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Nobel Winner On Survival

By Andrew C. Esensten, Crimson Staff Writer

While in exile from Nigeria in 1995, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka took haven at Harvard.

Soyinka, a writer and political activist whose outspoken opposition to General Sani Abacha’s brutal regime had made it unsafe for him to remain in his native Nigeria, accepted a fellowship at the Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

When he arrived at Harvard, Soyinka was reunited with his friend and Du Bois Institute Chair Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., whom he first met at the University of Cambridge in the 1970s when Soyinka was a visiting professor in the English Department and Gates was his only student in African Literature.

Although Soyinka intended to stay at Harvard for much of his exile, which ended in 1998 with Abacha’s death, something made him change his mind.

“I must confess that the first winter drove me south,” says Soyinka (pronounced shaw-YIN-ka). “One winter blast and I realized that I was not as tough as I thought I was.”

Here is a man who lived in exile four different times during his life, who was arrested ten times and who spent more than two years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement in a 4-by-8 foot cell. He had a price on his head at least five times. He is tougher than most.

To the delight of Gates and the Department of African and African American Studies, Soyinka agreed to brave the cold weather and return to the Du Bois Institute as the inaugural Alphone Fletcher Junior Fellow for the 2004-2005 academic year.

Among other projects, Soyinka will be writing the third part of his memoirs and completing a volume of essays.

Late last month, just as the temperatures were beginning to dip into the 40s, Soyinka spoke with The Crimson about his life as an artist and an activist, his fortuitous first encounter with Gates and his plan to survive the winter.


With his large white Afro and beard, sonorous baritone voice and tall stature, Soyinka has a commanding presence. His spacious office is located across the hall from Gates’, and his shelves are overflowing with books, many of which have “Africa” written somewhere along their spines.

A playwright, poet and novelist, Soyinka is considered one of contemporary Africa’s greatest literary voices. In 1986, he became the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Despite the historical significance of his achievement, Soyinka says the award—and the attention that it brought to his writings and political causes—did not change his approach to his craft.

“It’s not a watershed in my existence,” he says.

The idea of existence is a theme that dominates his body of work.

The Swedish Academy, the committee that selects the Nobel Prize winners, cited Soyinka in 1986 as someone “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”

Of his more than 30 published works, the Academy made special mention of Soyinka’s plays, in particular A Dance of the Forests (1963) and Death and the King’s Horseman (1975).

A Dance of the Forests is described by the Academy as “a kind of African Midsummer Night’s Dream with spirits, ghosts and gods. There is a direct link here to the indigenous ritual drama and to the Elizabethan drama.”

Death and the King’s Horseman, the Academy wrote, is “in the nature of an antique tragedy with the cultic sacrificial death as theme. The relationship between the unborn, the living and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned here with very strong effect. Soyinka confirms his position as a centre of force in drama.”

Other works which have received critical acclaim include Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), a collection of poems, and The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996), which Soyinka adapted from a lecture series he gave at Harvard. He has also written two well-reviewed autobiographical works, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) and Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years, A Memoir: 1946-1965 (1994).

Soyinka says he never anticipated that he would be the central figure in Aké. He says he had hoped to focus the story of his childhood around an uncle, but the man died before Soyinka could record his reminiscences.

“I intended to write about a certain period which was vanishing and about which I felt a little bit nostalgic, and I was going to use the figure of an uncle of mine who actually appears in [Aké],” he says.

“And then, just when I wanted to start, he died on me. And so, I dropped it. But the need, the need to set down that period [remained] because everyday landmarks vanished, certain modes of life vanished, certain rhythms of existence vanished, and so I decided I’d weave that period around my own self,” he says. “That’s really how that first biography came about, it was never intended to be my biography.”

He says he wrote Ibadan, his second memoir which depicts his political coming-of-age, in a “white heat” of four weeks during his second period of exile because he didn’t know if he would survive the bitter conflict that was intensifying in Nigeria.

During that struggle, Soyinka’s colleague, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who advocated the autonomy of the Ogoni people and fair distribution of the nation’s wealth, was arrested on false charges of treason and murder and hanged with eight of his companions.

This year, Soyinka will be working on his third memoir. At his disposal are his papers, which Harvard acquired in 2003 and which are kept in Houghton Library.

Soyinka says he finds it very hard to talk about his current projects because “when I write, when I create, it’s an entirely solipsistic operation.” For this reason, all he will say about the work is that he has selected its title with his editor.

When asked if it is more challenging to write fiction or memoir, he says, “I think trying to write a memoir is a lot more difficult because you have to organize events which do not pursue any pattern.”

The best way to describe his approach to writing, he says, is by contrast. “There are many writers I know who get up every morning, who drink either their espresso like I do or maybe something more innocuous, and sit down at their desks and they’re not getting up until they’ve put down a few pages, but I’m very different,” he says. “I write only when I feel ready to write…and sometimes I’m not able to sit down and start writing for upwards of a month, two months, three months after I have that impulse to sit down and write.”

There are pressing issues in life that often divert writers’ attention from their work, Soyinka says.

“Before one is a writer, one is a human being, one is a citizen. But when I finally get down to writing I try to take revenge for the periods of deprivation.”


