My father brought back from England an extraordinary collection of books. He came to London [from Nigeria] to train as a lawyer and my mother brought me (aged one-and-a-half) a year later and we stayed for about six years. His plan was that back in Nigeria he would have time to read all these books: the classics – Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – and the great books on economics and philosophy. But he got carried away with being a successful young lawyer and didn’t get round to reading them. They gathered dust, and every now and then he’d say to me, “Ben, dust the books – but don’t read them!” That made the books fantastically attractive. I don’t know if he did it on purpose. I wouldn’t put it past him. I would sit on the floor cross-legged dusting a Dickens or Shakespeare, then I’d read for hours until I’d hear his voice, “Ben, what are you doing?” and I’d start dusting again. Books still have this tension for me – the do and don’t, the possibility of danger, of secret knowledge. It makes them very potent.
My mum, Grace, was quite different. She was gentle and very tough at the same time, and she never told me things directly. She never said “don’t … ” – she knew that would make me do whatever it was. Instead, she would tell me a story. There were no clear morals, but her stories had an air around them. They were telling you something, and you had to work out what. Some took me 20 years to get.
Her mother died when she was just three or four, and she was shifted around between aunts. She knew what it was like to grow up unprotected – that raw King Lear condition with nothing between you and the cold winds of the world. It made her very sensitive to other people’s sufferings. She would say to me, “I can live next door to a hungry lion.” She meant she could get along with all types and bear their awkwardness and nastiness. I can’t live up to that.
When we got back to Nigeria (when I was about seven) we moved around a lot. That came to a stop with the civil war. My mother was half Igbo [from the south-east of Nigeria] while my father was Urhobo, from the Delta region, so the war was a family thing. We spent a lot of time hiding Mum – and I nearly got killed. I’m still stunned by what people are able to do to their neighbours.
One of the greatest gifts my father gave me – unintentionally – was witnessing the courage with which he bore adversity. We had a bit of a rollercoaster life with some really challenging financial periods. He was always unshaken, completely tranquil, the same ebullient, laughing, jovial man. I learned that life will go through changes – up and down and up again.It’s what life does.
My parents lived to see their unruly child come through and win the Booker prize, but one day in my 30s, I got this impossible call from Nigeria to say that my mother had gone. We never think that our mothers will die. It was like suddenly an abyss opened at my feet – I was standing on nothing. It was the strangest thing. Her passing away ripped the solidity out of the world. For a few weeks, I’d be walking along and suddenly I’d be unable to stand straight and I’d hold on to a lamppost and find the lamppost wasn’t solid either. That was a turning point for me. It began a great journey. I don’t feel I need to lean on lampposts any more. You need internal lampposts – and a few good friends.
The Guardian, Saturday 26 June 2010
See online: Ben Okri: My family values