Interview with the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka, 28 April 2005 by freelance journalist Simon Stanford.
Soyinka talks about his childhood in Aké; his experiences of the decolonization progress (6:11); how the political activities have influenced his writing (11:27); his being a “lazy writer” (15:37); theatre’s advantage of reaching the audience (19:03); the Nobel Prize and how it has affected his life (28:27); and the threat of intolerance (36:42).
Professor Wole Soyinka, Nobel Literature Laureate 1986, welcome to our interview.
Wole Soyinka: Thank you.
Let’s start right at the very beginning. What were the circumstances of your birth, your early upbringing?
Wole Soyinka: I was born into a Christian household, in a parsonage in fact, so I grew up in sort of a missionary atmosphere but it was an environment which involved both the traditional religions as well as the Muslim religion, so we were exposed to all the various facets of faith, micro cultures which existed within those beliefs, and even though I’ve lost whatever Christian faith was drummed into me as a child, I still maintain very good relationship with all the various religions.
And you were born in a Nigerian town called, how do you pronounce it, Ake?
Wole Soyinka: Ake, Ake Abeokuta, I was born in the Ake sector of Abeokuta. Abeokuta is a nation city, it means literally “under the rocks” and it’s a very rocky kind of environment and very lush, lots of greenery, of course, because it’s a very tropical belt. It is a small town with the monarch, the Alake of Abeokuta, a mixture of traditional and western kind of cultures. My father was a schoolteacher and so I had the advantage of both western educational instruction in the school, as well as what you might call the process of imbibing the traditional processes of education instruction around me.
And this was colonial Nigeria. What were the forces that shaped the society?
Wole Soyinka: First of all it was a society which was very deeply steeped in its own cultures. Those cultures were never eradicated by contact with the missionary society. It was also a birth place of a lot of political agitation. While there was a pretty reasonable harmonious co-habitation with the European, the British specifically, British colonial forces, there was also a very keen sense of nationalism. In fact, the Egba kingdom, which Abeokuta is more or less the capital city, the Egba kingdom was one of the very last to be ceded to the British protectorate. It remained almost an independent entity within what is now known as Nigeria, simply because of its own traditional structure of governance.
You talk about political agitation … You talk in some of your writings and in your Nobel Lecture about the very, very young experience of your mother participating in a tax agitation against what was perceived as a very unfair tax. Did this political agitation, this very overtly political life, influence you from a very early age?
Wole Soyinka: There’s no question at all, I grew up with a very strong sense of what is just and what is not or, to put it this way, I grew up with a keen sense of a division, the reality of a division of perception in people’s lives between those who govern and those who govern. The Alake of Abeokuta, for instance, was a revered individual, traditionally, was a powerful monarch and the institution of Obaship. Many people don’t understand this outside, but actually the Yoruba system of Obaship, that’s kingship, is really a pretty democratic one. There are severe limitations to what a king can do and not do. There is a council of chiefs who wield a lot of power, they’re like a cabinet and if the king misbehaves or uses excessive power, this Ogboni council can actually meet, the enclave can meet and dethrone him. So the kind of autocratic notion which people have about Obaship, your system of kingship or that applies in other parts of Africa, of course, but this Yoruba is the example we’re dealing with, it’s not quite as rigid as they imagine.
When the Oba became somewhat high handed, autocratic, imposed what the women considered an unfair taxation on them, they rebelled and their protest was organised principally by my aunt, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and one of her lieutenants was my mother and I was fascinated by the conflict. I was interested in the causes, and I found myself on the side of the women, maybe I got moved into it because my mother was involved, but I think I understood sufficient about what was happening and I became the courier between various groups, demonstrating groups, and I got really caught up, physically and mentally, in the entire conflict and I’ve no doubt at all that early lesson left its mark on my political awareness.
Your life has been defined, punctuated by political incidents, some more benign and some very cruel and threatening, even to you personally. Can you describe some of that process?
Wole Soyinka: The process of decolonisation was a very untidy one. The British, when they were leaving finally and knew exactly who they wanted to take over, they wanted pliant government, figures, structures, they wanted to continue indirectly in effect their control over much of their colonial possessions and this was one of the very early causes of conflict. The British inclined more towards the feudal mentality, the feudal structures rather than the more radical progressive elements who would re-shape society and institute pretty egalitarian systems of governance with opportunity for even disadvantaged people and so I found that decolonisation was not just the end of political struggle.
