Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka tells the story of the first eleven years of his life. The narrative moves effortlessly from very early recollections to the point at which the author is about to set out for secondary boarding school and the wider world. The world of childhood is lovingly evoked and the author’s affection for his parents is warmly and delicately expressed throughout, as his constant use of their nicknames reveals. The family home, sheltered from the township of Aké, is a continual source of support, encouragement, and thoughtful challenge. At the same time, there is a noticeable lack of sentimentality in Soyinka’s portrait of his family. Soyinka does not gloss over his parents’ ways of imposing discipline. He also presents a gently mocking sense of his own childish precociousness. The book disposes of the cliché that, in order to be a writer, one must first have had an unhappy childhood.

The outside world is shown to be an ideal complement to young Wole’s home. Here, too, there are abundant reasons that life is worth living, foremost among them the sensory richness of the natural world. This richness is present not only in the natural phenomena of that part of the world but also in Aké’s almost too-frequent references to food. In addition, Aké has its share of colorful characters, mysterious visitors, and unusual events, all of which Soyinka recalls with great clarity. Like many...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

As a Nigerian writing in the English language, Wole Soyinka was forced to work in relative obscurity for a long time. As his body of work grew, however, so did his reputation, and today he is looked upon as Nigeria’s foremost exponent of Afro-European literature. It is even safe to say that he has now become a kind of one-man cultural force in his native land, with the sort of international influence only writers of genuine greatness can affect or claim.

Soyinka’s primary achievements lie in the field of drama. He was a leader in the birth and development of an authentic Nigerian theater, and he has written several plays which, grounded in native culture, have a universal appeal and impact. His body of poetry is less accessible, particularly to a reader unfamiliar with African history and culture. At his best, however, Soyinka writes the kind of verse which stirs the imagination and conscience, whatever one’s background happens to be. In the area of fiction, Soyinka’s contribution to modern literature is less certain. Always experimenting with the possibilities of assimilating the aesthetic and cultural approaches of both the African and Western worlds, he seems not yet to have found a natural way to do this in his novels. Thus, perhaps his venture into fictive autobiography may have been at least partly brought on by this strategic frustration. Whatever first prompted him to consider writing Aké: The Years of Childhood, composing the book must have been especially gratifying artistically, since it provided him with a traditional format in which he could resolve the technical problems which have marred his fiction.

Soyinka’s novels have been persistently troubled with meandering or uncertain form and with cultural ambiguity or confusion. In Aké, Soyinka combines a chronological direction with a dramatic strategy of a child’s step-by-step, or crisis-by-crisis, initiation into intelligent awareness. This approach, which contrasts favorably with the narrative strategies of his fiction, provides his account with the kind of unfolding, fateful quality essential to an initiation story. As for the problem of cultural ambiguity, it seems to be resolved less in a technical than in a cunningly imaginative way. Soyinka still has not learned to join his various cultural cross-references with the harmony he desires, yet this seems to matter less in Aké than in Soyinka’s novels, mainly because here, one is seeing everything through the eyes of a very young boy. Being so young, the boy is often not quite clear about the life which surrounds him. When such confusion reflects cultural matters, it seems a natural consequence of youth. Thus, the occasional bewilderment and allusive ambivalence only add to the dramatic perception of a young mind struggling (and not always succeeding) to understand a confusing world.

In addition, Aké is a successful book because it unites all of Soyinka’s most characteristic strengths. The story features many descriptive sections which rise with a poetic power of insight and richly suggestive meaning. The passages of dialogue, always vivid and energetic, carry forward Soyinka’s thematic concerns. The language throughout is consciously chosen to reflect the imaginative, direct, and rhythmic qualities of folk art at its best. Above all, Aké is distinguished by its narrative intelligence—an intelligence at once charming, angry, satirical, intensely observant, and profoundly moral.

The story begins when Soyinka is about three years old, in the mid-1930’s, a time when the European influence was felt in Africa, but not to the extent that the old ways were seriously threatened. To emphasize this point, Soyinka describes Aké and the surrounding area where he grew up in terms which stress its mixture of lyrical extravagance and powerful mystery—the appropriate tone for introducing a memoir. By establishing this tone at the start, however, Soyinka also means to introduce a bitterly nostalgic theme, the theme of the death of faith. As Soyinka will make increasingly plain in the story, the boy’s gradual loss of the sense of magic anticipates a society’s religious decadence. While the boy grows in intellectual awareness, and his eyes see the world more and more clearly, he is less and less puzzled and frightened by the various native superstitions, mystical rituals, or inherited beliefs. This is as it should be, except that as a result, there is a loss of that wonder which distinguishes a child—or a society which values religious mystery more than sophistication.

