Ben Okri, a British-Nigerian poet and novelist who was born on March 15, 1959, is recognized as one of the top African writers in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions and has been favorably compared to writers like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Okri’s work The Famished Road earned him the Booker Prize in 1991.
Early Life and Education
Ben Okri was born on March 15, 1959, in Niger State to Mr. Silver Okri, an Urhobo, and Mrs. Grace, a member of the Igbo royal line. Okri’s father, Silver, moved the family to London when Okri was just two years old so that he could continue his legal study. Okri spent his formative years in London as a result, attending Peckham Primary. In 1966, he and his family returned to Nigeria, where he practiced law in Lagos and provided free or discounted legal services to those who couldn’t otherwise afford them. After attending schools in Ibadan and Ikenne, Okri started his secondary education at Urhobo College in Warri in 1968 as the youngest student in his class. Okri’s work was later influenced by his exposure to the Nigerian civil war and a culture in which his contemporaries at the time reported seeing spirit visions.
After being turned down for admission to a brief university program in physics at the age of 14 due to his young and lack of credentials, Okri came to the realization that poetry was his preferred job. Although he started writing about social and political issues, no publisher ever decided to publish them. His future short stories were based on those pieces, some of which were published in women’s publications and evening papers. Okri said that his government’s disapproval of some of this earlier activity led to the inclusion of his name on a death list and his expulsion from the country.
Okri relocated back to England in 1978 and enrolled at Essex University to study comparative literature using funding provided by the Nigerian government. Okri was homeless after the financing for his scholarship was cancelled, and he occasionally slept in parks or other times 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 writing career officially began in 1980 with the publication of Flowers and Shadows, his debut novel, at the age of 21. From 1983 to 1986, he served as the poetry editor of West Africa magazine. From 1983 to 1985, he frequently contributed to the BBC World Service. During this time, he continued to publish works. With his work The Famished Road, he won the Booker Prize for Fiction at the youngest-ever age of 32 in 1991, establishing his reputation as a writer. Okri wrote the book while living in a Notting Hill townhouse he rented from publisher friend Margaret Busby for three years beginning in 1988.
According to Okri: “Something about my writing changed around about that time.” I acquired a kind of tranquillity. I had been striving for something in my tone of voice as a writer, and it was there that it finally came together… That flat is also where I wrote the short stories that became Stars of the New Curfew. “
His first and second novels, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981), illustrate the corruption and craziness of a country that has seen political upheaval through surrealistic imagery. Two volumes of short stories, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), highlight the vital relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds in Nigerian culture.
It is quite difficult to categorize Okri’s work. Several academics have noted that although it has often been categorized as post-modern, this classification is disputed because of the seeming realism with which he depicts the spirit world. If Okri does ascribe existence to a spiritual universe, it is said that his “allegiances are not postmodern [since] he still believes that there is something ahistorical or metaphysical imparting validity on some and not other truth-claims.” Some have said that Okri’s work is influenced by Yoruba folklore, New Ageism, spiritual realism, magical realism, visionary materialism, and existentialism. Other critics have described Okri’s work in a number of ways.
Okri is wed to former Nollywood actress Victoria Inyama. They both reside in London, and in February 2018, she accused him of domestic violence and adultery there. Three children are shared by the two enmities.
In his book A Time for New Dreams, Okri acknowledges both Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne, saying that the philosophical works on his father’s shelf had an equal impact on his writing as literature did. Among the authors who had an impact on him were Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare, and Arabian Nights. Okri’s epic poem Mental Fight from 1999 contains a passage from William Blake’s poem “And did those feet,” and observers have noted the similarity between Okri and Blake.
Okri was particularly influenced by his mother’s stories and the oral culture of his people. Okri said that when her mother wanted to convey a point, she would tell me a tale rather than correct me. His first-hand experiences with the Nigerian civil war are regarded to have had a significant impact on several of his works.
