Interview: Ben Okri talks The Freedom Artist and literary festivals

Whilst he was in the country for both Perth Writers Week and Adelaide Writers’ Week, I had the chance to sit down with author, poet and Man Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri to chat about his new novel The Freedom Artist.

Set in a world uncomfortably like our own, The Freedom Artist is a powerful call to arms, and an unflinching examination of how freedom is threatened in a post-truth world. In the novel, a young woman called Amalantis is arrested for asking a question: Who is the Prisoner? When Amalantis disappears soon after, her lover Karnak goes looking for her. To find her, he must first understand the meaning of her question. Karnak’s search leads him into a terrifying world of lies, oppression and fear. Then Karnak discovers he is not the only one looking for the truth.

Can you talk about the premise or idea behind your new novel The Freedom Artist?

The premise is that the world is a prison and we make a prison of the world. We make the prison in ourself, we make many prisons in ourselves; and we live in those invisible prisons. The novel is a story of liberation from our various prisons. It’s a story of liberation.

The tower used by the hierarchy, which makes an appearance towards the end of the novel, brought to my mind Foucault, Bentham, the idea of the panopticon and its use for surveillance and control. With that in mind, I was wondering whether you were influenced by any particular authors, philosophers or theorists in the writing of the book?

No, I was influenced by history as I’ve sensed it and known it, and by the secret reality of symbols. And I was also using the tower in a double ironic sense, because we’ve come to associate towers recently with tower blocks and the poor. Towers also have been traditionally enclaves of power and symbols of power. And, I’m playing with both of those images, as well as images of tower that runs through iconography, art, literature…

I was also reminded on the Tower of Babel

… and spirituality.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you’ve been carrying around the premise for The Freedom Artist for a number of years. Was there something about this current time/world that prompted you to finally commit it to print?

Some books only spring into being because of the times in which we find ourselves. The atmosphere, the asphyxiating atmosphere of these times, these times of lies as truth, and truth as lies. This time when freedom is imperilled and truth is in doubt, this time of shrunken values squeezed this novel out of me.

Had you always conceived that the novel would be written in its final style, or did you try different styles before deciding that it was the style that worked best for the story you were trying to tell?

It’s an evolution. A long, slow, difficult evolution of the voices, the centrality of the images that radiates from the whole text. But the voice, the tone, was a discovery that came with great difficulty.

I’m curious as to whether that was any particular significance to the names of the characters contained within the book? I often felt there was a reference there that I was supposed to have known.

You should have known them, and there is all kinds of significance to them. It’s not a bad thing for the reader to intuit the significance of names, and it’s not a bad thing for readers to do a bit of research.

Throughout much of your work you have explored ideas of freedom. What does freedom mean to the Ben Okri of 2019?

Freedom means being as deeply aware of our various prisons as possible, and working towards our liberation from them. Freedom means the utilization of the magnificence of what it is to be human.

Freedom means ridding ourselves of false thinking, the false thinking that poisons our lives and makes us easy to manipulate. Freedom means the ability to create the life that we secretly dream, and secretly dread.

What do you hope readers take away from The Freedom Artist?

You either liberate yourself or die.

And finally, what do you enjoy most about literary festivals?

The tentative faces of my readers as they step forward to meet me; and, the humbling realization that those words that I struggled over in silence, actually have a living reality for people who I never knew about.

Ben Okri’s new novel The Freedom Artist is available now from Head of Zeus and HarperCollins Australia.

Ben Okri will deliver the Opening Address entitled Imagination Redeems at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on Thursday February 28th, and will be appearing throughout the festival. For more information about the festival and to purchase tickets head HERE.

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.