There always are internal divisions which impose choice on citizens and those who were politically aware and so I found myself thrown into that division within bound society in the west of Nigeria especially and I wrote, used street theatre, we call it guerrilla theatre, wrote political sketches, performed them in open spaces and halls in which corrupt authority was attacked and this led eventually to even more activist action.
There was the incident where a radio station which was the result of my intervention in the attempt of the government to rig the elections and pronounce, you know, broadcast totally false results after inflicting violence on the voters, after intimidation failed completely and so I intervened in that. This ended me my first spell, you know, of conflict with the law because I was tried for allegedly holding up a radio station and substituting the Premier’s state with mine, which more or less invited the Premier to get out of town sort of thing, but I was acquitted and then later things got even more serious. We had our first experience of a military coup which was very bloody. There were reprisals, there was a counter coup and all this led to a civil war.
I consider the civil war very unjust because the breakaway state of Biafra, I mean the conflict led to Biafrans, the Igbo people breaking away from Nigeria and while I thought that this was politically unwise, I found that it was not morally wrong because they had been decimated. There’s no other word for it. It was an act of genocide which was perpetrated against the Igbo people. The causes, of course, are more complex than straightforward right and wrong but you could not escape the fact that there was an act of genocide and so I took position against the war, I allied with others who were like minded and we tried to intervene.
This led to my imprisonment for two years and four months, nearly two years of which was in solitary confinement, so that was like an escalation of risks, escalation of intensities of the cause of conflict. Then, after that, when I thought it was more or less all over, everything was stabilised, we were moving up to serious military dictatorships which were not acceptable but with which you had to live and even trying to obtain, keep something useful for the nation, for the people, with the more amenable of these, the less obnoxious of some of them. Then the move towards democracy began all over again and suddenly it was aborted and aborted by a very singularly repellent kind of military individual and so I had to take action against him also which led eventually to my exile, my being placed on trial for treason, a price being placed on my head and so on and so forth. Part of occupational risk of one’s endeavours.
Has this process been part of your perceived duty as a writer or as a citizen?
Wole Soyinka: The problem with literature, with writing, is that it works sometimes in terms of correction of social ills. Other times, it just does not suffice. The proof of that is the ability of a dictator to snuff out the life of a writer as happened to my colleague, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental activist who was hanged after a kangaroo trial by this brutal dictator, Sani Abacha, he and eight of his companions. When an event like that happens, and even lesser events of lesser gravity, the citizen comes to the fore, the citizen overtakes the writer because literature has proved or is proving inadequate and then forms of citizen action, whether it’s demonstrations or sometimes, in the case of Christopher Okebo, another colleague of mine who lost his life, that’s, you know, he went to war, he went on the Biafran side because he found that his poetry could not answer his sense of intense wrong and he perished on the front.
So writers throughout the ages have one weapon, which is literature, but they also have their responsibilities as a citizen when literature does not seem to suffice. I mean, they are not mutually exclusive. One continues to write anyway but if you are called out to demonstrate, if people are being killed in the streets, it’s hardly the moment to go for your pen and paper, you know, help in one way or the other.
It’s a very intense fire in which your craft, your art has been forged. Has it had a very powerful affect on your writing? Has it made your writing more intense?
Wole Soyinka: Could be. One thing I am certain of is that it has made me create and recreate different tempo or different tempi of writing. I’ve had to adjust to … I mean, ideally, for instance, I think most writers would like a quiet space, complete isolation, in which they control their own time. Spaces of creativity in which there’s very little interruption. I think that’s the idea and this perhaps is how I began as a writer, finding that space, that intense period in which I’m completely alone, completely alone.
But as you get drawn more and more into other activities, like political activities, very demanding, you have to find different rhythms of writing; I think that’s the word I’m looking for, rhythms of creativity which then, of course, become very intense. I think your writing then tends to be very intensified simply because there are other demands which seem equally important. You know, if they were just trivial demands and so on then it wouldn’t matter at all, you can hive off a certain section of the mind and deal with that, but if it’s something which consumes you, then there’s a competition which concentrates your writing.
