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.
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.
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.
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.