“Human denial is a powerful thing,” says the Nigerian-British author, Ben Okri. “We put off phone calls and avoid tackling that mountain of washing. We avoid going to the doctor because we don’t want to face our health problems. Our refusal to face the climate crisis is another example of that, but writ large. It’s almost as if there is a denial gland somewhere in our brains.”
Our ostrich-like tendencies about the climate crisis are the theme of Tiger Work, Okri’s new book of poems, essays and short stories. Intense, evocative and frequently chilling, it is a literary howl of frustration at our inaction in the face of existential threat. In the short story And Peace Shall Return, a future civilisation stumbles on tattered evidence of a “vanished species” who “altered nothing in their lives to try to avert the disaster that they saw coming and which was evident every day.” In Existential Creativity is a polemic in which Okri proposes that all his writing “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.”
Okri first made his name as a novelist – he won the 1991 Booker Prize for The Famished Road, about a child who moves between the human and spirit worlds – though he considers himself primarily a poet. Works from his first poetry collection, 1992’s An African Elegy, are studied in schools, while his televised reading of his 2017 poem Grenfell Tower – “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the tower and let a world-changing dream flower” – has been viewed six million times.
Moving between mediums allows Okri to reach the widest possible audience, which is his aim in Tiger Work. Climate change, he tells me, is the “most important crisis to face us within the memory of human consciousness. It is a catastrophe that’s been foretold by science, foretold by data. That is what makes it so terrifying for me. Very few people on this planet can pretend to not be aware that something is wrong with our relationship with the climate. This is not so much a climate problem as a human problem.”
“Climate change is the most important crisis to face us within the memory of human consciousness”
There are, of course, many ways to bring about change, from altering our individual habits, to petitioning politicians, to the disruptive tactics of climate activists such as Just Stop Oil. Can art make a tangible difference? “Yes, it can!” Okri exclaims. “Art has a way of leaking into people’s lives. It can saturate the consciousness of an age, making an issue impossible to ignore. I think art might even be able to do the thing that science is not able to. Science can give us the data, and the data can sometimes be very frightening, or just too abstract. What art can do is make it emotional. It can make it personal, intimate and generational. And to make an issue generational is extremely powerful.”
Looking dapper in his trademark beret, Okri, 64, is speaking via video call from Bordeaux, where he is currently on holiday. “Ah, but the work never stops,” he says with a smile. For the rest of the time he is based in London, where he has lived since his late teens when he moved there from Nigeria with his first finished novel in his luggage.
If there is the tense, chaotic atmosphere of a war zone in Tiger Work’s post-apocalyptic visions, it is no accident. “We can’t avoid the things that shaped us, and I grew up in a time of crises which included civil war, poverty and failed governments,” Okri explains. “That sense of crisis has been the background of my life and my thinking, and I think it has helped give me a language to address this situation that we’re in now.”
Born in Minna in Nigeria, Okri moved with his parents to Peckham, London, when he was eighteen months old so his father could study law. When he was seven, his mother told him they were moving back to Nigeria. His white friends at school were horrified. “They said: ‘They’ve got lions in the streets out there and people living in trees.’ They told me I should run away and that the council would take me in.” And so Okri went home and told his mother he would be staying in London. She ended up tricking him into leaving, persuading him onto the boat to say his goodbyes until it set sail. When the family arrived in Lagos, there was a big welcoming party from their extended family. Okri recalls “entering this new world of colours and smells and sounds and food and generosity. What was supposed to be traumatic was a revelation. I had no idea the world had so many different dimensions.”
Real trauma would come later when civil war broke out. “I saw death and neighbours being shot [owing to] the tribal battles, and I am seeing the same patterns developing where I live now,” Okri says. “In the UK we pass laws stopping people on boats seeking asylum and we have a culture that is terrified of immigrants. It’s the same creeping terror of the ‘other’.”
“We have a culture that is terrified of immigrants… of the ‘other’”
When he came back to London in his late teens, it was with the aim of building a career as a writer. He had previously had dreams of becoming a scientist, but then he read his way through his father’s library and “something happened between the Russian writers and Ibsen and Dickens. My life’s course shifted because I fell in love with the magic of what words and stories can do.” Okri got a Nigerian government scholarship to study comparative literature at Essex University but after two years the government cancelled his funding, forcing him to leave and return to London (he was later awarded an honorary degree at Essex). Months of extreme hardship followed during which he was homeless and often slept rough. It was only when a friend stepped in and lent him £300 that he was able to rent a room, start over and concentrate on his writing.
The impact of winning the Booker Prize – at 32, he was both the youngest and the first black man to do so – was instant and extraordinary. “It multiplies your readership and opens up all sorts of possibilities,” he reflects. “If you’re young like I was, and you’re just coming through with a breakthrough novel, it’s like a big tidal wave. You’re just clinging on to any wreckage you can find so you’re not swept away.” Okri says his work ethic helped keep his feet on the ground. Even so, he was surprised to find people treating him differently. “I felt I needed to carry a small plaque in front of me saying: “It’s just me, Ben. It’s just me, I’m the same as I was before.”
I ask if history repeated itself earlier this year when he was awarded a knighthood for services to literature. Does he now need a plaque saying: “It’s just me, Sir Ben”? Okri laughs and shakes his head. “I’ll tell you what this knighthood means to me. It gives me focus. It gives me a sword that I can use to spread awareness about the power of literature and literacy to free our voices, and about our climate.”
Okri believes it is up to authors to rise to the challenge of making the issues around the climate crisis digestible and, rather than simply terrify people, help them find a way to talk about it. “I think we’re all a bit paralysed because we have not found a way to get our brains and our mouths around it. We haven’t yet found the language. What I’m trying to do with Tiger Work is to break down this complex issue, which has so many sides to it. In the book, I ask, ‘Can you hear the future weeping?’ Even if just that one phrase leaps out and makes people think more deeply about where we are headed, then I will have done something worthwhile.”
“Tiger Work” is published by
Head of Zeus, £12.99
Fiona Sturges is an arts critic and interviewer who writes for the Guardian