Oxford scholar’s reply to author of ‘The Famished Road’

Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri. Okri’s recent public address entitled ‘Meditations on Greatness’ at this year’s ‘Africa Writes’ festival in London, sponsored by the Royal African Society. I say witnessed, but perhaps I should say endured. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • What I had read of Okri before the event was an essay he wrote in The Guardian arguing that Black and African writers should write about subjects other than subjugation and suffering, subjects which he argued had come to define the strict limits western publishers and readers placed on the work of black writers. I found his main argument to be too prescriptive and itself limiting.
  • When he began his talk in a similar vein, challenging overpowering demands for stories about African sadness, I suspected that the lecture would be a response to some of the many challenges his essay earned.

Maybe we should not force prominent writers to speak in public. I say this because I witnessed Ben Okri’s recent public address entitled ‘Meditations on Greatness’ at this year’s ‘Africa Writes’ festival in London, sponsored by the Royal African Society. I say witnessed, but perhaps I should say endured. When I had to stab the tip of my pen into my side for the third time in 40 minutes to stop myself from falling asleep, I realised that it was time to swallow my pride and abandon whatever remaining time my £7 (Sh1,000) student ticket had purchased me. A reasonable price for peace of mind.

I have never read a full-length novel by Okri. In fact, I paid for a ticket to attend his talk after a day of (free) talks by a number of very inspiring voices — including a fascinating session on African romance with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, a rising star and founder of the fledgling Nigerian publishing house Cassava Republic — because I hoped this would be a nice introduction to the man and his work.

What I had read of Okri before the event was an essay he wrote in The Guardian arguing that Black and African writers should write about subjects other than subjugation and suffering, subjects which he argued had come to define the strict limits western publishers and readers placed on the work of black writers. I found his main argument to be too prescriptive and itself limiting. But I appreciated the impression his earnest style imparted, and the debate his intervention sparked about publisher’s market sensibilities and readers’ tastes when it comes to stories written by Africans or set in Africa.

AFRICAN SADNESS

When he began his talk in a similar vein, challenging overpowering demands for stories about African sadness, I suspected that the lecture would be a response to some of the many challenges his essay earned. And in some ways I believe this was the broad agenda he wished to advance. After a preamble in which he directly challenged this hegemony of African sadness, he decided to present in somewhat affected oratorical tones his key advance above and beyond the stifling strictures of usual writing on Africa. “They ask us about disease and Boko Haram. They don’t ask us about greatness,” he pleaded. And then looking up from the podium and raising his voice to dramatise his request for audience feedback, he asked “can we talk about greatness?”

A half convinced “yes” came back.

“I said, can we talk about greatness?” he insisted.

This time a more committed “yeees” from the audience. So Ben Okri began his meditations on greatness.

These opening remarks were for me the most interesting part of his lecture. But though already about 45 minutes into what was slated to be a 90-minute talk (including Q&A), Okri declared that his ‘meditations’ were now only beginning. As he alerted the audience waving a ream of paper wide enough for a respectable monograph as his speech, his meditations on greatness would not be limited by the constraints of the schedules of his audience or the time slot the event organizers had provided. As justification, he offered that, “Abraham Lincoln signed off long letters to friends apologising for his verbosity by saying he did not have enough time to write a shorter letter. I also must apologise because I did not have enough time to write a shorter speech.” As we were reminded, greatness knows no bounds.

It is worth pointing out that the Lincoln quote is actually more accurately attributed to Mark Twain, not to demonstrate my own superior googling skills, but to highlight the prime (often undeserved) treatment Lincoln received, not only in this reference, but also throughout much of Okri’s speech.

In fact, along with Nelson Mandela and, curiously, Winston Churchill, Lincoln was one of the most repeatedly invoked exemplars of the sort of greatness Okri wished to recollect. Of course there are many reasons to consider Lincoln worthy of the many quotes and witticism that are accurately and inaccurately attributed to him. But constant reference to him in Okri’s speech seemed to crystalise a certain smug impression I got from the author from the onset of the speech, which was further displayed in an awkward exchange shortly before I decided I was ready to leave.

