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Magical Ben Okri casts a spell on his readers

From Nima Elbagir, CNN
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Discovering a love of literature
  • Nigerian writer Ben Okri is one of the world's most distinguished writers
  • In 1991 he won the Booker prize for his novel "The Famished Road"
  • Growing up witnessing "casual brutality" influenced his writing

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- For decades, poetry, novels and essays have flowed from Ben Okri's fingertips, making him one of Africa's most eminent contemporary writers.

Often described as a "magical realist," Okri has been using his literary voice to guide readers into a world of mystical journeys.

The acclaimed author and poet was born in Nigeria and spent his first years in the UK, before returning to Lagos, where he discovered his love of literature.

He rose to international fame in 1991 with the publication of the Booker Prize-winning "The Famished Road" -- a novel set in a Nigerian village that tells the story of Azaro, a spirit-child.

Okri, whose latest book "A Time for New Dreams" came out earlier this year, opened up to CNN about the purpose of his writing and what Africa means to him.

An edited version of the interview follows.

A time for new dreams
Sleeping on the streets in London

CNN: You wrote your first poem at the age of 14 ...

Ben Okri: It's a moment that changed my life, really. On this particular day it was raining and everybody in the house was out so I was the only one indoors.

I think Miles Davis or one of Mozart's symphonies was on the radio and I took a piece of paper and I drew what was on the mantle piece and I spent a lot of time doing this and when I finished I wrote a poem -- and I looked at the drawing and it was terrible and I read the poem and it was alright. And that day I decided I was going to be a writer rather than a painter.

CNN: You were born in Nigeria and then you came to the United Kingdom and then you went back at the age of seven, and that was during a really pivotal time in Nigeria.

BO: I had heard so many stories about Africa, most of them negative, like lions walking in the street and people living in trees and things like that.

But I went back to Nigeria and Lagos was teeming with energy and optimism and discovered relations, found a world of vitality. But not long after that the civil war broke out and that was the second turning point in my life.

CNN: Did you go back to that childhood experience when you were writing "The Famished Road?"

BO: There's a big story between that and there's first of all surviving the civil war, well, the philosophical and human impact the war had on me.

I witnessed as a kid just so much casual brutality -- I saw people being shot, I saw people who are neighbors suddenly would disappear, there was a stream that was full of dead bodies, you know these were themes that a boy, any young person, takes a while to absorb the reality of it ...

The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz.
--Ben Okri

That was important and the questions that the war raised in me, the questions of how people can be neighbors one day, enemies the next, the kind of courage I saw ... the cowardice I saw ... all kinds of things I saw and heard has given me much to think about over the years.

That's the backdrop to my feeling of what it is to be human, in a way -- that baptism of cultural fire -- and it led me to the great questions of my life: what reality means, what it is to be human -- it drove me into philosophy ... It's a backdrop, but it's a philosophical and human backdrop that I haven't entirely recovered from and don't entirely intend to recover from.

CNN: In "A Time for New Dreams" you say Africa is difficult to see truly. So what do you see when you look at Africa?

BO: I see a medley of richness and possibility, a confusion of past and present, a dance of too many voices, cries of suffering and injustice, dominant melody of tyranny. I see many different periods in one. The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz, if you like.

In the midst of so much blood and wars and tribal divisions and confusion and famines and all of that -- that is what I see. It's a rich, complex, confusing music in which a new melody, a new note, is slowly emerging, slowly sounding through.

See more of the Ben Okri interview. Video

CNN: Do you want people to walk away with a lesson from your work?

BO: I think the first thing I really want to do is to inscribe on the mind. Scratch something on the mind. It is not important for me as a writer that you leave a piece of writing of mine with either an agreement or even a resonance with what I have said.

What is important is that you leave with the resonance of what you have felt and what you thought in reaction to that. So my writing is intended for the reader to hit it and bounce back into themselves.

CNN: Where do your books end and you begin? Are we getting your world view? Are you opening the window for us when we open your books?

BO: Yes, but it's a window that you look into it and what you see is aspects of yourself, if I'm any good. The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it's about us, it's about the reader.

Reading is an act of civilization; it's one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities. And in the building of those castles of possibilities it frees the creative matrix of men and women. When you can imagine you begin to create and when you begin to create you realize that you can create a world that you prefer to live in, rather than a world that you're suffering in.