name they give it—that sanctifies destruction, suicide bombings, terrorism of any kind, Crusades, inquisitions, discrimination, oppression, the division of people into superior and inferior, the division of people into castes. There is no love in any system, any religion or any individuals that subscribe to that, because love dissolves all of that. Love transcends all of that. In a sense, one can almost say that the world religions are still in ferment, are still in primitive stages, because they have not yet accepted the full meaning of what love is, which is a total acceptance of other ways of approaching the divine. So I believe love will compel all of us, in our different systems, ideologies and religions, to move towards some greater universal principle for the benefit of all of us.
One of your poems ends with “Our future is greater than our past.” You write and talk a lot about the power of dreams, of the need for our politicians to dream, the power of hope, the power of love. However, there is a tendency in politics all around the world today of venerating naked power—cynical campaigns of fear being waged by “strong men”. In fact, the comedian Trevor Noah even compared Donald Trump to many African dictators. Do you believe, in such an environment, that our future is greater than our past, when the power of hate so outweighs the power of love?
That’s because you’re treating those lines as prose, not as poetry. The minute you treat them as poetry, you see the constant dynamism of those lines. “Our future is greater than our past” hints at the fact that there is a constant fermentation at work. Regardless of what seems to be happening on the surface, regardless of the hate, the ideologies, the fundamentalism, regardless of all of that, underneath, there is a constant alchemy at work, that is compelling us to confront one another, to confront our foolishness, to confront our divisions. It takes the form of war; it takes the form of strife. But these things will fail.
These things will fail because we will realise that these things will not bring the changes that we want them to bring about. The suicide bombers are not going to compel the world to become Muslim or Hindu or Christian or whatever it is. It’s just not going to do that. The more these things happen, in fact, the more entrenched we will become in what we think. So, with time, all of these various hates, all of these various ideologies, all these various conflicts, all this insistence on trying to force other people to be what they are not, will fail, because we will realise that you cannot force people. You might succeed for a short period of time; you might succeed for a generation or two. But after a while, the people will throw off the yoke. People will try to regain their freedom. People will ask questions. Because there is a constant alchemy at work underneath these things. So when I say that our future is greater than our past, I am taking into consideration all of the stupidity of the human race as well. Our stupidity is precisely what will lead us, slowly, towards our wisdom.
With time, all of these various hates, all of these various ideologies, all these various conflicts, all this insistence on trying to force other people to be what they are not, will fail, because we will realise that you cannot force people.
The human race is pretty stupid, unfortunately. All you have to do is just look at human history, and you see endless acts of stupidity of one kind or another. But that’s how we learn.
We clearly seem to not be learning. For instance, speaking of Trump, he cites Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of German- and Japanese-Americans during World War II as a model for future internment camps for Muslims in the United States. We seem to be learning the wrong lessons from history.
No, when I say we’re not learning, I’m not talking about individuals. I’m talking about the race as a whole. Donald Trump might say these things, but—
A lot of people agree with him.
A lot of people support him and a lot of people believe in him, but we’ll see whether they vote him in. And we’ll see if they vote him in, whether he would do America any good. I mean, a lot of people believed Hitler, and we saw what that led to.
The atmosphere in which something is read is also part of it. I know many right-wing people who have read Das Kapital, and it’s had no effect on them whatsoever.
But Mein Kampf is still a bestseller in India.
Yes, it might still be a bestseller, but I don’t think it is creating the same conditions of world hate and war that it managed to contribute to creating in the Second World War. It may be sold a lot, and people might be reading it, but it’s not having the same effect, because it’s being read in a different atmosphere. The atmosphere in which something is read is also part of it. I know many right-wing people who have read Das Kapital, and it’s had no effect on them whatsoever.
My point is that fascism still exists. It’s thriving. In India, we have the RSS, which is a quasi-fascist organisation. We have similar demonisation of the Other in almost every country.
Absolutely. But all you have to do is look at the past. It was much worse. These are now pockets you are talking about. In the past, sometimes it was whole nations, a whole people marauding and destroying a whole heap of other people. You have vast Crusades; you have vast colonialisms. All you have to do is look at history, look back.
