Wole Soyinka Essay - Soyinka, Wole (Vol. 179)

Soyinka, Wole (Vol. 179)


Wole Soyinka 1934-

(Born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, memoirist, librettist, lecturer, nonfiction writer, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Soyinka's career through 2002. See also Wole Soyinka Criticism (Volume 3) and Wole Soyinka Criticism (Volume 5).

Recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Soyinka is often referred to as one of Africa's finest living writers. His plays, novels, and poetry blend elements of traditional Yoruban folk drama and European dramatic form to create both spectacle and penetrating satire. His narrative technique is based on the African cultural tradition where the artist functions as the recorder of the mores and experiences of his society. Soyinka's works reflect this philosophy, serving as a record of twentieth-century Africa's political turmoil and the continent's struggle to reconcile tradition with modernization. Through his nonfiction works and essay collections, Soyinka has established an international reputation as an unflinching commentator on political injustice and knowing provocateur of social criticism.

Biographical Information

Soyinka was born in Ìsarà, Nigeria, on July 13, 1934. As a child he became increasingly aware of the pull between African tradition and Western modernization. Aké, his village, was populated mainly with people from the Yoruba tribe and was presided over by the ogboni, or tribal elders. Soyinka's grandfather introduced him to the pantheon of Yoruba gods and other figures of tribal folklore. His parents, however, were representatives of colonial influence: his mother was a devout Christian convert, and his father was a headmaster at the village school established by the British. Soyinka published poems and short stories in Black Orpheus, a Nigerian literary magazine, before leaving Africa to attend the University of Leeds in England. He returned to Nigeria in 1960, shortly after the country's independence from colonial rule. In 1965 Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian police, accused of using a gun to force a radio announcer to broadcast incorrect election results. No evidence was ever produced, however, and the PEN writers' organization soon launched a protest campaign, headed by William Styron and Norman Mailer. Soyinka was eventually released after three months. He was next arrested two years later, during Nigeria's civil war for his vocal opposition to the conflict. Soyinka was particularly angered by the Nigerian government's brutal policies toward the Ibo people, who were attempting to form their own country, Biafra. After he traveled to Biafra to establish a peace commission composed of leading intellectuals from both sides for the conflict, the Nigerian police accused Soyinka of helping the Biafrans to buy jet fighters. This time Soyinka was imprisoned for more than two years, although he was never formally charged with a crime. For the majority of his arrest, he was kept in solitary confinement. Although he was denied reading and writing materials, Soyinka created his own ink and began to keep a prison diary, writing on toilet paper and cigarette packages. This diary was published in 1972 as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. In 1993 Soyinka began a period of self-imposed exile from Nigeria due to General Ibrahim Babangida's refusal to allow a democratic government to take power. Babangida appointed General Sani Abacha as head of the Nigerian state and Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Facing a death sentence, Soyinka left the country in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections, prompting Soyinka to return to his homeland. Soyinka has held teaching positions at a number of prestigious universities, including the University of Ghana, Cornell University, and Yale University. He also served as the Goldwin Smith professor for African Studies and Theatre Arts at Cornell University from 1988 to 1991. Soyinka has received several awards for his work, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and the Enrico Mattei Award for Humanities in 1986.

Major Works

Soyinka's early dramas focus upon the dichotomies of good versus evil and progress versus tradition in African culture. For example, The Swamp Dwellers (1958) condemns African superstition by showing religious leaders who exploit the fears of their townspeople for personal gain. Commissioned as part of Nigeria's independence celebration in 1960, A Dance of the Forests (1960) warns the newly independent Nigerians that the end of colonial rule does not mean an end to their country's problems. The play features a bickering group of mortals who summon up the egungun—spirits of the dead, revered by the Yoruba people—for a festival. They have presumed the egungun to be noble and wise, but they discover that their ancestors are as petty and spiteful as anyone else. While Soyinka warns against sentimental yearning for Africa's past in A Dance of the Forests, he lampoons the indiscriminate embrace of Western modernization in The Lion and the Jewel (1959). The plot revolves around Sidi, the village beauty, and the rivalry between her two suitors. The story also follows Baroka, a village chief with many wives, and Lakunle, an enthusiastically Westernized schoolteacher who dreams of molding Sidi into a “civilized” woman. The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) was written in response to a request for a play that could be performed in a converted dining hall in Ibadan. Drawing on his observations of the separatist Christian churches of Nigeria, on Ijebu folk narratives, and on theatrical conventions exploited by dramatist Bertolt Brecht, Soyinka constructed a vigorous comedy around the character of a messianic beach prophet. Brother Jero—a trickster figure who sets up a shack on Bar Beach, Lagos, prophesying golden futures in return for money—belongs to one of the revivalist Christian sects that existed at the time of Nigerian independence. In Kongi's Harvest (1965), the demented dictator of the state of Isma, has imprisoned and dethroned the traditional chief, Oba Danlola. To legitimize his seizure of power, Kongi has laid claim to the Oba's spiritual authority through his consecration of the crops at the New Yam Festival.

