Ben Okri Q&A: “I can’t live without good conversation, or love”

The poet and novelist talks enjoying getting lost, the art of living, and Mandela, Obama and Lincoln.

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Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria, in 1959 and spent his early childhood in London. In 1991, he won the Man Booker Prize for “The Famished Road”. Aside from his acclaimed novels, he is known for his poetry, including the epic “Mental Fight”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Getting lost in the middle of Nigeria. I was a baby and I just walked or crawled away from home. It nearly gave my mother a nervous breakdown. But I was found hours later. I’ve enjoyed getting lost since.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood heroes were characters in books and comics. My adult heroes are people who face life bravely, who keep on regardless of opposition and criticism, and who believe in humanity.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

The Inner Chapters by Chuang Tzu. The highest thing a book can do is not to change your thinking but expand your consciousness. Thought is easily changed, but an expanded consciousness sees truly, clearly, for itself.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Mandela, Obama and Lincoln. You can never really say how good a leader has been till some time has passed. It is still perhaps too early to assess Obama or Mandela. But you measure not only by what they did, but the circumstances of their achievements.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The art of living.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The time when we truly will not judge people by the colour of their skin, their eyes or their money, their gender, their family, their class, their religion, etc.

What TV show could you not live without?

I can happily live without TV, but I can’t live without good conversation or love.

Who would paint your portrait?

Hockney once offered to paint my portrait after I wrote him a poem-portrait. But he proved hard to get hold of. David, name the place and I’ll bring the face.

What’s your theme tune?

Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

“Follow your light.” My father and mother both urged it, and it guides me always.

What’s currently bugging you?

The dividedness of the left. The left could be changing the world for the better for good people. Instead they allow others to fuck up the world, through their disunity.

What single thing would make your life better?

The ability to sleep at will, like Napoleon.

When were you happiest?

When my daughter was born.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, dreamer. To work with the roots of reality, to speak to people in the deepest part of themselves, to be able to sing of change, that’s the one for me.

Are we all doomed?

As long as we remember the fundamental magnificence of what it is to be human, we will overcome evil, transcend disaster, and create, from our worst crisis, surprising new chapters in this amazing human story. 

Ben Okri’s “Rise Like Lions: Poetry for the Many” (Hodder & Stoughton) is one of 12 new collections recommended for National Poetry Day on 4 October

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war