Did you find it easy to start writing or was it a struggle? Are you a natural writer?
Wole Soyinka: That’s a very good question. I think I’m a very lazy writer and by that I mean that I do not battle, I don’t struggle too hard against it. If I have difficulties in the writing, I just go and do other things. I don’t feel a compulsion to write. Of course, when I start writing then it becomes a compulsive activity, because I’ve begun something and I want to continue, want to finish it. The characters in my play are crowding my head, demanding to be let out or demanding to be allowed to complete what they’ve set out to do, so there is compulsion there and of course I can carry an idea with me in my head, it just is there for months, years.
I remember doing ‘The King’s Horseman’, when I first heard of that story, I wanted, I was so fascinated by it, I wanted to write it immediately but I didn’t have time for it and other things came in between. Then one day I was teaching in Cambridge, and this is a play which is set in a colonial period, and my college was Churchill College and I used to come down the stairs, you know, towards the dining hall or going outside and there was this bust of this great genius of a colonialist and all the more hated for being such a genius at his work, at that kind of work, Winston Churchill.
I used to look at him and I felt each time like pushing the bust over the edge of the stairs and it was during that period that one day I recalled this story which had been in my head for – how many years? Maybe five, ten years, yes, about ten years and I sat and after that I just couldn’t rest until I could sit at my typewriter then and start work on it and that’s where I wrote it and wrote it, for a play of that complexity, virtually record time. Within the week I’d completed it and I brought people in to read it, so writing comes like in … it has its own creative rhythm, you know, you can’t force it. At least I don’t. I know there are other writers who sit down religiously every morning, they take their espresso, they put a clean sheet of paper there and they sit looking at that paper until they’ve finished or covered at least a number of those pages. No, I’m not like that. I have to be ready. It has to gestate it for quite a while and then it’s ready to burst forth.
And you talk about completing a play, is it complete until it’s performed?
Wole Soyinka: That’s again a good question but then, for many playwrights, they write the plays anyway because they’ve got to be, the work has been started, it’s got to be finished, but we all long, I think, to see the plays fleshed out on stage and I’m exactly like that. Yes, I’m not satisfied until I actually see it on stage.
Is that part of your African tradition? Because obviously you’re writing for very diverse audiences and audiences with diverse literary capacities. Some of your audiences may be completely illiterate. Is it important to you that you reach all of those audiences and is theatre a strong vehicle for that?
Wole Soyinka: That’s where I think those of us who work in the theatre have an advantage over the novelists and the prose writers and, to some extent, those who write only poetry. With theatre, you can interpret the most complex play on stage for it have meaning to an audience because you’re dealing in images, you’re dealing in action, you can use different idioms to interpret and clarify something which is obscured in the reading and of course there are different kinds of play, there are mythological plays, there are what I call the dramatic sketches, direct political theatre which is virtually everybody, but I find that you can use the stage as a social vehicle, you know, which any kind of audience.
And when you have already the tradition of theatre in your society and we have these travelling companies, we call them folk opera companies, they travel all over the place in a lorry; they arrive there in the morning, they drum, dance around the town to announce their presence. In the evening, to say where the venue will be, it can be just an improvised hall. By evening everybody’s already, you know, swarming in that direction so the tradition of theatre already exists in my society and that is an advantage.
Does it give you a special joy to have your work performed in front of a Nigerian audience, say the Orubo audience?
Wole Soyinka: Joy is not the word, I don’t think, it’s just that’s my occupation, you know, I come alive, let’s put it that way, I come alive when I have assisted in bringing out the printed word on the stage, you know, and I enjoy directing plays. It’s a tactile process, theatre, unlike a number of other forms of the creative work.
You talk about diverse audiences, diverse influences?
Wole Soyinka: My understanding of the creative process is simply that all cultures and all concerns meet at a certain point, the human point in which everything is related to one another. That has been my creative experience. I never know who’s influencing me at any time. I mean, I can take a play by Brecht and adapt it, I’m consciously adapting that play, or, as I’ve done with the Greek classics, Euripides and Oedipus, and I’m consciously adapting that play. Whether it influences me or not, I think it’s the critics, the analysts who have to decide that. Me, I don’t feel that I’m under the influence of any such sources.
But you have rather diverse forms. If you look at something like myth literature in the African world, you analyse and deconstruct those different belief systems, those different structures.
Wole Soyinka: My interest in culture generally is a comparative one, comparative one, and I think that’s where the word joy, I think, can be applicable. There’s joy in actually seeing the relatedness, the connectedness of different cultures or recognising, for instance, your own culture in another or another culture in your own culture and feeling an air to all of them.
You draw lots on your Yoruba culture, you draw a lot on Ogun, you draw a lot on the cosmology of your people. How does that distinguish your work from other writers?
Wole Soyinka: Mythology can be used, and has been used, even to re-state, you know, the very urgent problems of the world. At a reading which we had, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison … Once Derek Walcott read a play of his which is based on the Cyclops myth. Intensely political play with direct correlation and purpose to the Greek tyranny in the episode of the Greek General, but I also rarely use mythology for its own sake because, as a theatre person, the mythological figures are in fact humanity to the ninth degree and Yoruba mythology in particular has fascination of being one of the most humanised mythologies in the world.
The gods in Yoruba mythology are not remote at all. They’re benign, they’re malign, they are mischievous, like Eshu for instance, tricksters, rascally, fornicators, that’s a similarity to Greek mythology, for instance, you know. They’re not saints, they’re not saints. They’re powerful. It’s why they’re not tyrannical. Of course, a number of them are also very, you know, benevolent, you know, there are saintly virtues to be found in them. In other words, you have the entire gamut of human experience captured in the mythology of the Yoruba. This is what makes the Yoruba mythology a natural source material for me in my creative endeavours.
Do you feel a duty, do you feel bound to give a voice to your community? Yesterday at the reading you talked about reinforcing the civic voice.
Wole Soyinka: Yes, I do. I do, but I were part company with certain schools of writers that I do not believe that it is necessarily the duty of the writer. I don’t believe that. If a writer is true to his vocation, to his or her vocation, the very process of creativity enlarges these human horizons. It provides insights, even when you’re not writing, when your writing’s not dealing with a concrete political situation.
The very function of creativity, of the elaboration of the human condition only enlarges the human spirit and, I mean, as a writer I don’t want to read political literature all the time. It would be terribly boring and, you know, abrasive, but just reading the insights, you know, partaking of the insights of a writer into phenomena, into society, into human relationships, both on a micro level and on a macro level, is already a function. For me, a writer is already being the deuce of his mission, his occupation to society. But I happen to be unfortunately temperamental. No, my temperament is also, what you describe to rainfalls, the will of society, to combat a number of contradictions. That happens to be my creative temperament.
When did these issues move away from specific to universal?
Wole Soyinka: I think all, well … no, let me correct what I was about to say. I’m very conscious when I’m being specific, like my street theatre, my guerrilla theatre for instance. It’s created and the themes and the methodology of the delivery of the content is specific. It’s to an immediate issue. But when I sit down to craft a play or a novel or a poem, I’m now dealing more consciously, perhaps, perhaps, on more universal issues. But even those specific issues contain sometimes universal applications, so I don’t say I’m only going to be specific but what motivates that particular work at that moment is a specific issue and I try to address it as much as possible.
To move onto the Nobel Prize, 1986, the first African writer to get the Nobel Prize.
Wole Soyinka: In literature.
In literature. Tell us about the event. Did you have intimations beforehand? How did it all come about?
Wole Soyinka: No. Not only didn’t I have any intimations, I was extremely irritated the year before by speculations in the Nigerian media. I mean, it really boiled up to a hysterical pitch. I believe that prizes are useful, you know, are useful things for the disciplines, whether we are talking about chemistry or we’re talking … It motivates, it, you know, inspires, it encourages and it brings, in the case of literature, it brings literature, the arts, it brings the arts out of the ghetto, out of the ghetto. People respond … “Oh there’s a prize for this? Oh yes. Oh, I must take a look into that.”