In order to begin to understand Soyinka’s art, one must be familiar with the cultural and political environments of which he is a product.

Soyinka was born in 1934 at Abeokuta near Ibadan in the western part of Nigeria. At that time, the country was still a British colony and Soyinka was raised in an Anglican mission compound.

Although he received a Western education and writes in English, Soyinka was exposed to the rituals and beliefs of the Yoruba people by his paternal grandfather and his writings are firmly anchored in his ethnic heritage.

At age 11, Soyinka joined the protest movement to free Nigeria from British rule. Ever since that moment when Soyinka was first introduced to demonstration as a political tool, he has tirelessly campaigned for the spread of human rights and democracy throughout Africa.

In addition to challenging Abacha, whom Soyinka calls a “murderer with other nasty habits,” he fought to overthrow Idi Amin, Uganda’s cruel military dictator, and this past May he participated in a rally demanding the resignation of Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose re-election is said to have been tainted by vote fraud.

Soyinka’s activism has resulted more than once in his arrest and imprisonment. After the outbreak of civil war in Nigeria in 1967, Soyinka tried to negotiate a cease-fire with the Ibo secessionists. The government accused him of conspiring with the rebels and detained him, without trial, at the notorious Kaduna prison in northern Nigeria where he spent two years in solitary confinement.

He wrote extensively—mostly with homemade ink on toilet paper—during his incarceration. The opening stanza of “Live Burial,” one of several poems composed during that period and later published in his book A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), provides a vivid glimpse into his consciousness:

Sixteen paces

By twenty-three. They hold

Siege against humanity

And Truth

Employing time to drill through to

his sanity

That same year, he would also publish a prose work, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972), which the Swedish Academy called “a literary work of the first rank.”

If Soyinka still feels bitter about his extrajudicial imprisonment, he does not show it. In fact, he reflects on those two years with astonishing forbearance. He proudly reveals that the official who held him in prison is now a close friend of his. “You find that those who carry out orders are sometimes far more assiduous than the person at the top,” he explains.

He does not exaggerate the emotional toll that those 24 months had on him, nor does he inflate the significance of his personal experiences in the context of Nigeria’s struggles.

“I lost so many colleagues and friends during that period and I could have perished,” he says. “It was not a pleasant experience to be placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years, without books. But you look back and you look at other things which have happened within the nation, what you underwent just fades into insignificance.”

Soyinka says he opposed the civil war in Nigeria because he held certain convictions about how a government should treat its people.

For fearlessly defending his principles, Gates wrote in an August New York Times op-ed, Soyinka has “gained the reputation as the conscience of Nigeria.”

After his release from prison in 1970, Soyinka fled Nigeria. “I just needed a break from the environment,” he says. Over the next 20 years, he would spend time in and out of the country, teaching drama and literature at universities and writing, all the while remaining active in numerous political and civic organizations.

During a stint as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge from 1973-1974, Soyinka encountered a recent Yale graduate with “an adventurous mind,” and the two would form a close friendship.


Gates, who was pre-med and pre-law in college, traveled to England in 1973 on a Mellon Fellowship, hoping to find some direction at Cambridge.

Gates says Soyinka was the first person who told him he could be a scholar and critic of African literature.

“I had studied history at Yale, and I went to Cambridge and started all over,” Gates says. “He was my usher into this new world of literary studies.”

If it wasn’t for Soyinka’s influence, Gates says he wouldn’t be a professor today.

“He just was so dynamic, he made me fall in love with African literature,” Gates says. “I mean, he really opened up the wonders of African literature to me. He really encouraged me.”

Soyinka published one of the essays Gates wrote for his supervision—the equivalent of a tutorial at Harvard—in the journal Transition, of which he was chief editor.

“I was 23 years old,” Gates recalls. “Once I saw that publication, it was a long essay on the Harlem Renaissance, I was launched on my way to being a literary scholar, so I owe him quite a lot.”

Gates says he is very familiar with everything Soyinka has written. “I’m a Soyinka scholar,” he says. “It’s one of my passionate intellectual areas.” He calls Death and the King’s Horseman “as great a play as any ever written” and says it will continue to be read 1000 years from now alongside Hamlet and other classics.

“He wrote it while I was his student,” Gates recalls. “I was invited as a student to hear a reading of it by a group of actors from London who came up to Cambridge. It was just me and another student who were in the audience, as it were. So I feel very much a part of that play because I was there while it was being written.”

There is no doubt in Gates’ mind that Soyinka deserved to be the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Being with Soyinka is a bit like I imagine having had the privilege of being with Shakespeare four centuries ago,” Gates says. “After all, as many Africans point out, they have the same initials.”

He adds, “He’s one of my best friends. He’s my older daughter’s godfather, and he’s very, very dear to me.”

Gates says Soyinka will give one or two public lectures in the spring “so that the members of the broader community can have access to him.”

When asked what the topics of the lectures will be, Soyinka says, “I’m rather spontaneous about things like that. All I can guarantee you is that it won’t be during the intensest period of winter.”

“Don’t bother to look for me when winter descends,” he says with a laugh. “Don’t even look for me.”

—Staff writer Andrew C. Esensten can be reached at

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