On the last day of the 2021 COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Okri wrote about the existential threat posed by the climate crisis and how unprepared humans seem to be to face the potential of their own self-inflicted extinction. According to Okri, “if our world is to survive, [we] must find new art and new psychology to overcome the indifference and the denial that is keeping us from making the changes that are necessary.”
- Flowers and Shadows (Harlow: Longman, 1980).
- The Landscapes Within (Harlow: Longman, 1981).
- The Famished Road (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991).
- Songs of Enchantment (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993).
- Astonishing the Gods (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995)
- Dangerous Love (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996).
- Infinite Riches (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998).
- In Arcadia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002),
- Starbook (London: Rider Books, 2007).
- The Age of Magic (London: Head of Zeus, 2014).
- The Freedom Artist (London: Head of Zeus, 2019).
Poetry, Essays and Short Story Collections
- Incidents at the Shrine (short stories; London: Heinemann, 1986)
- Stars of the New Curfew (short stories; London: Secker & Warburg, 1988)
- An African Elegy (poetry; London: Jonathan Cape, 1992).
- Birds of Heaven (essays; London: Phoenix House, 1996)
- A Way of Being Free (essays; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 1997; London: Phoenix House, 1997)
- Mental Fight (poetry: London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999; London: Phoenix House, 1999)
- Tales of Freedom (short stories; London: Rider & Co., 2009).
- A Time for New Dreams (essays; London: Rider & Co., 2011).
- Wild (poetry; London: Rider & Co., 2012).
- The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling (West Hoathly: Clairview Books, Ltd., 2015).
- The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age, with paintings by Rosemary Clunie (Apollo/Head of Zeus, 2017).
- Rise Like Lions: Poetry for the Many (as editor; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018)
- Prayer for the Living: Stories (London: Head of Zeus, 2019).
- A Fire in My Head: Poems for the Dawn (London: Head of Zeus, 2021)
- N – The Madness of Reason (feature film, directed by Peter Krüger, 2014)
- “A Wrinkle In The Realm”. The New Yorker. 1 February 2021.
Awards and Honours
With his novel The Famished Road, he became the youngest author to ever win the Booker Prize for Fiction, solidifying his reputation as a writer. Since the publication of his first novel, Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri has attracted attention from all around the world, and he is frequently cited as one of Africa’s best writers. Songs of Enchantment, Infinite Riches, and The Famished Road, three of his books that together make up a trilogy, follow the life of Azaro, a spirit-child narrator, as he navigates the social and political instability of an African country that resembles Okri’s experience of war-torn Nigeria.
- 1987: Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) – Incidents at the Shrine
- 1987: Aga Khan Prize for Fiction – The Dream Vendor’s August
- 1988: Guardian Fiction Prize–Stars of the New Curfew (shortlisted)
- 1991–1993: Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts (FCCA), Trinity College, Cambridge
- 1991: Booker Prize: The Famished Road
- 1993: Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize: The Famished Road
- 1994: Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy)—The Famished Road
- 1995: Crystal Award (World Economic Forum)
- 1997: Honorary Doctorate of Literature was awarded by the University of Westminster.
- 1999: Premio Palmi [it] (Italy) – Dangerous Love
- 2001: Order of the British Empire (OBE)
- 2002: Honorary Doctorate of Literature, awarded by the University of Essex
- 2003: Chosen as one of 100 Great Black Britons.
- 2004: Honorary Doctor of Literature, awarded by the University of Exeter
- 2008: International Literary Award Novi Sad (International Novi Sad Literature Festival, Serbia)
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate of Utopia, awarded by Universiteit Voor het Algemeen Belang, Belgium
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate, awarded by the School of Oriental and African Studies
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate of Arts, awarded by the University of Bedfordshire
- 2014: Honorary Fellow, Mansfield College, Oxford
- 2014: Bad Sex in Fiction Award, Literary Review
His net worth is currently unavailable.