Painter of secrets

Print edition : November 30, 2012

A writer is a like a magician, says Ben Okri, keeping you enchanted with his craft. And in the process, he gives you new ways of seeing the world.

What the best writers do is to induce you out of your own way of seeing the world for a moment and give you another set of lenses through which to see the world. I began to think that maybe poetry should be like life. A tree just grows. Inside it, very complex processes are taking place.

BEN OKRI when he was in Thiruvananthapuram to attend the World Malayalam Festival.-S. MAHINSHA

What does it mean to be Ben Okri? A Booker Prize winning writer who rises above stereotypes? A truth seeker? A student of reality? It may not be possible to answer the question fully. But perhaps, one of the best ways of knowing a writer is through his own writing and the way he approaches writing. In Okris own words, a writers personality shines through his or her work.

Born in Nigeria and based in London, Okri started receiving international acclaim early in his life. A prolific writer who has written novels, short story collections, essays and poetry, he won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road when he was just 32.

He had become a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature when he was much younger. This year, he was chosen to give the prestigious Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. Yet, Okri wears fame very lightly. There is an almost spiritual quality about his humility.

In Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, for the World Malayalam Festival (October 31-November 1), Okri spoke, in an interview, about writing as an act of meditation, offering glimpses into his personality. Excerpts from the interview.

What does writing mean to you?

Writing has become, in a personal sense, a form of meditation. It wasnt, to begin with. Thats because in the early years I had more anxiety about writing. I so much wanted to do certain things. Whereas now, I let it do what it can do. So, writing has meant different things to me over the years. At first, maybe it was a way of bearing witness to the world and its injustices. Then it became a way of trying to understand the mysterious nature of reality and trying to reveal some of the hidden forces, hidden motivations, behind life. Then it became an art, and art is something you do to communicate, of course; art is something that you do more for itself, because of the possibility of what you can do with it.

At some point it became, and it still remains for me, an act of magic but it has always been, more now than ever, a high act of consciousness. Because, the extraordinary thing about writing, of any art form, is that its a chemical operation that takes place inside the consciousness. With music, you hear the sounds complete, so theres no translation happening inside you. With painting you see it complete and take it in complete. With writing you take in these abstract symbols and you convert them into things in your mind. So one becomes a machine for the conversion of abstract notions into ideas, feelings, thoughts, philosophies, and so on. So we are, really, a laboratory in which writing takes place and activates. So, writing places an enormous responsibility and power, and it is very much an operation of tremendous inwardness. And thats why I find it so fascinating.

So, who runs this machine?

The self. If you are spiritually inclined, you would say the soul. If you are a psychologist, you would say the mind. We human beings are extremely rich and complex. We have many great centres inside us: Emotions, mind, spirit, memory, imagination so many powerful forces. I think the thing about writing is that it makes you aware of the question, while reading, of the unified eye. The consciousness of the self while reading is a very fascinating one, which is why the act of reading is such a great pleasure when youre reading a good bookbecause its not just the pleasure of reading, but its also the pleasure of your awareness of your own consciousness in the state of reading. Its very, very close to unconscious meditation. Very, very, close. Not quite, but close.

You talk elsewhere about the difficulty of seeing things. Does this machine see things?

Lets call it a sublime machine, shall we? Seeing is a very complex operation. It really is. Really good writing challenges the quality of our seeing. Because you can only get from a piece of writing what you see in it. It can only awaken in you what you see in the world. So everything you do with a piece of reading is qualified by the quality of your seeing. So yes, this sublime machine sees but we have unconscious seeing as well as conscious seeing. And I think that we are quite lazy see-ers.

Or is it that we choose to see something and we choose not to see something?

I think we choose more to see than choose not to see. I think when we choose not to see, it is an unconscious choosing and of course it tends to be true that we see only what we want to see. Which is quite extraordinary actually. Im frequently fascinated by what people dont see what is right in front of them; what people dont notice. There is a wonderful line in J.D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye where he says about adults that they dont notice anything. Its true.

This thing about what we do not see and what remains invisible is something you often talk about. You also said once that you wanted your readers to finish your book and at the same time, not finish it. What did you mean by that and why?