Stylistically separated from his early farces, Soyinka's later plays rely heavily on classical theatrical devices as a vehicle for Soyinka's potent political and social satires. The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (1973), an adaptation of the play by Euripides, reinvents the classic tale as a meditation on the nature of personal sacrifice within unjust societies. Death and the King's Horseman (1975) combines powerful dramatic verse and characterization with a structure that incorporates contrast and juxtaposition. The play is based on an actual 1945 incident of a colonial officer's intervention to prevent the royal horseman, the Elesin, from committing ritual suicide at his king's funeral, whereupon the Elesin's son would take his father's place in the rite. A Play of Giants (1984) is a surreal fantasy about international poetic justice in which an African dictator, on a visit to the United Nations in New York, takes a group of Russian and American delegates hostage. He threatens to release the Soviet-supplied rockets from his embassy arsenal unless an international force is sent to crush the uprising in his own country. The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope (1995) centers around Sanda, a security guard at a Lagos shopping mall, who ensures that customers are protected when entering and leaving the shop. Despite his position at the mall, the charming Sanda routinely organizes local scams and robberies. It is eventually revealed that Sanda is an ex-revolutionary who had sacrificed his higher education to organize political protests. Soyinka's fictional work expands on the themes expressed in his plays, constructing sweeping narratives of personal and political turmoil in Africa. Soyinka's first novel, The Interpreters (1965), is essentially a plotless narrative loosely structured around the informal discussions between five young Nigerian intellectuals. Each has been educated in a foreign country and has returned on the eve of Nigerian independence, hoping to shape Nigeria's destiny. They are hampered by their own confused values, however, as well as by the corruption they encounter in their homeland. Season of Anomy (1973), takes the central concerns from The Interpreters and selects a new moment at which to consider the choices confronting those working for change. The plot follows a variety of characters including an artist named Ofeyi, a cold-blooded assassin named Isola Demakin, and a harmonious community called Aiyero in a narrative that is thematically linked to the myths of Orpheus and Euridice.

The prose in Soyinka's nonfiction works and essay collections is largely based on his own life and his personal political convictions. The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka collects Soyinka's diaries during his imprisonment by Nigerian police for travelling to Biafra to establish a peace commission. He has also composed a trilogy that reflects on his life and the life of his family—Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay (1989), and Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65 (1994). While Aké and Ibadan focus on Soyinka's personal life—Aké concerns his childhood, while Ibadan recounts his teen years to his early-twenties—Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay is a biography of Soyinka's father. Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), Soyinka's first essay collection, combines lucid criticism of specific texts with discussions that reveal the scope of Soyinka's acquaintance with literary and theatrical traditions as well as his search for an idiosyncratic perspective. He further explores his interest in the role that politics and literature play in modern Africa in Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (1988). The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996) reprints a series of vitriolic lectures where Soyinka denounces the Nigerian government under the dictator Sani Abacha and laments the indifference of the West to the present state of Nigerian politics. In The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999), Soyinka discusses the role of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and questions the nature of objective political truths.