IMPORTANT PERSON

A lady’s phone rang in the audience while Okri read, a distraction in the small auditorium no doubt, but a distraction we have all caused at one time or the other. In fact the ordinariness of this occurrence is what made the embarrassment of the lady as she searched frantically for her phone so recognisable. Okri saw it differently.

Pausing to look with an annoyed expression over the brim of his glasses — and directing further attention to the transgressor as she struggled to silence her phone — he sardonically inquired of the audience, “do I read that sentence again?” Perhaps he was doing as Lincoln would have done. Lincoln wrote long letters and is an embodiment of greatness. Okri writes long speeches, of which no word should be drowned out by a ringing phone. Like other moments in the speech, I was left with the impression that this was an individual convinced of his important place in history.

Besides further celebrations of Lincoln, and the architectural achievements of ancient Egypt, the rest of his speech consisted of a few quasi-profound or profoundly vague aphorisms about greatness. “Perfection will never be greatness,” and “greatness is a river,” were recurrent examples in the latter category. But the real strength of his presentation lay in the few moments when he returned to the key arguments of his preamble. “We are not Black and African writers,” he declared. “We are just writers.”

Belatedly, he justified his references to famous leaders and celebrated “civilizations” by referring to greatness as an endeavour that “was always about power” but belongs to all of humanity. And though he lamented the fact that African nations thrust onto the global stage after independence had failed to exercise such power ‘in its enlightened usage, he insisted that African writers (or ‘just writers’?) should not feel tied only to such discussion about the failures of the post-colonial dream. “We should feel the full surge of human possibilities in ourselves.”

His encouragement in this regard is welcomed in a world in which there has genuinely been the propensity for African realities to be defined on the basis of a single story of sadness, as Chimamanda Ngozie-Adichie recently lamented. His brave challenge to African writers then seemed to be to respond to this overpowering demand for tales of African suffering by pursuing stories of human greatness, particularly those which may lie in the distant past and outside of the boundaries of the African continent.

It is undoubtedly true that Africans also have interesting things to say about Abraham Lincoln and Mozart and the Medicis. But Okri’s challenge to concern ourselves with greatness as “power in its enlightened usage” runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is, in effect, a call for pendulum shift away from uncomfortable subjects about Africa, towards comfortable subjects about everywhere else.

But what Okri fails to realise is that if over-emphasis can fetishise sadness, as Adichie has reminded us, so can the sort of awkward silence he is propounding. Nowhere does he challenge the bases of received notions of greatness as a factor of masculine prowess, or American and European empire building. If we meditate only on examples of greatness prefabricated to support northern-dominated narratives, don’t we stand the risk of replicating the very same imbalances that have created the demand for the great foil of a backward Africa?

In truth, even suffering in Africa, despite the enormous attention it garners, has not been explored in its full human possibilities. It tends to be treated as bizarre echoes of a forgone time, rather than the particular fixture and creation of the modern human experience which it truly is.

HUMAN HERITAGE

A few inquisitive glances in the audience seemed to reflect similar reservations. But as I gathered my belonging and offered my apologies to the crossed feet forced to uncross as I shuffled out of my row, the dominant atmosphere in the auditorium seemed to be one of deepening stupor as the parade of platitudes continued pouring in from the podium.

Lincoln and Churchill and ancient Egypt are undoubtedly part of the human heritage to which Africans also belong. But have these fixtures not been celebrated enough? In sickness or in health, is there nothing to celebrate about the human experience as it is being enacted by the people who currently inhabit the African continent? Who will celebrate the greatness of the Festac 1966 ‘World Fair of Negro Arts’ in Dakar, or the bold and powerful women Teju Cole describes in his celebration of Africa’s first photographs of themselves, if our writers think of greatness only in terms of eminent (and invariably, male) leaders and imperial power?

It is unclear from his presentation alone how Ben Okri would respond to these questions, in part because his presentation itself was unclear.

Perhaps it is unfair to assume that by virtue of his celebrated story telling he would be able to cogently reflect in the abstract about a subject like greatness.

Perhaps I should have gotten more sleep before the event.

 

Sa’eed Husaini, from Jos, Nigeria, is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He writes on literature, violence, politics, and natural resource management across Africa. He tweets @SaeeduH Email: saeed.husaini [at] sant.ox.ac.uk

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