Writings / Essays

Ben Okri and the Convention of Nigerian Prose Fiction

Halima Sekula

Because his setting, themes and character realizations are peculiar to the Nigerian national terrain, Okri’s novels are integral components of Nigerian prose-fiction to which the Nigerian novel is a befitting heir. The Nigerian Novel itself evolved from oral forms such as the epic, legends and other forms of oral traditional performances (Phoebe Jatau 2001). Jatau further states that, in its evolution, the prose in African soil “…began to be concerned with the authentic, realistic complex affairs of men in society.”

Apart from introducing new stylistic trends for proselytizing African experience, colonialism also facilitated a trajectory of problematics for the Nigerian writer. This is because from the first generation of Nigerian writing to contemporary creative writing in Nigeria, the Nigerian writer has sought to grapple with the role of Western norms and values which were first introduced into Nigerian value systems through colonialism. In terms of style, the Nigerian writer of prose fiction employs either the novel form or the short story format. E.M. Forster’s (1974) definition of the novel as long imaginative prose of at least 50,000 words gives significance to length in the competent realization of the form and concerns of the novel. However, the Nigerian writer has modified the concept of the novel to suit his own peculiar needs, thus an important novel such as No Longer at Ease is less than 50000 words. On the other hand, the short story as a form enforces brevity on the writer because it often aspires to Edgar Allan Poe’s criterion for the short story as graduating towards a single unifying effect.

The major areas of convergence of the novel and the short story within which Ben Okri’s literary motifs are expounded are narrativity and the versatility of prose fiction in its subjugation of elements of other genres for the realization of aesthetic value and social relevance. For instance, Okri’s texts especially The Famished Road and The Landscapes Within combine elements of the dramatic and folklore in their explication of Nigeria’s postmodernist experience. Furthermore, the genre of prose fiction offers a prolificacy of subgenres such as the novella, the prose poem and the popular fiction, which add to its sustenance as a relevant art form in Nigerian literature.

Because of its origins the history of the modern prose form in Nigeria is almost parallel with the various development stages of colonial/ postcolonial experience in Nigeria. Thus the genre of prose fiction has enabled the Nigerian writer to rewrite himself into the space declared void by the colonial perceptions of Africa as a ‘frontier’ inhabited by primitive peoples. Examples of this recreation are novels such as Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. This means that Nigerian fiction, through the use of peculiar literary conventions and image clusters, attempts to shape and redirect socio-cultural thoughts of the populace through art. Nigerian writers use their ability to create a vision of society as a tool or power to influence economic, social or political factors. This is because cultural norms and values are depicted as positive or negative in prose fiction in order for the readers to react to such depictions. For instance, the parody of the colonial mentality of early educated Nigerians in texts such as The Interpreters, The Lion and the Jewel and No Longer at Ease ridicules the inferiority complex of some educated Africans in relation to western values, and these texts helped to also recreate positive images of certain aspects of indigenous Nigeria culture. These values include marriage and the issue of bride price and, in the case of No Longer at Ease, concern for a fellow townsman. The creative writer is able to emphasize the positivity or otherwise of certain social values through the recurrent use of certain images which, in literature become conventionalized. Therefore, Okri’s portrayal of corrupt politician in The Famished Road re-echoes Chief Nanga’s character in A Man of the People. Northrop Frye (1973:406) states that this type of creative process is a symbiosis of a text’s originality and the pedigree of preceding texts and concludes by arguing that:

Every poem is a member of the class of things called poems. Some poems … proclaim that they are conventional, in other words that their primary context is in literature. Other poems leave this inference to the critic, with an appealing if often misplaced confidence.

However, the focus is not merely the re-shaping of creative principles or the employment of myths and archetypes to fit a text into a type of literature, the relevance of the archetype to the text’s theme is also of interest. Okri’s novels and short stories reveal that the writer not only uses established conventions but creates new myths, principles and newer ways of perceiving literary social reality. That originality which is derived by employing older conventions to create new ones is achieved through the writer’s deviation from established literary conventions. Thus, while The Interpreters and The Landscapes Within explore Nigerian urban society, Okri’s novel’s trajectory is on the daily existence of ordinary city dwellers, and in contrast to Soyinka’s novel, the city’s elites and political leaders are in the outskirts of the text’s realm.