Soyinka has also published several collections of poetry, including Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Ogun Abibiman (1976), and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988). Composed over a period of twenty-four hours, Idanre collects a series of mythological poems that feature Yoruba terminology and display subtle manipulations of words, images, and idioms. In Idanre, Soyinka draws particular influence from stories associated with the Yoruba mythological figures Ogun, Atunda, Sango, and Oya, and the Idanre Hills. In the twenty-two-page poem Ogun Abibiman, Soyinka combines a direct call for African states to take action against the Apartheid movement in South Africa with a mythologized manifesto for the country's liberation. The treatise describes Ogun, Yoruba god of war, joining forces in a violent and mystical union with the legendary Zulu chieftain Shaka. Soyinka published Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known in 2002, a poetry collection that offers reflections on modern politics, his exile from Nigeria, and such writers as Josef Brodsky and Chinua Achebe.

Critical Reception

Soyinka's work has frequently been described as demanding but rewarding to read. Although his plays have been widely praised, they are seldom performed, especially outside of Africa. He has been acknowledged by many critics as Nigeria's finest contemporary dramatist and one of its most distinguished men of letters. While many critics have focused on Soyinka's strengths as a playwright, others have acknowledged his skill as a poet, novelist, and essayist as well. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written that Soyinka is “a master of the verbal arts. His English is among the finest and most resonant in any literary tradition, fused seamlessly as it is with the resonances and music of the great lyrical, myth-dense, Yoruba tradition.” The most significant aspect of Soyinka's work, critics have noted, lies in his approach to literature as a serious agent of social change and his commitment to promoting human rights in Nigeria and other nations. Commentators have maintained that the humor and compassion evident in his writings, as well as his chilling portrayal of the consequences of political greed and oppression, add a universal significance to his portrayals of West African life. His incorporation of Yoruba mythology and ritual in his work has been a recurring topic of critical interest. His poetry, novels, and nonfiction works have attracted an international readership. Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and he has been applauded by commentators for the versatility and power they have observed in his work.

Principal Works

The Invention (play) 1955

The Swamp Dwellers (play) 1958

The Lion and the Jewel (play) 1959

A Dance of the Forests (play) 1960

The Trials of Brother Jero (play) 1960

The Republican (play) 1963

The New Republican (play) 1964

Before the Blackout (play) 1965

The Interpreters (novel) 1965

Kongi's Harvest (play) 1965

The Road (play) 1965

The Strong Breed (play) 1966

Idanre and Other Poems (poetry) 1967


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Bruce King (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: King, Bruce. “Wole Soyinka and the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Sewanee Review 96, no. 2 (spring 1988): 339-45.

[In the following essay, King discusses the development of Soyinka's overall body of work—from The Interpreters to Death and the King's Horseman—and what Soyinka's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature means for African writers.]

The cultural map of the world is changing radically, and recognition of Soyinka's writings constitutes part of our increased awareness of modern Africa, including its popular music, its contemporary art, and the impressive body of literature that the continent is now producing in response to rapid...

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Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Mandela's Earth and Other Poems, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 524-25.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock argues that the poems in Mandela's Earth and Other Poems are too responsive to criticism of his earlier poetry and, as a result, the collection seem inauthentic.]

It should never be said that Wole Soyinka is unresponsive to criticism. Attacked by Chinweizu and others as a Eurocentric modernist out of touch with Africa, Soyinka responded with Aké: The Years of Childhood, a memoir that clarified his African roots and cultural allegiances. Attacked by the same critics...

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Michael Thorpe (review date autumn 1989)

SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (autumn 1989): 730.

[In the following review, Thorpe offers a positive assessment of Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture, calling the work “a rare, vigorous, and cogent writer's apologia.”]

The nineteen essays and addresses—seven previously published—collected in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage span some twenty years. Their complexity and multifarious interest are succinctly pointed out in Biodun Jeyifo's excellent introduction by his characterization of Wole Soyinka as both...

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Christopher Hope (review date 11 December 1989)

SOURCE: Hope, Christopher. “Rebels and Dreamers.” New Republic 201, no. 24 (11 December 1989): 40-2.

[In the following review, Hope examines how Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay represents a diverse range of literary genres, including memoirs, fairy tales, moral fables, and political studies.]

