‘We need to find an artistry to respond to the climate crisis’: Booker-prize winner Ben Okri on why artists need to take charge

During a recent visit to Dubai, the award-winning author spoke about how artists and writers need to address the issue of environmental disruption in their work with a sense of urgency

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Photo: Shihab
Photo: Shihab

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 8 Jun 2023, 7:44 PM

No one really wins a war. Which is why, in the aftermath of World War II, as people were picking up pieces of their lives and attempting to move on, a new philosophy emerged that could justify the banality of the past and present — existentialism. Many decades later, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis that is rearing its ugly head gradually — climate change. The spirit needed to fight the crisis is one which will require a combination of resilience and healing. Mostly, it demands a new philosophy, which writer Ben Okri calls existential creativity. It requires artists and writers to respond to climate change in their work with a sense of urgency. In Dubai to launch Expo City’s Connecting Minds Book Club, in association with Emirates Literature Foundation, Okri, who won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road, spoke about why literature, despite its flair for ambiguity, needs to make room for existential creativity. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q) You are promoting two books here — Tiger Work and Every Leaf a Hallelujah. Why are these important?

The first of them to be published was Every Leaf A Hallelujah, which is an environmental fable for children as well as grown-ups. I would say it’s for those aged between 5-105. It’s a story of a seven-year-old girl who has to go to the forest to get a flower to save her mother. At the same time, she has to also help save the forest from being destroyed. It’s a tale about anybody who is contributing to halting climate devastation in one form or another. It’s a story of courage, the fact that our will and love are much more important than our size, which is to say that with the right kind of love, we can bring about the right kind of change. The second book, Tiger Work, which is being launched here in Dubai, has poems, short stories, interviews, letters, essays all centred on the theme of climate change. I just want to use full powers of literature to draw attention to climate change, while talking about other themes like courage, heroism, the kind of choices we have been forced to make, what we have learnt from 3,000 years of disasters from some aspects of human thinking, what kind of future we’d want if we are forced to make a choice — would we repeat human history, as we have lived it, or would we like to take human history to a more harmonious place? These are big questions that are raised in the book in an intimate way.

We have to find a new way to reach people. And there’s nothing quite like books to get people to embark on a journey. Films can do it as well, but there, you’re little passive. With books, you are part of the creation of what you read.

Q) Every Leaf a Hallelujah sounds more gentle than Tiger Work, which sounds visceral.

Every Leaf a Hallelujah is a reminder — just in case we have forgotten, which I think most of us have — that even a leaf on a tree is, in itself, manifestation of a miracle. It is a celebration of the miracle of existence. You’re right about the gentleness of the title, even though it is radical gentleness because that kind of celebration is not really fashionable in these times. We have become more ‘detached’, more ‘cool’, which really is to say we don’t want to engage with these profound and beautiful things. The title is actually saying, “Hang on, you want to celebrate big things, you want to celebrate AI, the Internet — I want to celebrate a leaf.”

There are two sides to Tiger Work. It is a poem about the threat of extinction of tigers. It’s tragic that bugs, spiders, butterflies, pandas, whales and dolphins are dying. But there is something about the tiger. As a symbol, tiger has fascinated us. There’s a reason why we have chosen it as an emblem of something very powerful. Human being is a wonderful creation, but you put him next to a tiger, your eyes will be naturally drawn to the tiger. All the poets have sensed its ferocity and beauty. So the poem is a cry of anger and anguish about increasing extinction of tigers, but it is also a reminder that we need the tiger spirit right now to see the world clearly and richly. For me, environmental work is tiger’s work. Climate activists today have to imbibe that ferocity, complexness and beauty in order to address the issue. We have to have power of persistence. We also have to have the beauty of spirit. We are not enemies of humanity, we are its best friends. We care about this unrepeatable miracle that is our planet and our presence here.

Q) In your writing, one also sees a cry for authenticity. As you said, we are celebrating AI. Artists have traditionally celebrated nature. Now with AI driving our present and future, is authenticity at stake?

