As the child of a mixed marriage growing up in Nigeria during the country’s civil war, Ben Okri had a powerful introduction to the dangers facing the outsider. His father was Urhobo, while his mother was Igbo. After spending his early years in London while his father trained as a lawyer, Okri returned home with his family in 1967, only to find themselves straddling a murderous divide.
Okri was stranded in a Jesuit boarding school many miles from home when the war broke out. “My mother risked her life coming across the country to collect me,” he says. “On the journey back, we saw people being pulled out of buses and shot. I was nearly shot as well because I couldn’t speak my dad’s language. I was being dragged away when I remembered one of the oldest words in any language — s*** — and that saved me. That was my first experience with death.” He was just seven years old.
Fifty years on, he cuts a familiar dash in his trademark beret, drinking tea in a tiny office at the top of the recently restored Coronet theatre in Notting Hill — where his new adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Outsider (L’Etranger) is about to be staged — and pondering how his traumatic early experiences inform his fascination with the French writer’s existentialist classic.
It’s not surprising that this is the story’s first major adaptation for the English stage, he says. At its heart is the troubling figure of the French Algerian army officer who has cast such a dark shadow across European literature since the novel was published in 1942. Sentenced to death for the murder of an unnamed Arab, Meursault appears to show no remorse. “While I was adapting it, I was very conscious of the problem of representing the Arab, which is very relevant to this time of popular Islamophobia,” says Okri. “To have an Arab actor on stage and not speak is very, very hard today.”
His initial idea was to give the nameless man a voice, and he and his producer travelled to France to petition Camus’s daughter, Catherine , for permission. “We met her in a bar and she was wonderfully fierce. As soon as I entered, I knew what the answer would be. I left thinking maybe the issue of the Arab speaking was more layered.”
There are, he argues, “very legitimate feelings about the treatment of certain people in classic literature: how black people are portrayed in Mark Twain, the use of the N-word in William Faulkner, but a book can be written in one age and be questioned in a new one. That is how books survive: by constantly answering the questions the new age brings to them, and in this context the question of the Arab becomes central.”
He regards L’Etranger as “one of those rare books that manage to be both brief and huge at the same time. The cut of its narrative is very unusual. Usually with big novels, the thread involves the bringing together of complicated parts, but this cuts in a diagonal way right to the heart of the big questions: what does it mean to be alive? Who are we? What is the meaning of individual autonomy in the face of society? Who are we in the face of so many false constructs? Are we ourselves or what’s been projected on us? These are big, big Hamlet questions.”
This is the first time Okri has adapted a novel for the stage, though he has written several plays of his own, alongside his novels, stories, essays and poetry. In a pre-show talk, he startlingly refers to this as “trilogification”, explaining that “most writers have a trio of interests. For me it’s the novel, poetry and drama, and for Camus it was prose, drama and the philosophical essay.” He’s never been averse to giving the dictionary a helping hand where necessary, inventing the word “stoku” to explain the “amalgam of short story and haiku” that filled his 2009 collection, Tales of Freedom. If this has met with hostility from traditional reviewers, it has inspired a rare devotion in his fans, who flock to his live events and devour every word.
Though he made his name as a writer of fiction — notably with his 1991 Booker winner The Famished Road — it is with whimsical tales and public poetry that he has embraced the troubles of the early 21st century, offering himself up as an unofficial laureate of the left. Hailed as a genius by Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leader’s inaugural conference speech, he responded with a poem stirringly titled: A New Dream of Politics.
Two years later, he hymned the outgoing President Obama as “a beacon and a sign that it is possible / To be black and to be great,” returning to print six months on with a monumental verse tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, which has this refrain: “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. / See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.”
His two most recent books are a mould-breaking collection of fairytales for adults, The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age, and an inspirational anthology, Rise Like Lions, which plucks political hope and wisdom from seers as far apart in time and place as William Blake and Marvin Gaye.
