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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Wole Soyinka (1934-) - in full Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka


Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, first black African who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Soyinka has been imprisoned several times for his criticism of the government. From the 1970s he has lived long periods in exile. Soyinka's plays range from comedy to tragedy, and from political satire to the theatre of the absurd. He has combined influences from Western traditions with African myth, legends and folklore, and such techniques as singing and drumming.

"Soyinka probably would like to be recognized most especially as a dramatist and man of the theatre. He implied that much at the opening of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (dedicated to Nelson Mandela) as he related back to a moment in the past, in his theatrical beginnings, to inform the crucial political situations of the present world order. This recognition would seem to be justified, considering his gamut of plays, but more especially so because in his drama can be located elements of his equally important literary forms..." (Femi Euba in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998)

Wole Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, southwestern Nigeria, which was then a British colony. The Soyinkas were members of the Yoruba tribe. His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, was the headmaster of St. Peter's Primary School. Soyinka's mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, whom the author calls "Wild Christian", was a shopkeeper and respected political figure in the community.

Like many other major Nigerian writers, including Elechi Amadi, Chinua Achebe, John Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, and Cole Omotso, Soyinka was educated at the University College of Ibada. In 1954 he moved to England, where he studied English literature at the the University of Leeds, receiving his B.A. in 1959. During this period he started study of the work of Eugene O'Neill and wrote two plays, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel, a story of a floppish school teacher and a old African chief competing for a young village woman. Both of the plays were staged in London.

SIDI: These thoughts of future wonders – do you buy them
Or merely go mad and dream of them?
LAKUNLE: A prophet has honor except
In his own home. Wise men have been called mad
Before and after, many more shall be
So abused. But to answer you, the measure
Is not entirely of my own coinage.
What I boast is known in Lagos, the city
Of magic, in Banagry where Saro women bathe
In gold, even in smaller towns less than
Twelve miles from here.
SIDI: Well go there. Go to these places where
Women would understand you.
If you told them of your plans with which
You oppress me daily. Do you not know
What name they give you here?

(from The Lion and the Jewel)

While in England, Soyinka married Barbara Skeath, a fellow student at Leeds; the marriage was brief. In 1960 Soyinka returned to Nigeria, and established an amateur ensemble acting company. He also wrote scripts for radio and television. Soyinka's first important play, A Dance of the Forests (publ. 1963), was written for Nigeria's independence celebration.

Soyinka was appointed in 1962 a lecturer in English at the University of Ife and in 1965 he became senior lecturer at the University of Lagos. Like many writers and intellectuals, Soyinka rejected Christianity, the religion of the colonizers, declaring in 1963 that he is neither a Christian nor a Moslem. Challenging the unquestioned position of Christian churches on the campus, he co-authored in the seventies an unpublished document entitled 'An Appeal for the Re-establishment of African Religions on the University of Ife Campus'. However, Soyinka has also interpreted Christian themes, motifs and symbols in many different ways, such as the water symbolism, the figure of the archetypal Savior, and the idea of the sacrificed God. There are also Buddhist's reference points and mythologies in his poetry, too.

Although Soyinka used in his plays traditional African forms of expression, he also drew from Western avant-garde techniques. The Strong Breed (1963), a play, was based on the Yoruba festival of the new year and the ritual of sacrificing a "carrier" of the previous year's evil. Eman is a stranger who has found peace in his village, he has no desire to go away. Sunma, a teacher, wants to spend with him the new year, far from the festival. The villagers want to safricife Ifada, a helpless and unwilling boy. Omae, Eman's betrothed, who has died giving birth to his child, appears to him, and Eman finally fulfills his task and dies a carrier. "Those who have much to give fulfil themselves only in total loneliness."

The Interpreters (1965), Soyinka's first novel, focused on a group of intellectuals who meet at bars and nightclubs and other social "watering holes" in Ibadan and Lagos and interpret the Nigerian reality. One of the characters is named Lazarus; he is a prophet who claims to have risen from the dead. Opening with the sentence "Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes," this complex novel has been compared with the works of James Joyce and William Faulkner.Soyinka's long-awaited second novel, Season of Anomy (1973), disappointed critics. "I'm not really a keen novelist," Soyinka once said. "And I don't consider myself a novelist. The first novel happened purely by accident."

Soyinka was first time imprisoned after elections in Western Nigeria, charged for illegal broadcast criticizing fraud of the results. After S.L. Akintola was elected premier of the Western Region, Soyinka, armed with a gun, had entered the broadcasting studios in Ibadan, and played his own tape instead of Akintola's victory speech. During the rule of Yakubu Gowon, Soyinka was jailed in 1967-69 for conspiring to aid Biafra's independence movement. Several American and British writers, among them Lillian Hellman and Robert Lowell, protested to the Nigerian government, and Soyinka was released. His poem, 'Live Burial,' appeared in The New Statesmen on the 23rd of May, 1969. It was sent to an English critic from the prison. "Sixteen paces / By twenty-three. They hold / Siege against humanity / And Truth / Employing time to drill through to his sanity." Soyinka's collection on poems, The Man Died (1972), describes his time in jail. The book was banned in Nigeria. Madmen and Specialists, written in 1970, is Soyinka's most pessimistic play. It dealt with man's inhumanity and pervasive corruption in structures of power.

