A Strange New Fiction: Ben Okri and His Stokus
February 07, 2011
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.