These pockets are still there, but so are the forces of resistance against them. At least there’s more choice of resistance. There’s more choice, of opposition, of voices, of expression, of satire undermining them. There’s more education; there’s more thought. For every one person who can say “Mein Kampf”, there’s one person who can say, “That’s bullshit.” You get what I’m saying?
There’s more education; there’s more thought. For every one person who can say “Mein Kampf”, there’s one person who can say, “That’s bullshit.”
Yeah. In fact, they’ve released a new annotated edition of Mein Kampf in Germany, in which the hateful rhetoric has been countered.
Exactly. I don’t think the suppression of these things is what counts. What counts is the raising of human consciousness so that we can see all this nonsense for what it is. It’s not the suppression, but the educating of their minds, the freedom of their minds, so that they can listen to these idiots rant about these things and just see them for what they are.
The mainstream media and the discourse on politics that takes place in most democracies tend to sanitise voices that threaten the status quo. I suppose this is an obstacle to the revolution in human thought that you speak of. Is the world we live in conducive to such an awakening among the people?
Well, we live in a world that is intensely overripe in its democratisation of information, communication and the sharing of ideas. So just as a cancer of bad ideas can spread very fast over the Internet, so can a cancer of light. It is an open battleground.
I take your point about the sanitation of the media. That’s partly because, while being an organ of the perpetuation of news, the media itself can often be slightly frightened by its own power. I’ve often felt that the media needs to become more self-conscious. I think of the media as being like the brain of Man and Woman. And if it is not careful about what it is, what it screams about, then it can become a big part of the problem of our times.
I think of the media as being like the brain of Man and Woman. And if it is not careful about what it is, what it screams about, then it can become a big part of the problem of our times.
A lot of terrorist organisations in the Middle East understand this about the media, that the media is almost like the brain of the West. And if you get it mesmerised by these acts of terror, you can actually frighten a people.
You can paralyse it.
Exactly, you can paralyse it. So I’ve always felt that the media itself must become much more conscious about what it is that it is magnifying. Because the media thinks that it is simply drawing attention to something, reporting something, but actually what it is doing is magnifying it. And this magnification has a profound impact on the nervous system of the people. So I think a time will have to come when the media has to become as responsible and as conscious and as intelligent about what it chooses to magnify as we are in literature.
One thing that the media has created is this false dichotomy of Left and Right fighting each other. In most societies, you find these two parties that are essentially status quo powers. They really do not differ from each other in the way that the various forces in a democracy should, but their differences are highlighted and you end up having this sort of paralysis, where society is divided into these two forces engaged in intractable conflict while neglecting the more universal concerns they should be rallying together around.
Yes, I think it’s a weakness in the nature of the media that it has to dichotomise, that it has to be Manichaean in its operation. The media is not very subtle. It’s a weakness of the media, which is why I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of literature.
I think it’s a weakness in the nature of the media that it has to dichotomise, that it has to be Manichaean in its operation. The media is not very subtle.
Literature is a mediating force between the oppositional ways of presenting the world, which is why I have stressed very strongly that it is important for writers not to fall into this dichotomisation of the world between events, between issues and non-issues, between aesthetics and politics. We don’t want to get into that dangerous dichotomisation either. There is something beyond that dichotomy, beyond that divisionality, which is, for want of a simpler word, humanity.
There’s not much you can do about the media and its false opposition. There’s nothing you can do about that. But what we can do is introduce into that debate something that transcends the media. That’s what art does. That’s what culture does. A village dance is neither Left nor Right. The ritual of a people, drama, sculpting an African mask, is neither Left nor Right. It speaks a completely different language in a different dimension. That needs to be asserted a bit more. I think we need to get people not only to read the media, to listen to the media, but also to listen to art and read literature, because we need that richer texture, nuanced perception to love.
In an article for The Guardian, you said that “the black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t, they seem irrelevant.” Could you talk a little about this “tyranny of subject” that is imposed upon the black and African writer, and do you think the authors themselves bear some of the responsibility for this tyranny existing?
First of all, I didn’t use the word “tyranny”. That was a title given to my article by The Guardian’s editors. It was a very successful headline, clearly, because it got people interested and talking about it. But that was not my title.
A village dance is neither Left nor Right. The ritual of a people, drama, sculpting an African mask, is neither Left nor Right. It speaks a completely different language in a different dimension.
