Nigeria’s wordsmith extraordinaire and master of quotable quotes, Professor Wole Soyinka (born Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka on July 13 1934), turned 86 last Monday. Coincidentally Wole Soyinka became the first black Nobel Laureate in literature in 1986 so his birthday this year has a special significance.
Though I have never met Professor Wole Soyinka one-on-one, it is difficult for anyone with even a passing interest in the written word not to have met him through his works – whether as a playwright, essayist, novelist, poet or social critic.
The closest I came to meeting Wole Soyinka was when my publishing firm Adonis & Abbey Publishers was publishing a journal, African Performance Review, for the African Theaters Association (AfTA) between 2007 and 2009. Most of the members of the Association were ardent Soyinka disciples and they regaled me with many stories about the ‘exploits’ of the famous Nobel Laureate. One of the most memorable ‘exploits’ I heard about him was a story he supposedly told them about frequent proposals he received from women who wanted him to sire children for them with the hope that they would produce an intellectual genius like him. According to them, Soyinka told them that his response to such offers was: “whenever I can, I help”.
There was another memorable story about him from his disciples: It was an alleged television interview by a major international TV network (I have forgotten whether they said it was BBC or CNN). According to them, the host had asked him why he never bothered to obtain a PhD despite his brilliance. Soyinka was said to have retorted, “But who will mark it?”
I would probably have met Professor Soyinka one-on-one if I had acceded to the request by the late Esiaba Irobi to publish a bi-annual journal he wanted to call the Soyinka Journal. Irobi, who died in Germany in May 2010, was a very talented but highly combustible playwright and poet. Like most of the members of AfTA that I interacted with at that time, he was not only an ardent admirer of Soyinka but also regarded him as a literary deity of sorts.
It is never easy as a publisher to manage creative writers (and creative people in general) especially those imbued with an overdose of ‘artistic temperament’ – as Esiaba was. The truth is that I was afraid of saying ‘no’ to his proposal about the Soyinka Journal, and also afraid of saying ‘yes’ to the proposal. I tried to play safe by urging him to expand the scope of the journal so he would not run out of publishable peer-reviewed articles. I urged him to include Chinua Achebe and J.P. Clark-Bedekeremo in itbecause in Nigeria’s traditional literary circles Soyinka is seen as the ultimate playwright and political activist, Achebe is regarded as the master novelist while J.P. Clark-Bedekeremo is seen as the doyen of poetry. We were still playing the cat and mouse game when I received the very sad news of his transition.
Back to Wole Soyinka: As a younger man in the secondary school (1975-1980), I was very much attracted to the literary works of non-conformists and activists – the late Obi B Egbuna, Dilibe Onyema, Naiwu Osahon, Dambduzo Marechera, and of course WoleSoyinka, whose book, The Man Died(published in 1972) I could recite the first two or three chapters off the top of my head. I also read his poem ‘The Telephone Conversation’ (published in 1963) with relish and for years had this mental image of a young mischievous but very confident African in the United Kingdom who could give the middle finger to a White racist landlady and make her look stupid. I have always grimaced each time some lines of the poem came to my mind: “The price seemed reasonable, location indifferent. /The landlady swore she lived off-premises. / Nothing remained but self-confession. /Madam, I warned, I hate a wasted journey, I am African”.
When the landlady inquired how dark he was, Soyinka’s response was: “Facially I am brunette, but, madam, you should see The rest of me/Palm of my hand, soles of my feet Are peroxide blond.” You also see a lot of this sort of ‘mischief’ in Ake: the Boyhood Years, his dazzling memoir which was published in 1981. It gives a mental picture of a young man versed in pranks and street smartness.
In addition to his very fertile imagination, Soyinka stands out as one public intellectual who was so sure of himself that he rarely flowed with the tide. For instance in disagreeing with the tenets of the Négritude movement, Soyinka famously remarked at a Conference in Berlin in 1964 that “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” The Negritude movement, it should be recalled was born out of the Paris intellectual environment of 1930s and 1940s. It was a product of black writers joining together through the French language to assert their cultural identity and their blackness. Soyinka believed that to have a movement to celebrate that you are black and proud was itself a sign of inferiority complex because a tiger does not go about proclaiming its tigeritude.
In 1967, as the Civil war was about to break out, Soyinka became a one-man diplomatic squad to stop the cascading inferno. He visited Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in Biafra apparently to convince the Biafran leader against the war. But the Gowon regime arrested and jailed him for 22 months on accusation that he was spying for Biafra – among other charges. It was while in prison that he wrote the famous prison diary, The Man Died, where he told us that the man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny. Earlier in 1965 Soyinka had seized, reportedly at gunpoint, the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service Studio to demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional elections, which he felt was rigged and that an illegitimate government was about to be proclaimed.
Probably few Nigerians – dead or alive- have more quotable quotes than Wole Soyinka whom his admirers also called Kongi. Some of his remarkable quotable quotes include: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.” “See, even despite pious statements to the contrary, much of the industrialized world has not yet come to terms with the recognition of the fallacy of what I call the strong man syndrome.” “The novel, for me, was an accident. I really don’t consider myself a novelist.” “Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective form of truth which is a lie.” “There are different kinds of artists and very often, I’ll be very frank with you, I wish I were a different kind.”“Well, the first thing is that truth and power for me form an antithesis, an antagonism, which will hardly ever be resolved. I can define in fact; can simplify the history of human society, the evolution of human society, as a contest between power and freedom.”
The late Spanish novelist and 1989 Nobel Laureate in Literature Camilo José Cela probably had Wole Soyinka in mind when he reportedly declared that a writer should be a denunciation of the time in which he lives. Wole Soyinka has been literally at loggerheads with every Nigerian government – which was why some Nigerians accused him of “compromising” and reaching accommodation with the Buhari government – until recently. While some attribute the loud absence of his critical voice against the Buhari government to the health challenge he was going through at that time, others point out to his closeness with some of the key players in the government like Rotimi Amaechi as a possible reason while he was restrained in criticizing the Buhari government – until recently.
Whatever may be Soyinka’s weaknesses as human, there is no doubt that he has tried to mentor a generation of young writers and that his place in the pantheon of Africa’s literary greats is very much assured.
I wish him a very happy birthday, and pray that the good Lord will grant him many more happy, fruitful and healthy years ahead.