Ben Okri’s new book, Tiger Work, is an ode to environmental activism, and a personal appeal to humanity to take better care of the planet.
The Nigerian-British author launched the book at Expo City Dubai’s Terra Auditorium last week, during the inaugural Connecting Minds Book Club – a collaboration between Emirates Literature Foundation and Expo City.
Tiger Work is a collection of short stories, poetry and essays in which the author blends fantasy and magic to imagine the consequences of climate change, through a future where “forests are becoming legends, rare as unicorns”.
“I've been passionate about the loss of our forests for a long time because I saw what it was doing to our traditions,” Okri tells The National.
“If you come from a people – half of whose rituals and half of their culture is connected to the forest in a kind of synergy, in a kind of harmony – when the forest goes, something in the people starts to die a little bit.”
Okri, who won the Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road, says that he has always been indirectly preoccupied with climate change through his work.
“If you go back to my earliest novels in the 80s and 90s, I was already talking about deforestation; I was already talking about the pollution of rivers, I was already talking about the toxification of the air,” he says.
“I wouldn't have called all that environmentalism. I would have called it, then, just really paying attention to what is going wrong in our world, that you can't give a name to and that's very important.”
Okri decided to write Tiger Work to include different forms of writing in one collection, as he felt climate change needed to be engaged with in several ways.
“It gives you a chance to enjoy different kinds of relationship to information and to reading,” he says.
“You're going around the issue in a very complete way. If it's too direct all the time you don't take it in, you stop after a while. If it's too much fiction, you begin to think, where are the facts? And poetry is exalted language, so you need that.”
Tiger Work imagines a world 20,000 years after a catastrophe has wiped out humanity. The writings in the book are discovered and collected by visitors who are attempting to uncover our species' final messages.
Like moral fables, the stories record the self-destructive nature of people who choose to live selfishly until they have spoiled the world.
“The destruction of nature – let's call it an insult – the insult to nature became possible, side-by-side with stripping, first of all, our sacred relationship with nature,” Okri says.
“The narrative of science took precedence over the narrative of a harmonious relationship with nature. Because science was very evidence-based and science also delivered unto humanity the tools of power. Once we had these tools of power, it seemed to prove to us that we were superior to nature. And the minute we began to work on that superiority to nature, that was the beginning of our downfall.”
Okri also says that it wasn’t straight forward to grapple with the theme of environmentalism. Unlike other themes tackled in literature, environmentalism is much more direct, political and overpowering.
“You're really dealing with just one thing [and] it limits the full range of literature. Writers are nervous about that. And I'm nervous. That's why it took me so long to get here,” he says.
“But I've got to a place in my work, in my writing, and in my art, where I now know how to do that – where I can summon my art to find a way to tell a story that has environmentalism and environmental struggle at its heart, but I'm still telling a richly human story.”
Okri says it was important that the stories in Tiger Work not only created awareness, but directed readers to pose questions about where we go to next.
“For me, environmentalism is not actually just about climate change. Environmentalism is actually about the core question of who we are,” he says.
“It's also about evolutionary questions. Where are we going from here? What kind of human beings do we really want to be? Is environmentalism just really about the environment or is it about our vision of the world? Do we have to change something fundamental? Do we have to change the idea of power? It’s a lot of questions.”