Because, on the whole, people read with the purpose of finishing. You get a book and your sole purpose is to get to the end of it. Its ironic that you buy something for pleasure and your whole raison dtre is to get rid of it, finish it, get over it as quickly as possible. I dont know if all writers write to be read, to be finished. I think most writers encourage you by the pace, to finish it very quickly, but I dont. The way I write, the effect of what Im trying to do to you is at its most powerful when youre actually in the midst of reading. So the longer you can stay there, the longer you can stay in this world of enchantment that Im trying to create. And Im constantly trying to create a rich level of realities and enchantments, suggestions, hints; Im like a painter thats got so many hidden secrets, details many of which you are not going to see the first three times you read it. But even when youre not seeing, it gives you a subliminal effect. And so, I want my readers to actually want to stay inside that world. I dont want them to get out of there quickly. Because if they are out of there quickly, they are out of the magic space that Im creating.

This magic space that you create, your own writingto what extent does it connect you to the world around you? Or to your inner world?

I dont know if theres such a great degree of separation between the two things. Because if you didnt have an inner world, even if you were sitting in the midst of a revolution, you wouldnt notice it. We only notice things because we have an inner world through which we feel about them. So really, the greatest place of feeling or sensibility and appreciation about the world is inward. The richer that inner world is, the richer you would feel about the world around you. Its not the other way around. I believe that consciousness, and expanded consciousness, is what enriches reality because we perceive it more. Not less. So yes, its a way of profoundly helping, contributing to, our engagement with the world through our engagement with ourselves.

You have a preoccupation with the concept of reality. How would you define reality, if it were possible to define it?

Thats what were constantly trying to do. Besides, everyones reality is different. Reality is how we perceive the world. Thats all it is. Your question really is not What is reality? but Is there an absolute reality? Because, we each have an individual reality. Your perception is unique to you because of your history, your tradition, education, your superstitions, your beliefs. So, we only see reality through the filter of the mind. What the best writers do is to induce you out of your own way of seeing the world for a moment and give you another set of lenses through which to see the world. So you start to say, Oh my God! Someone else sees the world like this? I thought the world was like this. Is it possible that it can also be like this? How shocking. You put the book down and go back to that. But for a long time after that, youre haunted that you have seen the world slightly differently. In a sense your perception of the world has been widened a little bit. Thats what all writing really is trying to do. Its to get us to make a connection with the infinite plasma of reality.

When you ask me what is reality, I would say that it is the single greatest mystery of our lives. If you could find someone who could answer that question or who could answer that question for you through your unconsciousness, I think most of lifes solutions would be found. The question of reality is very fundamental to every single aspect of society. Whether its politics, history, psychology, whatever it is, our perception of reality is absolutely central to it. So when writers wrestle with the question of reality, they are wrestling with the greatest question that we have to deal with, as human beings.

Has your own sense of reality changed over the years as a writer?

Absolutely. It has been changed by books Ive read, by the fine minds Ive come into contact with, by friendship, by opposition, by the act of writing itself. The act of writing itself is a continual adjustment of our sensibility to the difficult task of representing the world.

The art of writing is not just to do with the organisation of words and making words more beautiful. Actually, its trying to get words to be more reflective of how we see the world. Its a very mysterious activity and the more you do it, in a sense, the more refined the machinery of perception becomes.

In your recent book, A Time For New Dreams, you describe poetry as a river of soul murmurings. What made you describe poetry as a river? Why not an ocean or a lake or a pond?

[Laughs.] Because poetry is not just what poets write. Poetry is not just what readers read. I think poetry is a condition of consciousness, which we all share to some degree or the other. The poetry on the page is just one small part of the poetry of being. Because being is primarily poetic and its unavoidably so. Here in Kerala, a lady was telling me about her daughter or her son aged nine months old, who would just sit up and stare out of the window when its raining, just watching the rain falling down, [in] absolute astonishment. And I said to her: Poetry is falling into your sons mind.

Being alive is a poetic condition because everything is not quite what it seems. Everything is tinged with the mysterious. A table: How did it come to be? A plank of wood with four legs does not stand for a table. Why not three? Why not one? A table is something you just put something on [but] its more than just its function. It is also a metaphor for many other things which poetry discovers for us. So if poetry discovers all of these different possibilities for a container, for a spoon, or for a knife, does it not mean that all of these possibilities are already latent in a spoon, in a knife or in a table? Its all in there. Its just that the poetic mind keeps discovering new metaphoric uses for things. As if its the elasticity of the mind that does it when, in fact, it is actually the elasticity of reality itself. That is what is poetic. And thats the river that runs through all of us.

