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Fatwa changed history of The Satanic Verses, says Ben Okri

The interpretation of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses has changed with the fatwa, says Man Booker winning Nigerian writer and poet Ben Okri.

books Updated: Jan 21, 2012 15:13 IST

The interpretation of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses has changed with the fatwa, says Man Booker winning Nigerian writer and poet Ben Okri.

"Everything that affects the book changes the history of the book. Reading is infiltrated by events," the 52-year-old author of The Famished Road told the media in an informal interface at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur.

"Our interpretation of The Satanic Verses has changed the history of the book," Okri said.

After John Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman, "lot of people started looking for what made someone kill a superstar.... And Chapman had been influenced by the book, A Catcher in the Rye," Okri said, adding that changed the history surrounding JD Salinger's book.

Okri, one of the most glamorous African literary stars, divides his tribe of writers into two categories - "some who want to be seen and some who are not seen".

"I have many friends whom I call 'tweety tweets' because they are on Twitter. Many writers are not complacent with publicity. For them nothing is more powerful than the written words or consciousness in private space. The writer works on the mind and consciousness," he said.

The novelist said "writers can easily fall into these categories".

"I have known writers who are inveterate communicators. They have a stream of consciousness with the universe... These are the people who want to express. Another kind of people wants to express what they shaped," he said.

Okri, who is hailed as the first magic realist of African writing, says "I am essentially a poet and primarily a novelist".

"My fundamental reaction to the world is poetic. The first thing I do is to write a poem. Fictions take a little time to grow. Poetry is almost like the soul's response... But they are branches of the same river," he said.

Post modern literary structures merge with mythology, human suffering, magic and the oral traditions of story-telling in Okri's books.

"The oral traditions of Nigeria are the stories my mother told me. All of us kids used to have a game and it had to be a story... You had to make up your story and that's how I started my story," Okri said.

"The Famished Road (1991)", for which Okri won the Man Booker Prize, is steeped in magic realism.

The story, inspired by a tradition of Yoruba, myth and post-colonialism, narrates the story of Azaro, a spirit child, on the eve of Nigerian Independence. Destined to die young and be reincarnated to the same mother, Azaro is determined to turn around his faith.

Okri shrugs off the magic realism tag. "Magic realism has a particular body. There is love of magic and realism in my book... but that is not magic realism. One aspect of my books are spiritual realism and mythic realism," he said.

He surmised the essence of his literature as "finding the myth in life and life in myth".

Praising contemporary Indian literature, Okri said it "was in ferment and there was great energy around it".

"Indian literature is drawing a lot of attention and interest in England and Ireland. There is a sense that something is happening. It has four Booker Prize winners more than any nation," Okri said.

Okri, who belongs to the Urhobo ethnic group, was born in Minna and moved to England as a child. However, he returned to Nigeria at the age of 7 and grew up in the country.

He is known for books like The Landscapes Within, In Arcadia, Songs of Enchantment, Starbook and Anthologies of Essays and Poetry.

First Published: Jan 21, 2012 15:13 IST