Ben Okri on the Beauty of African Literature

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

By Ben Okri
Wednesday, November 26, 2008.
African literatures have its origins in the invisible. The original play of Storicalin was among the spirit in the imaginations whispers to the ancestors. Out of the African earth grew mists of the god. This prima beginning of African literature must not be forgotten for it informs and resonates in all that comes later. In its visible face, African literature was born out of double conditions, rapture and celebration. The rapture was found in the ancestral acts.
The celebration was of the African way. Some say Equiano’s memoir of his Nigerian childhood and his years of slavery constitute the first official beginning of a literature. It would then be a literature conceived in exile, looking back across the dim water of slavery to a culture remembered as a dream.
Others think Egyptians legend has been the intrinsic part of literature and indeed certain similarities abound, the ritual burial of a king, the link between magic and story telling and certain correspondences between the gods.
In a wonderful session we had with the Ethiopian Writers’ Association this morning, we were made to understand that the Ethiopian literature itself goes back to almost a thousands years. In its modern face, a certain farm wine drinker set out on a journey to the African underworld and after that things fell apart.
But not entirely. Because, a host of voices, each one unique, rose from all over the continent.  Novels of protest against colonialism, stories of the clashes of culture, of survival of the old amidst of the new, novels of social protest against the failures of the post-independence landscape, praise poems, poems celebrating every aspect of African life, utilizing vast range of forms to the land, ululation poems, plays that range from satire to tragedies in African theme. In its modern period, it is no longer a young literature. In fact, it is never young, but being to have emerged fully formed.
The robustness and diversity of African novel is yet to be properly studied and appreciated. I have always personally had an ambivalent feeling about an African novel but not an African perspective. The esthetic seems to be the universal sensibilities of a particular place or particular sensibility of a universal impulse.
So many literary traditions have flowed into the river of African literature that to appreciate literature properly one must look for at the literature of the whole world. African literature is not a literature in isolation but in constant dialogue with its culture, with itself on which the literature and living history of the world.
Can you fully appreciate Ngugi wa Thiong’o without being aware of Dostoyevsky? Or Achebe without being aware of Sophocles? Or Wole Soyonka without being aware of Shakespeare? Or indeed Ben Okri without being a little aware of Dante?
May be this is where the unique contribution of African literature to the world will eventually reside. It comes from the deep souls of Africa and yet dances with the literature of the world. It is destined that for it is not only new flavors, a new perspective but even a new orientation in to the great to the confederacy of the world literature. I like to think of African literature as a world literature. It has to hold its own with the best that has been written everywhere because eventually and in time it will be read in relation to the best that has been produced in time.
Because, finally, literature either live or doesn’t live. It must be able to withstand all percent of time. The great convergence of the world means that books, poems, and plays compete in their own right by the authority and integrity of their achievement.  A literature ought to have the highest standards because it is what creates unsustained the spiritual fiber of the people. When the literature is great, it is always a powerful light that shines that ahead of the people. It draws the people towards an ever renewed greatness in all areas of endeavor. It speaks directly into the possibilities of the people’s soul in the unfolding business of the civilization.
Whether people are going trough the difficult times, whether they have abysmal government, torrents that have destroyed the land, whether famine raged and devour the children, there is the reminder that the spirit of the people is unconquerable and their capacity for renewal is never ending with vision, clear-sightedness and courage, qualities all embedded in people’s literature.
The people themselves know they will surmount these difficulties and reach happier ground. African literature has been largely a literature of resistance, sometimes a literature of despair and sometimes a literature hinting at revolution, but it has never ceased in its higher responsibilities. It may not be read as widely as it should be its people, at least not today, but tomorrow, in the future it will be.  
There is one that that I dearly love to add to the heritage of literature; it is the need for more freedom. Freedom in its forms, freedom of subject, freedom to be whatever it can be, expanding constantly the notion of what is African. I would love the literature to have novels set in space, novels set completely in imaginary round, plays and poems about anywhere on the globe to be as  adventurous and as free as always as the African spirit to be. Free to improvise and to not always be looking over its shoulder at increasingly critically determined notions of what should constitute African literature. Otherwise the literature is in danger of being narrow and unsurprising and unchallenging.
If you ask me what is the most potent melody of the spirit of the land, I would say protest is the temporary aspect, its resistance is historical, its celebration authentic. For the most distinctive thing I was most aware of as a child is the imagination. We are more than we think a people of the imagination, making things up, making them real, using songs, reflection, a change of voice,
No story is too unlikely or too tall, too strange that we can’t tell it and bore our listeners till they experience it too. Imagination that populate the night without expecting phones, imagination that makes the god come alive in our godless age, imagination that is invisible on lower levels, in our lurid newspapers and magazines, imagination that make the mind capable of conceiving inconceivable things. This saying, imagination, this saying African imagination is a profound resource for reinventing our world. We are richer than we think.
This was part of a speech delivered by Ben Okri at the Italian literary Grinzane Cavour Awards held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Ben Okri was born in 1959 in Minna, Northern Nigeria. He spent some of his childhood years in London before returning to Nigeria with his parents in 1968.
This was at the peak of the Nigerian Civil War. The violence and injustice he saw impacted on his early fiction. He left Nigeria when he won a Nigerian government scholarship to read Comparative Literature at Essex University in England. He was poetry editor for West Africa magazine between 1983 and 1986 and broadcast regularly for the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985. He was appointed Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge in 1991, a post he held until 1993. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Westminster (1997) and Essex (2002).In 1991 Okri was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road (1991).  He is a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre, and was awarded an OBE in 2001. He lives in London.
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