"There is a deep lesson for the world in the black races' capacity to forgive, one which, I often think, has much to do with ethical precepts which spring from their world view and authentic religions, none of which is ever totally eradicated by the accretions of foreign faiths and their implicit ethnocentrism." (in Nobel Lecture, 1986)

After release Soyinka worked as a teacher, but went in 1972 into voluntary exile. He worked as a lecturer, held a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, and wrote three important plays: Jero's Metamorphosis, The Bacchae, and Death and the King's Horseman. In 1975 Soyinka moved to Accra, Ghana, becoming an editor of Africa's leading intellectual journal Transition. After a coup deposed President Gowon in 1975, Soyinka returned to Nigeria and was appointed professor of English at the University of Ife. Soyinka's childhood memoirs, AkÚ: The Years of Childhood, came out 1981. It depicted vividly the village where he grew up, his parents, and his education in Yoruba traditions and mysteries. You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir  (2006) was a follow-up to AkÚ, which also gives insight into the history of Nigeria under military rule.

In 1988 Soyinka became a professor of African studies and theatre at Cornell University. Despite government pressure, Soyinka was active in the Nigerian theater. Like the writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995), who was hanged despite of international protests, Soyinka criticized the corruption brought to Nigeria by the oil industry. Soyinka's cousin, Fela Kuri, a charismatic musician, was imprisoned in 1984 due to his criticism of the military government.

A number of Soyinka's essays were collected in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). He has been one of the most outspoken critics of the concept on nÚgritude, which have been associated with LÚopold Senghor, the writer and former President of Senegal. Soyinka sees that nÚgritude encourages into self-absorption and affirms one of the central Eurocentric prejudices against Africans, namely the dichotomy between European rationalism and African emotionalism."A tiger does not shout its tigritude," Soyinka said, "it acts." In his essay 'Reparations, Truth and Reconciliation' (in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, 1999) Soyinka defends the idea, that the West should pay reparations for crimes committed against African people. "Reparations... serve as a cogent critique of history and thus a potent restraint on its repetition." Soyinka points out that this discussion is not new, but Pan-African organizations talked about compensation in the beginning of the 20th century. Soyinka has also defended African democracy. In the mid-1970s he campaigned for Idi Amin's overthrow. Following the spread of religious fundamentalism, Soyinka has considered his duty to "fight those who have chosen to belong to the party of death, those who say they receive their orders from God somewhere and believe they have a duty to set the world on fire to achieve their own salvation, whether they are in the warrens of Iraq, or in the White House."

Soyinka lived in exile in the US and France after leaving Nigeria in 1994. He had participated in 1993 on a protest march against the military regime and also witnessed on another occasion the killings of peaceful demonstrators. In an interview Soyinka revealed that he never applied for an American Green Card, but Presindent Jimmy Carter got it for him.

In 1997 Soyinka was tried in absentia with 14 other opposition members for bomb attacks against army between the years 1996-97. The military regime of General Sani sentenced him to death. "Some people think the Nobel Prize makes you bulletproof. I never had that illusion," Soyinka once said. After the death of military dictator Sani Abacha on June 1998, Soyinka demanded democracy to Nigeria. In an interview in Newsweek on August 10, 1998 Soyinka stated that to further the transition to Nigerian democracy "the United States must not give any ground to the regime until democracy has been restored."

The accusations have been canceled and general Abdulsalami Abubakar have granted amnesty for several political prisoners. Soyinka returned in October 1998 to his home country, and and received a hero's welcome. Moreover, he was urged to run for the presidency by his faithful supporters. In his play King Baabu  (2001) Soyinka parodied past and present African dictators. The title refers to Alfred Jarry's classic absurdist play, Ubu Roi (1896). "Look at Mugabe stifling the opposition under the pretence of repossessing alienated land. He's one of these dictators who want to die in office and will crush all dissenting the crudest manner -- killing his opponents, torturing them, burning their houses." (Soyinka in a CNN interview, August 1, 2001) After decades of struggle for democracy and freedom of expression, Soyinka announced in 2010 that he has decided to retire from public life. Soyinka has been married three times. In 1989 he married his third wife, Doherty Folake, also a Nigerian. His second wife, Laide Idowu, whom he met while studying at the University College, Ibadan, worked before her retirement as Librarian of Olabisi Onabanjo University.

Following President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on the country's uprising, Soyinka and other writers, such as Umberto Eco, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk and  Salman Rushdie, urged in June 2011 the United Nations to condemn the repression in Syria as a crime against humanity. Soyinka destroyed his green card after Donald J. Trump won the US presidential elections, saying, "Walls are built in the mind, and Trump has erected walls, not only across the mental landscape of America, but across the global landscape." The satirical Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (2021) was Soyinka's first novel in nearly 50 years. "I wanted this to be my present to the nation, to the people who live here: both the governed and those who govern, the exploiters and the exploited." (Wole Soyinka in The Guardian, 25 September, 2021) Soyinka hurriend to finish his book before the 60th anniversary of Nigerian independence.  

