Travelling Life: Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri

The Nigerian poet and novelist discusses the difference between travelling and wandering, and more.

Ben Okri rates Istanbul as his one of his best holiday destinations. REX/Shutterstock
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Much like the characters of his novels, Ben Okri has embarked on his fair share of journeys. The 57-year-old was born in Minna, in west-central Nigeria, and spent his early school years in London before returning to Nigeria with his family. Okri ventured back to the United Kingdom in the late 1970s to study comparative literature at The University of Exeter. The experience proved to be a harrowing yet formative one. When the funding from his Nigerian government scholarship fell through, Okri eventually became homeless and found shelter with friends and on a few park benches. Okri credits this tempestuous time for shaping his writing. With nothing to lose, he fearlessly began writing poetry and short stories. While his 1980 debut, Flowers and Shadows, heralded him as a promising new literary voice, it was his 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road that cemented Okri's global reputation. The evocative surrealism that is central to his work is on display in his latest novel, The Age of Magic. The haunting tale follows a group of filmmakers as they travel through a Swiss mountain village, where each comes face to face with his or her demons. The slow, seductive pace, however, is not only limited to the novel. Okri says he prefers his travels, whether it's a visit to an international book fair or a personal holiday, to be languid affairs. They are, according to Okri, conducive to revealing startling insights, both about the location and often about himself.

How often do you go on holiday?

I used to have this thing where I would take regular holidays every year. But that has now been lost with all the travel that I do for work. My holidays are now distributed among all the travel that I do. Also, over the last 10 years, I have been working so hard that I often forget to have a holiday. When I do go, however, I enjoy taking really long walks and, after 10 days, I begin to forget why I exist.

Where do you call home?

It depends on where your dreams return to, and I mean that literally. There are certain dreams where you feel “this is home”. London is not that for me. The home in my dreams is where my mum and dad are still alive. It’s that comforting sense that is home for me.

Is there a difference between travelling and wandering?

To travel is a lot more exhausting. It’s a passport, borders, immigration, packing and anxieties, whereas wandering is more dreamlike. It’s more free, and you don’t have to worry about what you are wearing. Instead you can immerse yourself in getting lost.

Do you like to travel light?

Over the years I have been working on travelling light, but I haven’t quite got there yet. I would love to come to a journey and refine it to two pairs of trousers and shirts, and one beret. Unfortunately, I have this very terrible habit of wanting to take my library with me when I travel because I don’t know what my mood is going to be. For example, I might be in a Shakespeare or a [Chinua] Achebe mood, but find out that, instead, I am in a Mark Twain mood.

I take it that you are not a big fan of e-readers, then?

Well, it’s about what we talked about earlier, that feeling of home. There is something very homely about a book. Opening a book that I read back at home immediately settles me. When I open that book, space dissolves and it becomes a little time capsule that extends the idea of home for me.

Do you prefer simplicity or luxury?

I always strive for simplicity. Luxury is when you can get people to do your packing and unpacking for you. It’s when you can afford many suitcases. Simplicity, however, is very difficult and I have to stress that. That’s because simplicity means being yourself. So in a way, simplicity is a kind of luxury for me.

What has been your favourite trip?

A recent trip I made to Istanbul was a beautiful and rich experience for me because I had never been there before. It is a meeting place between East and West. I am fascinated by meeting places, gates, portals and things of that quality. For me, great adventures combine two things: a sense of adventure and an encounter with art. When I travel I like to walk, get lost and visit museums.

What’s your idea of the perfect weekend?

A beautiful summer’s day, the sea nearby and the right book for the mood that I am in. I am barefoot and a friend is nearby where we can both share our simplest and most complex thoughts. There will also be good food, and it has to feel like a day that’s more than a day – like a song that lingers. Of course, I will also be writing during that time.

What is your most romantic place?

When you talk about romance, it’s both about the romance of the heart and the spirit. It’s romantic to walk along the Great Wall of China and visit the Taj Mahal. But for a real romantic destination, there are few places better than Venice.

A hallmark of your novels and poetry is that you try to capture a moment as opposed to being purely plot-driven. Is that also the way you prefer to travel? So instead of going through a list of things you want to see, would you rather focus on just one or two things?

I think the magical moments in a journey are unforeseen and unplanned. You never know when the real miracle, that flower-opening moment, of a journey will occur. It is those moments when travel touches myth, dream and fantasy. The ideal journey, for me, stretches time. You do something and 10 minutes stretches and opens up to feel like an hour. Those are my favourite moments. You don’t know how or where they will happen. I also believe in slow reading and slow arrivals, but quick departures.

Read this and other travel-related stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Wednesday, March 23.