When the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, the decision of the Swedish Academy to honor an African writer led to a controversy in Nigeria, and in other parts of Africa, that has not yet abated. Soyinka was attacked by some who espouse what is known as the “Afro-phone” cause; they consider the bestowal of such “European” baubles...

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Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 64, no. 3 (summer 1990): 517-18.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock explores the parallels between Aké: The Years of Childhood—the memoir of Soyinka's youth—and Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay—the biography of Soyinka's father.]

It would seem absurd to call Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize and one of the two or three African writers whose name everyone knows, an underappreciated writer, and indeed on the evidence of his recent verse collection Mandela's Earth, one would have to call him an overappreciated poet....

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C. N. Ramachandran (essay date August 1990)

SOURCE: Ramachandran, C. N. “Structure within Structure: An Analysis of Wole Soyinka's The Lion and the Jewel.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 25, no. 1 (August 1990): 199-203.

[In the following essay, Ramachandran examines stylistic aspects of The Lion and the Jewel, noting the effect of the trickster figure and ritual dance on the structure of the play.]

Although Wole Soyinka's plays have received considerable if not adequate critical attention in India and abroad, the focus has been mostly on his political plays. For instance Michael Etherton discusses Soyinka as a satirist and political thinker in The Development of African Drama, and...

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Derek Wright (essay date September 1990)

SOURCE: Wright, Derek. “The Festive Year: Wole Soyinka's Annus Mirabilis.Journal of Modern African Studies 28, no. 3 (September 1990): 511-19.

[In the following essay, Wright investigates Soyinka's 1960 Rockefeller Foundation scholarship research project on traditional African festivals and traces the impact of this research on his work, particularly as seen in the play A Dance of the Forests.]

It was in 1960, the year of independence and therefore a time of celebration and festivities in Nigeria, that Wole Soyinka, after just over five years in Britain (three at the University of Leeds and two at the Royal Court Theatre, London), returned to his native...

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Anjali Roy and Viney Kirpal (essay date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Roy, Anjali, and Viney Kirpal. “Men as Archetypes: Characterization in Soyinka's Novels.” Modern Fiction Studies 37, no. 3 (autumn 1991): 519-27.

[In the following essay, Roy and Kirpal discuss how the male characters in The Interpreters and Season of Anomy function as traditional African male archetypes.]

Although several articles have been written on the characters of Wole Soyinka's plays, his fictional characters have not been discussed in detail. This leaves a gap in the existing criticism of Soyinka's work, particularly since The Interpreters was specially cited for the Nobel Prize for Literature. This paper examines, in depth, the...

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Derek Wright (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Wright, Derek. “Soyinka's Smoking Shotgun: The Later Satires.” World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 27-34.

[In the following essay, Wright explores the major themes of Soyinka's later “shotgun” satires, focusing on the political elements in such plays as A Play of Giants and Requiem for a Futurologist.]

Wole Soyinka did not coin the term shotgun writing—“you discharge and disappear”—until the 1970s.1 He had, however, produced occasional subversive satiric sketches throughout the previous decade, and his unpublished one-act Royal Court entertainment The Invention (1959), a caustic tour de force on...

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Onookome Okome (review date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Okome, Onookome. Review of From Zia with Love, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 432.

[In the following review, Okome identifies From Zia with Love as one of Soyinka's “power plays,” praising the work and commenting that Soyinka has “produced a living text, beautifully structured around the danse macabre and the drama of Nigeria's recent past.”]

Biodun Jeyifo's interview with Wole Soyinka, published in Six Plays under Spectrum's logo, has defined clearly a new category of Soyinka's dramatic oeuvre. This new category I wish to refer to as “power plays.” The plays within this category deal chiefly...

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Adebayo Williams (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Williams, Adebayo. “Ritual and the Political Unconscious: The Case of Death and the King's Horseman.Research in African Literatures 24, no. 1 (spring 1993): 67-79.

[In the following essay, Williams explores the function of ritual in Death and the King's Horseman, commenting that Soyinka “counterpose[s] the dominant culture of the ancient Oyo kingdom against the equally hegemonic culture of the white invaders.”]

In feudal societies, ritual was part of the cultural dominant. In other words, ritual was part of a complex and insidious apparatus of cultural and political reproduction employed by the dominant groups. It is to be...

