For over 30 years, Nigerian writer Ben Okri has been at the forefront of international literature. The author of two dozen books, Okri is perhaps best known for his novel The Famished Road, which won the 1991 Booker Prize for Fiction. He has since been appointed as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an OBE for his literary contributions, and the vice president of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Yet despite his renown, Okri has not attained widespread name recognition in the United States.
Other Press publisher Judith Gurewich wants that to change. Starting this year, Gurewich will roll out a plan to publish his front- and backlist titles over the next several years.
Gurewich discovered Okri’s work when her son read aloud passages of his 2011 book A Time for New Dreams during a 2019 art exhibit at Harvard University. She was moved by the writing and thrilled when Okri’s U.K. publisher, Head of Zeus, gave her the opportunity to acquire Every Leaf a Hallelujah, Okri’s illustrated environmentalist fairy tale, for the U.S. It’s been called a children’s book, but Gure-wich felt that it contains valuable lessons for young and adult readers alike.
“I preempted Every Leaf a Hallelujah as quickly as I could,” Gurewich said, “and soon discovered to my delight that Ben hadn’t been systematically published in our country. So Other Press went after his backlist.”
In February, Other Press published, for the first time in the States, Okri’s novel Astonishing the Gods, featuring a new introduction by the author. “Ben Okri is exactly the kind of author I have been looking for,” Gurewich said. “To me Ben is a sort of prophet, and Other Press is thrilled to be given the right to be his temple.”
Okri is equally enthusiastic about the partnership. “My decision to go with Other Press was simple,” he said. “I love Judith’s energy and passion. When she first encountered my work she did something admirable, something rare: she proceeded to read as much of my work as she could find. I have a great affinity with that instinct. Then she declared that she wanted to publish everything I’ve written. Well, I have waited 27 years for such a publisher-reader.”
Okri also admires the vision of Other Press, which he calls “one of the most adventurous, farsighted, and bravest publishers in America.”
He is heading to the U.S. at a unique time in his career: for many years, he has been rewriting several of his books. In the 1990s, he rewrote his novel Dangerous Love; last year, he rewrote Mental Fight; and for the past few years, he has been rewriting The Last Gift of the Master Artists. “I was doing it anyway, purely for myself,” he said.
When Head of Zeus suggested the rewritten edition of the latter be published, Gurewich joined the effort. The Last Gift of the Master Artists, previously published in 2007 in the U.K. by Ebury Publishing’s Rider imprint as Starbook, will be published by Other Press in fall 2022.
Describing Okri’s rewriting project, Gurewich said, “Think of it this way: if we were lucky enough to be artists ourselves—Ben is an artist when he writes—wouldn’t we love to ‘rewrite’ our lives and edit parts of them with what we know now and missed before? I have no idea why great writers have not done this before—it makes so much sense!”
Okri said he took up the rewriting project “because I saw how the books could be transformed while remaining what they were.” Rewriting Dangerous Love, he found the right tone that he had been looking for. Rewriting Mental Fight, he sorted out the issue of meter. And in tackling The Last Gift of the Master Artists, he stumbled on an even greater discovery: “I realized that the tone I had used for the book blunted its political depths,” he explained, recalling that the novel was initially “taken for a fairy tale” when it was first published. “So new language was needed. But in rewriting it, I saw that its internal architecture had to change. It became a major act of transformation.”
Okri knows that revising his previous novels might alienate fans of the books’ older iterations. “A few people prefer the earlier versions of books I have rewritten—sometimes the earlier books are rougher and truer for that,” he said. “Those who like the early versions have not entered the rabbit hole of rereading.”
His decision to revisit his oeuvre has not just been aimless tinkering—it has been a purposeful endeavor, guided by intuition. “Rewriting can become an excuse for not finishing,” he said. “You can lose sight of your vision. With the books I have rewritten, I have at last had the true vision of what they are, what they can be.”
Currently, Other Press intends to publish Okri’s books through spring 2025. In addition to The Last Gift of the Master Artists, the poetry collection A Fire in My Head is coming in fall 2022. In 2023, the press has tentative plans to publish the novel Dangerous Love, the essay collection A Time for New Dreams, the poetry collection Mental Fight, and the play Changing Destiny. Four more books are set to be released in 2024 and 2025.
Going all in on an author with little name recognition in the States is a gamble, but Gurewich is confident not only in Okri’s talent as a writer but in his importance as a cultural figure. “Okri stands for a new way of thinking, seeing, and writing,” she said. “His work can actually help us change our lives and shed our preconceptions and prejudices.” With Other Press behind him, she hopes his stature will grow here.
Publishing, Okri lamented, has become too safe. “For me the real courage of publishing is with the unknown,” he said. “That’s where the magic is.”