My recent post about Ben Okri's appearance on CNN's African Voices got me thinking back with fondness to my one encounter with the Booker Prize winner. A very special encounter at that - a filmed interview at the Random House building on Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, on November 28, 2007.
There's an hour-long film of the interview, commissioned by Farafina to coincide with their publication of Okri's 'Starbook' and I have a 7000-word transcript of the same. One of the great surprises of the interview was Okri's insistence that The Famished Road is not Magical Realism, since the magical elements are what Azaro the spirit child sees in the 'I' of the narrative, and not part of the poetic world of the story, as would obtain in, say, One Hundred Years of Solitute. As I understood his argument, the idea of a spirit child is an authentic Nigeria belief - "We believe this," Okri told me - rather than something the author plucks from the air. In other words, the Abiku is 'real'.
We had an "alchemy" during the interview, to borrow one of Okri's favourite words - we got along. He asked which part of Yorubaland I was from and I told him 'the Ilesa axis - Ijesaland' and he told me he'd been in those parts before. It was a fun and inspiring afternoon. Many months later, a couple of weeks before my relocation to Lagos from London, I got a call from him; and when I told him of my intended return to Nigeria, he was encouraging, warm and generous in his praise of my humble talents. Coming from the author of one of the seminal works of my reading life, 'The Famished Road', it was, shall we say, enchanting. "Enchantment" is another of Ben Okri's frequently used words, and I asked him about it during the interview. When you asked him some questions he would smile and say: "You're going to get a riff!" and that was what you got - worlds invoked by words that flowed like the strains of a rhythm guitar.
I had some treasured pictures I took with him at Random House. But a move across continents, one desktop and two laptops and myriad flash drives later (some with corrupted folders), the pictures are gone in the wind, cant be found. I shall keep looking... but there's this mugshot of me that sometimes accompanies my published work, taken with my camera by Okri himself (see the pic at the bottom of my story 'Smoking Bamboo' here).
I recount all this now because the memory alone sure makes me wish I were in London for tomorrow's African Writers Evening discussion between Okri and Sarah Ladipo Manyika. It should be quite something, as the two writers discuss the role of the Bar in literature. There's Madam Koto's bar in 'The Famished Road', of course; and if I remember correctly, there are bar scenes in the Jos section of Manyika's debut novel, 'In Dependence'.
I have some pictures of Manyika reading in Lagos in 2009; will add them to this post tomorrow if I can locate them. Until then, here are excerpts from my 2010 interview with Manyika, followed by my review of her book...
'Africa needs good writers'
‘In Dependence' is published in the UK by Legend Press and in a West African edition by Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press. A blurb on the book notes, in a complimentary tone, that "even the sex is well mannered." Why has Ladipo Manyika not gone with roaring sex scenes, as is de rigueur in contemporary novels by Nigerian female writers? "Just wait till my next book!" she jokes, then adds, "I personally find some of the most enticing... a lot can be left to the reader's imagination." The allure of many a romantic scene, she suggests, "is not about the roaring sex but the anticipation of what is to come."
Love in the swing of time
“One could begin with the dust, the heat and the purple bougainvillea” - so reads the languorous first sentence of Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel, ‘In Dependence’. It sets the pace for the evocative narrative journey that the reader embarks upon in this self assured first novel. The first chapter is over very quickly, but not before introducing many of the side characters in the Nigerian leg of the continent-hopping story of Tayo and Vanessa, the lovers in Manyika’s tale.
Ben Okri & Sarah Ladipo Manyika
African Writers Evening, Level 5 Function Room, South Bank Centre, London SE1.
Thursday, 7 July, 2011. 7.45pm.
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