“If you Want to be a Dreamer be a Good Dreamer”

3rd Vol , No1 (January2016)

“If you Want to be a Dreamer be a Good Dreamer”—-Ben Okri at Kolkata Literary Festival.

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Ben Okri is a handsome tall man with an intense presence, came India to attend APEEJAY KOLKATA LITERARY FESTIVAL, 2016 on Saturday eve (15th January2016) 6.30 P.M, at the hall of Victoria Memorial. He wore a royal black jacket over a white shirt, and a black beret. His voice was full of magic but when was reciting his poems, he read in a powerful voice. Unlike other “conversations” in which both participants were equal partners, Sujata Sen modestly took the role of an interviewer for this one. Next day in his discussion on POETRY TO POLITICS, he read his poetry with very firm voice after getting up and walking to a nearby podium. .“A conjurer, a dreamer, a healer Ben Okri is best known for his novel The Famished Road, a phantasmagoric tale about an Abiku or “spirit child,” a boy who in Yoruba tradition lives closer to the spirit world than ordinary mortals and who is fated to die young. His later fiction has become more abstract and allegorical.

Born in 1959, in northern Nigeria, to an Igbo mother and Urhobo father, Okri has said his biggest literary influence has been his mother. Okri’s work is particularly difficult to categorize. Although it has been widely categorized as post-modern, some scholars have noted that the seeming realism with which he depicts the spirit-world challenges this categorization. If Okri does attribute reality to a spiritual world, it is claimed, then his “allegiances are not postmodern because he still believes that there is something a historical or transcendental conferring legitimacy on some, and not other, truth-claims.” The alternative characterization of Okri’s work suggests an allegiance to Yoruba folklore, New Ageism, spiritual realism, magical realism, visionary materialism, and existentialism. Against these analyses, Okri has always rejected the categorization of his work as magical realism, claiming that this categorization is the result of laziness on the part of critics and likening this categorization to the observation that “a horse … has four legs and a tail. That doesn’t describe it.” He has instead described his fiction as obeying a kind of “dream logic,” and stated that his fiction is often preoccupied with the “philosophical conundrum … what is reality?” insisting that: —“I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death … Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.” For Okri, the primary impulse behind a work of literature is “akin to the first feelings when you have a cold coming on, only more metaphysical, breach, a disturbance in the spirit.” An idea first comes to him in the form of a poem. “Everything is embedded in it as a tree is embedded in the seed.” The poem may remain a poem, or it may turn into a story or a novel. A poem is often an incomplete swell of feeling, or maybe even just a beat that latches on to a wandering theme. Inspiration is free. It is everywhere: it is in books, it is in conversation, it is in art, it is in films, it is in history, it is in our lives. But we know that poetry is as rich as the human race.

For most of us, childhood was a period of our most intense and furious dreaming.
In ”A Mental Fight”, Okri assures the reader that, ‘you can’t remake the world without remaking yourself’ , a recurring leitmotif often defined as a ‘redreaming’ or ‘dreaming into reality’ which he further explores in his collection of essays ”A Time for New Dreams” (2011). The final stanza of ”A Mental Fight ”also concludes with, ‘this is the time to dream the best dream of all’, and it is this mental process of metamorphosis that empowers the transforming of reality. Creativity, he said, is bound up with destruction — an unpopular idea these days. He once wrote a hundred poems over the course of three months, kept five, and destroyed the rest. “If you’re strong enough to destroy, you’re strong enough to create.”
In his book ”A Time for New Dreams ”(2011), Ben Okri describes poetry as ‘the great river of soul-murmurings that runs within humanity’, and true literature as ‘the encounter of possibilities’ that ‘tears up the script of what we think humanity to be’. It makes something from what seems like nothing. How insubstantial words are, who can weight a word on a scale, even against a feather or truth? And yet see how much words weight in the heart, in the imagination, in dream, echoing down the ages, as durable as the pyramids. Poetry hints at the god like in us and causes us to resound with high places of being.
To him ”Books are like mirrors. Don’t just read the words! Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are;- Inside, Behind. That’s where the gods dream, where our realities are born”
The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love. Ben Okri’s epic poem “Mental Fight” is a song of rage and restoration. It speaks to each new moment and each new person, like sunlight or like pain, an anthem to our ascending dreams and a hymn of inspiration. Mental fight is full of his “modest maxims”. He recites:-
”An illusion by which we can become
More real.
A moment unremarked by the universe,
By nature, the seasons, or stars.
Moment we have marked out
In timelessness.
Human moment.
Making a ritual, a drama, a tear on eternity
Domesticating the infinite.
Contemplating the quantum questions,
Time, death, new beginnings,
Regeneration, cycles, the unknown.” (Mental Fight 1)

