Among the many highly aniticipated guests attending Dhaka Lit Fest this year is celebrated Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, whose first panel session titled “Magical Tales” took place on Thursday at the Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad Auditorium at Bangla Academy. The session saw a full-house audience as soon as novelist Ashok Ferry walked on to the stage to say a few words about Okri. In a lively conversation that followed soon after, the two authors discussed writing, poetry, the perception of reality and its power in influencing the artistic and literary creations that reflect on our times.
In answer to Ashok's first question about what it was that inspired his latest work, Okri replied that it was born out of his deep fascination with a unique painting that he had borrowed from an artist friend and “how the stories were completely unintentional and came purely out of the indirect relationship with the worlds behind the painting.”
“I think there are two kinds of books that writers write. Most of us write deliberate books. But every now and again, we write a book that we did not intend to write. And I am greatly interested in unintentional books. I think a really unusual inspiration comes to you when you're writing a book without knowing that you're writing it, so you don't have the anxiety, the stress, all you have is the quiet magic of this thing taking place without you being aware of it,” Okri said.
In his deep, rich and almost soothing voice, Okri talked about how every world has two parts – what you see on the surface, and another one that's secret. “When you look at something for a long time, after a while you go beyond the surface world and find yourself wandering into the secret world. I think it's one of the benefits of long-looking. Your perspective changes; it acquires depth. We really are only as deep as the depth we allow ourselves to reach.”
With intermittent breaks where the Nigerian author and poet regaled the audience by reciting lines from his latest book on poetry, the captivating conversation revealed insights into an artist's mind, and on the power of perception, drawing on some of Okri's own personal accounts and experiences.
About the art of writing, he said, “Writing is such a mysterious activity because there is great psychology involved in getting people to see the things you have in your head, that you can only communicate through words on the page.”
The session ended with a round of enthusiastic questions from the audience. In response to a question about what it is that influences the change in our perception of things over time, Okri said, “I am a great advocate of re-reading. The first time you read something is just familiarisation -- all we do is become acquainted with it. We really begin to see something over time. We really need to revisit our opinions, our prejudices, because the waters or layers underneath things are constantly changing.”