Ben Okri 2020


Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and writer of film-scripts. His writing challenges perceptions of reality. He is also a cultural activist.

He was born in Minna, Nigeria on 15 March 1959 and moved to the United Kingdom as a child. He went to school in London and returned to Nigeria with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian Civil War in the late 60’s. The war made a defining impact on his life. He finished his secondary school education and wanted to study physics and become a scientist. But he was deemed too young then for university and that summer he read his way through his father’s library and found his true vocation. He began writing at a very early age. Starting with poetry he then moved on to publish articles and essays about the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Lagos. Then he wrote short stories and eventually what was to become his first novel, ‘Flowers and Shadows.’

In 1978, he returned to London where he studied comparative Literature at Essex University. Two years later he published his first novel; and in 1982 came his second novel, ‘The Landscapes Within.’

He went through a brief period of homelessness when funding for his scholarship fell through, sometimes living in parks and sometimes with friends. He describes this period as very important to his work, intensifying his desire to write.

In 1986 came ‘Incidents at the Shrine’, a collection of stories that won him prizes and enhanced his reputation. In 1988 a second collection, ‘Stars of the new Curfew’ cemented his reputation as a powerful new voice. But it was in 1991, with the publication of ‘The Famished Road’ that he attained international stature.

The Famished Road won the Booker Prize that year. It was the first Booker Prize winner to go straight to number one in the paperback bestseller lists. The novel has been highly influential in the decades since its release. When President Clinton visited Africa for the first time, he quoted extensively from The Famished Road. The novel was also the inspiration behind ‘Street Spirit’ by UK rock band, Radiohead and was recently one of the novels cited in an episode of American Dad. It has inspired paintings, music, classical music, plays, films, and dances and has been re-issued as a Vintage Classic. This was the first book in The Famished Road Trilogy.

In 2012, he invented a new form called the Stoku, which is a cross between a short story and a haiku. This was first displayed in his book ‘Tales of Freedom’, which featured thirteen stokus.

He has written film scripts and plays. He wrote the text to Peter Kruger’s film ‘N: The Madness of Reason’ and co-wrote the film script adaptation of his novel, ‘The Age of Magic’. He has also written a play called The Outsider, an adaptation of Camus’s famous novel, which was performed at The Coronet in September 2018. In 2019 his novel, ‘Astonishing the Gods,’ was selected as one of the BBC’s ‘100 novels that shaped our world.’

Ben Okri has been a Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also Visiting Professor of Literature at Leicester University.

For his enrichment of literature through his unique way of retelling the diverse stories of Africa and for this excellence as a writer and intellectual, it is an honour for Nelson Mandela University to confer the degree of Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) on Ben Okri.

Photo: Mat Bray