By Tania Kanaan
Excitement was in the air at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, as fans lined up outside the Roslyn Packer Theatre, to hear Ben Okri speak about his latest novel, The Age of Magic. One of the foremost African authors and winner of the 1991 Prize Booker, the renowned author talks with interviewer Michael Cathcart about his latest fictional fantasy.
The Age of Magic explores the wonders of life, the power of the human condition and the chemistry between imagination and reality. Michael Cathcart begins by asking about the unique one sentence chapter. To which Ben Okri answered, “It was initially about three and a half pages long, however I decided that it had the same value in just one simple sentence.” Then he added, “It also leaves the reader wondering where the rest of the chapter is.”
Ben Okri described the age we live in as a mixture between an age of consciousness and an age of history. It’s a mixture his novel tries to encapsulate through the notion of Arcadia.
Born in Minna, Nigeria in 1959 and educated in both Nigeria and England, Ben Okri’s poetic vision and philosophical description of life does not go unnoticed. He described his Nigerian childhood as one filled with magical stories, emphasising that story telling was a significant part of his life and that it has had a substantial influence on his work.
He said everything “oozed” with a story in Nigeria, even the simplest of things such as a tree, dog or rock. He captured the audience’s attention by describing how his childhood afternoons seemed to go on for a lifetime. “The radiance in the air was ever so enchanting.” It’s that radiance that weaves its way throughout The Age of Magic.
Ben Okri said the “radiance” was a central element in the process of writing his novel. He explained that when we examine history and witness how people suffer, it is hard to see the other side to life. But radiance does exist, even though “we find it very hard to reach”.
He said his father was one of his story telling role models. “My father had this magical ability to conjure happiness out of the craziest situations.” Describing the idea that humans are always stuck in their old selves and experiences, Ben Okri used the character of Malasso as a mouthpiece to manifest this notion. “We are not only shaped by our past experiences but we are, to some extent, always haunted by our old self.” Through the character of Malasso, we learn that travelling is no escape, as we are always stuck in our old ways to some extent.
He said one of the hardest things in the world was to “learn how to listen”; that while we are constantly taught to express our thoughts, we are not taught how to listen deeply. He said there are three types of listening, “ordinary, deep and shocking”.
Okri continued by exploring the nature of language. He said he believed there is a “paradigm between the power of language and life itself”. For instance, “the word live backwards, is evil.” He went on to talk about the difficulties associated to writing, especially writing with a happy tone of voice. “Every writer should always write both sides of the coin to their chosen theme.”
The mood in the air changed dramatically as Ben Okri began to talk about his experiences of being homeless. In the late 1970s, Okri was studying comparative literature at Essex University with a grant from the Nigerian government but when funding for his scholarship fell through, he found himself homeless, sometimes living in parks and sometimes with friends. He said it was a “crucial part of his life”, which allowed him to go back from being a fancy, wordy writer to a simpler writer. “There is a different way of reading when you’re hungry.” He said it was a period that cleansed him to the bone. “I began to write my way back into life.”
He said that although many people assume that he would be a typical African tragedy writer, he encouraged more African writers to write in a more optimistic fashion thus helping him on his mission to subvert such a stereotype.
“As the years passed I realised that a writer’s destiny was freedom and to be able to write about whatever one would like to write about.” He posed the question, “Are you sure you want to leave the following generation with a literature of suffering?”