Love Invades Music: Writing Class with Ben Okri

Blogger at www.lovewordsmusic.com and writer, Caroline L. Barron, attends a master class with Booker Prize-winning author, Ben Okri.

Ben Okri brims with mana. He wears a well-cut black jacket over a crisp, white shirt and a jaunty beret. He carries an Atomic coffee cup, and under his arm, his latest book and a slim, orange volume whose spine I crane my neck the entire class to read. His posture is perfect, regal almost, and his movements are considered. He links his manicured hands in front of him, as if cradling something precious, and his eyes journey about the small classroom (which, embarrassingly, may or may not be double-booked), taking the measure of the twelve students in front of him. We watch and listen — awe-struck — little birds waiting for him to drop wriggling, veteran worms of knowledge.

‘I have my doubts about this,’ he begins.

I am aghast. This is only the second master class he has taught in his thirty-five-year career. I ache in my potential deficiency. For the next hour and a half, he challenges us to, “avoid the words that are easy to write,” and focus on, “the power of suggestiveness.” He sets two writing exercises: the first to describe a dull, brown map of Tonga hanging on the wall (“thank you, that is poetry,” he says of mine, whilst I blush like a teen); the second is to tell a story beginning: “I opened the front door and there was a tiger.” Our convener, author Paula Morris, takes part and aces it. We are proud little birdies.

The world is not fixed, it depends on the quality of sorcery we bring to it.

— Ben Okri —

Okri shot to fame when his 1991 novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction that year. I read the book as a sixth-former and my reading life (and writing life) was forever altered. Until that point I’d been thieving a Stephen King or a Wilbur Smith from dad’s stack of library books in the wardrobe. I’ll always love King, but Okri showed me that a different kind of book exists in the world — I just had to look for the magic.

The poetic lines are the ones that move us the most — little magic potions that release the richness of the world that it is a writer’s duty to evoke.

— Ben Okri —

We talk a lot about magic today. His latest book, The Age of Magic, has been described as: magical realism; part narrative and part allegory; and by Okri himself as woven with “dream logic.” It is the story of a television crew’s journey from Paris to Basel in Switzerland, en route to Arcadia in Greece, and the eerie weeks beside the lake and mountain in Basel that follow. Braided through the poetic narrative is the darkness of a fairytale and the philosophy of personal happiness.

The world is rich with possibility

— Ben Okri —

All of these layers — Okri’s influence on my reading and writing; being mid-way through my first novel and the intensity of the master’s programme whip and whirl into some kind of Nabokovian filter through which I watch Okri speak.

He inscribes my copy of The Age of Magic with, “best wishes for a magical writing life.” I ask if he minds me writing about him on my blog, www.lovewordsmusic.com. “Love invades music?” he says.

I smile. Just like that, he imbues even my blog with an air of magic.

“As long as you write with a touch of magic,” he says. “By the way, where is the dust jacket?”

The pale blue cover is smudged from days of being taken in and out of my handbag on the bus.

“Well it’s beside my bed, so it doesn’t get dirty.”

He stares at me. “I’ve never heard that before.”

And I, Ben Okri, have never seen so much magic in one small double-booked (but we worked around it) room.

P.S. The book he carried was John Keats’ poetry, The Eve of St. Agnes.

Ben Okri appeared in New Zealand courtesy of the Auckland Writers Festival.


Words and photos: Caroline L. Barron