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Adewale Maja-Pearce (review date 24 February 1995)

SOURCE: Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “Soyinka's Faith in the Future.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4795 (24 February 1995): 27.

[In the following review, Maja-Pearce praises Soyinka's honesty and insight in Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65, noting that the work “is an act of faith in the possibilities of the future, written with the authority of one who has experienced the worst of those years.”]

In 1965, at the height of the political crisis in the then Western Region of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka entered the state-controlled radio station and forced the bewildered broadcasters—at gun-point—to play a pre-recorded tape announcing the true...

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Wole Soyinka: Mythopoesis and the Agon of Democracy.” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 187-94.

[In the following essay, Gates explores Soyinka's unique and influential position in African literature, culture, and politics, arguing that Soyinka “bears a relation to the poetics of Africa akin to that which Shakespeare bore to England.”]

This coming June, Wole Soyinka—the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature—will be honored by the International Human Rights Law Group with its Annual Human Rights Award, “in recognition of [his] perseverance for the cause of human rights and democracy in Nigeria, with...

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James Gibbs (review date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 420.

[In the following review, Gibbs commends the insight and wit in Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-65.]

After Aké, his volume of childhood memories, was published in 1983, Wole Soyinka maintained that he would not attempt to give an account of his life beyond “the age of innocence.” In February 1994 he completed Ibadan, with a subtitle that included the word penkelemes—a rendition of “peculiar mess”—and the dates 1946 to 1965, which indicated the book would take the...

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Sean O'Brien (review date 10 November 1995)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Sean. “In the House of Horrid Mirth.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4832 (10 November 1995): 34.

[In the following review, O'Brien examines how Soyinka balances comedy and tragedy in The Beatification of Area Boy.]

At sunrise, Judge, a disbarred and derelict lawyer, wakes as usual on the steps of La Plaza, a Lagos shopping mall. Around him the commercial day of the street stallholders is beginning. Judge is quick to claim credit for a spectacular dawn: “It's a good display, is it not? And to think all I did was breathe against the horizon.” Trader, knowing Judge of old, dreads him hanging about during the working day, but can't resist being...

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James Gibbs (review date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of The Beatification of Area Boy, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 70, no. 3 (summer 1996): 750-51.

[In the following review, Gibbs commends the “musical elements” in The Beatification of Area Boy but asserts that the play's conclusion is its “weakest point.”]

The Beatification of Area Boy opened in Leeds, on the day that Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were sentenced to death by a tribunal in Port Harcourt. Ten days into the run, the gruesome details of the execution of the Ogoni 9 broke on the world. While hinting at this kind of state violence in his play, Wole Soyinka has, generally, avoided the...

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Makau wa Mutua (review date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Mutua, Makau wa. “Can Nigeria Be One?” Wilson Quarterly 20, no. 3 (summer 1996): 91-3.

[In the following review, Mutua argues that The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is a powerful nonfiction account of political repression in contemporary Nigeria and Soyinka's “most anguished polemic to date.”]

When Wole Soyinka all but pronounces the death of his native Nigeria, the world should listen. Not only is Soyinka Africa's best-known writer; Nigeria is in many ways the epitome of the modern African state—rich in people and resources, yet devastated by political misrule and ethnic divisiveness.


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Jeff Thomson (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Thomson, Jeff. “The Politics of the Shuttle: Wole Soyinka's Poetic Space.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 2 (summer 1996): 94-101.

[In the following essay, Thomson surveys Soyinka's political poetry in such works as A Shuttle in the Crypt, asserting that “his is a poetry of such personal courage and emotion that one can hardly accuse it of being merely political, yet it is deeply concerned with protest and the reclamation of cultural ground.”]

Robert Bly writes that “the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy” as at the same time he suggests that a poet's imaginative authority derives from an ability to speak for the people,...

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Peter L. Berger (review date December 1996)

SOURCE: Berger, Peter L. “Out of Africa.” Commentary 102, no. 6 (December 1996): 70, 72.

[In the following review, Berger asserts that, despite some stylistic flaws, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is both an “useful and moving” work.]

