Wole (Akinwande Oluwole) Soyinka, the first writer from Africa and the only black African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1986), is the most multidimensional of the continent's writers. Dramatist, poet, novelist, literary and social critic, and memoirist – he has achieved preeminence in all genres. Soyinka combines genres in important new ways, and he is the most significant writer of dramatic verse in English in the second half of the twentieth century. His literary career has been marked by fresh beginnings and resisted prediction. His three novels are so varied as to seem almost by different hands. At the same time, there is a distinctive Soyinka voice already present in the plays and poems written as a young man and recognizable across his output, a voice characterized by erudite display, rhetorical flourish, sensuous or grotesque imagery, irreverence, and rebarbative syntax.
Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934 in Abeokuta, in Yorubaland, western Nigeria. His parents were Christians and his father was a schoolteacher. His mother's family was prominent in early nationalist politics: his maternal uncle was a leader in education, and his cousin was the renowned musician Fela Kuti. From the account of his childhood in his memoir Aké (1981a) (named after the small town, part of Abeokuta, where he grew up), young Soyinka was a prodigy, able to read long before he went to school. He was, along with fellow Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, among the first generation to attend University College Ibadan in the early 1950s, a period Robert Wren has called “those magical years.” Soyinka left for England in 1954, where he attended the University of Leeds, at the time the premier academic center of Commonwealth writing. (It is no coincidence that wherever Soyinka studied, that institution enjoyed its period of greatest glory.) While in England he wrote the plays The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel and the poems “Telephone Conversation” and “Abiku,” works that immediately became part of the African canon.
Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1959, on the eve of independence, on a Rockefeller research project and to take up a teaching appointment at the University of Ibadan. To commemorate independence he formed a theater group, the 1960 Masks, which performed a play, A Dance of the Forests, deemed too experimental and pessimistic for the official ceremonies for which it had been commissioned. In 1961 he founded the Mbari Writers Club with Ulli Beier. He served as editor of the literary journal Black Orpheus and later of Transition. In 1962 Soyinka became a lecturer in English at the University of Ife and, in 1965, took up a similar post at the University of Lagos. He has continued to teach and to organize theater groups in university contexts in Nigeria and the United States (Emory University and at the University of Nevada Las Vegas) throughout his career.
From the start, Soyinka's work deliberately defied expectations. The Lion and the Jewel (1963b) overturns the conventions of comedy by making a male of the parents’ generation triumph over a younger suitor in the contest for a young woman's heart. Unlike almost every other West African writer of his generation, Soyinka did not write about the colonial encounter or the anticolonial struggle. His pithy dismissal of the tenets of Negritude, the poetic affirmation of Africanness associated with the poet Léopold Senghor, quickly became famous: a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, wrote Soyinka, he pounces. As a result, Soyinka has often been celebrated or denigrated as a “universalist,” but it is more accurate to say that he champions a Yoruba cultural field. He measures himself against the world, extending back to classical Greece, and explicitly including Europe, America, and Asia, but always with his feet planted firmly in Yorubaland. Like almost all West African writers, Soyinka rejected the Christianity of his parents, but he is unusual in declaring himself a devotee of Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, war, and roads, whose myths he has explored in the long poem Idanre and in the collection Ogun Abibiman.
Soyinka complicates the notions of tradition and modernity by folding the latter into the former. Ogun, the god of iron, is also the god of airplanes and machines; Sango, the god of thunder, is also the god of electricity. Soyinka combines in original, sometimes bewildering, and always productive ways mysticism and social comment, classical tragedy and realist detail. A good example is The Road (1965b), a play involving possession by a god, sacrifice, and an existentialist quest for the meaning of death, set in a modern social context with such recognizably Nigerian features as a gang of touts, police corruption, rickety motor vehicles, carnage on the roads, and an aladura (African Christian) church where communion is with palm wine.
Soyinka's first novel, The Interpreters (1965a), is a modernist masterpiece, unlike anything before it in African literature. It traces the relations of five male friends from university who are now a journalist, a painter, an engineer and sculptor, a civil servant, and an academic, as they negotiate their responsibilities as artists and intellectuals in newly independent Nigeria. The interpreters define themselves not by kin or inheritance but by friendship and sexual desire. They have almost no inheritance from the previous generation, whose corruption, mimicry, and greed are targets of their satirical antics. The interpreters are concerned with art (they look down on law, politics, and business as careers), with personal authenticity, and with subverting the mimicry and materialism of the world around them. They are the first citizens of the modern Nigerian nation state and are shaping an unabashedly African modernity. There is a generous amount of satire aimed at the new bourgeoisie, but the interpreters themselves are also subjected to critical irony for their self-importance and cynicism. The great tableau that the painter Kola is creating, a theogony depicting the Yoruba gods, for which his friends serve as models, functions both to dignify the characters (they are the modern equivalents of mythic prototypes) and to ironize them.
Soyinka has always been a social and political activist. He was very active in the general strike in western Nigeria of 1964. He was arrested in 1965 for taking over a government radio station and replacing a taped message by the prime minister of western Nigeria, who had stolen the elections, with one of his own; Soyinka faced trial and was freed on a technicality. At the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War he was again arrested for having met with the leaders of secessionist Biafra in an effort to halt the war, and he spent two years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, an experience he writes about in the prison memoir The Man Died (1972) and in the poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt (1971c).
