Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka on a Lifetime of Art and Activism

Wole Soyinka is writer-warrior: at 89, he still has his abundant hair, lanky frame and lavish beard, which give him the look of a charming mad scientist.

Born in 1934 in Abeokuta, in the forested land of the Yoruba region of southwestern Nigeria, he was the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, winning in 1986. He studied in England, founded two theatre companies [in 1960 and 1964], is a professor of comparative literature, was primarily exiled in the U.S., and currently lives between Nigeria and California. His impact on the history of literature is rivaled only by his political activism. Jailed in his homeland in the sixties, he served twenty-two months in solitary confinement out of twenty-seven months of incarceration. His prolific work—over 45 published plays, poems, essays, memoirs, novels—has been translated into dozens of languages.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is his third novel, and his first in nearly fifty years. Recently released in French by Editions du Seuil, it was originally published in English two years prior by Pantheon Books. Soyinka dedicates the novel to the memory of two of his compatriots and friends, the investigative journalist Dele Giwa, and governor and lawyer Bola Ige. Both were assassinated in their homeland. He recalls his friend Giwa having immediately showed up at Soyinka’s sister’s home where he was staying in Lagos, clutching a bottle of Cognac XO, basically in his pajamas, when the news of his Nobel was announced. Giwa was blown up by a package bomb that was sent to him days after this celebratory reunion. As for Bola Ige, a former attorney-general and lawyer, he was assassinated in 2001 at his home on the eve of his departure for the United States to take up his new job as Africa’s representative on the United Nations international law commission. His wife used to call Soyinka and her husband twins, because of the way they were involved in so many political activities together.

It is sufficient that a writer opens up possibilities. The fact is that something is being presented, a different view is presented, that’s what matters.

This close circle dedicated to the service of humanity reflects Soyinka’s remarkable life and restless persona. His uncle, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (musician Fela Kuti’s father) ought to be mentioned here. Soyinka wanted to write his biography and through him write on that first generation of nationalists to which his Kuti belonged. That was to remain an unaccomplished project; his uncle died soon after, Nigeria got its independence in 1960, and he gave up the idea. What happened then? “Well, you know, when you are in prison you have a lot of time on your hands,” he tells me with sly amusement. Deprived of paper and pen by the prison directorate, he found a way to create his own writing material from whatever outlet he could—Soyinka playfully calls himself “Soy-Ink”—and he proceeded to write on cigarette papers, rolls of toilet paper, and in between the lines of a book he had managed to have smuggled in. He envisioned those scraps as the outline of the first chapter of what would have been his uncle’s biography, but they turned out to be the groundwork for his own moving memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood, one of the best books of 1982 according to The New York Times Book Review.

We meet on a Friday, in the hall of his hotel, located on a quiet street by Saint-Germain-des-Près. It’s unusually hot in Paris for the season. He has a lunch appointment he wishes to get to and he says his voice is tired, brushing off any attempt to extend the interview. Wearing a Mao collar shirt and a dark blue sleeveless vest, he has on his right wrist a silver watch and a light tote bag is kept close-by. He momentarily looks for his hat, which he thinks he has left at an event he spoke at the night before, and makes the point that he wants it back.

“What keeps you young, what’s your secret?” I ask, right off the bat, to ease the mood.

“I have no idea,” he sighs. “I should be slowing down, I know, but each time I try to slow down something happens, and I have to get on the trail again. You see, I am deprived of that sense of inner tranquility once I turn my back on a situation. Quite frankly, I think it’s a flaw, because I am depriving myself of something which I know I need profoundly. If I didn’t manage to have some quiet in my mind, I’d have gone crazy years ago, so it’s a question of extracting myself [from the world] whenever I can.”

Soyinka calls this being a closet masochist. “It means depriving oneself of what one feels is pleasurable,” he explains. “You have to battle for your creative space, battle for it! Extract yourself whenever you can and be thankful for it, and just carry on waiting for the next opportunity to gratify your innermost instinct to disappear, and do not sacrifice it. If you can manage to balance the two [the activism and the writing] that’s OK, but if you find that you are being tortured internally then be quiet, just close the shop, run and go.”

His strong sense of social justice caused him a lifetime of pressure and persecution; yet he persevered. “I know it’s unbelievable but I really just prefer my peace of mind; I like to sink myself in a truly tranquil environment, which I find mostly in the forest. But [he raises his voice pronouncing those three letters], but, if between getting out of your house and getting into the forest you encounter something unacceptable on the way then that becomes a problem, and you cannot just enjoy what you really want until you have dealt with what you just saw.”

Puzzled, I query him whether that means he never intended to become a writer engagé. “No! Never!” he replies, without skipping a beat. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “One shouldn’t expect literature to be committed. It is sufficient that a writer opens up possibilities. The fact is that something is being presented, a different view is presented, that’s what matters. The writer must be honest, if you have a bad temperament—of confrontation, of poking your finger in the eye of power—then by all means do so but if you do not don’t feel useless, don’t feel like you are betraying literature. You are writing, that’s your mission, that’s your métier; exploit it in whatever direction it leads.”