But as a matter of fact, I was nominating other writers. During that period where, in my group, the institution to which I belonged, we moved between … and Senghor, Léopold Senghor, and I frankly thought that one or the other was going to get it and we were going to celebrate with them. So my mind was never at any time, at any time, you know, on the notion of considering myself as a candidate just, you know, because I had other writers I loved, and not just African writers. I mean, like, I’m a consumer of literature and so I had candidates quite apart from even the African candidates whom I thought, you know, who are going to get it before they got to me at all. So it was quite a shock and a surprise. Pleasant one, but the shock was the same.
The event itself, your Nobel Lecture, you used the platform, it was a very overtly political speech. It was a very powerful lecture and there was, among the more conservative elements in society, there was some grumbling about using that platform for such an overtly, and I come from South Africa and of course at that time the reaction was fantastic because it really put the apartheid government into a flap, you know, it disturbed them.
Wole Soyinka: I have been obsessed by South Africa since, oh, way back. My very first play which was put on at the Royal Court Theatre in London as a student, I wrote it as a student, was called ‘The Invention’ and it was a racial thing but I felt my racial fount was being sullied and insulted as long as, you know, the apartheid situation existed. It just didn’t make sense to me. There was no way I would not have used that platform, you know, I couldn’t conceive. My mind immediately shot to South Africa the moment I sat down to think what I was going to write, what I was going to say. There was no other choice.
I wasn’t interested in discussing my craft. I mean, South Africa had always been mixed up with my work, with my literature, so you can talk about South Africa, I am talking about my work, my play ‘The Invention’, other poems I had written, the very issue of creativity. I was speaking about the whole fate of literature, the exiled South African writers with whom I used to mix in London and other places. /—/, Lewis Nkosi, /—/ etcetera. I mean, for me this was literature. I had no ambiguity at all about what I was going to say. I wasn’t that I felt it was my duty. No, it was just my literature.
Do you think that that lecture had a powerful influence? Do you think that it has contributed towards changing things?
Wole Soyinka: You know, I was so impressed when you said just now that it really had the South African government in a flap. I didn’t follow, you know, up the consequences or whatever, I was always more interested in looking forward to the day when, as I wrote in another article, I would present a copy of Mandela’s poems, ‘Mandela’s World and other poems’, and I swore that one day I was going to present it to him in his living room and read him one or two poems.
So once I’d given that speech, well for me, I was more interested in doing other things in the same connection and maybe that and the work of others, cumulative effect, political bargaining. I wrote, if you remember Ogun Abibima which was a construction of Ogun, moving down to the south to join hands with Shaka, both mythological figures, one is real of course but in a sense, two ancestral figures, you know, joining hands to go down and smash apartheid and I wrote this epic of projection … so I just went back to my work, I continued my work.
How has being a Nobel Prize Laureate affected your work, your writing, your creative space?
Wole Soyinka: Let me again cite Bernard Shaw, who is reputed to have said that, when he was given the Nobel Prize, that he could forgive the man who invented dynamite but it took the most diabolical mind in the world to invent the Nobel Prize for Literature. I agree with that to a certain extent because it swelled my constituency. It was already sufficiently, you know, swollen because I’ve always, you know, agitated on the world stage one way or the other but it really made life virtually impossible. It’s with astonishment that I discover that I’ve actually completed a new work, you know, ever since the Nobel I would sit down and look at it like some strange object … Oh, did I really manage to finish this?
So it’s mixed with … Of course I’ve enjoyed having the Nobel Prize, the prestige that goes along with it, the money that came with it in particular. I was the typical, still am to some extent, impecunious writer, you know, just struggling to make ends meet, so that, you know, nobody’s going to deny that at all. In fact, if they want to give it to me a second time, I’m standing by, ready to receive it, but as I said now, it’s a problem, it’s a real problem and then expectations and then you have monsters like Sani Abacha who come up from time to time and who would have died a happy man if he’d succeeded in hanging a Nobel Laureate for literature. I mean, that’s a fact and it can be attested by some of his close associates so it brings, in this particular case it brought certain additional risks when it should have been what most people correctly think, a kind of protection.
It’s a new century. You’re writing ‘Climate of Fear’, you’re addressing very current issues. You’re addressing a new threat. Can you tell us a little bit about the last lecture in here ‘I am right, you are dead’, it talks about intolerance.