I am not sure that the combination of things that makes humans unique is replaceable. I would like to give a simple example. Sometimes, you are presented with a situation that reason can’t solve. You could programme all the different levels of reason, but there are areas where reason just doesn’t quite get in, where what’s called for is an act of the heart.

There is something very strange about the human being — sometimes, very simple things can move us to a great understanding. You see a person who looks desperate and angry, and then you look at their hand, and you see them holding a toy. And you realise, “Oh, there is something going on there that I don’t quite understand.” I don’t understand how you programme a super intelligent robot to do that.

I hear some frightening stories about artificial intelligence. There is a way in which reason, which is programmable, can become terrifying when you take it to its limits. It becomes a kind of technological fascism. And it is possible to institute that without us knowing we are doing it. But human spirit can scale up and down, not at will but with the simple movement of the heart. To give you an example, my kid goes to a school and has to go to a bus stop near our house. Sometimes, she has a difficulty getting up from the bed — she is a child, after all. Sometimes, she is a bit late and hurrying with her mother to catch the bus. And sometimes, we miss the bus by a fraction of second. Now, anything that has been programmed will leave at an exact time. From time to time, the bus driver would be leaving but seeing the kid, he would pause and open the door for the kid to get in. Things like that make a difference to the possibility of human history.

Since you asked me about authenticity, I will tell you what is authentic — the human spirit. And the realisation that you cannot make an absolute judgement. And the law of love — it constantly transcends and surprises us. If that’s not programmable, then there is no absolute future in that kind of technology. At some point, they will collide, because the absolute law of reason will be up against the transcendental law of love.

Q) You talk about existential creativity, which makes a plea for writers and artists to embrace a sense of urgency in their work about climate change. Why are we not responding enough in literature?

I think it’s very hard. We have trained ourselves to tell certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of ways. We have the topography of our media. If you become a novelist, for example, you read the great tradition — you read Cervantes, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. All these novelists take at their centre the human story — love story, stories of heroism, human imagination — written in a certain way that has ambiguity and richness. It’s never direct.

You’re asking people who have been trained in that tradition to now suddenly turn their attention to this urgent thing, which is also fairly recent. If you look for classics in environmental fiction, they date back to 50-60 years. That’s not very old. We don’t know how to turn this great art of novel or the poem to this modern condition and have the complexity of art in it. Literature is the enemy of direct message. The idea of writing something direct is terrifying to artists. It’s just bad cultural training, isn’t it? It’s possible and inevitable that we find a way of dealing with the climate crisis in literature while having all the powers literature has that makes people open their hearts and minds to it. We need to find an artistry to respond to the climate crisis.

Q) “To deal with nature you have to heal yourself.” What does that healing entail?

Let’s reverse your question — how can you heal nature when you are still wounded? We are divided by the dream of domination. We want to conquer, take over, build corporations. The idea of domination means you cannot heal nature. The very desire to dominate is what drives us towards disastrous directions. It is driving us towards extinction. We cannot set out to heal nature if this is what our intention is. Climate crisis is human crisis. The only unfortunate thing is that we don’t have enough time to heal ourselves before we heal nature. Whatever we do will be flawed fixing. At some point, we have to deal with ourselves. We are meant to exist with other species; we are not meant to dominate. We are not here to win. It’s not meant to be a victory for the human race; it’s meant to be a victory for the whole ecology.

Q) You were very young when you won the Booker for The Famished Road. How has your writing evolved since?

I have always wanted to tell the truth about the human spirit. People think The Famished Road is work of magic realism or animism. It’s none of those things. I am just trying to tell the truth about the richness of the human spirit. I think the definition of a human that I received as a child is a narrow one... and a dangerous one. It makes us out to be all flesh and bones, our emotions are chemical reactions, our memories exist in the synapses of our brain and our brain is a decomposing matter. And in the end, we seem disposable and without mystery. I just couldn’t accept it. We can decipher ourselves through imagination. Realism isn’t big enough to capture our reality.


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