We guess a lot of people are wondering what’s been happening to Ben Okri. After writing Starbook, the Booker-winning author took a long break. Well, he’s back now with a new book, A Time for New Dreams; a collection of poetic essays. Considering the political climate in Nigeria now, we couldn’t agree more that the title is an appropriate one. As usual, the book is written in the unique Ben Okri style; an infusion of poetry and prose. He was recently interviewed by Granta’s Saskia Vogel and in this interview, he tells us more about the book. Enjoy!
SV: The essays in your collection, A Time for New Dreams, are redolent with stirring observations on poetry, childhood and other themes. How did you come to write this new book? Were you writing for a specific reader?
BO: I tend to write books of essays with a theme running through them. It takes a while for the theme to coalesce for me. It can sometimes be years before I know that certain pieces of writing resonate and belong together. But I am always listening.
My first collection of essays, A Way of Being Free, coalesced around the idea of freedom, but it was more an attitude, an orientation even. It was generously received and it took me a while to think I could say something beyond that. A Time For New Dreams is not a collection of essays in a normal sense. Essays are usually a full exploration of an idea and they give evidence and quotations along the way. That was too laborious for what I was trying to do in this book. I felt a need to bring about a marriage of forms and was interested in finding the place where poetry and the essay meet, which is why A Time For New Dreams is subtitled ‘poetic essays’. I sense that poetic essays, or what I tried to do in this book, should be an essay with the brevity and spring of poetry. The astonishing thing about poetry is that it leaps to place itself having already done all the thinking and imagining required, and gives you the fruit of that meditation. That is what I wanted with this collection.
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.
SV: In many of the essays – ‘The Romance of Difficult Times’, for example – you number the paragraphs, some of which are as short as a single line. Other essays, such as ‘Photography and Immortality’, take a more standard prose form. How do you decide on the structure of your texts?
BO: I find that the structure emerges from the idea itself. Sometimes an idea can almost become too luxuriant in its expression and you need a structure, not to tame it, but to arrive at what, for me, is the ideal in the form of the compressed essay. This gives an idea of expressiveness combined with restraint, power held back by form, intensity that’s not allowed to explode all over the place but to have a pouncing feel. And only the right form will do that.
Every piece ought to have something of the quality of a living thing – a slight quality of immeasurability – and only in its true form can it achieve this. Also, I like brevity of thought. There are few things more powerful in writing than a strong thought, whether a thesis or anti-thesis, expressed briefly. It is a paradox contained in a nutshell. I like powerful small units, so the aphorism threads its way through this volume.
There are these varied forms as the book is also structured round an idea of a suite, with a leading melody running through it – the melody of childhood. This is the foremost melody because, for most of us, childhood was a period of our most intense and furious dreaming. The title, A Time For New Dreams, is just a hint that it would be good to recover that dreaming in adulthood and to have that elasticity of imagination in our adult years. So the melody of childhood is the keynote, running against other melodies of politics and censorship.