In Okri’s The Freedom Artist (Akashic, Feb.), a man searches for a woman imprisoned after asking revolutionary questions in a dystopian world.

What inspired this book?

As I’ve watched the world and watched people, it’s occurred to me that we carry prisons in our consciousness. These may be prisons of gender, race, class, art, literature, or prisons of ideas about how to run the world. I’ve long wanted to articulate this persistent feeling, but events in recent years, like what has happened here in Britain, or what happened back in Nigeria during the Civil War, crystallized it for me.

What made you structure a political story around myth?

I wanted to tell the story of how power works on us by manipulating our myths. Politicians are most effective when they manipulate the deep myths that run inside of us, that move us and motivate us without our being aware of it. People who were good neighbors one day suddenly became warmongering and vicious and nasty to their neighbors overnight, because they were moved by this deep under-swell of myth.

Did you intend a message for readers?

I wouldn’t call it a message, I would call it a song—or maybe even an inflection. There’s really no point in telling a story if it’s not going to speak on all the levels of our being. The story operates on two planes, the personal and the spiritual, with Karnak looking for his girlfriend, lost to him because she asked a simple question, and Mirababa going through an initiation into the spirit of liberty. We don’t really begin to ask questions about the things that blind us and the things that manipulate us, the things that chain us without beginning to ask those deep questions until the question also become spiritual. This enchaining, this imprisonment, it’s not just the intellect. It’s only when the deep spirit asks questions that we’re moved to a big quest for true freedom.

How are the existential themes introduced by the narrator important to the story?

I’ve always wanted to tell the story of the body and the story of the spirit in our difficult times in one book. The intellect can get in the way of our emotional, spiritual, and even personal questions—the questions we need to ask. What’s needed is an awakening of the whole man and woman. All the different parts of us. Our bodies, emotions, and soul. We need to come up close to the fire of our current destiny and have this existential awakening.