Wole Soyinka Biography

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.

Biography

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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.

Bibliography

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 Rollyson. 2d rev. ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2003. A thorough overview of Soyinka’s life and career, emphasizing the plays.

Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable key to references and allusions in much of Soyinka’s work. The introduction is particularly useful for its brief discussion of connections between works, for its descriptions of topics of interest to Soyinka, and for its commentary on Soyinka’s use of Yoruba proverbs and rituals.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. In the House of Oshugbo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka. London: Oxford University Press, 2002. Large collection of essays that includes analyses of individual plays, biographical information, comparative studies involving contemporary writers such as Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, and discussions of literary theory, the art of writing, and Yoruba culture.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. London: Macmillan, 1986. Part of the Macmillan Modern Dramatists series, this is a very detailed source that follows Soyinka’s career from his earliest plays. Contains some good biographical information, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.

Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Contains introductory essays by Bernth Lindfors and Abiola Irele; fifteen essays on individual plays and such subjects as popular theater, tragedy, Third World drama, and dramatic theory. Other essays cover Soyinka’s poetry and prose.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. The first book to feature recorded interviews of Soyinka. Interviewers include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Anthony Appiah, and Biodun Jeyifo. These interviews help clarify obscure aspects of Soyinka’s most difficult plays.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. This collection of critical essays covers three decades. Its major contribution is its analysis of Soyinka’s work using several schools of critical theory, from feminism to recuperated phenomenology. Also discussed are his postcolonial politics and aestheticism.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. Rev. ed. London: Heinemann, 1988. For years, the standard general introduction to Soyinka’s work and still a useful resource. Contains lucid analysis of all the major works and helpful information about Soyinka’s background.

Lindfors, Bernth, and James Gibbs, eds. Research on Wole Soyinka. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992. Essays representing a wide variety of critical methodologies applied to Soyinka’s works, including linguistics and structural, textual, and cultural interpretations.

Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. New York: Garland, 1986. A helpful, critical study designed to clarify difficult aspects of Soyinka’s works. Its four parts include “The Poems,” “Fictional and Autobiographical Prose,” “Five Metaphysical Plays,” and “The Literary Essays.”

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994. This book is a collection of essays primarily by African writers. Topics include Soyinka’s fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as the African culture from which he writes. His Nobel lecture is the lead entry. An interview with Soyinka is also presented.

Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. 2d ed. London: Evans Brothers, 1978. This expanded new edition of Moore’s chronological study devotes most of its pages to the plays. It begins with a biographical introduction that helps explain “the foundations of Soyinka’s dramatic career.” “Early Work in the Theatre,” “A Dance in the Forests,” and “The Tragedies” treat the plays before Soyinka’s imprisonment, and later chapters look at postwar plays through Death and the King’s Horseman.

Okome, Onookome. Ogun’s Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka Since the Nobel Prize. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002. An analysis of Soyinka that focuses on his work since receiving the Nobel Prize.

Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. This introductory study of Soyinka includes critical studies of his works, biographical information, and a chronology of his life and works.

Bibliography

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.

Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable key to references and allusions in much of Soyinka’s work. The introduction is particularly useful for its brief discussion of connections between works, for its descriptions of topics of interest to Soyinka, and for its commentary on Soyinka’s use of Yoruba proverbs and rituals.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. In the House of Oshugbo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka. London: Oxford University Press, 2002. Large collection of essays that includes analyses of individual plays, biographical information, comparative studies involving contemporary writers such as Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, and discussions of literary theory, the art of writing, and Yoruba culture.

Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. London: Macmillan, 1986. Part of the Macmillan Modern Dramatists series, this is a very detailed source that follows Soyinka’s career from his earliest plays. Contains some good biographical information, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.

Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. A collection of essays by various scholars on different aspects on Soyinka’s work. The introduction provides a concise overview of Soyinka’s life and career.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. The first book to feature recorded interviews of Soyinka. Interviewers include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Anthony Appiah, and Biodun Jeyifo. These interviews help clarify obscure aspects of Soyinka’s most difficult plays.

Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. This collection of critical essays covers three decades. Its major contribution is its analysis of Soyinka’s work using several schools of critical theory, from feminism to recuperated phenomenology. Also discussed are his postcolonial politics and aestheticism.

Jeyifo, Biodun. Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, and Postcolonialism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. A part of the Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature series, this work examines the relationship between Soyinka’s writing and his political activism.

Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. Rev. ed. London: Heinemann, 1988. For years, the standard general introduction to Soyinka’s work and still a useful resource. Contains lucid analysis of all the major works and helpful information about Soyinka’s background.

Lindfors, Bernth, and James Gibbs, eds. Research on Wole Soyinka. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992. Essays representing a wide variety of critical methodologies applied to Soyinka’s works, including linguistics and structural, textual, and cultural interpretations.

Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. New York: Garland, 1986. A helpful, critical study designed to clarify difficult aspects of Soyinka’s works. Its four parts include “The Poems,” “Fictional and Autobiographical Prose,” “Five Metaphysical Plays,” and “The Literary Essays.”

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994. This book is a collection of essays primarily by African writers. Topics include Soyinka’s fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as the African culture from which he writes. His Nobel lecture is the lead entry. An interview with Soyinka is also presented.

Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. 2d ed. London: Evans Brothers, 1978. This expanded new edition of Moore’s chronological study devotes most of its pages to the plays. It begins with a biographical introduction that helps explain “the foundations of Soyinka’s dramatic career.” “Early Work in the Theatre,” “A Dance in the Forests,” and “The Tragedies” treat the plays before Soyinka’s imprisonment, and later chapters look at postwar plays through Death and the King’s Horseman.

Okome, Onookome. Ogun’s Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka Since the Nobel Prize. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002. An analysis of Soyinka that focuses on his work since receiving the Nobel Prize.

Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. This introductory study of Soyinka includes critical studies of his works, biographical information, and a chronology of his life and works.

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