Wole Soyinka: Yes, intolerance has become, I think, the reigning ideology of the world today, the intolerance versus intolerance and it’s taken on lethal proportions. I mean, intolerance has always been with us, you know. The moment you have ideology, we have intolerance, whether it’s the secular ideology or, you know ideocratic ideology, which always brings with it some kind of intolerance. But the sense of self assuredness that, you know, ideologists, you have all the structure of the world in your hand, whether you’re viewing it from material world or from the extra terrestrial lofty position and it’s become accentuated because of genuine as well as perceived injustices.
Religion has really spawned some monsters. It always has, historically. Go all the way back to the Inquisition, you know, the Crusades, the Jehad and so on. It’s all based on the mentality of “I’m right”, but now today it’s moved from even the question of “I’m right and I’m willing to tolerate those who agree that I am right or those who don’t disturb me anyway”. Now, it’s a question of “If you do not accept that I’m right, I have a right to kill you”. That is the mentality of religious fundamentalism today. That is the meaning of the kind of terror which we are witnessing today, that everybody is expendable who do not actually physically line up behind me.
And one of the most distressing aspects of this is to see that kind of mentality also manifested by the leadership of so called democratic countries, and I refer specifically to the United States of America, where the President uses a kind of language which becomes indistinguishable from that of Osama Bin Laden. “I’m right, it doesn’t matter whether the world thinks I am wrong, I know that I am divinely ordered to do this”. It’s that kind of language, that’s the language of intolerance, intolerance of opinion – those who are not with us are against us, you know. And this is, of course, we’ve got to be honest, that the more dangerous is that of religious fundamentalism, those who feel that, you know, the kind which led to Beslan, one of the most horrendous chapters of Iraq’s contemporary experience. That really, I think, has reached, has breached the very barriers of the unimaginable.
People seem to have a very short memory for history, that things recur over and over again in an endless cycle. Do you think that your role as a writer is to try and help people to understand, to deconstruct history?
Wole Soyinka: Whenever that is possible, I consider it my duty to do. Whenever circumstances point, reactions, events point to this short changing of memory, then I think it is the duty of the writer to say: Look, the material we’re working on, whether citizens or writers, is not new, you know, and to bring the mind back and see that there’s a repetition of this cycle of stupidity. I think I’ve used that expression somewhere else before and to think now why do we have to tread the same spores over and over again? It’s almost a kind of self defense. You’re saying you’re making my work as a writer difficult for me because you’re not paying attention, you’re not recollecting and I have to keep reminding you, so yes, I think even from the point of view of self defense, one must bring up, you know, pull up memories from where it’s short changed.
Finally, you teach as well, you have young aspiring writers. In short, what do they have to do?
Wole Soyinka: I always tell them get ready a basket first of all, in which to collect all your rejection slips and you must continue until that basket is full or your work is accepted. In other words, you just must continue writing; and once you accept that, then we can talk about what you want to write insofar as I can assist. I’m not a very good teacher of creative writing and I always warn them about that. What I teach is literary criticism and comparative literature and so on and that’s my function, but from time to time it’s possible for me actually to help a writer. I read something and something strikes me then, I feel I can talk to that writer about it.
But over and above all, I also tell them don’t get carried away by the ideologs. Don’t feel that you have to tailor your literature a particular way to please any school of ideology. There will emerge in its own right, effortlessly, some kind of ideological direction which is a reflection of your thinking and you want your thinking, above all. We wasted a lot of creative energy in that immediate post colonial era, when there was a struggle between, you know, the Cold War between the capitalism and communism. Many writers just wasted their energy and their talent because they want to be ideologically correct and of course all they produced was propaganda. Absolute tawdry uninteresting, oh, full of excitation, yes, you know, full of ra-ra-ra but they were short changing their own talent and I used to tell them and now that they’ve become ideological orphans, they’re now trying to recover their own true voice and have produced some very good work but they could have produced excellent work and at the same time, you know, be truthful to their ideological convictions if they hadn’t allowed that ideology to take primary place and that’s what I tell all writers.
Great. Professor Soyinka, thank you very much indeed. Been a real pleasure to speak to you.
Wole Soyinka: Thank you.
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