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Ben Okri: Challenging perceptions of reality

Every week throughout Black History Month this October, The New European is celebrating those who have broken hard ground in the ongoing journey towards a prejudice-free society.

Ben Okri. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty

In Songs of Enchantment, the sequel to his Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road, Ben Okri laid out his faith in the power of storytelling: “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
Novelist and poet Okri, photographed here in 1997, writes with a style critics have struggled to pigeonhole. In his own words, he “attempts to challenge perceptions of reality”.

Born in Nigeria in 1959, Okri came to London for school, before returning on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. He eventually returned to Britain in 1978 and embarked on his career as a novelist. Initially, Okri struggled to make it; essays and journalism went unpublished and he occasionally slept rough.

His debut novel Flowers and Shadows was published in 1980, but his international breakthrough was still a decade away.

The Famished Road is the story of an African spirit-child whose love for his earthly mother and father give him the strength to resist the persistent entreaties of ghosts drawing him back to the spirit world. Its Booker success in 1991 made Okri the youngest recipient of the prize at the time.

The Famished Road was also the first Booker winner to go straight to the top of the paperback charts, making Okri a household name. He is the author of 11 novels and numerous collections of poetry and essays.

An adopted Londoner, where he lives today, his 2017 poem Grenfell Tower, has been viewed more than six million times on Facebook. It includes the lines:

“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower / See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.”


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