Ben Okri’s “Laughter Beneath the Bridge”

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  • Title: Ben Okri’s “Laughter Beneath the Bridge”: Born (Un)free
  • Author(s): Rosemary Alice Gray
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: New Directions in the Humanities
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of Literary Humanities
  • Keywords: Biafra, Freedom, Julia Kristeva’s “Abject,” Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “Laughter Beneath the Bridge,” Nigerian Civil War, Ben Okri, Power, Violence
  • Volume: 17
  • Issue: 1
  • Year: 2019
  • ISSN: 2327-7912 (Print)
  • ISSN: 2327-8676 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Gray, Rosemary Alice . 2019. "Ben Okri’s “Laughter Beneath the Bridge”: Born (Un)free." The International Journal of Literary Humanities 17 (1): 71-81. doi:10.18848/2327-7912/CGP/v17i01/71-81.
  • Extent: 11 pages


As this prize-winning short story from Ben Okri’s “Incidents at the Shrine” is a child’s eye view of the Nigerian Civil War, I shall begin by briefly contextualizing Biafra’s quest for freedom in the late 1960s. I shall attempt to reveal the ideological constructedness of both abstract and concrete aspects of wartime existence in Nigeria and the dynamic between them in relation to the trajectory of “Laughter Beneath the Bridge.” The argument will attempt to show how the writer’s graphic symbolism mediates perceptions of time and place informed by the ideology of power and violence while, at the same time, also having singular signifying possibilities and limitations. My approach to the theme of freedom will thus be Rousseauesque in its lack of freedom thrust. Using Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, I probe the fine line between “laughing with” and “laughing at,” between pleasure and pain. Focusing on the pleasure/pain paradox illuminates how satire works in this story; the physical pain and suffering of the characters suggest how readers are implicated in and redeemed from represented systemic violence.