New Internationalist

Ben Okri

Issue 443

The award-winning Nigerian poet and novelist tells Rowenna Davis why now is the time for new dreams.

Alma Robinson / allactiondigital.com / Alma Robinson / EMPICS Entertainment
Alma Robinson / allactiondigital.com / Alma Robinson / EMPICS Entertainment

What political or moral issue do you feel most strongly about at the moment?

The loss of our sense of wholeness, of vision, of a centre. I‘m concerned that we always try to change the surface of things without stopping long enough to look into the heart of our predicament. This could be the crisis facing the economy, the environment, Africa or the Middle East. We paper the cracks, we strengthen the pillars, we fix the roof, but we don’t look deep into the structural heart of the great issues and sort them out from the steadiness and truth of profound contemplation. It could be any issue; the problem is we suffer the consequences of not looking deeply enough.

When you moved from Britain to Nigeria as a child, what were the biggest contrasts that struck you?

I was struck by the vitality of Nigerian life, by the rich presence of stories and myths, and by the multidimensional quality in the air. There was, of course, a rich social and cultural life, but there was another level as well: something semi-spiritual, semi-legendary. What struck me about England was the order, the clarity and strength of the society, the coherence, the logic. In Nigeria I saw something approaching chaos, but it was richer for that. I have since found myself in dialogue with these two poles, and have come to the tentative conclusion that both poles need each other. Chaos needs order, and order needs some myth to make it richer. But at the moment the learning goes only one way. Nigeria is learning from England, but there is a lot England can learn from Nigeria too.

Who or what irritates you the most?

People who only see what there appears to be; people who insist that all there is to the world is what you can see. They perpetually resist the possibilities of the imagination. They hold back all kinds of progress with their limitations. These people are valuable because they compel us to make our dreams evident, but they reduce much of the marvel of existence – marvels increasingly revealed by science, marvels of the spirit. They are the ones who point to Africa and say, ‘Look at this mess, there is no future here’. They are the reducers of possibilities and there are a great number of them.

What do you wish journalists would ask you and never do?

The thing about journalists is that they ask very searching questions, but are not that interested in the deeper fundamental questions, partly because they take time to answer. But without asking the deeper philosophical questions, much of what is done is not thoroughly understood. The deeper words are not as newsworthy as the superficial words. That’s a shame, because there are deeper roots to what one does, and those motivations can be taken for granted. I’d like to take folks down and show them the good, strong roots that underpin things. But that’s not really the work of journalism: that is more philosophical investigation. From time to time I like the questions that you can roll up your sleeves for.

Can you describe your new book, A Time For New Dreams, to us?

It is a suite of short poetic essays, a meditation around the challenges and possibilities of our times, large and small. It is a contemplation of the relationship between the way the world looks and the core values that have given rise to our contemporary crisis. I have a strong sense that we are living in earth-shaking times. And by ‘the earth’ I mean our certainties, beliefs, dreams and social structures. All this is being shaken. We are being compelled to re-examine many of the ideas that underpin our society. The book is about the fact that we are in A Time For New Dreams. Our old dreams are exhausted. Throughout the world there is a cry for a new way of being, a new freedom for social justice and fairness. One of the most fundamental cries springing from our hearts is that these earth-shaking times are in fact giving us a new chance to re-dream our lives, and we should take it with courage.

A Time For New Dreams by Ben Okri (published in the UK by Rider Books) is out now.

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