Ben Okri: ‘I was nearly shot because I couldn’t speak my dad’s language’

Why was Ben Okri so keen to adapt L’Étranger, Albert Camus’s dark novel about the killing of an Arab, for the stage? He talks about his battle with the French writer’s daughter, his days living on the streets – and the swearword that saved his life

As the child of a mixed marriage growing up in Nigeria during the country’s civil war, Ben Okri had a powerful introduction to the dangers facing the outsider. His father was Urhobo, while his mother was Igbo. After spending his early years in London while his father trained as a lawyer, Okri returned home with his family in 1967, only to find themselves straddling a murderous divide.

Okri was stranded in a Jesuit boarding school many miles from home when the war broke out. “My mother risked her life coming across the country to collect me,” he says. “On the journey back, we saw people being pulled out of buses and shot. I was nearly shot as well because I couldn’t speak my dad’s language. I was being dragged away when I remembered one of the oldest words in any language – shit – and that saved me. That was my first experience with death.” He was just seven years old.

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