The Tyranny of Ben Okri

There is little that I can say now about Ben Okri’s article that Sofia Samatar hasn’t already said. It’s a bit surprising that someone of Okri’s experience and stature would blame “black and African Writers” for the failure of readers, publishing companies and, what Bajan-Canadian writer Robert Sandiford calls, “Legitimate Critics” to think beyond what they expect “black and African Literature” is meant to be. I’d always thought that it was public knowledge that there was inequality within publishing industry, and it was this public knowledge that sparked the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, that inspired Book Riot contributor Cassandra Neace to make a commitment to reading writers of color, that inspires Book Riot contributor Amanda Nelson to get into Facebook/Twitter battles with the book bigots of social media and inspired Aarti Chapati’s A More Diverse Universe reading challenge. Movements geared to create greater visibility to writers of color— to expose readers to writers that do not fit comfortably into the white heteronormative male category, and therefore do not get the same exposure.

Like Okri, I do believe that literary works, regardless of who is creating it, shouldn’t place most of the importance on the subject, “Rather, it is the way they are written, the oblique way in which they illuminate something significant.” However, why assume that because a piece of writing deals with with one or more of the aforementioned subjects that it could not also be concerned with the beauty of language and structure? Why assume that those “black and African writers” that deal with one or more of those themes are being oppressed by “mental tyranny”? Can it not be that the writers that Okri is castigating might be freely choosing to address these issues because they matter?

In the first paragraph Okri states that “…we look to writers to reflect the temper of the age,” anyone can flick on the news or scroll their Twitter/ Facebook feed and see that these issues are very much relevant, and if the existing “black and African Writers” don’t discuss them who will? Don’t misunderstand me, there are works out there that focus so hard on the themes, on the message that he/she is trying to convey, that the aesthetic aspect of it seems to have been lost somewhere.

In a way I do understand what he means about the loss of the true significance of art, too many times I’ve heard/read about writers commended or disparaged of their approach to subject rather than aesthetics. Often, it is only really in the academic spaces and the academic/literary journals where everything is considered in its entirety.

However, again is not the fault of the writer but of the existing stereotypes within the publishing industry and a failure on side of Sandiford’s ‘legitimate critics’.

Then there is this obsession that Okri has with “greatness”:

“It is a curious fact that the greatest short stories do not have, on the whole, the greatest or the heaviest of subjects” or ” It is time that black and African writers woke up from their mesmerism with subject. By it they gain a brief success, a small flutter of fame. Then with time the work sinks; but other works whose subject was perhaps less sensational, but whose art is more compelling, make their way through time and win the appreciation of eternal readers.”

I guess these quotes would beg the the question of why writers write , but isn’t it possible that there are writers out there, of any race, nationality and/or gender who may be more concerned about writing about the subject/s that move them rather than write about the subject/s that will earn them “greatness”. Just a thought.


Photo Credit: The Ben Okri Bibliography

You can also check out this response to Ben Okri’s article by JJ Bola titled Black writers are not plagued by mental tyranny (a response to Ben Okri)

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3 Responses to The Tyranny of Ben Okri

  1. Pingback: Happy NEW Year 2015! | The Mustard Seed

  2. I have now read the article by Ben Okri and thanks for linking me in. This discussion reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…the perchant in the literary world to “define” the individual or work in order to label it and that applies to both mainstream and diverse literature. I agree with your comments on subject matter, aesthetics and the ability of a work of art to hold universal appeal regardless of race. My addition to this is that this conscious decision to promote diversity in Literature is a very new movement. I wrote a letter to the Peepal Tree Press on 26th January 2010 actually arguing for diversity in literature in the UK, and at that time there was really nothing out there! Creating that literary environment of “legitimate critics” that Okri refers to does take time and really involves a knowledgeable readership. I also think writers are primarily motivated by subjects taht “move them” and this may be quite a varied range. However in mainstream I believe there is such a scope for writers to have fun and I love writers like for examaple Walter Moseley who will take chances, break the moulds and claim boundaries without sacrificing art or subject matter. I say black, caribbean, diverse whatever we want to call the WRITE!

  3. Please forgive my typos…I have such difficulty with the narrow spaces…:-)

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