This perspective of literature implies that Nigerian postcolonial writing is a continuous experience with epochs not necessarily moving abruptly from stage one to stage two but involving an evolutionary form of assessing the totality of the Nigerian social experience from different and influential epochs, and this involves Nigerian writers of varying socio- political, cultural and economic backgrounds. This means also that the peculiarities of fictional presentation of the Nigerian nation’s underdevelopment is a convention developed by Nigerian writers and it leads to a text being recognized as a Nigerian text and therefore, issues of the Nigerian civil war, patriarchy, colonialism, tribalism and poverty are recurrent images. In society, crucial aspects of social cultures and social structures are passed from one generation to the next through the process of socialization. In that same manner, residues of literary culture are carried on from one generation to another especially if the modalities that originated the conventions in the first place still exist. Thus imperialism and globalization ensures, in Nigerian literature, the continuing relevance of colonialism and postcolonialism. On the other hand, the existence of a literary culture in Nigeria does not indicate a stereotyped homogeneity in Nigerian literary output because of the cultural, religious and ideological diversity among Nigeria writers. This heterogeneousness reinforces the originality and multiple nature of Nigerian writers’ perspectives.

In Northrop Frye’s analysis, the context of a literary text is as important as its verbal content. As a critic Frye is concerned with the whole range of the author’s literary influences, and he defines these as the writer’s use of “certain structural elements in literary tradition, such as conventions, genres, and the recurring use of certain images or image clusters.” (1973: 6) and he refers to these image clusters as archetypes. To exemplify his exegesis, Frye analysed John Milton’s use of the basic principles of theme and style in the pastoral poem “Lycidas.” From his critical evaluation of Milton’s use of forms in that poem, Frye emphasizes that: “Myth as a whole provides a diagram or blue print of what literature as a whole is all about, an imaginative survey of the human situation from the beginning to the end, from the height to the depth, of what is imaginatively conceivable” (7). Therefore in literature myth is not necessarily the supernatural phenomenon of the unseen but a literary principle of themes and styles observable in certain genres of literature and these recognizable signs or codes are continually employed by writers but with varying deviations from the original myth.

This therefore means that a symbol, theme or style becomes a myth or an archetype through consistent and recurrent use either by one author or one generation of authors or by different generations of authors. The creation of literary myths is presumptive upon the use of symbols. For instance, the characters of Chief Winsala in Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Chief Nanga in Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People and the nameless politician in The Famished Road conventionalize the myth of the corrupt politician in Nigerian literature. According to Northrop Frye, it is the recurrent use of these conventions of literary symbols which converts them into archetypes. So the persistent image clusters employed by Nigerian writers to depict the Nigerian citizen as alienated and economically underprivileged become literary archetypes of the Nigerian man and these archetypes are models through which social and cultural attitudes are revealed and reassessed. Thus, for a literary character or situation to be recognizable, it must conform to certain values in the society and if that occurs, the character or situation is one of the literary archetypes of the social value to which it conforms.

Furthermore, archetypes express not just the universality of human experience, but also separate literature as a distinct art with intrinsic models of construction. Okri, his contemporaries as well as his predecessors write about the development crises in the Nigerian state, and they portray a nation of vast possibilities where the majority of her citizens exist in poverty and alienation. But instead of a political treatise, these writers recreate actions leading to poverty and alienation in fictional forms. This perspective of analysis also presupposes Nigerian creative art and criticism as functional to nation building. In this context, it is clear that the writer’s socio-cultural background and social existence is as important as a critical analysis or explication of his creative output and that social and literary antecedents influence his fiction. This is because, “[t]he historical origin of the convention may be lost in ritual, but it is a constantly latent one, not only in literature but in life” ( Frye, 1973: 405). Therefore the concept of image clusters, archetypes and symbols is not just a convention of repetition of old ideas but is rather a creation of new art forms from pre-existing literary conventions. Okri uses the convention of urban depression in Nigeria to portray a country of selfish individuals. It is not just the guilt of African political leaders and foreign imperialists which is relevant to his image clusters, but also the added newer theme of the collective guilt of the Nigerian people as contributing to the nation’s underdevelopment. This is revealed in many characters’ numbness to political issues, their focus on transient material gain and lack of positive moral principles. Furthermore, these characters’ petty, unimportant resentments against each other are peculiar image clusters encoded into the Nigerian literary corpus by Okri’s depiction of humanity in Nigerian literature. As such, Okri is at once conventional and original. However, apart from the creative tradition of a society, the role of the author has become an important focal point in contemporary literary analysis.

The relevance or otherwise of the writer’s socio-cultural background to the interpretation of his work is examined in Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” (1989). And Foucault arrives at the conclusion that an author’s name “performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuming a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, and differentiate them and contrasts to others. In addition, it establishes a relationship among the texts” (267). In grouping together the texts selected for this analysis – namely Flowers And Shadows, The Landscapes Within, Incidents at The shrine, Stars of The New Curfew and The Famished Road – together they form a ‘literature’ linked by the name, symbol or tradition with the author function tagged ‘Ben Okri.’ Mark Spilka (1973) also writes of the role of an author in textual creation thus:

Authors are that common element which persists, even in changing aspects, throughout their whole production: they inform specific works yet at the same time stand outside them, they are the shapers, makers and accomplishers whom critics must consult if they would analyze organic wholes (211).

