These Truths: Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist with Anderson Tepper
These Truths is a new limited-run podcast from the PEN World Voices Festival, exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. In a moment that risks tearing our world apart, and when the factual basis of our daily lives is constantly undermined, this podcast explores how literature can help us arrive at the truth and a deeper understanding of what connects us.
Each week, authors wrestle with urgent questions about contested histories, foundational myths, and dangerous manipulations of language rampant in our daily lives. This podcast brings writers and artists of America’s premier international literary festival into homes everywhere while introducing listeners to new books, ideas, and authors on the vanguard of contemporary literature.
In this conversation, Ben Okri, a prolific writer in all genres, speaks about his latest novel, The Freedom Artist, with Anderson Tepper of Vanity Fair. They discuss the power of myth and the role of the writer in times of crisis.
CHIP ROLLEY: Welcome back to These Truths, a World Voices Podcast exploring literature and the deeper truths that connect us. I’m Chip Rolley, Director of the PEN World Voices Festival and your host for this series.
Today we speak to a giant of international literature, Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, whose latest novel, The Freedom Artist, paints a dystopian picture that feels disturbingly familiar in this surreal time. He will be speaking with Anderson Tepper about how writers and fiction can help us navigate times of crisis.
[Music plays: “Tougoude” – Yacouba Sissoko, Siya]
Last week, Tepper called Okri to have this conversation.
ANDERSON TEPPER: Greetings, Ben. It’s such a pleasure to hear your voice again—your rich and resonant and vital voice. I have such strong memories of 2010 PEN World Voices when I met you for the first time, and I was looking forward to reuniting with you.
BEN OKRI: This is what the world is right now, and at least we’re defeating the virus here just by the act of having this conversation across this great ocean. So thank you very much for this.
“Something about the atmosphere of the world just made this novel, as it were, impossible to avoid any longer. And one day, I began writing it with the original notion I had in mind. But as I wrote it, other things began to leak into it—the mood of our times, the underlying things that I sensed about our freedoms—about what was happening to us.”
TEPPER: This is actually the occasion of the publication of your new novel, The Freedom Artist. I’ve read that you’ve said that this was a book that you wanted to write for many, many years.
OKRI: Yes. The core of The Freedom Artist is an idea I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. Life is many things, but there’s a sense in this life that it’s also a bit of a prison. And the more I read in the great literature of the world, and the more I lived, and the more I looked, the more I thought that this was, in some ways, one aspect of our condition. I didn’t know how to write it. And it was only over the last 10 years, when I began to pay very keen attention to things going on around the world—the ways in which freedoms were slowly being eroded; the ways in which myths were being distorted and used to manipulate us; the ways in which our rights were slowly and invisibly sort of being encroached upon; the way our life on this planet, the very pressures around existence, just seem to get tighter and tighter. Something about the atmosphere of the world just made this novel, as it were, impossible to avoid any longer. And one day, I began writing it with the original notion I had in mind. But as I wrote it, other things began to leak into it—the mood of our times, the underlying things that I sensed about our freedoms—about what was happening to us.
All of these things began to leak into it, in a way that I couldn’t and didn’t actually really want to control. It was a kind of narrative I wanted to be both open to all of these things, while exploring this intuition that I’ve had since I was a child.
TEPPER: So this novel was published last year, in England, and of course, it’s coming out in America at a very different time. Do you think that there are new meanings or urgency to the book now that will come out during this time?
OKRI: It is the strangest thing, Andy. The book was conceived in one spirit, written in another, published in another still. I think, in a way, The Freedom Artist has come into its own more now.
I get reports from people, like Twitter responses, from people saying how The Freedom Artist speaks to the condition of the world right now—which is quite amazing to me. But on the other hand, it’s not very surprising because it’s something Goethe said that has always stayed with me—that the writer sticks his or her hand deep into existence, and what they pull out is their subject. Well, maybe sometimes when you stick your hand deep into existence, you reach into places that you don’t even know you’re reaching—stuff that’s going on underneath, stuff that is about to happen. I don’t know the degree to which the act of writing itself strays into unintentional processes, but that’s not the area I’m talking about now.
What interests me is that when you explore myths and freedom—invariably, it begins to touch unexpected areas. And I think you’re exactly right, that the book has changed completely in this environment, in ways I could not have planned.
The Freedom Artist is an exploration of the relationship between myth and freedom. And it’s set in a time when most of our freedoms have become quite thoroughly eroded, but people have become used to it, have allowed themselves to become used to it. So they’re in a state of extreme deprivation of their core freedoms, but they don’t know it. But the not knowing of it has unexpected ways of showing itself in the culture and in the lives of people.
“Yes, there’s two kinds of myth at work in this novel. One tends to make it easier for us to be controlled and manipulated. And the other myth is intended to enrich us, to awaken us, to strengthen us, and to make us more alive to the necessity of resistance to anything that diminishes our humanity.”
TEPPER: Shall we do a reading, Ben?
OKRI: Yeah. So the book is written in this slightly poetic way—short passages, short pages mixed with longer ones, really four, five characters.
[Music plays: “Nostalgie” – Yacouba Sissoko, Siya]
OKRI: The passage I’m going to read comes quite early in the book.
There were, in those times, two classes of people. One, the overwhelming majority, were the normal people. They did not speak much. They did their work, fulfilled their obligations, raised their families, read the newspapers, absorbed all they read, watched television, and believed all they saw. They kept their nightmares to themselves. They constituted the highest presence in hospital wards and psychiatric clinics. They had, as a running music in their heads, a steady, unchanging drone.
And yet at night, in room after room, across council estates or in rich suburbs, screams could be heard coming from their beds. They shouted in their sleep and howled like frightened animals. This could be heard at night all across the land. It became so common that soon it was considered the normal mode of sleep. That is to say, no one noticed it anymore.
TEPPER: Thank you, Ben. For American readers who are more familiar with your early work, The Famished Road, this book might strike them as a radically different approach to writing. It’s more abstract, allegorical, and it’s pared down to essences. It’s both mythic and poetic, a quest novel that incorporates fantasy and magic and parable.
OKRI: Yes, there are two kinds of myth at work in this novel. One tends to make it easier for us to be controlled and manipulated. And the other myth is intended to enrich us, to awaken us, to strengthen us, and to make us more alive to the necessity of resistance to anything that diminishes our humanity.
TEPPER: When you were talking about that second form of myth, it brings up the idea of the writers who, in The Freedom Artist, are myth keepers. And they’re also the bards and the sages. So I wanted to ask you how you see your role as a writer.
OKRI: Each writer is different in their perception of what they do. For me, the writer is a deep listener to the self and to the culture—to what is happening to us as a species, what is happening to us as a village.
The writer is someone who plunges into the collective spirit of their people, however they perceive that. It’s very hard to say. It’s just that when you write, depending on the story you’re telling, you go into this place that is more than just your place, more than just your own personal story.
Some stories take you farther into the place that I’m talking about; some just bring it to the surface of it, and they’re all valid.
But one thing that interests me very deeply is the examination of the truth and lies by which we are led, governed, not led, not governed. I believe that we accept too much in our world. The writer asks questions—awkward questions, paradoxical questions. The writer examines myth, and the writer looks at the specifics of society to see what’s behind.
But the writer also writes well. Everything else is pretty useless if the craft is not there to deliver those deeper depths. Everything depends on the craft and the technique.
TEPPER: Yeah. What about the value, the role of the books in the novel? Books are this kind of lost key to our humanity and freedom. They’ve been forgotten. They’ve been displaced by technology. They’re feared. They’re considered dangerous by the rulers. So tell me about the magic of the book.
OKRI: The book is one of the most mysterious discoveries, I think, of the human experience. The fact that we have developed this parallel cultural condition whereby we told stories, invented stories for the ear and also for the eye. But that also, we find it necessary to then create stories in the form that we call a book—which could be a page, it could be a screen. For this new thing, which is quite recent in the human story, but its power is as ancient as cave paintings.
So the book, for me, is a dual thing. It is the thing that we read—that is, the repository, as it were, of the wisdom of the race, the repository of our dreams and our thoughts, our craft, our analysis, our language, our poetry. It’s the repository of what we learn from other people of our foolishness, our errors, our lies, our truth, our vision, our hopes. This thing—this dreaming structure, this thing that is capable of holding worlds within it—and yet it’s as small of the palm of your hand. This elastic container of worlds—it’s the physical book we read, but the book is also the book that we live in. The book is also the book that we intuit, that somehow, the whole of life is folded inside of. The ancients always had this sense that we’re living in a book. Homer alludes to it.
So the book, for me, is an extremely magical and powerful instrument of liberation. And the first thing that in this world that I construct, that I discover in The Freedom Artist—the first thing that the Hierarchy, this instrument of tyranny, gets rid of—are books. Because the minute people stop reading, there’s a level of questions they stop asking. The minute you get rid of books, there’s a way in which our mind, our humanity. . . The book is the perpetual awakener of the human spirit. It’s the place where tyrants go first to begin to distort us. And so, I was really fascinated with the role of the book in human culture.
TEPPER: Yeah. Ben, did you want to read that passage from the book?
[Music plays: “Siya” – Yacouba Sissoko, Siya]
OKRI: I think it’s a good choice by you, and I should love to read it.
One of her father’s books was at the same time a kingdom, a universe, a tablet, a room, a street, a pair of spectacles, a computer, a dream, a rope, a history, and a river.
Another of her father’s books was at the same time an oracle, the memory of a race, an obstacle course, a forest, a mirror, a television, a prophecy, a pyramid, and a village.
Another of his books was again at the same time, a temple, a mountain, the star Sirius, a hall of records, the bright city of Akhetaten, and a sacred province in Atlantis.
Her father’s books were not read in a normal way. Some of them were read with the hands. Some were read by placing them at the center of the forehead. One of the books could only be read with eyes closed. Another one could only be read in dreams, while the reader was asleep, with the book under the pillow.
There was a very special book of her father’s, which could only be read by the dead. It was placed in their coffins, over the heart.
One of her father’s favorite books was the one that was read only by writing it. But this book was such a great mystery that only initiates were allowed, by participation, to penetrate its pages.
TEPPER: Thank you. It’s beautiful. In the book, it seemed technology has in fact diminished the art of reading, and of literature.
OKRI: Well, the book is really a kind of a big thought experiment that’s meant to run parallel with this life as one sees it. There’s no reason why technology at its best can actually make literature and the book and all of its possibilities more available to us in all kinds of ways.
Technology doesn’t have to be the enemy of books or reading. But I feel that the way in which it can be is by the way in which technology can lessen or cheapen by a kind of oversaturation, by a kind of loosening of the intensity of the power of language, the power of literature. There’s a way in which, I feel, that art is the stronger—the greater—the pressure around it, around this construction, around the way in which it comes into existence.
Maybe with too much ease, some of that pressure has diminished. Maybe the ease with which we can get our words out there possibly can diminish the intensity with which we craft and construct our thoughts, our dreams, and our visions. We could actually be experiencing a kind of diminishment of the power of literature just by the overabundance of the availability of the words. Maybe a blessing of our age is also part of this problem. Maybe we need to sort of return, within this abundance, to the difficulty of the art.
But I don’t feel fundamentally that technology is the enemy of literature—or indeed, of culture. It should be its friend, used at its best.
“But one thing that interests me very deeply is the examination of the truth and lies by which we are led, governed, not led, not governed. I believe that we accept too much in our world. The writer asks questions—awkward questions, paradoxical questions. The writer examines myth, and the writer looks at the specifics of society to see what’s behind.”
TEPPER: Yeah, and technology, though, is also used by the state, the Hierarchy, as a form of control, of course, with surveillance.
OKRI: Absolutely. We see that very much in our time. We’re living one of the worst eras of surveillance—possibly ever. It’s something that we cannot be too conscious of.
TEPPER: The book mirrors our modern lives in different ways, as you’ve said, and metaphors exist on different levels—personal and social. There’s the tyranny of the hierarchy, their oppression and conformity, imprisonment and mass media. And then there’s this underground resistance—the collective awakening that’s ignited by freethinkers like Ruslana. So it’s tempting to read a political context, but is that too narrow and understanding of this uprising?
OKRI: I think whenever we revolt against some kind of constriction of our lives, it’s automatically political. The word “political” need not enter the picture at all. Just, the fact that we say no. Just the fact that we say, “We are more than this, our dreams can’t be distorted like this, our reality can’t be restricted like this.” So much of the human condition is touched with the political—it doesn’t really need a separate word to describe what it is.
The human spirit craves freedom, and the ways in which we lose our freedom are sometimes so invisible. One morning, we think we’re free, and we wake up another morning, and we realize that most of our freedoms have gone. And it happens in our daily sleepwalking.
Whether we call this “political” or just call it the human being standing up for what it is to be human, it doesn’t really matter to me. I come from a tradition in which politics saturates everything. I come from a literary tradition in which the writer is not afraid of the political, and of course, you can actually see it—all of them—as part of the same big canvas of narration.
TEPPER: As I’ve said before, The Freedom Artist is very much a quest novel, a journey of self-transformation. As the character Karnak searches for his lost love, he gradually learns to cast off illusions and see reality and his own predicament more clearly. What is required of Karnak, and us, to break through this culture of silence? How do we transcend the confining walls that we’ve created?
OKRI: It’s a question I ask myself every day. Among the first things that we ought to do is—and it’s something that book led me to in the writing of it—is to never accept the surface of the answers given to us by the authority figures of our age. In short, we are supposed to be question askers, not just writers and artists, but every single citizen of the nation.
It’s in the acceptance that the sleep begins. You accept that what they say is right. And the next thing you know, you’ve accepted a world in which you’ve contributed to building walls around you that imprison you and your family.
We have become a people that have just slowly been seduced into accepting one thing after another—like the frog in the frying pan in Aesop’s story, the story my mother used to tell me when I was a child. We don’t ask questions. So for me, it’s that—it’s the raising of the voice, the asking of the question, and the right to protest.
TEPPER: Yes, and it takes enormous bravery and self-examination.
OKRI: Yeah. Asking questions of ourselves is also part of it. We are the ones that fall into the sleep. What is our own psychological and spiritual and internal, political conspiracy? What’s going on with us? And so, for me, it is a double thing. It’s a political thing, and it’s a spiritual thing. Both things must work together because we can’t talk about the spiritual without also talking about our own internal freedoms. The way in which we talk to ourselves inside our own head—the way in which we tell ourselves to let things be—we are making that internal process that makes the external process, the external silence, possible. It’s a dual thing. There’s also an internal politics, which we can call the politics of the spirit. Another word for it is “poetics.” I’ve always been the writer that believes we must touch all the dimensions of what makes us human.
TEPPER: You’ve written about this in your Financial Times essay—that it takes the imagination, and it takes art, this unifying and liberating force of art, and the creative act of storytelling.
OKRI: Yes. The unifying force of art, but also just the disruptive power of art. Art is also dangerous. Let’s not minimize that. Art is problematic, and that’s what is most powerful about it. We cannot have a functioning democracy, a democracy that is alive, without the important publication of art. In that sense, art is the realm where the awkward imagining is being done. The artist takes a situation in our time, and dreams it to its extreme, and says, “Hey, do we want to go down that road? Is this where you want to wind up?” We need that. It’s unifying, but it’s also destructive. Art is supposed to help keep us awake at night—thinking, and uncomfortable—as well as being charming and beautiful.
TEPPER: Especially during this time of isolation, it connects people. Literature we can read, but you were working in theater. The theater especially is a scene for community-building and dialogue.
OKRI: Yeah, and solidarity and mutual dreaming. The role of culture in this time becomes, becomes very, very, very powerful. And you feel how most people miss it? The whole lockdown has heightened our sense of the value of art, on the value of the community of art. The way in which, as you say, it brings us together into this communal dreaming.
And it’s from the old times, when our ancestors gathered around the fire to tell stories. It’s the same thing—the bringing us together, to dream stories together, to dream alternative futures together. This time has made me more aware—not only of the value of economic structure, but also the value of the cultural, of the artistic, of the spiritual. It’s been quite a revelation.
“The human spirit craves freedom. And the ways in which we lose our freedom are sometimes so invisible. One morning, we think we’re free, and we wake up another morning, and we realize that most of our freedoms have gone. And it happens in our daily sleepwalking.”
TEPPER: Another aspect of this time is, it’s a time to reflect. And I love that at the beginning of your book, you have this one little line that says, “Read slowly.”
OKRI: Maybe, maybe also a moment to live slowly.
OKRI: Go back to some kind of essence of our lives. But I liked that you raised that point. This pause that’s forced upon us has been—I find a lot of people discovering who they have been, who they are, that it’s lost in the business of life. It’s quite strange. People are baking again, baking bread. People are hearing their own thoughts. People are reading differently. People are listening to one another in ways they haven’t before. It’s quite the story.
TEPPER: Ben, I just wanted to end with this Werner Herzog quote, “The deeper truth is an invented one.” And it just made me think of that coda to your book, where you say, “In the oldest legends of the land, it is known that all are born in prison. In the new reality, all are born into a story.”
OKRI: It’s a very, very interesting thought, and in some ways, a problematic one and possibly an incomplete one—definitely worthy of meditation. I peer into that; some thoughts come to me. When do you mean “deeper truths are invented?” Does he mean that it’s only through invention that we get to those deeper truths? Because I don’t think he means that the deeper truths really are invented—that they don’t exist. They always were there. They were there for as long as we’ve been human. As long as we have known what death is. This death thing—that rings our life and gives the living this extraordinary meaning, that throws everything into bold color and shadow.
These deeper truths—they’re not invented. The deeper truth of mortality, the deeper truth of love, the deeper truth of our connectedness to one another, the deeper truth of our relationship with nature on this earth—they’re not invented. They are what we found when we stumbled into this great stage of living. You know, I watched my daughter begin to ask questions about life. That’s not invented. It’s there. She’s feeling her way into these truths that living, that society, blurs, but that moments like this—that we find ourselves in, this pandemic moment—suddenly reveals in a kind of blazing clarity. But, as artists, we get to these truths through invention, through imaginations, through dreams. We get to this truth indirectly. I think that’s what Herzog is saying in a different way.
TEPPER: Thank you, Ben.
OKRI: And it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. I want to send my love to everyone out there. This will come to an end, and we’ll all get together again, in a new way.
TEPPER: Be safe and be well.
OKRI: Yes, you too. Take care.
[Yacouba Music rises throughout Ben’s last graph as transition]
ROLLEY: Thank you to Ben Okri for showing us the deeper truths of our own condition through this powerful mythic book that is both otherworldly and at the same time all too familiar. There’s more information about Ben and links to purchase The Freedom Artist on our website.
These Truths is a production of PEN World Voices Festival. Nancy Vitale produced and edited the series. Nicole Gervasio provided editorial guidance.
Next time on the podcast, we will hear from more dreamers. Álvaro Enrigue, the founder of PEN’s DREAMing Out Loud Program, will introduce us to the writing workshop he created to amplify the voices of DREAMers, DACA recipients, and other undocumented immigrants.
About ben okri
Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. His childhood was divided between Nigeria, where he saw firsthand the consequences of war, and London. He won the Booker Prize in 1991 for The Famished Road. He has published eleven novels and four collections each of short stories, essays, and poems. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages. He also writes plays and screenplays. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a vice president of English PEN who has been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) Award, as well as numerous international prizes and honorary doctorates. The Freedom Artist is his latest novel.
About anderson tepper
Anderson Tepper is on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair and has written about books and authors for a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair, Air Mail, The New York Times Book Review, Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and Words Without Borders. He has served on the advisory and curating committees of the PEN World Voices Festival and is co-chair of the Brooklyn Book Festival’s international committee. He interviewed Ben Okri for the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival and published a longer conversation with Okri in Tin House’s Fall 2011 issue.
Read his most recent work and interviews with novelists like Kawai Strong Washburn and 2019 Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo on Vanity Fair.