Most of those gathered to see the Booker Prize winning Nigerian author Ben Okri talk to Hay Fellow Jon Gower would agree with his claim that ‘a nation is as healthy – as alive and as vibrant – as its writers are powerful and free and creative.’ After all, Hay Festival is in the business of nurturing the relationship between writers and what Okri calls a ‘deep sensitive aspect of a nation’s spirit’.
Which is why perhaps Gower starts the interview by asking Okri to explain his possibly more contentious claim that in writing ‘form is more important than content’. For Okri, ‘true originality’ is reflected in ideas which occur with their form already implied. As poet, novelist and essayist, Okri is concerned with ‘chipping away’ until ‘ideas achieve their truest form’. Lately, he has been concentrating on the essay – ‘a great opportunity for reflective writing’ – not that he confines himself to working in traditional or straightforward modes; rather, his work can take the form of aphorisms, often in chains, and this is largely how Okri speaks.
Before the conversation, Gower praises Okri’s ‘reading voice’ as being the best he has encountered. But it’s not just when reading that the timbre of the writer’s voice attains a gravitas that implies wisdom. ‘Writers’ contends Okri – honorary Vice-President of the English Centre for PEN International – are ‘transcendent betrayers of nations.’ But he is also keen throughout the wide-ranging discussion to emphasise the personal, the individual. ‘Everything is turned outwards,’ Okri feels, ‘we very seldom ask questions of ourselves.’ And it is individuals, he reminds us, who make up society; ‘politics is not separate from our personal politics – we can only be manipulated because we manipulate ourselves.’
Okri sites the kind of self-awakening he feels we all need in what he calls ‘a purity of seeing’. ‘What childhood teaches us,’ he says, is ‘just to look.’ He advocates the art of seeing the world before we attempt analysis. Okri’s creed is a manifesto against preconceived ideas. He wants us to treat books and works of art in the same way, to forget our expectations. ‘We bring too much to reading,’ he says before reading a poem about how he hopes universities will be in the future. In person, as in his books, he is brimming with ideas.
Inevitably, the conversation turns finally to Africa, the complex continent of Okri’s birth. Okri is both ‘struck’ and ‘saddened’ by what he calls ‘the paradox of Africa’ and the juxtaposition between the Africa of the Western imagination – the starving, poverty-stricken Africa of journalism – and the Africa he knows: ‘complicated, living, rich, full of sadness and possibilities and magic and family and tradition and pain, the loss of the past and a strange new future.’ ‘I’d like to weave an essay of what it is that runs through Africa,’ he says.
Okri’s prediction that the relationship between China and Africa will be crucial to the future, that ‘it could turn out to be the next anti-colonial struggle’, is pertinent here in Budapest. Whilst in the late 1980s and early 1990s the eyes of the world were on Eastern Europe, in our globalised world the nexus of geopolitics has shifted. The interconnectedness of nation states means it is entirely appropriate that Jung Chang and Ben Okri are here in Central Europe discussing the futures of China and Africa. What happens there, and elsewhere, will affect us all.