This elucidates the fact that while Spilka recognizes the authorial role as the most dominant form of influence, Michel Foucault imposes a social significance beyond individual creation on creative writing itself when he observes that the process of writing is the process of killing the author. According to him, the author who precedes the written text ceases to be the moment the text takes life, “using all the contrivances that he set up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark, the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence” (in Schleiffer 1973: 264). Nevertheless, in the context of Nigerian literature, the author’s disappearance is merely a case of being partly immersed within the context of Nigerian literary endeavours. His writing now speaks for itself not so much because the author is irrelevant, but rather because the socially recognizable issues embedded in his work modify his individuality, even as he, at the same time, writes a modified literary convention into his text. In other words, the author’s individuality appears to cease the moment the text becomes recognizable as belonging to a particular set of signifiers and symbols. But even when the author seems to disappear by virtue of his narrative distance, he is still within the text because his individual perspective has recreated existing literary or social conventions. The author’s voice is only muted by the many influences and antecedents involved in recreating the text for the reader.

Thus the author’s perceived disappearance does not make him less important because, for as long as the text is in existence, it is recognized as emerging from one author and one socio-literary context and not the other. For instance, Ben Okri’s use of exaggerated archetypes of Nigerian citizens and his use of the image clusters which reveal poverty, crime and child disempowerment are unique to him as a Nigerian writer.

Foucault’s discourse de-emphasizes the author in the end product of literary creativity. Nevertheless, the author continues to be of paramount importance if a text has not been categorized as a communally owned myth of creation – especially since a novel is not the society but the author’s perception of it. For instance, while Achebe perceives the urban dweller as a character with strong tribal, sometimes overbearing, bonds, Ben Okri’s texts describes the urban dweller as lonely and lacking in communal support systems. These varying perceptions of urban Nigerian existence validate the influence of creative individuality even as a writer operates within conventional literary forms. It also means that the text is a record of an individual’s reactions to the social facts according to his own worldview.

Thus, Okri’s socio-historical background as a Nigerian who has lived in the Nigerian urban area is evident in his fiction, making him an active participant in textual encoding as well as interpretation. For instance, the short story “Disparities” explores the archetypes of the London life of a Nigerian migrant who is displaced and isolated from the mainstream of Western social activities. The writer’s perspective is unique in the sense that though the narration explores the migrant from the perspective of the ‘other’ in London society, Okri’s own migrancy in Britain, however different from the character’s, prepares the author to write “Disparities”. So in Nigerian Literature, with the heterogeneity of languages, culture, religion and geographical influences, the author’s experiences pervade a text, like an inferential ghost. What the Nigerian author’s presence does is to signify that author ‘B’ could not have written a story or novel written by author ‘A’ because human individuality, emotional perspectives on existence and ethnic experiences differ from one writer to another.

In Okri’s novel and short stories, the author disappears only when his works are wholly viewed within the context of a literary tradition, or convention. If his depiction of modernity and urbanization is completely in synch with the textual portrayals of Ekwensi in Jagua Nana, Achebe in No Longer at Ease or Soyinka in The Interpreters, Okri has been submerged within the contexts of Nigerian prose fiction in a manner which makes him invisible. But the fact that no two texts are completely alike proves that no matter how much of a writer a member of any literary community is, his or her distinctiveness as an encoder is always revealed by the uniqueness of creativity.

Mark Spilka also cautions that the New Critics’ complete ostracization of the author is a reductionist view of the biographical factors which have informed a particular text’s creation. In response to the New Critics’ insistence on the literary text’s autonomy, Spilka writes that: “Autonomy itself is relative: all works of art exist within surrounding contexts, on which their quality depends” (211). He further exemplifies his point of view with Walter Sutton perception that poems emphasize “common experience and shared value.” What this means therefore is that literature must have not only an aesthetic value but also incorporate social context in order to be successful. For a text to survive as part of a society’s production, it must hold a recognizable value which makes its existence valid. The text’s value is judged by the author’s ability to experientially write a society into a text, in essence, this is the function of myths or archetypes in literary convention because the creative conventions deployed by the author are signposts which help the readers’ identification of themes and style (Frye: 1973). In addition, Mark Spilka is of the opinion that if the author’s role is de-emphasized, “[t]he critic will become the author, he will supply his own intention (plus his own emotions) and rewrite the story” (212). What this signifies is that, as important as literary criticism is to the study of literature, it cannot assume the role of creating a text’s meaning.