This book, by the Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, is a cry of the heart. Based on three lectures given by Wole Soyinka at Harvard, The Open Sore of a Continent is neither particularly well-organized nor even well-written; but its anguish—or rather, its very great anger—is palpable, and easy to sympathize with.


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Wole Soyinka, Olesegun Ojewuyi, and Shawn-Marie Garrett (interview date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Soyinka, Wole, Olesegun Ojewuyi, and Shawn-Marie Garrett. “A World of Amusement and Pity.” Theater 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 61-8.

[In the following interview, Soyinka discusses multiculturalism, his literary and political interests, and the future of Nigeria.]

[Ojewuyi and Garrett]: The opening lines of the title song on the album Ethical Revo-Wetin go like this: “I love my country, I no go lie, na inside am I go live and die, when e turn me so I twist am so. E push me, I push am. I no go go.” How would you write those lines today?

[Soyinka]: The word “love” is used, I hope you realize, in a dynamic way. In...

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Abiodun Onadipe (review date April 1997)

SOURCE: Onadipe, Abiodun. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. Contemporary Review 270, no. 1575 (April 1997): 211-12.

[In the following favorable review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Onadipe maintains that “Soyinka's latest words on Nigeria's enduring political problems will be no less controversial and thought-provoking than any of his earlier literary works.”]

This collection of essays on the Nigerian crisis [The Open Sore of a Continent] produces a very angry book in which Wole Soyinka pours his heart out. He pulls no punches and...

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Landeg White (review date 13 June 1997)

SOURCE: White, Landeg. “Walking a Step with Soyinka.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4915 (13 June 1997): 27-8.

[In the following review, White discusses the recurring political motifs in Soyinka's essays and dramas, citing The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis and Kongi's Harvest as prime examples.]

When Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian, novelist, playwright and President of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People was hanged on November 10, 1995, following a rigged and rushed trial, the machinery of execution had rusted from disuse. As he was being led away from the gallows after the third or fourth botched...

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David Rieff (review date 16 June 1997)

SOURCE: Rieff, David. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. New Republic 216, no. 24 (16 June 1997): 33-41.

[In the following review, Rieff chronicles recent Nigerian history and discusses Soyinka's outlook in The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis toward the repressive Nigerian regime and the relative indifference of the West.]

Not even God is wise enough.

—Nigerian proverb


The hangmen who, on November 10, 1995, carried out the execution of the Nigerian...

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Peter Nazareth (review date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Nazareth, Peter. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 853.

[In the following review, Nazareth contends that Soyinka presents a chilling portrayal of contemporary Nigerian politics in The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.]

In March 1997 it was reported in the newspapers that Wole Soyinka had been accused by President Abacha of Nigeria of being a terrorist setting off bombs in Nigeria; Abacha charged him with treason. Soyinka (living outside Nigeria) was reported as saying that this was a death sentence...

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Patrick Colm Hogan (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Particular Myths, Universal Ethics: Wole Soyinka's The Swamp Dwellers in the New Nigeria.” Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 584-95.

[In the following essay, Hogan explores the ethical and mythic aspects of Soyinka's plays, focusing on his early drama The Swamp Dwellers.]

In Myth, Literature, and the African World, Wole Soyinka set out to formulate a theory of African literature in relation to myth. He criticized African writers who based their work on European cosmologies, urging instead greater attention to African systems of belief. In his preface, Soyinka went so far as to say that “There is nothing to choose...

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Olufemi Vaughan (review date December 1998)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Olufemi. Review of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, by Wole Soyinka. Journal of Modern African Studies 36, no. 4 (December 1998): 702-04.

[In the following review, Vaughan argues that The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is both a courageous critique of the Nigerian government as well as a celebration of the spirit of the Nigerian people.]

The Open Sore of a Continent is Wole Soyinka's personal narrative of Nigeria's on-going crisis. It is a courageous critique of the growing abuse of power by authoritarian regimes in one of Africa's largest and most...

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David Caute (review date 23 January 1999)

SOURCE: Caute, David. “Guilt-Edged Comforts.” Spectator 282, no. 8894 (23 January 1999): 34-5.

[In the following review, Caute delineates the role of memory in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.]