As for this obsession—or as I used the word, mesmerism—with subject, the writers do bear responsibility. But I want to stress that I am very sympathetic to the fascination with subject, because after all, writers write about what they see. Writers write about what they suffer. Writers write about what is there in the world. And in most of our countries, suffering is prevalent. Subject is prevalent. The ghettos, poverty, corruption, you can’t escape them.
So I understand that, you know, that when you want to write, you want to write about something that hurts you, something which you want to change. I understand that. I appreciate that. I do it myself. It’s unavoidable; it’s part of our responsibility. All I am saying is that that should not be our only subject. That the human spirit in any given society has its suffering, its poverty, its corruption, but it also has its laughter, its rituals, its spirituality, its playfulness, its family life, its dances. It has many, many things. Even in its suffering, it has many other things as well, richly human, richly textured. All I’m saying is that I want our literature to represent the fullness of what we are, all of our different dimensions, and not just reduce us to our suffering and our poverty, to our history.
We are “greater than our suffering”.
We are greater than our suffering, and we are greater than our history. That’s all I’m saying. The other thing that I’m saying is that our literature has to be diverse and rich. It’s good to have many things in it. And if we end up having a literature that is only about the things that happen to us, we’ll end up having a very boring literature that we wouldn’t want to read. I’m just saying, lighten up!
Writers write about what they suffer. Writers write about what is there in the world. And in most of our countries, suffering is prevalent. Subject is prevalent. The ghettos, poverty, corruption, you can’t escape them.
Open up, lighten up. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write about suffering or write about whatever it is you want, but I’m saying open up the canvas so we can have a literature we can enjoy as well as be moved by as well as become revolutionaries because of. That’s all I’m saying.
A corollary of this, at least with Western perceptions of African literature and culture, is that they tend to look at the continent as a homogenous entity. The differences between the various societies, even within a country like Nigeria, are ignored. What do you think is required to change this gaze, which is colonial in part?
Well, it’s a double thing. It’s a gaze that is partly colonial, partly to do with boundaries, partly to do with history. But it is a gaze that we too have perpetuated. As writers, we write within that; we say this is what we are. We talk of the Africanists, we talk of this, we talk of that. It’s a really complicated thing. That’s why I am trying to smash this mirror.
The only way to really break it is for us to be so rich and diverse and incalculable and unpredictable in our creativity that to use one word like ‘Africa’ to define all of it will become meaningless. That’s the only way. To fight against it, to say, “Oh, we are diverse!” is not going to change it.
The only way to really break it is for us to be so rich and diverse and incalculable and unpredictable in our creativity that to use one word like ‘Africa’ to define all of it will become meaningless.
Upon reading your essay, ‘If I were king for one day my reign would be a walk in the park’, one can detect a strong Baconian influence. It’s epigrammatic and succinct, perhaps even aphoristic. Would you like to talk about the influence Francis Bacon exercised on you, and other influences on your writing?
My influences are very diverse. I’ve been influenced by paintings, by music, by African art, by African music, African dance. I’m influenced by Europe, by India. I don’t understand the phrase “the anxiety of influence”. For me, it’s more like the challenge and the liberation of influence, actually. To come upon a great spirit or mood that suddenly says, “Hey, I’m true too!” is to say, “Wow! I too can be more than I am.” So, for me, an influence is not an imposition of another thinking on my own thinking. It’s an excuse to just get rid of another coat, and to become vaster.
I’ve always loved Bacon. I loved Bacon as a child. I discovered his essays in my father’s library amongst many, many other things, and his essays had a big impact on me, largely because of his brevity. Bacon can say in half a page what [Michel de] Montaigne will say in 50 pages. Bacon can say in one sentence what [Ralph Waldo] Emerson will say in three essays. The lesson of Bacon is the lesson of incredible brevity, great wisdom compressed into his brevity—aphoristic, philosophical, easy, quite simple surfaces.
Brevity doesn’t become overconcentration in his hands. It actually becomes something quite transparent and limpid. Yeah, so when I’m getting lazy in my writing, I always go back to Bacon. But really, his effect on me has really been as an essayist. It doesn’t extend to my fiction or to my poetry.
Bacon can say in half a page what Montaigne will say in 50 pages. Bacon can say in one sentence what Emerson will say in three essays. The lesson of Bacon is the lesson of incredible brevity.
Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has two prominent periods of stasis: after the death of the albatross and after Life-in-Death delivers her judgement. When you attempt to have the reader slow down in your books and have them enjoy the “magic of moments”, are you operating on the principle of stasis being the realm where a being truly and diligently contemplates, like the Mariner does after he kills the albatross and after everybody on board dies except for him? Is the slowing of pace, like the halting of the ship in those icy waters, important for a reader to come to terms with their shortcomings as humans, but also to be made aware of their abilities?
Yeah, a very good way of putting it. I wouldn’t have chosen the Ancient Mariner myself, but that’s a very good reading. When I ask people to slow down, it’s not stasis. I wouldn’t use the word ‘stasis’, because stasis has other connotations, which I’m not comfortable with. For me, it’s more of a consciousness thing, more of an awareness thing. That’s it; stasis does not have the quality of awareness to it.
When I ask people to slow down in their reading, to read slowly, to think slowly, even to walk slowly, to listen slowly, it’s because I want them to breathe differently when they are reading. I want them to actually see what they are reading. I want them to embody what they are reading. I keep saying I want people to go into my texts the way you go into a swimming pool, go into the sea. I want them to go inside it, wear it, be occupied by it.
I think we treat reading like a bicycle race. People get a book and they want to get to the end of it. They treat reading like a conquest. Actually, reading is not a conquest. Reading is a dance. Reading is a love story. Reading is a merging; it truly is a marriage of minds. You shouldn’t want to finish a really good book. Why do you want to finish a good book?
I think we treat reading like a bicycle race. People get a book and they want to get to the end of it. They treat reading like a conquest.
Yeah, because then it’s over.
Exactly. Unless you want to finish it in order to start it again. So we can talk about looped readings, but actually, instead of looped readings, you may as well just read it slowly once.
I think it’s about awareness, because I think a good piece of writing is like a world. And you can tell a good piece of writing because you cannot but read it slowly. I tried reading Ian Fleming slowly. You can’t read James Bond slowly; you’d be annoyed.
You don’t want to be thinking about why you are reading it.
Yeah. You find one sentence or paragraph actually doesn’t give you that sense of satisfaction and that sense of infinite suggestiveness. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the test of a good piece of writing is whether it can survive you reading it very slowly.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe the test of a good piece of writing is whether it can survive you reading it very slowly.
You’ve spoken out against the categorisation of your work into magic realism, existentialism, etc. Do you think that such blatant categorisation is lazy and trite when writers such as yourself are attempting to experiment with form, with pace, with rhythm, amalgamating, sometimes cleaving apart genres and styles, sometimes operating within them but interacting with other genres, with other texts, to create sub-forms or new forms? Obviously, no one sits down and says, “I’m going to write a high fantasy novella today.”
Well, some people do.
Yeah, some people do, I guess. Yet, these terms appear in all writing about writing. Critics and reviewers are becoming increasingly keen on cataloguing. Do you think there will ever be an end to such categorisation?
No, but I’ll let you finish.
And how annoying is it that when a reviewer cannot categorise a work into a particular genre, they end up using words like “avant garde”, which is basically a “Miscellaneous” column for genres?
It is laziness. I say it often. Categorisation is important. It’s an important part of science; it’s an important part of our development as species, as a civilisation, as a people. Because of categorisation, we are able to have wicker tables, cushions of different colours, textures. It’s because of categorisation that we can combine things, create new things. It’s important and fundamental. I’m not knocking categorisation.
Categorisation is needed in the academies, because they need to express and say what kind of thing it is, what kind of book this is—it is needed in the academies and the universities. But actually, true pieces of writing can’t be categorised.
But past a certain point, categorisation is not healthy. Categorisation is needed in the academies, because they need to express and say what kind of thing it is, what kind of book this is—it is needed in the academies and the universities. But actually, true pieces of writing can’t be categorised.
For my writing, categorisation is not helpful at all, for many reasons. That’s because I’m not trying to do one thing. There isn’t one set of things I’m trying to accomplish with my writing. With each book, with each poem, with each essay, with each story, I’m trying to express one more aspect of this infinite body of the goddess that is reality. In order to do this, I need to find new forms with which to express it, I need to find new combinations—how can you categorise it?
