To travel you don’t have to walk, drive or fly says the author Ben Okri. Sometimes it is enough to just open a book. A conversation about fictional journeys.
What does transportation or being transported mean to you?
For me, transportation is also conceptual.
So you view transportation beyond the literal notion of moving from one place to the next?
Moving from A to B is merely the limitations of the body. Moving from A to B is to submit oneself to the tyranny of space and is to emphasise the materiality of space over the magic of consciousness. To move from A to B you have to get on a bus or drive or walk. But I'm in London. I sit and open a book and read a sentence like: "You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana..." Then, in less than a second, I'm not in London any more. The weather is different, the air has changed, my personal reality is altered. I have not left my location but I have left my space. That is the truest form of transportation.
When you embark on a new piece of writing, do you set out to transport your readers to a new place?
The writer doesn't do the transportation. The writer merely gives the signification, merely gives indications in text and in mental spaces. Then the reader uses all the travels and physical transportations they have lived and which have inscribed themselves on their minds. Using all of these, the reader is moved to a new realm.
Could you give me an example of a book which has fictionally transported you?
I remember reading Chekhov in Lagos. I was in the hot city and my physical temperature dropped. I was there., in Russia. I read about a Samovar. I didn’t know what it was. For all I knew it could have been an elephant. But my mind worked to fill the gap. I was taken away, transported. You sit in London on a cold winter day and read about Cuba and your temperature rises. You are there. You feel the heat. This is being transported in a powerful way. It is a vertical rather than a horizontal transportation.
To write about a different country or city, do you need to have personally experienced the place you are describing?
You don’t have to have been to a place to write about it. My first book - which I started at around 14 years old when I was living in Lagos - was about China. It was about a Chinese detective. Obviously, I’d never been there. I’ve since learnt of many who do this, writers based in the Netherlands who write about Africa even though they’ve never been there. Kafka wrote a novel about America. He’d never been. Saul Bellow wrote about Africa. The mind transports, without vehicles, without physically moving at all.
And how does fictional transportation compare with actually feeling the change of humidity and landscape as you exit the airport?
Travelling from one place to the next, changing countries, switching cities, is not necessarily a deep sensory experience. Flying from the Democratic Republic of Congo to London can be less transporting than walking down the road. You board a plane, you sit in your seat, you watch a film, fall asleep and hours later arrive somewhere which looks like the place you left. There are the same shops, the same food for sale, the same artificial environment. It is as you haven’t moved at all. An aunt told me about the adventures she had walking from her village to the next one. It only lasted twenty minutes, but It was an epic journey, full of wonderful encounters with visible and invisible people. A whole novel could be written about those twenty minutes.
Interview by Jess Smee
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