Among the most thriving branches to have sprouted from the fecund trunk of historical studies is the one called Memory. History, of course, is about remembering, but the study of the collective memory—normally patriotic and piously self-justifying in holy texts, poems, museums and memorials—has recently gained impetus from an increasingly fashionable political project: to force a defeated opponent not merely to surrender his pennant but to crap on it in the...

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Stephen Howe (review date 5 February 1999)

SOURCE: Howe, Stephen. “Africa Dreaming.” New Statesman 128, no. 4422 (5 February 1999): 48-9.

[In the following review, Howe examines the parallels between The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness and Antjie Krog's Country of My Skull.]

South Africa and Nigeria are, actually or potentially, the twin giants of the African continent, even if their appallingly bloody recent histories threw up seemingly impassable barriers against a more hopeful future. South Africa seems to have come through those barriers, in a transformation that is routinely, and not foolishly, called miraculous—though it would indeed be foolish to understate its fragility or ambiguity. Nigeria, still under military rule after several failed or deliberately aborted transitions to democracy, has its future hanging in the balance.

A key element, perhaps the most truly magical one, in South Africa's “miracle” has been the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most remarkable moral figures of our times, it was charged by the new government with compiling the fullest possible picture of past human rights abuses; to establish the truth of that terrible recent past, and through doing so prevent its perpetuation. Truth and reconciliation were seen as inseparably linked; neither was possible without the other.

Country of My Skull is an observer's account of the TRC's hearings and the events around them by a South African radio reporter and important Afrikaans poet. Simultaneously, Wole Soyinka—Nigeria's (and perhaps Africa's) greatest writer, but also its most famous political dissident—has pondered the wider meanings of the TRC and asks what lessons it may carry for his own country and indeed for the whole continent. Krog's and Soyinka's books, composed thousands of miles apart though equally impassioned, are thus yoked together with surprising intimacy.

Krog's account is compelling, well written and moving. But it is open to some sharp criticisms—and they've not been lacking in responses to the book within South Africa. In placing herself, her reactions and mood swings so much at the centre of the story as she follows the appalling testimony of the victims, is Krog not displaying a distasteful narcissism? Doesn't her “postmodern” scepticism about the notion of historical truth, interspersing her documentary account with fictionalised autobiographical passages, involve a kind of intellectual frivolity when set against the weight of pain the commission documents? And her confrontations with her own prejudices, including the admission that she cannot “read” the emotions and body language of her fellow black citizens as easily as the whites, might be thought either admirably honest or disconcertingly self-indulgent.

Krog's book should ideally be read alongside the TRC report itself (available in its entirety online). The report, not just a dry summation, allows victims, survivors and perpetrators to speak for themselves. It includes the commissioners' own reflections on what makes people become oppressors, or on the links between masculinity and violence.

Soyinka's latest non-fiction book is less impressive, and seemingly less carefully crafted, than its immediate predecessor on the Nigerian crisis, The Open Sore of a Continent (1996). Indeed its two halves—the first more directly political, musing on the ideas of reconciliation, reparations, forgiveness, truth and memory in the aftermath of tyranny; the second a more literary reflection on the legacy of the “négritude” poets—are only loosely articulated, with the South African example the connecting thread. The text veers between acute insights and portentous generalisations.

Soyinka arouses passions, especially among his fellow Nigerians, as strong as those he expresses himself. The pro-government Nigerian press has recently been filled with unpleasant and, if even a quarter true, damaging stories about Soyinka's behaviour. That's only to be expected, and could easily be dismissed were it not that some of the same accusations are repeated by more independent-minded critics, and are circulating widely among the global Nigerian Internet community.

Soyinka brings to his political writings the same taste for polemic and satire that make his plays so compelling. He is a forceful, scathingly funny critic of his literary and political opponents; but he is not a discriminating or magnanimous one. He may not be the “tribalist” that some enemies have called him but he can refer, gratuitously, to people's ethnic origins, and his justified pride in the cultural achievements of his own Yoruba tradition sometimes shades towards chauvinism. And he couldn't be called a consistent political thinker. In some places he warns solemnly and movingly against the desire for revenge that so often follows the fall of dictatorship and which South Africa has so far impressively avoided. It is clear, though, that Soyinka himself cannot resist the impulse to vengeance.

