At a Glance
That Wole Soyinka has lived to write so much about the African experience is a miracle. Throughout his long and productive career, Soyinka’s politics have placed him in danger repeatedly. His upbringing reflected both African and Western influences, and the conflict and interaction between these two forces would occupy much of his writing, particularly in the play Death and the King's Horseman. Through drama, poetry, essays, and autobiographies, Soyinka has documented not only the struggles of his homeland of Nigeria but of the African continent as a whole. His works earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, and he used the occasion to highlight the plight of fellow activist Nelson Mandela. Soyinka’s life has been so full of intrigue and accomplishment that he has published several memoirs in which the hardships of the African nation overlap with Soyinka’s own personal evolution.
Facts and Trivia
- Soyinka was imprisoned for nearly two years during the Biafran Civil War in the late 1960s. A few years after his release, he published a book chronicling the experience titled The Man Died: Prison Notes.
- During a period of political unrest in the mid 1990s, Soyinka lived in exile in the United States and taught at Emory University.
- In addition to his prolific writing career, Soyinka has founded numerous theatrical groups, including Nineteen-Sixty Masks and Guerilla Unit.
- One of Soyinka’s most famous theatrical works was Opera Wonyosi, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.
- Soyinka has taught at numerous universities around the world, most recently as a literature professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
As a playwright and poet, Soyinka developed his voice and vision during Nigeria’s most politically turbulent period, and he became the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986. Throughout his career, Soyinka worked as both an artist and political activist, meshing the concerns of an emerging postcolonial Africa with authentic traditions and voices in Nigeria.
Soyinka’s political stance shifted continually between the classroom and the theater, while his work often focused on the political corruption surrounding the slow emergence of Nigerian democracy. Plays such as The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) and The Lion and the Jewel (1960) placed Soyinka in opposition to the first national government, and his work was frequently denied official support and funding. By 1965 heavy censorship was being imposed on his work, and he was arrested on dubious charges that were ultimately dismissed.
In 1967 Soyinka was appointed director of the school of drama at the University of Ibadan, where he wrote against the government until he was arrested at the outbreak of the Biafra war in the same year. After his release in 1969, Soyinka left the country and produced a prison play, Madmen and Specialists (1970), and an autobiography, The Man Died (1972), both of which were blistering attacks on the Nigerian regime.
Though many of Soyinka’s works sold poorly in Nigeria, mainly due to suppression, he remained a major African voice, and his continual defiance of corruption, compromise, and censorship continued to make him a focus for democratic expression throughout the continent. He was particularly critical of the military rulers of his own country. In March, 1997, a little more than a year after the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, it charged Soyinka with treason. Conviction would carry a death penalty, but Soyinka was living in exile.
Adelugba, Dapo, ed. Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1987. Collection of sixteen essays divided into two parts. The first part consists of ten personal tributes, and the second of six analytical essays. Brian Crow’s essay on Soyinka’s romanticism is particularly useful.
Banks, Thomas, and Judith Steininger. “Wole Soyinka.” In Critical Survey of Drama , edited by Carl...
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