The Freedom Artist

Ben Okri in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary
Presented by Mathrubhumi

‘The higher the artist, the fewer the gestures,’ he said.
‘The higher the artist, the fewer the gestures’ he showed.
Talking about his upcoming book, The Freedom Artist, widely-loved Nigerian author Ben Okri shed light on his journey so far and views on ideas like freedom. In conversation with writer Chandrahas Choudhary, Okri began the session by talking of how he found himself “practically levitating” when his first manuscript was accepted for publication.
Taking it forward, he explained that “a writer is always trying to find the right expression”. On the theme of short stories, he beautifully captured the essence of that form by describing it as “a jeweler’s art- a miniaturist”. Okri opined that every book can be equated to a writer’s way of attacking and questioning reality. “I think every novel that a writer writes is about specific questions that the writer is asking the world”.
He also mused over the theme of relevance of language in the field of literature. “We’re inflamed by the public language of politicians- the demonizing language of politicians,” he observed and praised the liberating role of language in the field of literature. He made special mention of poetry in this regard,saying “poetry keeps language functional at the highest level”.
Steering the discussion forward, Choudhary quizzed Okri on a comment which went: “Writers and politicians- both are storytellers, both liars”. The witty remark, which met with quite some laughter, was tackled by Okri equally wittily. Agreeing with the statement, while at the same time bringing out a subtle point of difference, Okri commented, “Politicians use lies to persuade us because that is what the function of politics really is: draining of power from the people. But the writer is not trying to drain power from the people, rather, trying to empower people”. Many heads nodded in agreement. “There are also politicians who are artists like Mandela and Mahatama Gandhi. There are also artists who are politicians”, he quipped lightly.
Choudhary next pitched a question on why Okri had put an instruction of “Read Slowly” before his book to which the latter replied, “I want people to read this book slowly-I feel we do too many things too fast”. Sharing further insights, he added, “We miss 80 percent when we read too fast. We impose our instructions on the secret instructions of the text but when we read slowly, we magnify what we are reading”. His advice to a lady’s query of how to read slowly when she is so busy, was to suggest that a busy life should serve not as an excuse, but as an impetus for us to push to read slower and grasp deeper meanings.
Okri also discussed fundamental questions like his ideas on the concept of freedom. “Freedom for me is the highest act of respect that human beings pay to one another”. He added, “freedom is allowing of someone’s genius to flower so that my genius can flower. So for me, freedom is mutually empowering.”
The introspective session was clearly high on enthusiasm, as it exceeded the time limit. Okri commented on the cover of his book and the placement of phrases by explaining: “At the lowest level ‘Ben Okri’; middle level ‘The Freedom Artist’ since we don’t know who it is; and at the highest level is the question, ‘Who is the Prisoner?’ because it concerns all of us.”

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