A moment that changed me: Ben Okri – realising my dream to become a novelist at the age of 19

I wrote the first draft in a ghetto in Lagos, working on it at 4am. With its publication the life I was meant to live began

Family legend has it that I began reading the Times at around the age of four. At school in London I was that kid who stuck his hand up to read aloud from the Shakespeare play we were studying or to recite a poem. At secondary school, in Nigeria, literature was something I was negligently good at, but didn’t take seriously. Over the holidays I would visit the libraries of foreign embassies and read my way through their literatures. At the American embassy, I discovered Emerson and Whitman; at the Japanese embassy, I discovered karate, Zen Buddhism and Bashō. It seemed then I was destined to be a scientist. I applied to university, but at age 14 was deemed too young. I spent a year at home, waiting to be old enough.

My main task, during that year, was to dust my father’s library. I was to dust the books but not read them. The first book to catch my attention was Plato’s Symposium. I had a great thirst for philosophy and devoured all his dialogues. I read the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare; the short stories of Maupassant, Chekhov, Maugham; then I got lost in 19th-century novels. Like everyone else, I read American and English thrillers. They were a bad influence in every way except one: they made writing seem deceptively easy.

Every Leaf a Hallelujah, an environmental fable for children and adults, is published by Head of Zeus (£14.99).

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