‘Belonging’ by Ben Okri: Short Story Analysis
‘Belonging’ by Nigerian writer Ben Okri is a story about ‘belonging to a community of people’. We have no choice in this matter. We are born to our families apparently without our own ‘consultation’. The symbolism is beautifully shown here by Okri as he is mistaken to be part of an Arab family. In reality, he belongs to a family living opposite the Arab family. This indicates the terrible life of a mad person living with deranged people, more indicative since ‘Belonging’ is considered by most to be a tale of the macabre and about zombies. A member of an Arab family living in a flat opposite to Okri’s last blood relation mistakenly recognizes Okri to be his relative. He is under the impression that Okri ‘belongs’ to the family, and Okri, who at first is distraught, soon grows to like this sense of belonging, indicative of the comfort he feels from the collective warmth of a family’s love and bonding.
Okri, according to this story, has never experienced the love of ‘belonging’. He has always been of ‘foreign blood’ to all the people in his life. Once the real relative who Okri was mistaken for shows up, Okri is looked upon with scorn, anger, and shock. He thus experiences the positive and negative aspects of ‘belonging’ and then being cast out for ‘not belonging’. Notice the indication mentioned by Okri that although he was a much better, healthier, and handsome person than the real Arab relative, the family prefers the Arab gentleman because he ‘is the real family member’. Thereby, all the minus points of the Arab gentleman are not considered when he is accepted as being from the ‘family’ or the ‘community’. The Arab gentleman is middle-aged, without a promising future, weighed down by tradition, fixed roles, etc. Yet, because of that piece of luck that he ‘belonged’ ushered him into the group and flung Okri out of it.
Now coming to the place where Okri’s real relative was supposed to live, his ‘blood relative’, we meet an unnerving looking community of people who look more like deranged zombies than living and breathing human beings. They symbolize:
- Broken and disturbed homes and communities.
- Unstable homes or families to which innocent people, especially children, are born ‘by the chance of fate’ or ‘divine intervention’.
- The horrors of being related to the worst kind of blood relatives.
- Self-knowledge of Okri that his community or family is better left alone because he too is the mirror of his family’s reality – insanity and instability.
- The haunting imagery of the price one has to pay when one belongs to the wrong home.
It was wise of Okri to heed the warnings of his Arab neighbors not to enter his own family home of zombies called ‘Margaret House,’ which on the surface sounds like any ordinary family name or house name. However, looking below the surface, there is a stagnant horror that drives Okri away. He preferred belonging to no one than to belong to this ‘horror’ of a family.
The family in the flat where he is mistaken as being ‘a part of’ is:
- Rich and living a life with more than sufficient belongings.
- It is an extended and large family with many people with whom one can become a close friend or relative.
- They were part of a never-ending feast because they were privileged enough to constantly share meals. This is especially seen in the form of celebratory meals with cake and specially made sauce, which all smelled good to Okri.
- The family had its secrets and intimate ideologies, which made living in it a colorful world.
Okri wishes that he was a part of this simple mundane family. He wished his life was not full of the magical realism of Margaret House. He wanted a stable life with a stable community. However, he was living in a turbulent world. Ben Okri grew up in the shadow of the Nigeria-Biafra War, a civil war in Nigeria that was fought between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra from 6 July 1967 to 15 January 1970. It was a war that killed many innocent Biafran children who were starved to death. Could it be possible that Okri is relating to these children who died in that Civil War? They, too, in the innocence of chance ‘belonged’ to the wrong people, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Maybe, looking at this terrible Civil War that made many Western countries loosen their purse strings, made Okri wonder what it truly meant to ‘belong’ to the ‘right’ people and the ‘privilege’ some people had by just being born into the right community, and at the right time.
Okri wonders through this subtle form of magical realism, he has left behind his old life in his dreams and now has awakened as a new person belonging to this tightly knit Arab family. He felt that could be the only reason he was mistaken for being a close family member to the person speaking to him from the flat. When the middle-aged Arab returns and is proven just by his presence to be the real family member who ‘belonged’, the ‘cream’ of the ‘true blood’ was lifted from the ‘false plain blood’, and Okri is driven by the stares of all the family members out of their realm of existence.
Notice how the family members are embroiled in their little world of secret norms and mores. They were so taken up by their scandals that one of them didn’t realize in their ‘single-minded absent-mindedness’ (I love that line) that Okri was not the real family member. Also, were they close if they couldn’t recognize one family member from another? What makes a family close? My answer to that is stagnation, abiding by the dictates of the convention, and upholding tradition before freedom and liberalism.
I loved this short story by Ben Okri. He has always been on my TBR shelf for the longest time. Surprisingly, I have not picked up his books to read even though I knew of him in 2012. I hope to read more of his novels and short stories shortly and will review or analyze them for you here on my blog.
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