The Biafran War ended many Nigerian literary careers – Achebe did not write another novel for two decades – but Soyinka became, if anything, more fiercely political. Not for nothing is “Outrage” the third term in the title of his collected essays. Madmen and Specialists (1971b), a play about the war, reaches an apogee of bitterness and obscurity. Political satire fills Soyinka's second novel, Season of Anomy (1973), about a despotic cartel that exploits an anonymous African country that resembles pre-Civil War Nigeria. The leaders of the cartel are the governors of the three regions and the military commander-in-chief. An alternative social model is represented by Aiyéro, a socialist commune (based on the Aiyetoro Holy Apostles community in western Nigeria). The men of Aiyéro have strategically spread far and wide in order to transform the nation from below. Their position as educated Christians in the Muslim north, a region called Cross-River, resembles the situation of Igbos in Northern Nigeria before the war, and the Cartel responds to the threat of Aiyéro by sponsoring a region-wide massacre like that suffered by Igbos in 1966. The hero, Ofeyi, is a public relations officer for the Cocoa Corporation, who stages shows, designs posters, and writes jingles with subtly subversive messages. His quest to rescue the beautiful Iriyise, who has been abducted and taken to Cross-River, is a loose version of the Greek myth of Orpheus, who tries to recover his lover Eurydice from the Underworld. (Soyinka has retold Greek myth elsewhere, most notably The Bacchae of Euripides (1971a), first produced in London the same year as Season appeared.) The novel's scenes of mass violence eerily foreshadow scenes from Rwanda or Darfur that have since entered the literary imagination. However, the novel's fierce allegory and mythic underpinning lack the irony of The Interpreters: all the virtuous characters in Season immediately recognize Ofeyi as their leader, and, as in a Salman Rushdie novel, the hero has the love of the most beautiful woman in the country, one known to and beloved by all.
Soyinka became very involved with the People's Redemption Party, and in 1983 released an album of politically charged songs titled Unlimited Liability Company, satirizing the corruption of Shehu Shagari's regime. An important part of his theatrical output since his days in England has been satirical revues of political targets, ranging from the racist regime of South Africa, through the dictatorships of Nkrumah and Banda, to corruption closer to home. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he led a Guerrilla Theatre Unit at the University of Ibadan, which performed “shotgun theatre,” brief unscheduled satirical sketches, staged in public places such as motor parks and markets, or on the street. Themes and songs from those sketches were later incorporated into the major plays satirizing African Big Men, the corrupt tyrants who ran Africa's states, a series that began remarkably early and presciently with Kongi's Harvest (1967), a satire on Nkrumah of Ghana, and includes Opera Wonyosi (1977), A Play of Giants (1984), and From Zia, With Love (1992). Soyinka typically juxtaposes the underworld of petty criminals and thugs, prominent in The Road and The Beatification of Area Boy (1993), with the elite world of Africa's leaders, thereby suggesting that the corruption at the top runs throughout society, but also that the urban poor shall wrest the state from the hands of the corrupt rich and redeem it. As Derek Wright points out, however, the dictators who are Soyinka's targets are larger than life and already parody themselves, limiting the effectiveness of his satire.
Africa's most prominent poet and playwright has not been restricted to political satire. Soyinka's imagination renewed itself in the 1970s and 1980s by returning to the colonial past that hitherto he had ignored as subject matter. Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman (1975a), based on a historical incident from the 1940s, has become his most famous and most studied play. Soyinka declared that the theme is not cultural conflict, a topic he has always eschewed, but rather metaphysical crisis, as the king's horseman is tempted to forgo the ritual suicide required of him at the death of the king and so brings tragedy upon his house and his community. Nevertheless, the play's staging of the conflict between the poetry-spouting Yoruba characters and the prosaic British illuminates the foundations of both cultures. The play works with a productive tension between essential notions of culture (as expressed in sacrifice) and notions of culture as role-playing and performance.
Soyinka again turned to the colonial past to write his two greatest prose works, a memoir of childhood, Aké (1981a), and a novel about his father's generation, Isarà (1989), subtitled A Voyage Around “Essay” – Essay being the nickname he applied to his father, S. A. Soyinka. In these two works Soyinka returns to the late 1930s and early 1940s, that is to his Christian past, before he became a devotee of Ogun. Soyinka had once scorned his father's generation for having been colonized, but his father's death seems to have changed his outlook. Both books depict a simpler world when authenticity and solidarity were possible and political action brought concrete and salutary results. Nostalgia is not the dominant tone, but neither is vitriol. The inspiration is love of a particular place and of family.
Isarà is often regarded as the prequel to Aké, for both are named after locales of personal significance to the author; but, whereas Aké recreates Soyinka's own thought processes as a child, Isarà imagines a time he was too young to remember and enters the thoughts of others. Isarà is therefore a novel rather than a memoir, closer to V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, another novel based on the author's father. As if to acknowledge this generic distinction, the names of the characters are fictional, and the novel scrupulously avoids “any pretence to factual accuracy” (1989, p. viii).
