The Tough Alchemy of Ben Okri

By | September 10, 2020

Can you imagine being called upon to write a blog for a book you have just had published by so illustrious a firm as Bloomsbury Academic, but which had been in the pipeline for almost half your lifetime? It’s a daunting task and more so for a nerd in her eightieth year who, perhaps shockingly, has never seen or read a ‘blog’!  To genuflect to a fellow octogenarian, Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee, whose much neglected first novel Dusklands (1974) inspired my Master’s thesis so very long ago: ‘My name is Rosemary Gray. There goes!’ 

A South African born, but Kenyan bred bibliophile,  I side with Okri’s exhortation for an urgent need for  ‘true critics’ who can shift through a wide range of literary disciplines and delve deeply into a book to release its ‘hidden genies’. I was amazed on joining the staff at the University of Pretoria in 1984 to find that no African literature was being taught. To try to understand a culture, I believe one needs to expose oneself to the creative artists in that culture. And so I immediately immersed myself in South African literature, even tackling Afrikaans writing notwithstanding only a smattering of that language in 1979 when my husband was invited to ‘put science on the map in South Africa as he had done in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe]’. Fortunately, an enlightened Head of Department who, being of Norwegian extraction, was not averse to taking risks, cautiously allowed me to introduce the likes of Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Nigerians, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, at postgraduate level. Then Ben Okri’s justly famed The Famished Road came out in 1991, winning the Booker Prize; it fast became a favourite of my final year graduates in English, who shared my excitement at so rich and complex a text. Astonishing the Gods soon followed which, as I confessed to my students, ‘absolutely astonished me’, let alone ‘astonishing’ the ‘gods’.

Now, there was no turning back.

Unlike Le Carré’s ‘spy who came in from the cold’, I became something of an undercover agent investigating the writings of fellow African, Ben Okri. And I can’t do better than to quote his words that grace the Foreword to my monograph: ‘Every good book is a complex living organism that reveals its ever changing depths to the reader who reads and re-reads and then tracks down, like a detective, combining uncanny intuition with great research and study, the multi-dimensionality of the work and the many things that it says without saying, hints without hinting, awakens without trying to awaken’.

The most exciting upshot has been the publication of The Tough Alchemy of Ben Okri, which hit the shelves on 20 August 2020. For me, this has been a game-changing journey. Following the Okrian trail is exhilarating, something like a ‘NeverEnding Story’.

About the book

“In these essays Rosemary Gray shows her wide reading and her eclectic mind. The essays burst with energy and critical fizz. Often the excitement of discovery can be discerned; often the surprise at intuitive delight can be felt; and often the sheer scale of the research undertaken yields lovely rewards. But mostly it is the yoking of disparate critical disciplines, brought to bear on a new reading of my work, that delivers the interest and the fascination”

 –  Ben Okri, Man Booker prize-winning novelist and poet

Rosemary Alice Gray is ‘Emeritus Professor’ in the Department of English at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. The Tough Alchemy of Ben Okri is one of her numerous works on the writer and features an interview with him.

One thought on “The Tough Alchemy of Ben Okri

  1. Claudia Caia Julia Fratini

    A momentous achievement and a long time coming. Congratulations to Prof Gray.
    Prof Rosemary Gray’s passion for literature from the African continent and knowledge on the subject is something that will continue to inspire academics and students in the future. I look forward to reading this oeuvre on Ben Okri which has been a long time coming.


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