I believe very strongly that the world is like water, that the truth of it passes through your fingers. And I’m interested in creating a form that is closest to that which is passing through your fingers, rather than one which you can hold. That which escapes us fascinates me much more than that which we can catch. I’m giving myself a lot of work, having to create this vertiginous kind of literature. I’m making life needlessly difficult for myself. But I find that much more interesting.
I believe very strongly that the world is like water, that the truth of it passes through your fingers. And I’m interested in creating a form that is closest to that which is passing through your fingers, rather than one which you can hold. That which escapes us fascinates me much more than that which we can catch.
Reviewers need categorisation because they are writing in a shorthand, but the more intelligent reviewers, when you read them, you wouldn’t find categorisation there. What you will find is a brave effort to try and express to the reader something of the wonder and strangeness of what it is they are reading. Will categorisation ever come to an end in literature? Yes, at some future point, we’ll find more enlightened ways of describing books.
You wrote that people read Virginia Woolf for poetry. When one reads To The Lighthouse, especially, there is a slowing down of the pace that is uncharacteristic in novels. There’s an adoption of poetic principles and formulae in the novel. Do you think this amalgamation has perhaps also influenced you to cast away the shackles of genre and form and their limitations?
I don’t call it amalgamation. For me, storytelling and the imagination, they come from a place that is neither poetry nor prose, but a mix of both of them. It’s just that we have been taught to think that there is a medium which is prose and a medium which is poetry. They’re just patterns of thought. They’re patterns of the tradition. They’re just a bad habit, if you don’t mind my saying it.
Our ancestors, as far as we know, what has come to us through the oral tradition, they didn’t make distinctions like that. When they told stories, they would also speak in poems. You could not differentiate, in the utterances of a griot, whether what they were saying was poetry or prose. You really can’t. So I think it’s just trying to express the richness of the world as it is. The world is neither poetry nor prose, actually, but something beyond both of them.
Our ancestors, as far as we know, what has come to us through the oral tradition, they didn’t make distinctions like that. When they told stories, they would also speak in poems. You could not differentiate, in the utterances of a griot, whether what they were saying was poetry or prose.
William Faulkner said, and I paraphrase here, that a novelist is a failed short-story writer, and a short-story writer is a failed poet. Having dabbled in all three forms, would you agree or disagree or amend his words? Which form has been the most challenging, the most delightful?
(Laughs) First of all, I must congratulate you on giving me a saying of Faulkner that I was not aware of before. And it brings a smile to my face, because it’s very beautifully put. I sometimes suspect that writers say things because of the sheer aphoristic beauty of what is said rather than the absolute truth of what they are saying.
There is some truth to the fact that the novelist is a failed short-story writer, some. Maybe, let’s say, 30 percent truth, because a lot of novels can really be compressed into a short story. Or, to put it in another way, really good short stories give you more than many novels, which is to say they encapsulate all that you need to say, but a novel is just one long constant elaboration.
As for the short story being a failed poem, there’s 30 percent truth in that, because again, the short story is caught in this double grip of compression and unfolding. The short story is, in a way, poetic in its spirit. But the short story is very rarely poetry. Poetry is a very, very particular thing. To move from poetry to the short story is to step out of a universe into a world. They are actually parallel universes.
The short story is, in a way, poetic in its spirit. But the short story is very rarely poetry. Poetry is a very, very particular thing. To move from poetry to the short story is to step out of a universe into a world.
I can’t stop smiling at the beauty of what Faulkner said, because what he is saying is that we should all be poets. But I don’t know. The novel is an incredible form, and sometimes an incredible formlessness. When a novel really works, it can’t be a short story, and it can’t be a poem. And that’s because the novel is occupying the place that the epic used to for our ancestors. The novel is this big embrace of life. The novel is an examination, an analysis.
The short story can’t look as deeply as the novel can. What the short story can do is this tremendous act of suggestiveness. It can catch at an angle something that can lead you to the ocean. Rather, a short story can build for you a boat by which you can cross an ocean. And the poem is a compression of the spirit into the tightest possible utterance. So I’m torn. I’d like to qualify Faulkner and say that when the poem wants to build itself a vessel to enter the realm of the living, it becomes a short story. And when the short story wants to set out into that ocean, it becomes a novel.