An African Elegy
By Ben Okri, Nigeria.
We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.
There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things
And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.
That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.
And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here
And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.
About Ben Okri
Ben Okri OBE FRSL (born 15 March 1959) is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Okri is considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions and has been compared favorably with authors such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.
Ben Okri is a member of the Urhobo people; his father was Urhobo, and his mother was half-Igbo. He was born in Minna in west central Nigeria to Grace and Silver Okri in 1959. His father Silver moved his family to London when Okri was less than two years old so that Silver could study law. Okri thus spent his earliest years in London, and attended primary school in Peckham. In 1968 Silver moved his family back to Nigeria where he practiced law in Lagos, providing free or discounted services for those who could not afford it. His exposure to the Nigerian civil war and a culture in which his peers saw visions of spirits at this time later provided inspiration for Okri’s fiction.
At the age of 14, after being rejected for admission to a university program in physics because of his youth, Okri claimed to have had a revelation that poetry was his chosen calling. He began writing articles on social and political issues, but these never found a publisher. He then wrote short stories based on those articles, and some were published in women’s journals and evening papers. Okri claimed that his criticism of the government in some of this early work led to his name being placed on a death list, and necessitated his departure from the country. In the late 1970s, Okri moved back to England to study comparative literature at Essex University with a grant from the Nigerian government. But when funding for his scholarship fell through, Okri found himself homeless, sometimes living in parks and sometimes with friends. He describes this period as "very, very important" to his work: "I wrote and wrote in that period... If anything [the desire to write] actually intensified."
Okri’s success as a writer began when he published his first novel Flowers and Shadows, at the age of 21. Okri then served West Africa magazine as poetry editor from 1983 to 1986, and was a regular contributor to the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985, continuing to publish throughout this period. His reputation as an author was secured when he won the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road in 1991.
Since he published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri has risen to international acclaim, and he is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. His best known work, The Famished Road, which was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize, along with Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches make up a trilogy that follows the life of Azaro, a spirit-child narrator, through the social and political turmoil of an African nation reminiscent of Okri’s remembrance of war-torn Nigeria.
Okri’s work is particularly difficult to categorize. Although it has been widely categorized as post-modern, some scholars have noted that the seeming realism with which he depicts the spirit-world challenges this categorization. If Okri does attribute reality to a spiritual world, it is claimed, then his "allegiances are not postmodern [because] he still believes that there is something ahistorical or transcendental conferring legitimacy on some, and not other, truth-claims." Alternative characterizations of Okri’s work suggest an allegiance to Yoruba folklore, New Ageism, spiritual realism, magical realism,visionary materialism, and existentialism.
Against these analyses, Okri has always rejected the categorization of his work as magical realism, claiming that this categorization is the result of laziness on the part of critics and likening this categorization to the observation that "a horse ... has four legs and a tale. That doesn’t describe it." He has instead described his fiction as obeying a kind of "dream logic,"and stated that his fiction is often preoccupied with the "philosophical conundrum ... what is reality?" insisting that:
"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death ... Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality."
Listen to Ben Okri in the clip below: