About UniVerse
Poets by Nation
Poetry + New Media
Support UniVerse
Ben Okri, poet and novelist, was born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, to an Igbo mother and Urhobo father. He grew up in London before returning to Nigeria with his family in 1968. Much of his early fiction explores the political violence that he witnessed at first hand during the civil war in Nigeria. He left the country when a grant from the Nigerian government enabled him to read Comparative Literature at Essex University in England.

He was poetry editor for West Africa magazine between 1983 and 1986 and broadcast regularly for the BBC World Service between 1983 and 1985. He was appointed Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College Cambridge in 1991, a post he held until 1993. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Westminster (1997) and Essex (2002).

His first two novels, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981), are both set in Nigeria and feature as central characters two young men struggling to make sense of the disintegration and chaos happening in both their family and country. The two collections of stories that followed, Incidents at the Shrine (1986) and Stars of the New Curfew (1988), are set in Lagos and London.

In 1991 Okri was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road (1991). Set in a Nigerian village, this is the first in a trilogy of novels which tell the story of Azaro, a spirit child. Azaro's narrative is continued in Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998). Other recent fiction includes Astonishing the Gods (1995), Dangerous Love (1996), which was awarded the Premio Palmi (Italy) in 2000 and In Arcadia which was published in 2002. His most recent novel STARBOOK was published in August 2007.

A collection of poems, An African Elegy, was published in 1992, and an epic poem, Mental Flight, in 1999. A collection of essays, A Way of Being Free, was published in 1997. Ben Okri is also the author of a play, In Exilus.

Ben Okri is a Vice-President of the English Centre of International PEN, a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre, and was awarded an OBE in 2001. He lives in London.

Undeserved Sweetness
English version

Undeserved Sweetness

After the wind lifts the beggar
From his bed of trash
And blows to the empty pubs
At the road's end
There exists only the silence
Of the world before dawn
And the solitude of trees.

Handel on the set mysteriously
Recalls to me the long
Hot nights of childhood spent
In malarial slums
In the midst of potent shrines
At the edge of great seas.

Dreams of the past sing
With voices of the future.
And now the world is assaulted
With a sweetness it doesn't deserve
Flowers sing with the voices of absent bees
The air swells with the vibrant
Solitude of trees who nightly
Whisper of re-invading the world.

But the night bends the trees
Into my dreams
And the stars fall with their fruits
Into my lonely world-burnt hands.

From An Afrian Elegy, by Ben Okri, used by permission
of The Marsh Agency Ltd. An Afrian Elegy is published
by Vintage Books, Random House.
Living is a Fire
English version

Living is a Fire

Living is a cross
That any one of the rock-faces

We are drawn
To many seas.
We drown wholesomely
In the failures of confrontation.
The rain
Our doorsteps
Has nothing to do
With the simplest desires
And lacerations
We bring
To the smallest acts
Of living.

The child
On the broken catwalk
Hearing the sounds of our hunger
Without understanding
Throws echoes back
To the earliest abandonments
Of love.

Minor devastations preceding
Resonate the ineffable.
The mothers that wake
At the slightest sound
And the fathers that
Smoke all night
And the rest of us who are
Vigilantes from the demons
Of oppressed sleep
Find at dawn the clearest
Images of bewilderment.
Even the best things
Collapse beneath the weight
Of ignorance.

Living is a fire
That any one of the wave-lashes

From An Afrian Elegy, by Ben Okri, used by permission
of The Marsh Agency Ltd. An Afrian Elegy is published
by Vintage Books, Random House.
On Edge of Time Future
English version

On Edge of Time Future

I remember the history well:
The soldiers and politicians emerged
With briefcases and guns
And celebrations on city nights.

They scoured the mess
Reviewed our history
Saw the executions at dawn
Then signed with secret policemen

And decided something
Had to be done.

They scoured the mess
Resurrected old blue-prints
Of vicious times
Tracked the shapes of sinking cities

And learned at last
That nothing can be avoided
And so avoided everything.
I remember the history well.

We emerged from our rubbish mounds
Discovered a view of the sky
As the air danced in heat.

Through the view of the city
In flames, we rewound times
Of executions at beaches.
Salt streamed down our brows.

Everywhere stagger victims of rigged elections
Monolithic accidents on hungry roads
The infinite web of ethnic politics
Power-dreams of fevered winds.

The nation was a map stitched
From the grabbing of future flesh
And became a rush through
Historical slime

We emerged on edge
Of time future
With bright fumes
From burning towers.

The fumes lit political rallies.
We started a war
Ended it
And dreamed about our chance.

Fat fish eat little fish
Big ones arrange executions
And armed robberies.
Our rubbish shapes us all.

I remember the history well.
The tiger’s snarl is bought
In currencies of silence.
Eggs grow large:

A monstrous face is hatched.
On the edge of time future
I am a boy
With running sores

Of remember history
Watching the stitches widen
Waiting for the volcano’s laughter
In the fevered winds

Hearing the gnash
Of those who will join us
At the mighty gateways
With new blue-prints

With dew as seal
And fire as constant
And a trail through time past
To us

Who remember the history well.
We weave words on red
And sing on the edge of blue.
And with our nerves primed

We shall spin silk from rubbish
And frame time with our resolve.

From An Afrian Elegy, by Ben Okri, used by permission
of The Marsh Agency Ltd. An Afrian Elegy is published
by Vintage Books, Random House.