Ben Okri is that rare thing, a literary and social visionary, a writer for whom all three—literature, culture, and vision are profoundly interwoven. He knows how to make possible the impossible, how to turn the ordinary moment or mind into the legendary, how to turn darkness into light, which is the core of his poems. He recited

“As clouds pass above our heads
So time passes through our lives.
Where does it go,
And when it passes,
What do we have to show?
We can plant deeds in time
As gardeners plant roses.
We can plant thoughts, or good words too
Especially if they are noble and true.
Time is an act of consciousness:
One of the greatest forces
Of the material world.
We ought to use time
Like emperors of the mind: ———

We can wake to the power of our voice,
Change the world with the power of our choice.
So dream a good dream today
And keep it going in every way.”(Wild)

Ben Okri’s new collection of poetry Wild (2012) has been highly praised for its beauty of language and sweep of subjects: art and love, the personal to the philosophical. In these often carefully-rhymed poems, ‘the wild’ is an imaginative realm. It is an alternative to the familiar, the abode of spirits and sprites (as in ‘Dark Light’) and an enhanced vision of Nature (‘More Fishes than Stars’). For Okri, the writer is as much a dreamer as an observer. What is most important to him though is mental freedom. “For it is possible to be free in the world and unfree in your head. The most striking thing about great literature is the strength of freedom that flows through its pages.” He recites

“I sing a new freedom
Freedom with discipline.
We need freedom to rise higher.
Be true to yourself
In the follies of our times.”(Wild)

His writing does exactly as acclaimed for his poetic vision as for the beauty of his language, in these poems Okri captures the tenderness and the fragility, as well as the depths and the often hidden directions of our lives. To him, the ‘wild’ is an alternative to the familiar, where energy meets freedom, where art meets the elemental, where chaos can be honed. The wild is our link to the stars…He recites one poem for his Father ”O Lion, Rome No More,”
”O father lion roaming in my being,
Merge into me
Help me be free
Multiply my powers
Beyond the ancestral towers
Bless me with your wisdom
Guide me to my kingdom
Be the invisible warrior
In my life’s upward fight—
There is much to do for mankind
Lend me your might
In the glorious fight
Lend me power
In the need of the hour —-
O Lion, rage and roam no more
In your son’s troubled mind
Rest now on that blessed shore
Where eternal light is most kind.” (Wild)
In a poem, He is celebrating a new dream of political power bringing peace, health and happiness that comes close to conjuring a vision of a bearded angel. A New Dream of Politics is a salute to idealism, and a rejection of “cynics and doomsayers”,
His firm voice utters “But we need politicians who read widely, who read the classics, the masters, but who also read contemporary writers, who read across colour, across race, across class. If we don’t have politicians who read widely, how can we ever get to a new politics?” A politics without dreams is arid and barren, just a machine for winning elections. We need politicians with great dreams for the people and reading is the absolute starting point.”
”Can we still seek the lost angels
Of our better natures?
Can we still wish and will
For poverty’s death and a newer way
To undo war, and find peace in the labyrinth
Of the Middle East, and prosperity
In Africa as the true way
To end the feared tide of immigration?”
The ode takes an apparent swipe at Corbyn’s opponents, inside and outside the Labour party, who have damned him as idealistic but unelectable, a dreamer not a doer.
”They say there is only one way for politics
That it looks with hard eyes at the hard world
And shapes it with a ruler’s edge
Measuring what is possible against
Acclaim, support, and votes.”
Okri sets this against the measures of political greatness “in ancient times”, calculated “by the gold of contentment”, by laughter, peace, justice and health. Even happiness for poets, since one of his indicators is the silent appreciation of bards telling of such good governance. He states unequivocally Nations that imprison, torture or assassinate, or drive their writers into exile fall into the deadlands of their own darkness. “If you want to know what is happening to a nation, find out what is happening to its writers.”According to Okri, writing by hand also teaches you patience.

“When you write, you write slower than the speed of thought. It teaches you to hold your ideas but if you type you run away with stupid ideas. In writing there is a gap between the stupid ideas and writing it down. It helps in self editing and shaping thoughts,”
Poets want nothing from you, only that you listen to your deepest selves. Unlike politician, they don’t want your votes. He spoke ”I imagine a reader who, like me, is a bit exasperated with the accumulation of the follies of our times, someone ready for a new way of looking, thinking and being; someone who combines youth and experience, idealism and realism. Someone who isn’t afraid to dream but also is not afraid to roll up their sleeves and participate in the tough magic of life.” Okri, the writer is as much a dreamer as an observer, he spoke, there’s always a new way, a better way that’s not been tried before. He states. “There is so much more to life. There are dreams, there is laughter, and there is kindness, humour, playfulness, culture, so much more.” So dream a good dream today.


Kolkata Literary Festival is covered by Surabhi Bhattacharjee (Editor-In-Chief of didichAsian Signature).