Breadth of reference has been a feature of Okri’s literary life since he began to devour the world classics that his father — not a great reader — left lying around the family home for his children to pick up. While still at school in Nigeria, he began writing short stories, alongside journalistic accounts of life in the Lagos ghetto where his family found themselves after his father’s career hit the doldrums.
He returned to England in his late teens, with the manuscript of his first novel in his suitcase, initially to stay with an uncle in the south London suburb of Plumstead. “All the big race questions were being asked in England. There were riots, stop and search and Sus laws, and there I was on the outskirts not knowing anybody.” It was at the “very existential age” between 17 and 21 that he began reading the French existentialists, along with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the great African writers.
Armed with a Nigerian government scholarship, he embarked on a degree in comparative literature at Essex University. “University was a great playground, a laboratory of self-discovery,” he says. He stood for election to the student’s union (and was narrowly defeated), had two plays staged and published a first novel which he now regards as “a source of some embarrassment”.
Two years in, the government defaulted on his scholarship, forcing him to quit his degree and fend for himself. He returned to London the author of two novels, only to “slide into my homeless phase”. Hard though it was, he says, “it was extremely important because it was also an education.” One of his incidental discoveries was that “if you wandered between various pubs and friends, people would buy you drinks but rarely food. Certain parts of London are for me for ever associated with three in the morning. Charing Cross station was great, bank doorways were good because they had hot air ducts.” More important was the impact on his writing. “The early part of my style was definitely forged in the clarity of the streets: those cold nights.”
He didn’t tell his parents about his financial difficulties until later. “When my mother heard, she burst into tears and said why didn’t you tell us? I said because it was none of your business.” He was rescued from the streets by friends who lent him £300 to make a new start. “I rented a room and wrote like a madman.”
He began to earn money by writing book reviews and publishing short stories, catching the attention of Peter Ackroyd, who included one of his stories in an anthology of new fiction. Suddenly publishers started to take an interest. In 1988, his second collection of short stories was shortlisted for the Guardian fiction prize and just three years later, aged 32, he became the youngest ever winner of the Booker prize for The Famished Road, which enchanted many but alienated others with its lengthy tale of a “spirit child” who refuses to leave the African slums for the realm “of pure dreams”. It was was written, he has said, “to give myself reasons to live”.
His life’s project, he explains, is to do something new to capture “the African mood: that great oceanic tide of African fables and stories that I grew up on — what I call the vast invisible literature”. But what he means by the African mood is typically eclectic: it includes bits of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare alongside the African storytellers: “It’s a tradition where the invisible literature meets the visible literature anywhere in the world.”
Part of this reckoning is with the colonial history that forms the backdrop to Camus’s novel. “We have to ask, is it the silence of the Arabs in a book like The Outsider that explains the rage of those Arabs 60 years later?” Moreover, colonial styles differ: the French concept of “l’etranger” is fundamentally different to the “outsider” of English, he says. “In France it can mean strange or alien to humanity — while English society is formulated as a club, so it’s more about not being one of us.”
This, he believes, is what makes Camus’s story so urgently topical. “I think our time has made this book much more strongly about the way in which we are constructed as individuals in society; what we are supposed to believe, the crux of truth. It’s who we are versus what we are required or even compelled to support and give our voices and credibility to.”
The Brexit referendum was, he says, “a very interesting case of how the individual was quite often lied to and bullied and their worst instincts appealed to. Big ideas were used to seduce and deceive: words like freedom and independence cloak and hide many dangerous and unsavoury ideas. It’s that choice you make between your authentic truth of how you see the world or succumbing to the group truth.”
Though his public profile would appear to have made him “one of us” for decades, Okri is constantly reminded of the limitations of “group truth” simply by dint of being black. “There are days when I have trouble getting a taxi to stop for me, and unpleasant things happen for reasons of colour and race which my friends find hard to believe.” He sighs. “You can be an outsider while being an insider.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd