Magical Realism for the Current Reality

Magical Realism for the Current Reality

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Prayer for the Living: Stories by Ben Okri (Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, February 2, 2021; 216 pages; $24.95; ISBNs: 978-1-61775-863-8 hardcover, 978-1-61775-874-4 ebook). Originally published by Head of Zeus in London, October 2019.

We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion.
The great task in life is to find reality.”

—Iris Murdoch,
“Profile” in The Times of London (April 15, 1983)

Jacket art by Anfisa Focusova (Ukraine)
Jacket design by TG Design (New Zealand)

Ben Okri is a multi-genre author. The 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction crowned him a novelist for The Famished Road—the youngest winner ever at the age of thirty-two. Now he has a dozen novels out. Yet he’s also written half a dozen poetry books, the latest of which appeared just last month in Britain: A Fire in My Head. And plays as well. Screenplays, too. Essays? Check—with a book of linked essays: A Time for New Dreams.

He has twenty-eight books in all, and has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. He’s published a book on the art of storytelling, The Mystery Feast. His website includes a Creative page that he uses as a “musing wall” for his thoughts. In 2009, Okri invented a new form of writing he terms Stoku (a mashup of story and haiku).

His short stories have been collected in various books such as The Comic Destiny, The Magic Lamp, Tales of Freedom, Birds of Heaven, Incidents at the Shrine, Stars of the New Curfew…and now Prayer for the Living.

Here are twenty-four short stories ranging from two to thirty-nine pages. Thirteen previously appeared elsewhere, and eleven are brand new. Settings move around: Nigeria, Machu Picchu, Byzantium/Istanbul, London, a raft headed to Greece, a hotel, a ghetto, a frame shop, a restaurant, an art gallery, a Rosicrucian meeting, a print shop, sidewalks. Protagonists shift shapes: A travel guide, a little girl named Hyacinth, a prison door, an anthropologist, a king, a poet, a detective, a befuddled knight, a Boko Haram soldier—and “Someone called Ben Okri.”

And this Ben Okri has a fantastic imagination. Reading the collection is similar to turning a glass snow globe and watching several dozen flakes each descending differently. He’s not creating magical realism as much as redefining it. He plays with reality, pushing the boundaries of certitude as far as they will stretch. It’s akin to the way poet Joy Williams posits assorted ways of visualizing a divine being in 99 Stories of God (reviewed earlier here).

Okri is a master of minimalistic metaphor. In a mere eight pages, his title story, “Prayer for the Living,” weeps volumes about the world’s injustices—both visible and invisible. Instead of praying for the already departed, Okri instead creates a reverse Dia de los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday) to consider those still living: “The only people who weren’t dead were the dead.” Who needs prayers more? With each book, he touches up recurring themes, adding highlights. As in his Booker-winning novel, Okri straddles the border here between the land of the living and the kingdom of the spirits.

He does so again with even fewer pages (two) in the story “Raft” as his characters float toward Greece, tossed around the rough sea on a powerful litany of rhythm and repetition resembling rap almost more than haiku. The narrative fits with Okri’s own definition of Stoku, however, as “the smallest unit of fictionality,” meeting Okri’s three Stoku conditions: “brevity, a dream-like quality, and a prosecution of reality.” Tenth of December, a short-story collection by George Saunders, might also be filed in the Stoku category.

Okri often clashes cultures against one another to decolonize his realities and frame opposite viewpoints. He actually sets the story “Hail” in a frame shop, using it as a figurative symbol.

“The Secret History of a Door” echoes Edgar Allan Poe, with the ancient metal door from London’s Newgate Prison starring as the door that wouldn’t die.

Ben Okri
Author photo ©Mat Bray

There’s a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “Alternative Realities Are True,” with Detective Draper resembling Sherlock Holmes.

Okri alludes to an assortment of fables in his tales, with the most endearing one being Don Quixote—called by his African nickname in the story “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading.” It pays homage to both Miguel de Cervantes and Jorge Luis Borges, using a printing press as a metaphor for windmills and Don Ki-Otah as a knight-errant riding to revive reading. It’s perceptively witty and a rich take on “The Library of Babel,” a short story by Borges. Okri’s narrator printer recalls the time Don Ki-Otah and his companion Sancho visited the print shop to view “the machine that multiplies realities.” Okri brings up Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart as shorthand for precolonial life and the arrival of the Europeans in Nigeria. Okri’s passion for the written word had my heart soaring.

Prayer for the Living covers so many current issues in such a potent manner. Ben Okri made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me think.

Nigerian/British writer Ben Okri won the 1991 Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road. Born in Nigeria, he spent part of his childhood also in London, where he now lives.

Okri attended Urhobo College (Warri, Nigeria) and the University of Essex (Colchester, England). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a vice-president of English PEN. In 2001, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Okri’s most recent novel, The Freedom Artist, came out in 2019 (also published by Akashic Books).

Publisher: Akashic Books

Akashic Books, a small press based in Brooklyn, publishes “urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”

Johnny Temple, publisher and editor-in-chief, founded Akashic in 1997. He earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. His literary honors include the 2013 Ellery Queen Award, 2010 Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Noir Literature, and 2005 Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing from the American Association of Publishers. He teaches publishing courses at Wilkes and Wesleyan Universities, and chairs the Brooklyn Literary Council. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Publishers Weekly, AlterNet, Poets & Writers, and BookForum. Temple plays bass guitar in the band Girls Against Boys and formerly played in the band Soulside.

Editorial Director Ibrahim Ahmad teaches in the writing and publishing master’s degree programs at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. Publishers Weekly selected him as a 2015 Star Watch Finalist. Ahmad and Temple cofounded Brooklyn Wordsmiths.

Managing Editor Johanna Ingalls worked in the music industry after she graduated from Barnard College, but has been with Akashic Books for over twenty years now.

Production Manager and Associate Editor Aaron Petrovich has been at Akashic for fifteen years. He develops e-books for the publisher, and is author of The Session: A Novella in Dialogue in addition to short theater works that have been performed around New York City.

Akashic’s publicity and social media director, Susannah Lawrence, graduated from New York University. She has held several internships, including HarperCollins Publishers, and has been a copyeditor at Washington Square News at NYU. Sohrab Habibion, who sings and plays guitar in the postpunk group SAVAK, handles design and social media for Akashic.

Akashic Books offers internships, and the next application deadline is March 1, 2021. Print submissions are currently closed, and the flash fiction web series is discontinued.

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