Sir Ben Okri: Being honoured means helping the human race to be more civilised

The Nigerian-born writer has been made Knight Bachelor in the King’s birthday honours for services to literature.
The Nigerian-born writer has been made Knight Bachelor in the King’s birthday honours for services to literature.

Sir Ben Okri says to be honoured means “helping the human race to be better and more civilised” after being made a Knight Bachelor.

The renowned Nigerian-born writer and cultural activist, considered to be one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions, said he was “delighted” by the honour.

His best-known work includes The Famished Road novel trilogy, the first of which – The Famished Road – won the Booker Prize in 1991.

Sir Ben has been made Knight Bachelor in the King’s Birthday honours for services to literature, having previously been made OBE in 2001.

The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition
Sir Ben Okri (Jeff Spicer/PA)

“I’m delighted to be given this honour. I think of the illustrious writers who have preceded me and the gifted writers to come,” he said, in a statement shared with the PA news agency.

“The writer does not write for honours but for truth, the mysterious truth of the human condition.

“For me the main value of this honour at this moment is necessity to remind my fellow human beings that we are living on the cusp of a world wide environmental crisis.

“If we don’t do something radical about it now, within ten years nothing will be the same.

“Art is a reminder that the human destiny has to go upwards. This is the moment to reverse our backward thinking and create a new future.

“If being honoured means anything it means helping the human race to be better, more civilised, more beautiful.”

Sir Ben was born in Nigeria and came to England as a child, growing up in London, but later returned to his home country with his parents on the eve of the Nigerian civil war – which had a defining impact on his life.

Originally set for a career as a scientist, he found his true vocation in writing and began producing poetry and articles about the living conditions in the slums of Lagos.

He then turned his hand to short stories and eventually what was to become his first novel, Flowers And Shadows in 1980, two years after he returned to London.

Over the next decade, despite a period of homelessness, he wrote a second novel and two collections of short stories.

His most well-known and successful novel, The Famished Road, was published in 1991 and was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize.

The book was the first Booker Prize winner to go straight to number one in the paperback bestseller lists and  has been highly influential in the decades since its release.

The Famished Road is the first book in The Famished Road Trilogy, which also includes Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.

Despite his success as a novelist, Sir Ben thinks of himself primarily as a poet having produced multiple collections.

In 2009 he invented a new form called a Stoku, a cross between a short story and Haiku, which first displayed in his book Tales of Freedom, now re-titled The Comic Destiny.

Learning For Life Ben Okri
Sir Ben was made a CBE in 2001 (Astley Galloway/PA)

Sir Ben is also an influential essayist and has written multiple film scripts and plays.

He was a Fellow Commoner in creative arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 2001 to 2003 and is an honorary Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford.

In 2019, Sir Ben’s novel Astonishing the Gods, first published in 1995, was selected as one of the BBC’s “100 novels that shaped our world”.

Other writers to be recognised on the King’s birthday honours list include William Dalrymple and Sally Magnusson.

Historian, author and art curator Dalrymple was made CBE for services to literature and the arts.

Broadcaster and author Magnusson was made an MBE for services to people with dementia and their carers.