Wole Soyinka aspires, it seems, to become Nigeria's Vaclav Havel: a philosopher-president overseeing the country's passage back to democracy. He certainly has the intellectual standing and courage for the role. It remains to be seen whether he can achieve the generosity of spirit—the capacity to bring people together—of a Havel, Nelson Mandela or Tutu. Despite being a country of such potential wealth and creativity, Nigeria remains mired in autocracy, corruption and factional violence. Soyinka may be too volatile, too much the angry old man, to attain the required qualities to lead the country back to democratic health.

James Gibbs (review date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Gibbs, James. Review of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, by Wole Soyinka. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 573.

[In the following negative review, Gibbs identifies a series of inaccuracies in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness and faults the collection for its “carelessness.”]

During April 1997, Wole Soyinka delivered the Stewart-Macmillan lectures at the Du Bois Institute of Harvard University under the titles “Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation,” “L. S. Senghor and Negritude—J'accuse, mais je pardonne,” and “Negritude and the Gods of Equity.” By the time the papers were being gathered...

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Elizabeth Heger Boyle (review date October-December 2000)

SOURCE: Boyle, Elizabeth Heger. “Gesture without Motion? Poetry and Politics in Africa.” Human Rights Review 2, no. 1 (October-December 2000): 134-39.

[In the following review of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, Boyle investigates the importance of symbolism in Soyinka's work, Soyinka's perception of the relationship between different African groups, and Soyinka's attitude toward South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]

Can symbolic gestures organized around notions of human rights have any real impact on power relations in the global system? Specifically, did the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the “Truth...

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Andrea J. Nouryeh (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Nouryeh, Andrea J. “Soyinka's Euripides: Postcolonial Resistance or Avant-Garde Adaptation?” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 4 (winter 2001): 160-71.

[In the following essay, Nouryeh explores how The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite, Soyinka's adaptation of the play by Euripides, significantly alters the role that gender politics played in the original text and concludes that Soyinka's version acts as “problematized example of a decolonized canonical work.”]

After encountering Isidore Okpewho's essay “Soyinka, Euripides, and the Anxiety of Empire” (in RAL 30.4: 32-55), I was challenged not only to read Euripides's The...

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Alan Jacobs (essay date November-December 2001)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Alan. “Wole Soyinka's Outrage: The Divided Soul of Nigeria's Nobel Laureate.” Books & Culture 7, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 28-31.

[In the following essay, Jacobs provides a critical overview of Soyinka's life and work, praising Soyinka's “comprehensive genius” and asserting that he regards Soyinka as one of the greatest living writers.]


Like many teachers of literature, I am sometimes asked to name the Greatest Living Writer. (I can hear the capital letters in the voices of those who ask.) Invariably I name two candidates: the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka....

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Yaw Adu-Gyamfi (essay date fall 2002)

SOURCE: Adu-Gyamfi, Yaw. “Orality in Writing: Its Cultural and Political Significance in Wole Soyinka's Ogun Abibiman.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 3 (fall 2002): 104-24.

[In the following essay, Adu-Gyamfi evaluates Soyinka's use of African oral traditions in Ogun Abibiman, noting that the collection's vocabulary “reflects a highly conscious sense of African oral poetics.”]

In “New Trends in Modern African Poetry,” Tanure Ojaide observes that “poetry in African is […] currently enjoying an unprecedented creative outburst and popularity” (4). This popularity, according to him, seems to arise from “some aesthetic strength...

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Further Reading


Benson, Peter. Review of Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay, by Wole Soyinka. Literary Review 33, no. 3 (spring 1990): 397-98.

Benson argues that Soyinka creates a skillful portrayal of African cultural identity in Ìsarà: A Voyage around Essay.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “The Fiction of Wole Soyinka.” In Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, edited by Adewale Maja-Pearce, pp. 61-80. Oxford: Heinemann, 1994.

Gurnah examines Soyinka's major thematic concerns in The Interpreters and Season of Anomy.

Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson. “Redemptive Tragedies.” In Wole Soyinka, pp. 53-77....

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