An exceedingly precocious child, Soyinka took it upon himself one day to go to school when he was not yet three years old. This event, described with great warmth and...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, Wole Soyinka has maintained his prominence as an international man of letters since the 1950’s, when he began writing radio plays. Soyinka’s first autobiography, The Man Died (1972), relates his two years of political imprisonment, from 1967 to 1969, during the Biafran War. In Ake: The Years of Childhood Soyinka remembers his first eleven years, living at Abeokuta and visiting his grandparents at Isara. The work is important for its portrayal of a Yoruba Christian home before and during World War II, some generations after missionaries entered Yorubaland in the 1880’s.

Soyinka creates his own pattern of autobiography in Ake. Chronology is less apparent than epiphanies showing the author’s increasing awareness of space, of himself, of activities, and of people both educated and peculiar—family, visitors in the parsonage, clients in his mother’s shop, or schoolmates. The length of an episode usually corresponds to the importance of the subject, except in the case of the short chapter about the death of his father. Most chapters have observations recorded by the adult Soyinka during his return to Abeokuta.

The book has fifteen chapters; most have about a dozen pages, but the first, ninth, and fourteenth have twenty-two each. The first seven chapters (106 pages) describe memories dating from before 1939: Myriad details of the parsonage compound, then the streets beyond, the markets, and visits to Isara and Ijebu are given from the child’s point of view. Chronology is secondary to the child’s vivid memory of persons: the canon, the bookseller, Bukola, his sister Tinu (whom he follows to school at age three), his friend Osiki, his brother Dipo, his sister Folasade who dies, the chastened Mr. Odejimi, and the fascinating Mrs. Odufuwa. Throughout, Soyinka’s Yoruba heritage intertwines with his Christian upbringing by his catechist father, Essay (for his initials, S. A.), and his mother, known as “the Wild Christian.” The parsonage compound and the canon’s house serve as a bulwark against the spirit-filled woods not far from the...

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(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCL, September, 1982, p. 95.

Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka, 1988.

Economist. CCLXXX, August 1, 1981, p. 74.

Gibbs, James. Review in Research in African Literatures. XIV (Spring, 1983), pp. 98-102.

Gibbs, James. “Wole Soyinka.” In Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers. Vol. 125 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2d ser. New York: Gale Group, 1993. Provides an exhaustive overview of Soyinka’s activism and an analysis of his major works with their contemporary critical reception. Also available online.

Gordimer, Nadine. “The Child Is the Man.” Review of Aké. The New York Review of Books (October 21, 1982): 3, 6. A perceptive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Aké in the context of autobiographies written by African writers. While admiring Soyinka’s sensual evocation of the place where he grew up, Gordimer raises questions about the credibility of the total recall and the remarkable ripostes of a three-to four-year-old child.

Library Journal. CVII, August, 1982, p. 1454.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 31, 1982, p. 6.

Maduakor, Obi. “Autobiography as Literature: The Case of Wole Soyinka’s Childhood Memories, Ake,” in Presence Africaine. CXXXVII/CXXXVIII, nos. 1/2 (1986), pp. 227-240.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 10, 1982, p. 7.

Newsweek. C, November 1, 1982, p. 87.

Okri, Ben. “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Boy: Review of Ake,” in West Africa. November 16, 1981, pp. 2719-2722.

Olney, James. “Ake: Wole Soyinka as Autobiographer,” in The Yale Review. LXXIII (Autumn, 1983), pp. 72-93.

Olney, James. “Wole Soyinka’s Portrait of the Artist as a (Very) Young Man,” in The Southern Review. XXIII (Summer, 1987), pp. 527-540.

Times Literary Supplement. February 26, 1982, p. 228.

World Literature Today. LVI, Summer, 1982, p. 561.

Wright, Derek. “History and Fiction: The Autobiographies.” In Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. This chapter in Wright’s detailed study of Soyinka’s works discusses Aké in the context of his two other autobiographical works, “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972) and Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay” (1989). Wright’s analysis of Aké provides a valuable insight into Soyinka’s developing sense of self. Also useful is the “Glossary of Yoruba and Other African Terms and Names” for readers unfamiliar with the dialect.