Soyinka's three novels all feature a generational cohort that embodies what the nation should be. In The Interpreters the eponymous protagonists preserve their distance from the world of corruption around them, but are also compromised by that distance. In Season, the men of Aiyéro, unnamed as individuals, represent an ideal viciously cut down by the forces of disaster. In Isarà, however, set a generation earlier, the young men from Isarà who studied at St. Simeon's Teaching Seminary in Ilesha, and who call themselves the ex-Ilés, are able at once to put themselves at the center of the town Isarà and to imagine and so bring into being the new nation to which they will belong.
Soyinka has published two other volumes of autobiography, Ibadan: The “Penkelemes” Years (1994) and You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006). He calls the first volume “faction,” a fictionalization of facts. It is narrated in the third person and the protagonist is called Maren, but Soyinka declares that he has not invented events. Novelists who return repeatedly to autobiographical narrative (such as Doris Lessing, Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, or J. M. Coetzee) have strong, remarkably consistent personalities and measure themselves as individuals against the world. Soyinka is no exception. Biodun Jeyifo has pointed out that the young boy in Aké associates with adults more than with children. In contrast, Maren in Ibadan seems never to grow up: his political and artistic exploits as an adult are an extension of his mischief at school. He took on bullies then and takes on dictators now. Soyinka reveals himself to be a strange mix of integrity and rebellion, at once madcap and courageous. The way he deliberately puts himself at the center of national and continental history distinguishes him, however, from the aforementioned literary autobiographers. To judge from his autobiographies, this particular quality, almost a superhero identity, is recognized by people around him, even working-class people. Soyinka therefore resembles the figure he so often satirizes: the Big Man who cannot imagine the nation without himself at the helm. A poem in the voice of Gulliver in Lilliput (published in A Shuttle in the Crypt) expresses an affinity for the giant in a world of dwarves who extinguishes a fire by pissing on it. In spite of himself, Soyinka has something in common with Senghor, the poet and philosopher of Negritude who became president of Senegal, and Soyinka signals his peace with Negritude in the essay The Burden of Memory (1999).
Soyinka the poet speaks as a prophet, on speaking terms with classical Greeks and with presidents. His turgid, clotted style produces a great compression: his poems feel ready to burst. He has been reprimanded by the critic Chinweizu for the difficulty of his language, denounced as Euro-modernism. Soyinka has replied by labeling his critics “neo-Tarzanists.”
In the 1990s he had again to go into exile after denouncing the dictatorship of Sani Abacha, which he writes about in Open Sore of a Continent (1996). Nigeria's suffering since independence has proved a “Vain ransom,” Soyinka writes in Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known (2002): it seems no amount of sacrifice will bring it to an end. Soyinka, however, continues his campaigns of opposition unbowed.
SEE ALSO: Achebe, Chinua (WF); Censorship and Fiction (WF); Humor and Satire (WF); Migration, Diaspora, and Exile in Fiction (WF); Politics/Activism and Fiction (WF); Postcolonial Fiction of the African Diaspora (BIF); Queer/Alternative Sexualities in Fiction (WF); West African Fiction (WF)
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- Jeyifo, B. (ed.) (2001). Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
- Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2004).
- Achebe or Soyinka: A Study in Contrasts. London: Hans Zell. (1996).
- A Dance of the Forests. London: Oxford University Press. (1963a).
- The Lion and the Jewel. London: Oxford University Press. (1963b).
- The Interpreters. London: Deutsch. (1965a).
- The Road. London: Oxford University Press. (1965b).
- Idanre and Other Poems. London: Methuen. (1967a).
- Kongi's Harvest. London: Oxford University Press. (1967b).
- The Bacchae of Euripides. London: Methuen. (1971a).
- Madmen and Specialists. London: Methuen. (1971b).
- A Shuttle in the Crypt. London: Methuen. (1971c).
- The Man Died. London: Rex Collings. (1972).
- Season of Anomy. London: Rex Collings. (1973).
- Death and the King's Horseman. London: Methuen. (1975a).
- Soyinka, W. (ed.) (1975). Poems of Black Africa. London: Secker and Warburg.
- Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1976).
- Aké: The Years of Childhood. London: Rex Collings. (1981a).
- Opera Wonyosi. London: Rex Collings. (1981b).
- Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ibadan: New Horn. (1988a).
- Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. New York: Random House. (1988b).
- Isaià: A Voyage Around “Essay”. New York: Random House. (1989).
- Ibadan: The “Penkelemes” Years. London: Methuen. (1994).
- The Beatification of Area Boy. London: Methuen. (1995).
- The Open Sore of a Continent. New York: Oxford University Press. (1996).
- The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press. (1999).
- Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known. London: Methuen. (2002).
- Blackout, Blowout and Beyond: Satirical Revue Sketches (ed. Banham, M. ) [special issue of African Theatre]. Oxford: James Currey. (2005).
- You Must Set Forth at Dawn. New York: Random House. (2006).
- Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature at Ibadan, 1948–1966. Washington, DC: Three Continents. (1991).
- Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne. (1993).
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