Ben Okri: novelist as dream weaver

On the 20th anniversary of Ben Okri's breakthrough novel, the author talks about his book, A Time for New Dreams, and the struggle to keep sidestepping labels.

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Dreams weave their way through all of Ben Okri's richly evocative work. His career, too, has been something of a dream, as winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction for The Famished Road, a Commonwealth Writer's Prize and a Premio Palmi award, among others.

It is the 20th anniversary this year of that groundbreaking novel, which traces the haunting journey of the spirit child Azaro to the land of the living. And in stylistic contrast to that epic, his latest release, A Time for New Dreams, is written as a poetic essay, yet manages to fit in many weighty themes.

"The form of the essay has the brevity of poetry and it is necessary for our times that we incline towards brevity...The feeling behind the book is a profound sense that we are entering into changing times and that old dreams have proved exhausted and have betrayed us and are no longer adequate," he says. "There is a desire for a new way of being, political freedom, social independence and intellectual freedom. Everything has been shaken up."

Born in 1959, Okri grew up in London but returned to Nigeria with his family in 1968. Witnessing the effects of civil war in Nigeria had a lifelong effect on him. "The extraordinary impact of seeing dead bodies made me never stop asking why so much evil is possible. How can we become people we don't recognise overnight? How can we become monsters to ourselves?"

He left Nigeria on a government grant to study literature at Essex University, and, many award-winning books later, was awarded an OBE in 2001.

His literary influences were first formed by the books in his father's library, including Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Yet it was his mother's own storytelling that had the most influence.

"If my mother wanted to make a point, she wouldn't correct me, she'd tell me a story," he says. "What my mother was doing was playing on my natural curiosity to figure things out. I learnt the art of telling a story that's difficult to figure out."

When it came to telling his own stories, Okri found realism inadequate.

"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death," he says. "You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality.

"Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language."

Hence the "dream-logic" narrative, which he believes works better.

"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," he says. "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."

Okri is working on a new novel that continues his explorations of liberty, the overt theme of his previous book, Tales of Freedom.

"The fundamental freedom is the freedom to be exactly what we're capable of being, and as a writer that's a very huge problem because every writer comes into the world with a geographical label on them," he says. "My ambition is to be a true, living, clear-seeing writer, and it's the most difficult freedom, as first you've got all your own internalised negativities, your mind, to get over. On top of that you've got the rest of the world saying you should write in the way your tradition has laid down. The challenge is constantly trying to escape straitjackets and see clearly without any labels."

Okri has certainly triumphed in escaping labels, stylistically speaking.

"Sometimes poetry and prose merge, and do one another's work," he says. "Pushkin wanted his poetry to have the clarity of prose. I'm fascinated by this interchange".

For all the profound themes in A Time for New Dreams, there is throughout a playfulness and lightness; after all, he celebrates the purity of childhood in several powerful pieces plaited throughout the collection, and the child's ability to "look with eyes of wonder".

"Childhood," he says, "is a time when we dream. Let's bring back this pure way of seeing".

A Time for New Dreams is published by Rider and is in stores now