Ben Okri: The writer, the artist

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”

“Out of the same tube, we are squeezed; with the same pen, we are written. We think we write but the universe writes through us the veiled allegories of our age.”


So writes Ben Okri in the introduction to his latest work, “The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age”. This is definitely true for Okri himself, who read from his works and discussed his writing process just a month ago in Dhaka, much to the delight of literary aficionados in the city.

“The Magic Lamp” is a collection of 25 short stories by Okri inspired by 25 original paintings by Rosemary Clunie. Okri calls it his “first real unintentional intentional book”, after having been spontaneously inspired by one of Clunie’s paintings. Spontaneous, however, may not be entirely accurate.

The author consistently emphasised in his talks the importance of “long looking”. “There’s the world you see on the surface and there’s a secret world. Most of us don’t take an interest in the secret world of things. I think when you look at something for a long time, after a while you go beyond the surface world and find yourself in the secret world,” explained Okri.

“The Magic Lamp” came out of such “long looking”. Okri “lived” with each of Clunie’s paintings for months before writing stories that seemed to come out of the paintings themselves. The process took over five years. The paintings themselves took the artist 10 years.

That it is not easy to write, or create for that matter, is a given. Described as “fairy tales for adults”, Okri writes a fantastical but sinister Arabian Nights-esque prologue where an old lamp is discovered in the attic of a London house. The artists who found it wished that they be gifted perpetual inspiration for paintings and stories. The tales and images that comprise “The Magic Lamp” fulfilled this wish but they soon discovered “that even inspiration comes at a secret and unforeseen cost.”

In the first short story, “Birdtalk in a Tentative World”, a bluejay speaks: “All things have been talking to you from the beginning of time,” it said, “and you’ve not been listening.” Okri echoed this in a talk entitled Magical Tales at the recently concluded Dhaka Lit Fest, “Just listen,” he said. “The thing about talkers is that we actually interrupt the world from coming to us, you know? How can you tell stories if stories don’t come to you? … We have to be receptive to stories.”

Dreams, magic and art are inescapable in Okri’s stories. Okri himself however rejects the oft-quoted characterisation of his work as “magical realism”, choosing to brand his work instead as “crooked dream logic”. In “Gazing Into a Dream”, Okri writes:

When people ask where my ideas come from, I have no answers for them. I am of the tribe of artists. My happiest moments are spent gazing into a dream.

“The visual has always been part of my work. And when people ask me what my influences are, invariably I talk about paintings. Because I’ve learnt sometimes more from paintings than from books,” said Okri.

Harsh reality too seeps into Okri’s works. “The Mystic Betrothal” talks of a time which seems all too nigh, where “a digital electronic heat has decomposed the colour of the clouds”, “gold has lost its meaning”, and “only the indifferent get elected”. Okri brings out the realities of today’s world but in eloquent prose rather like poetry. This, he says, is one of the principles he strives for in his storytelling—“The greatness of a story is more in the telling than in the tale.”

Okri does not believe in rushing his work. But there are exceptions. “I am a believer in waiting. I think, with creativity, unless there is an extraordinary urgency—and every now and again in the life of a writer, there is an extraordinary urgency where you have to respond, if you can, right now. And you put your sensibility on the line and you go for it. That happens very rarely, it happened with Grenfell Tower I think.”

The Grenfell Tower fire in west London in June of this year, where at least 80 people died, was such an event. In a powerful poem entitled “Grenfell Tower, June, 2017”, Okri writes:

“L’ Époque Magique” by Rosemary Clunie, taken from “The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age”

Those who were living now are dead

Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.

If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.

See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Okri explained how Grenfell, to him, was extremely personal as it had happened in his old neighbourhood. He says he wrote it out of pure anger in the middle of the night. In another instance of his long looking, he described how what happened at Grenfell had been waiting to happen for 30 years. He narrated from another unpublished poem of his, “Grenfell happened before the first brick was laid… it happened in the minds of people which despised the poor.”

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