Foucault defines the concept of authorship as a series of functions which he calls author functions. He lists four characteristics of this author function of which the fourth is the most important here. Michel Foucault writes that the author function “does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects-positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals” (in Con Davis and Schleiffer: 271). This author function must be recognizable as a set of symbolic expressions. Therefore whatever persona is revealed in the text, the “Authority” with which it speaks is from the level of an understanding of what set of codes and symbols are employed in creating the text in question. This authority is what keeps the author permanently within the text and makes the text an encoded convention not only of fictional creativity but also of social acts and conventions as context. Thus it is possible for Azaro to encounter, as an Abiku, supernatural spirits in The Famished road, because, as a Nigerian writer, Ben Okri’s social and cultural experiences can incorporate a multi dimensional perspective of existence.

In Nigerian literature, the reader recognizes codes of prose-fiction from two levels, the point of recognition is from the point of an insider to the text’s context and thus the reader recognizes certain social, cultural and linguistic codes written into the experiences and actions of the text’s characters. The second level of recognition is that of the work as evidence of the novelist’s interpretation of social and cultural phenomena. In that case, the text is not exclusive of social and cultural factors. Textual characters, in their experiential literary lives, are the reader’s companion through cultural recognition and identification – because for a reader to respond by interpreting a text, he has to first recognize the experiences encoded within the text. The identification is likely to be – in the case of the contemporary Nigerian/African reading the texts – recognition of, for instance, Azaro’s family as representative of urban underprivileged people. This position is relevant especially in the light of critics’ evaluation of African literature. For instance, Robert Bennet (1998) writes that Okri deals with common postcolonial themes. In reality however, Okri’s focus is beyond the extrinsic values of postcolonial Nigeria. An insider to the cultural motifs in the novels understands, as he reads The Famished Road, Okri’s conceptualization of the Nigeria urban citizen’s spiritual alienation from God.

From Foucault’s perspective Author function narrows creativity to only the text; thus literary creativity is reduced to a series of authors speaking through one author. It is obvious that, while Michel Foucault’s work discusses the fundamental issue of the role of the author within the text, it does not synchronize the author’s social milieu within its reception; whereas, the author from Frye’s concept of Myth and literary archetypes underscores multi dimensional sources of aesthetics and themes for the creative writer. This is possible because of the pre-existence of literary symbols and archetypes and genre from which the author makes his choice of symbols. The author then becomes an interpreter of national and social consciousness and his or her interpretations of social values and realities are valid tools for analyzing the society.

Thus if the text follows a set pattern or corresponds to certain literary norms through a convention of signs and signifiers, the interpretation is not only internally generated by the reader but is influenced by the text, and its socio- cultural antecedents. The text calls into being image clusters and symbols recognized by both author and the reader. In such a case the text as it were kick-starts the reader’s knowledge by using recognizable symbols. Therefore interpretation is not only the reader’s prerogative but the reader interprets/understands what the author/text wants him or her to understand/interpret. For example the characterization of Omovo in The Landscapes Within reveals the archetype of the urban youth disempowered even before he attains full adulthood. This image is recognized and accepted by both the author and the reader – or perceived – as belonging to postcolonial urban Nigeria. This recognition by the reader is dependent on his knowledge of the society from which such a text emanates.

This strengthens the ‘reading’ of texts not only with the author in mind but in conjunction with other texts by preceding authors of Nigerian literature who might have influenced the author whose texts is under analysis. This duality of recognition that operates between reader and writer is the subject of Stanley Fish’s “Interpreting the Variorum.” Fish (1989:113) writes that the reader approaches texts with latent perceptions – in other words, conventions – and that these perceptions are the reader’s tools for ‘reading’ a text. One of the conventional acts performed by the reader is to “find” – by looking for – themes, to confer significance and mark out formal units. In any case, culturally defined categorization is not restricted only to literature but to almost all aspects of human interaction. Of such categorical analyses, Billington et al (1991) notes that: “Without collective representations individual thinking would not be possible at all. Persons or ‘souls’ are essentially social, we are formed as social beings” (32).

These theoretical ideas conceptualize the relationship between the writer, his environment and the text. As Northrop Frye, Mark Spilka and Stanley Fish have observed the writer is rarely free from societal or readership considerations but his role as a creator is not in doubt. Thus, as a Nigerian writer in the Diaspora, Ben Okri’ texts reveal the focal point of his social commitment to the Nigerian postcolonial society. This is because Okri’s novels explore the new Nigerian personality in an urban setting through representative characters such as Azaro, Jeffia and Omovo. The novels and short stories also reveal the characters’ alienation – within dystopic urbanisation – from their indigenous culture, and values. City life, its mixtures and diversity, become important sources of problematising Nigerian cultural and political crisis, especially in relation to integration, polyvalence and freedom.

About The Author


Halima Sekula is a poet, playwright and short story writer. As well her collection of poems titled Tongues of Flames and a published play titled Honor Among Thieves, her works have been published in Journals such as The Halifax Review, Drum voices Revue, Penwomanship and Transverse. She lives in Nigeria.

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