So do you see any differences between yourself as a poet and as a novelist?

Theyre just different forms. The form has its own organic nature. You cant take a poem by Yeats like Leda and the Swan and turn it into a short story. You cant take a short story by Somerset Maugham and somehow compress it into a poem. Because, if its good in what it is, it is natural to its own form. And thats really all it is. The idea for a novel comes with all of the things that will make it a novel. So you have an inspiration to write a novel about a woman who is sitting by herself in a railway carriage and you say: Wow, I just have this idea for a novel. And for some reason its all in that image.

The minute you start writing about this woman sitting in this railway carriage, before you know it, you give her a history and when you give her a history, people will mysteriously appear in this history. The reason why she is waiting will slowly, incredibly, become apparent. Her story would just, as it were, emerge completely, fully formed, as it were, from this one image that you began with. As if all of that was folded inside the image.

Thats what it really all is. Each form, if were true to an idea, yields all that it needs to realise its fullness. The writer just has to be particularly attentive.

Talking of your own poetry, your latest book of poetry, Wild (2012), comes after a gap of 13 years. The last one was Mental Fight (1999). What happened in these 13 years? Has there been any transformation in your own poetic vision?

Yes, actually. Thats a very good question. Its not that I wasnt writing poetry during that time. Its just that I wasnt publishing very much. I write poetry all the time. Its almost second nature with me. And in my first volume of poems, I really believed poetry to be richness and even to some degree, a thing of complexity. When I began publishing poetry, I actually perceived of poetry as being gifted with a particular kind of obscurity. And I liked poems that you bite into and probably break a tooth.

But, over the years, as I listened to other peoples poems and read poems, I came to the conclusionthe tentative conclusionthat the difficulty of poetry should not be on the outside but on the inside. So, I began to think that maybe poetry should be like life. Life does not appear to hide any mystery. A tree just grows. Inside it, very complex processes are taking place. Cell reproduction, photosynthesis and the sap running up. It does all of it quietly. You dont notice it. All you see is, one day a leaf comes out and another day a branch comes out. And what it does on the outside gives no sign of the complex activity going on inside. And I slowly began to think to myself that poetry ought to be like that. It ought to be apparently transparent like nature but when you look into it, its actually much more complex than it appears to be.

And so, I strove for a new kind of simplicity. I worked very, very hard at doing that. While doing that, I was aware of people who didnt read what I was writing carefullywho just thought it was simple. So I had to live with the possibility that people would just think it is simple and not understand that there are more complex things going on. But I didnt mind that.

You know, apparent simplicity is one of the most deceptive ways by which things enter into us. So Ive been working with that surface. Wild is in a way a fruit of that. I strove very hard to make everything clear and yet when you look at it, its not quite as clear as it seems.

Whose poetry do you read?

I tend to read the people that I have liked in the past. I am a returner. I tend to go back to old loves. Its not that I dont make new loves. I am very slow to do that. Also, it takes time to adapt to the poets voice. Or even the personality of the poet.

I think more than the language of poetry, what we respond to most is the soul of the poet, the personality of the poet. And I suppose that is what defines great poetry. Its not just that it is great language. But then, somehow the greatness of the soul shines through the verse. And youre magnetised by this soul, by this personality, by this spirit that is sort of hiding behind all this. Then youve kind of found people that youre good with and you tend to stick with them. So I tend to go back to Rilke, Neruda, you know, people like that. Im a re-visitor.

Does your poetry influence your prose? Your new collection of essays, A Time for New Dreams, is said to be poetic.

Its nice people feel that way, but Ive been interested in boundaries and Ive never been entirely sure that we would be able to make such a strong demarcation between essay and poetry. And besides, the idea of the essay, as we have inherited it, does not appeal to me.

I dont like spending long pages trying to persuade you of something and bringing in endless quotations. And make it longer than it needs to be. Too many essays I read are just too long for their own good. I like the essay to get to its point quickly but mysteriously.

The thing about the poetic; it introduces a penumbra about everything it touches. I like that quality a lot. I like that way in which a simple thing like a spoon gets charged with the poetic way of looking at it.

I thought: Why shouldnt we borrow that for the essay? To combine brevity and this penumbra, this charged atmosphere, I thought would be a great thing to do, to make it as short as possible and yet [gestures with hands, to indicate something enchanting].

Anupama Raju is a poet, journalist, translator and corporate trainer based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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