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A Strange New Fiction: Ben Okri and His Stokus

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My bookshelves have long since given up. They’ve taken to spitting out books on the carpet at the slightest ache from overload. And Starbook (2007) is one of such books. It is the fourth book from the bottom in a stack sitting on the bare floor, gathering dust.

Ben Okri said in a Youtube video that reading Starbook is like jumping from one cloud to another. He claims that the book is written in a poetic style colored by “mesmerism, hallucination, and dream.” A style that seeks to escape “space, time, and tradition.” Maybe that’s why I fall asleep anytime I try reading Starbook. Maybe you really can only read the book in your dreams.

Half-way through Songs of Enchantment (1993) , the sequel to the Famished Road (1991), I gave up trying to will myself to finish the book. In my frustration, I wanted to hold Okri by the collar and shake him and tell him how silly his books have become. It’s all well and good to soar from cloud to cloud but sometimes, can I please just alight on solid ground, take it all in, before I continue on to the next cloud?

For the record, I am not Achebe. I am not a militant of realism. Famished Road is indeed a charming book. It’ just that Okri for so long has been lost in a strange poetics and needs to find his way back, which he seems to have done in Tales of Freedom (2009), his most recent book, made up of a collections of stories, some of which he has named stokus.

A Strange New Form: What is a Stoku?

The following tales are properly ‘stokus.’ A stoku is an amalgam of short story and haiku. It is story as it inclines toward a flash of a moment, insight, vision or paradox.

It’s origin is mysterious, its purpose is revelation, its form compact, its subject infinite. Its nature is enigma as it finds tentative form in fiction, like the figure materializing from a cloud, or a being emerging from a vaporous block of marble.

By means of the stoku, that which was unknown reveals, in the medium of words, a translated existence. Thus worlds unknown can come into being in a lightning flash from the darkness of the mind. Stokus are serendipities, caught in the air, reverse lightning.

I offer them humbly  as tales found on the shore, in enchanted dawns.

I have read some of them. Plot is whittled down to a series of events that take place in a short period of time. Stokus seem less about story than about a character’s confrontation with a puzzling situation.

“Belonging” is my favorite. A man, in search of an Aunt, has entered the wrong house. The owner of the house mistakes him for his brother-in-law. Caught in one of those awkward situations where it’s easier to play along than to admit misrecognition, the stranger basks in his new identity. In no time, the real in-law arrives. The stranger is disgraced and thrown out even as he finds that the Aunt’s house he was in search of is a madhouse. The end. There is no story here. Only a moment of mistaken identity. But what remains with the reader is the character’s private struggle, which Okri teases out with artistic care and craft.

On a more practical note, fhe stoku just might be the genre of the future. In a 3-G world where we’ve gradually grown to hate lengthy and laborious readings, stoku might be the answer.

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

4 Responses to “A Strange New Fiction: Ben Okri and His Stokus” Subscribe

  1. Creativewritingnews February 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    What a huge relief to meet someone who feels the same way about Starbook. I struggled through each page and ensured that i read the whole book.

    it was at the time i had just returned from the prestigious Farafina Creative Writing workshop (organized by Chimamanda). We had been encouraged to read ‘writers’ books’ voraciously. I guessed laborious, unintelligible literature were what characterized ‘writers’ books.

    However, i think Starbook is a book for writers. It’s more technical; meant to school and not meant to be enjoyed, so to speak. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. Eshuneutics February 8, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    Oh, definitely not a book without pleasure. And certainly not a book for writers, whatever that genre is. It’s a fable, bery simple, that stretches to the fabulous and Okri’s unfailing belief in the Truth-Beauty of literature.

  3. Bookaholicblog February 9, 2011 at 1:47 am #

    Ben Okri oh Ben Okri. I have Starbook, not had the courage to stay stuck to it…sure he will take me to strange places.

    I enjoyed Famished Road…made me see Azaro, the abiku boy, hehehe, and kinda believe there is really another unseen world that affects everything in the seen.

    Whatever his meanderings, he writes well…and the road became a river…and the river grew thirsty and wanted blood…maybe the readers want something else, want to be taken somewhere else!

  4. Ainehi February 9, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    @ Bookaholic,

    “and the road became a river…and the river grew thirsty and wanted blood.” After Anna Karenina, Famished Road has my favorite opening sentences ever!

    @ Creative writing news: “I guessed laborious, unintelligible literature were what characterized ‘writers’ books.” Lol. Am with you on that. Starbook was a little much for me. But like I said, Tales of Freedom–especially the second half of the book–is beautiful. Love love loved the “stokus.”

    @ Eshuneutics: Curious to know what you think of Starbook. Did you read it? What’s it really about? Is there even a story?

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