Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

From early in his career, Soyinka has insisted that the artist is inevitably engaged in society, and that everything he creates has political overtones. His awareness of the sociopolitical milieu of his own childhood is clear throughout Ake. In his home, history is localized in the wall photographs of bishops, including that of the first black bishop, Ajayi Crowther. World War II, the catalyst for the Nigerian movement to independence from British rule, is portrayed in memories of blackened windows, the explosion of an ammunition ship in Lagos Harbor, trips by Daodu and Beere to Great Britain through mined waters, and remembered family comments. References to “white men”—some peripheral, some central in his memories—are frequent, particularly in Soyinka’s accounts of events relating to ecclesiastical and secular politics. His affirmation of his Yoruba home life shows that as an artist he is politicized not by ideology but by human response. He recalls that in deciding to go to the Government College at Ibadan, he concluded that he must undertake certain mental shifts in order to survive in “another irrational world of adults and their discipline.”

Ake reveals the roots of Soyinka’s cosmopolitanism: Christian belief, introduced from Great Britain, and Yoruba life itself, for the Yoruba have long connections to the Western Hemisphere (Wole makes reference once to the “vague Brazilian side of some of our relations”). Repeatedly throughout his work, Christian and Yoruban images are juxtaposed and integrated. The rocks behind the parsonage to him were Jonah, a source of refuge. At the same time, rocks in the Abeokuta area have associations with the god Ogun, a subject taken up in Soyinka’s Idanre and Other Poems (1967); Ogun (god of iron, creator and destroyer) is integral also to The Road (1965). His grandfather at Isara remarks, “Ogun protects his own,” a saying which Wole immediately connects with Wild Christian’s “God moves in mysterious ways.” Soyinka’s lifelong fascination with Ogun is discussed in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). He holds that the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth can be a seamless continuum if the abyss between the visible and invisible worlds is bridged by action.

Like Ogun, the artist must become involved by the act of creation. Drama is the most powerful vehicle for action; thus, Soyinka wrote many plays. The reader of Ake learns of Wole’s early interest in drama—radio plays he heard, his acting in school plays, and his attraction to street dancers and bands.

Ake reveals the unity between Soyinka’s early years and his adult life as an artist. It is also valuable for supplying Western readers with a cultural context for African literature. Though each of Soyinka’s works can be appreciated in itself, familiarity with African culture and tradition will enhance understanding of them.

The African with whom Soyinka is usually compared is Chinua Achebe, also a Nigerian but a member of the Igbo people. Achebe’s novels chronicle traditional Igbo life, the arrival of the British, and postcolonial politics. In its rich sense of place and its depiction of life in a closely knit extended family, Ake might also be compared to the literature of the agrarian American South.

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Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)