For further reading: The Writing of Wole Soyinka by Eldred Jones (1973, rev. 1983); Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka by James Gibbs (1978); Wole Soyinka by Gerald Moore (1978); Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka by James Gibbs (1980); Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing by Obi Maduakor (1986); Wole Soyinka Revisited by Derek Wright (1993); Research on Wole Soyinka, ed. J. Gibbs and B. Lindfors (1993); Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, ed. A. Maja-Pearce (1994); Wole Soyinka: Life, Work and Criticism by D. Wright (1996); Conversations with Wole Soyinka, ed. Biodun Jeyifo (2001); Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism by Biodun Jeyifo (2004); Ogun's Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka since the Nobel Prize, edited by Onookome Okome (2004) The Inner Eye: An Oriel on Wole Soyinka's Poetry by Segun Adekoya (2006); Early Soyinka by Bernth Lindfors (2008); The Interpreters: Ritual, Violence and Social Regeneration in the Writing of Wole Soyinka by Hakeem Bello (2014); Soyinka's Language by Obioma Ofoego (2016); Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance: Soyinka on Religion and Human Solidarity by Celucien L. Joseph (2017);  Wole Soyinka and the Poetics of Commitment, edited by Emeka Nwabueze (2018); The Soyinka Impulse: Essays on Wole Soyinka, edited by Duro Oni and Bisi Adigun (2019); Wole Soyinka: Literature, Activism, and African Transformation by Bola Dauda and Toyin Falola (2021); Postcolonial Agency in African and African Diasporic Literature and Film: a Study in Globalectics by Lokangaka Losambe (2022) - See also: Amos Tutuola, who became famous with his stories based on Yoruba folk tales

Selected works:

  • A Quality of Violence, 1959
  • The Trials of Brother Jero, 1960
  • A Dance of the Forests, 1963
  • The Strong Breed, 1963
  • Three Plays, 1963 (The Swamp Dwellers, The Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed)
  • The Lion and the Jewel, 1963
  • Kongi's Harvest, 1965
  • The Interpreters, 1965
    - Tulkit (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1980)
  • The Road, 1965
  • Idanre and Other Poems, 1967
  • The Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga, 1968
  • Poems from Prison, 1969
  • Madmen and Specialists, 1970
  • Before the Blackout, 1971
  • Jero's Metamorphosis, 1972
  • A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972
  • The Man Died: Prison Notes, 1972
  • Season of Anomie, 1973
    - Laittomuuden kausi (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1976)
  • Camwood on the Leaves, 1973
  • Collected Plays 1, 1973
  • Collected Plays 2, 1974
  • Death and the King's Horseman, 1975
  • Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition, 1975 (Transition. 48)
  • Myth, Literature, and the African World, 1976
  • Ogun Abibiman, 1976
  • AkÚ: The Years of Childhood, 1981
    - AkÚ - lapsuusvuodet (suom. Pentti Isomursu, 1983)
  • Opera Wonyosi, 1981
  • The Critic and Society, 1982 (inaugural lecture series)
  • A Play of Giants, 1984
  • Six Plays, 1984
  • Requiem for a Futurologist, 1985
  • This Past Must Address Its Present, 1986 (Nobel Lecture)
  • Mandela's Earth and Other Poems, 1988
  • Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, 1988 (rev. 1993)
  • ╠sarÓ: A Voyage around 'Essay', 1989
    - Isara: matka "Esseen" ympńri (suomentanut Seppo Loponen, 1992)
  • The Credo of Being and Nothingness, 1991
  • From Zia, with Love, 1992
  • The Blackman and the Veil: Beyond the Berlin Wall, 1993
  • Ibadan: The 'Penkelemes' Years: A Memoir 1946-65, 1994
  • The Beatification of Area Boy, 1995
  • The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, 1995
  • Early Poems, 1998
  • The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, 1999
  • Scourge of Hyacinths: An Opera in Twelve Scenes, 1999 (with Tania Leˇn)
  • King Baabu, 2001
  • Salutation to the Gut, 2002
  • The Deceptive Silence of Stolen Voices, 2003
  • Blackout, Blowout & Beyond: Wole Soyinka's Satirical Revue Sketches, 2005 (ed. Martin Banham et al.)
  • A Climate of Fear: The Queat of Dignity in a Dehumanized World, 2005
  • The Invention & The Detainee, 2005 (edited by Zodwa Motsa, foreword by F. Abiola Irele)
  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, 2006
  • New Imperialisms, 2010
  • Harmattan Haze on African Spring, 2011
  • Of Africa, 2012
  • Beyond Aesthetics: Use, Abuse, and Dissonance in African Art Traditions, 2019
  • Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, 2021

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