The year is 1986: Wole Soyinka wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Elie Wiesel is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. What was the promise of the world then and what is its state today? Wars and displacement, corrupted systems and dictators, religious fundamentalism and brutality linger. “Take Gabon for instance [in late August, the army seized power disputing the election results in which Ali Bongo was declared winner; he had been president since 2009 and his father for 41 years before him], one family dynasty in power for fifty years, manipulating elections consistently, it was asking to be toppled, it deserves to be toppled—but—is the military the answer? The military has shown itself to be just as decadent, just as corrupt as the rest. Its claim to be a cleansing broom has been detonated, the only defense they have is to legitimize their terror. They will leave eventually, but look at the setback, it is heartbreaking.”

Soyinka’s art has always found its genesis in the African continent’s myths and mystifications, and in his own life experiences—he has been jailed on two occasions, in 1965 and again from 1967-1969, tortured, condemned to death by dictator Sani Abacha, and forced repeatedly and for long periods into hiding for his own safety. What can literature do in the face of such chaos, injustice, and violence? “Well,” he says in a hoarse voice, “present a model of possibilities, and that is all. Beyond that, nothing. The fact that literature is not helpless is proven by the fact that it attracts power. Those who hold power use it to censor, to harass [writers] so literature is not as helpless or insignificant as some people think.”

We turn to the subject of his incarceration: how does prison change a man? “When I came out, I was very bitter, not bitter about being in prison, I was bitter about the treatment I received, but most importantly of all the statements that were attributed to me which were false. My immediate writing was bitter, then I settled on looking at society and looking at the human condition and creating microworlds which is what all writers do. One of the problems one has as a writer who writes about society is the danger of becoming pessimistic, resentful, and aggressively so.”

The fact that literature is not helpless is proven by the fact that it attracts power.

The immediate writing he refers to is Madmen and Specialists, a play about the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), considered the writer’s darkest dramatic work. He recounted his years behind bars in 1972’s The Man Died: Prison Notes, which the Nigerian government eventually banned in 1984. His play Death and the Kings Horseman, first performed in 1976, brings Soyinka worldwide acclaim.

Wole Soyinka does not regard himself as a novelist; he refers to his novels as “accidents.” His debut, The Interpreters, was published in 1965, followed by Season of Anomy in 1973. He swears that this one, his third, is his last. “Oh, I am not going that way again! I just know it intuitively. A novel is hard labor. A play is unfinished and on stage it gets finished, so you don’t really mind, because you know that on stage you will have an opportunity to change things here and there. Theater is a dynamic process. A novel is frozen, until maybe a filmmaker is foolish enough to attempt to put it on celluloid.”

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is set in an imaginary Nigeria and examines the unreasonable and unethical contemporary state of affairs there. In the US, it has been received by some as pessimistic, while others, particularly in Europe, have welcomed it as political satire. “Although it’s not for me to decide, some say it’s also a Whodunit, and I say: absolutely, why not? I love detective stories, I used to eat them up in my youth, and I always said, one of these days I will write a detective story.” He laughs. “It wasn’t my intent at the start, but along the writing process it came to me that I could tag on a mystery element.”

Soyinka can create a story out of anything and he can write anywhere, but distance can help. “I had to get out of Nigeria to write [Chronicles]. I had to wait year after year to feel completely detached from the physical environment I was writing about. I wrote some parts of it in Senegal and in Ghana. Then Covid happened, it was touch and go, and the world began to button down. I was in Los Angeles at my son’s wedding; it was the last social event for us as a family, people had come from all over. When I realized that the lockdown was fast approaching I knew I had to go back to Nigeria, which is the only home I consider home. So I said: Listen, I’m getting on that plane, the rest of you, wherever you are locked-down, good luck to you. I couldn’t get back into Lagos directly, I had to go to Ghana and then continue by road, but I made sure I arrived in the nick of time to Abeokuta. And that’s where I finished Chronicles.”

When Soyinka is not keen on something he makes sure the message gets through loud and clear. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump as the 46th President, he destroyed his U.S. Green Card. That same year, the Nobel committee’s literary laureate was Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Wole Soyinka’s discontent vibrates the room. “The prize for literature should have never gone that way!” he tells me, his fingers fidgeting in the air. “As a music lover, and a composer myself, I respect music, but there is something called literature, and we don’t have enough prizes as is. If they award this prize to one more musician, I am sending all my musical compositions to the Grammys. I know what I consider literature, and writing lyrics or certain songs, is not literature, it is music! You want to have a Nobel Prize for music, fine, I’ll be there, but don’t say that you are taking a prize away from this discipline and extending it to another!”

On that note, he grows impatient. He has an appointment, which means I have one last question: What has the Nobel meant for his life? “It has changed nothing at all for me. All it has done for me is that since then I have to fight for my anonymity.”

Wole Soyinka leaves not a minute later. It’s sunny out. And his hat is still missing.

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