Reading and writing

A moment that changed me: Ben Okri – fulfilling my dream of becoming a novelist at the age of 19 | Books


Family legend says I started reading The Times when I was four years old. At school in London, I was that kid who would raise his hand to read aloud the Shakespeare play we were studying or to recite a poem. In high school in Nigeria, literature was something I was carelessly good at, but didn’t take seriously. During the holidays, I visited the libraries of the foreign embassies and I read their books. At the American Embassy, ​​I discovered Emerson and Whitman; at the Japanese embassy, ​​I discovered karate, zen buddhism and basho. It seemed then that I was destined to be a scientist. I applied to college, but at 14 I was deemed too young. I spent a year at home, waiting to be old enough.

My main task that year was to dust off my father’s library. I had to dust the books but not read them. The first book that caught my attention was Plato’s Symposium. I had a great thirst for philosophy and devoured all his dialogues. I have read the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare; news from Maupassant, Tchekhov, Maugham; then I got lost in the novels of the nineteenth century. Like everyone else, I read American and English thrillers. They were a bad influence in all but one respect: they made the writing seem deceptively easy.

We were then living in a place called Mile Twelve. There was poverty all around us. We had lived in a more upscale part of Lagos, but now we were living on the outskirts. They say three things make you a writer: a childhood illness, a downfall in your parents’ lifestyle, and an encounter with death early in life. I had experienced them all.

Loneliness is terrible for a teenager but invaluable for learning to think for yourself. As my generation danced at the most wasteful national jamboree after the end of the Civil War, I was in a ghetto learning to write. My father became a lawyer for the poor. It was the best education a young writer could ask for, to see the truth of society in the rough. I started with poetry. I wrote a hundred love poems and burned them all except five.

Then something happened that plugged my writing into the nerve of life. The owners of the ghetto had unlimited powers. They could throw families with all their belongings out into the streets. I was so outraged to see this happen that I wrote an article about it for the Evening Times. To my amazement, it was released. Encouraged, I wrote about other injustices. These pieces have not been published. Then it occurred to me to write a story about them. Two of the stories were published in women’s magazines. Thus began my long adventure in the rigorous profession of the short story. Then one of the short stories grew and grew, and became a novel.

By that time, I had finished my baccalaureate and had a job for a painting company. The traffic in Lagos was so excruciating that it took three hours to get to work. I would wake up at four in the morning and write for an hour before going to work. When I returned, I slept and wrote for up to one o’clock. I was still dozing on the long bus ride to the office.

The first draft took a year. I got fired from work and bought a typewriter and camera with severance pay. I then worked as a reporter for a news magazine.
In the fall of 1978, I came to London to study. I really came to write. All my colleagues dreamed of America, but my sentimental attachment was to the England of my childhood. I brought my typewriter, my camera, and the first draft of my first novel.

I have browsed the literature of Africa and the world. I took notes. I started to rewrite. It was at my uncle’s in New Cross. I have sent the manuscript to many editors, all of whom have turned it down. Then one morning a letter arrived from Longmans ‘African Writers’ Series. I remember uttering a cry of joy. This moment changed everything. I was 19. With the release of Flowers and shadows, the life I was meant to live has begun.


Tags : high school
Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson