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Wole Soyinka – Africa’s Literary Giant
Wole Soyinka – Africa’s Literary Giant

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 10-06-2019

Wole Soyinka Nobel laureate, is among Africa’s greatest contemporary writers. He is also one of the continent’s most imaginative advocates of native culture and of the humane social order it embodies. Born in Western Nigeria Abeokuta, on July 13, 1934, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. He first attended the parsonage primary school, where his father was headmaster, and then a nearby grammar school in Abeokuta, where an uncle was principal. Though raised in a colonial, English-speaking environment, Soyinka’s ethnic heritage was Yoruba, and his parents balanced Christian training with regular visits to the father’s ancestral home in `Isarà, a small Yoruba community secure in its traditions. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds, where, later, in 1973, he took his doctorate. During the six years spent in England, he was a dramaturg at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. While at university, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, an anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organisation, the first confraternity in Nigeria.

In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, “The 1960 Masks” and in 1964, the “Orisun Theatre Company”, in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been a visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.

Not only did much of this large body of work openly challenge Nigerian authorities, but Soyinka also involved himself in practical politics. During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire. His actions led to a brief detention, trial, and acquittal in 1965. Then in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for twenty-two months until 1969. Soyinka recounts this trauma in The Man Died (1972), another of his autobiographical works.

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Following his release in 1969, Soyinka went into voluntary exile and soon after entered a second period of intense creativity. In 1971, his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan that year. Soyinka travelled to Paris to take the lead role as Patrice Lumumba, the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, in the production of his Murderous Angels. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died (1971), a collection of notes from prison, was also published. He writes in English and his literary language and it is marked by great scope and richness of words.

At twelve Soyinka left Aké for Ibadan to attend that city’s elite Government College and at 18 entered its new university. But in 1954, his ambition focused on a career in theater, Soyinka traveled to England to complete a degree in drama at Leeds, under the well-known Shakespearean critic, G. Wilson Knight. After graduation in 1957, Soyinka extended his European apprenticeship by working several years as a script-reader, actor, and director at the Royal Court Theatre in London. This period also saw the composition of Soyinka’s first mature plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel, and their successful staging in both London and Ibadan. In 1960 a Rockefeller research grant enabled Soyinka to return to Nigeria. There, he assembled his own acting company, produced a new play, A Dance of the Forests, and timed its opening to coincide with the country’s official celebration of independence in October.

Though Soyinka’s return from England had been widely welcomed, A Dance of the Forests at once placed him at odds with Nigeria’s newly installed leaders as well as with many of his fellow intellectuals. Thematically, the play presents a pageant of black Africa’s “recurrent cycle of stupidities,” a spectacle designed to remind citizens of the chronic dishonesty and abuse of power which colonialism had bred in generations of native politicians. Stylistically, A Dance of the Forests is a complex fusion of Yoruba festival traditions with European modernism. Hostility greeted the play from almost all quarters. Nigerian authorities were angered by Soyinka’s suggestion of wide-spread corruption, leftists complained about the play’s elitist aesthetics, and – those African chauvinists’ proponents of pure Negritude whom Soyinka labels “Neo-Tarzanists” – objected to his use of European techniques.

Perhaps, what Soyinka’s critics failed to appreciate was the radical originality of his approach to liberating black Africa from its crippling legacy of European imperialism. He envisioned a “New Africa” that would escape its colonial past by grafting the technical advances of the present onto the stock of its own ancient traditions. Native myth, reformulated to accommodate contemporary reality, was to be the foundation of the future, opening the way to “self-retrieval, cultural recollection, and cultural security”.

As dramatist, Soyinka has been influenced by, among others, the Irish writer, J.M. Synge, but links up with the traditional popular African theatre with its combination of dance, music, and action. In 1972, he was awarded a Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, his novel Season of Anomy (1972) and his Collected Plays (1972) were both published by Oxford University Press. In 1973 the National Theatre, London, commissioned and premiered the play The Bacchae of Euripides. In 1973 his plays Camwood on the Leaves and Jero’s Metamorphosis were first published. From 1973 to 1975, Soyinka spent time on scientific studies. He spent a year as a visiting fellow at Churchill College Cambridge University, (1973 to 74) and wrote Death and the King’s Horseman, which had its first reading at Churchill College and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.

READ ALSO: 58 years after Patrice Lumumba; Congo Still in Chaos

In 1974, his Collected Plays, Volume II was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975, Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for Transition, a magazine based in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where he moved for some time. He used his columns in Transition to criticise the “negrophiles” (for instance, his article “Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”) and military regimes. He protested against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After the political turnover in Nigeria and the subversion of Gowon’s military regime in 1975, Soyinka returned to his homeland and resumed his position at the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.

Soyinka pursued his hopes for a reborn Nigeria with inventiveness and energy. He wrote and directed a variety of plays, ranging from comedies like The Trials of Brother Jero, a popular exposé of religious charlatans, to a series of politically charged tragedies, The Road, The Strong Breed, and Kongi’s Harvest, each of which turns on the modern world’s interruption of ancient ritual practice. Beyond these full-length plays, Soyinka composed satirical revues, organized an improvisational “guerrilla theater,” and wrote for radio and television. He also published his first novel, The Interpreters (1965), and his first book of poetry, Idanre and Other Poems (1967).

Soyinka delivered lectures and wrote essays that discussed the nature of his art, traced its roots in Yoruba tradition, and compared his aesthetic principles and practice to those of other writers, both African and European. Some of this criticism Soyinka revised and published as Myth, Literature and the African World (1976). Most of the rest he collected a decade later in Art, Dialogue & Outrage (1988). The political history that animates Soyinka’s cultural thought in these two volumes is the subject of The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). This book traces Nigeria’s decline into increasingly inhumane military governments, a deterioration epitomized by the 1995 execution of fellow playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as by the death sentence pronounced on Soyinka himself in 1997.

Soyinka was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 becoming the first African laureate. An autobiography, Aké: The Years of Childhood, was published in 1981. In 1988, his collection of poems Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. In the same year, Soyinka accepted the position of Professor of African Studies and Theatre at Cornell University. In 1990, a third novel, inspired by his father’s intellectual circle, Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, appeared. Both works are very bitter political parodies, based on events that took place in Nigeria in the 1980s. In 1993 Soyinka was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. The next year another part of his autobiography appeared: Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946–1965). The following year his play The Beatification of Area Boy was published. In October 1994, he was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, and freedom of expression, media and communication.

In November 1994, Soyinka fled from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996, his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis was first published. In 1997, he was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. The international parliament of writers (IPW) was established in 1993 to provide support for writers victimized by persecution. Soyinka became the organization’s second president from 1997 to 2000.

In 2005 to 2006 Soyinka served on the Encyclopedia Editorial Board of Advisors. Soyinka has long been a proponent of Nigerian democracy. He has founded, headed, or participated in several political groups, including the national democratic organization, the national liberation council of Nigeria, and pro-national conference organizations (PRONACO).
In 2014, he revealed his battle with prostate cancer.

In spite of frequent criticism of his obscure and difficult style, Wole Soyinka is generally regarded as a major literary figure in the contemporary world; by some, he is considered to be the most sophisticated writer to emerge in Anglophone Africa.


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