Incidents at the Shrine


I went to a workshop with Ben Okri at the Dubai Festival of Literature in March this year. The workshop was called “Finding Your Voice” and Ben Okri kept asking me to delete adjective after adjective from my writing task until there were no adjectives left. “That is your voice,” he said.

His advice makes sense, reading his collection of short stories called Incidents at the Shrine. The prose is kind of minimalist, very tight, and the effect is that I’m painting my own vivid pictures in my head almost entirely on my own as I’m reading these stories. Of course we all visualise what’s happening in a story as readers, but with Ben Okri’s stories in this collection the langue is so economical, so condensed, that I have to fill in a lot of blanks. Make assumptions. Look into my memory and what I know about life and ask myself, “Is this really what is happening here?” I feel I’m building the story myself. Perfect texts for reading-response theorists, I suppose.

There are two things I really like about this collection of short stories. First, the stories give me such a completely new and different view of life that I feel I’ve travelled very far away from the world I know. The privilege of seeing life from a completely new angle. Exotic. Strange. Second, these stories really challenge me because the situations described are often really desperate – I keep asking myself as I’m reading whether people really live under these circumstances – and yet the language is so totally matter-of-fact. Which enforces the sense that this is life as normal for the characters in the stories. And I find that challenging.

This is a great collections of stories with vivid colours, sounds and smells from Africa. Most of it made up by yourself in your own head as you read because of Ben Okri’s tight, focused, concise prose.