Exiled Nigerian playwright, activist, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka '96H finds sanctuary at Emory

By John D. Thomas

"Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress the truth."--Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka

In November 1994, a crescendo of dangerous and dramatic events indicated that it was finally time for Wole Soyinka to flee his native Nigeria. The totalitarian regime in power had confiscated his passport, and nearly two hundred armed police recently had prevented the launching of a new book about the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. Surveillance of the author intensified, and anyone who dared sell his work or biographical materials about him was being persecuted by the authorities. Only a few days before Soyinka would slip out of the country, the Nigerian Union of Journalists received a letter from the police warning that if his name were not removed from a list of speakers at an upcoming conference, the event would be canceled.

In his most recent book, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Soyinka describes his exit as "my 'Rambo' departure from the Nigerian nation space." Now living in exile, Soyinka recently left Harvard University to become the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts at Emory. Sitting in his small, bright office that overlooks the Quadrangle from the second floor of Candler Library, he reflected on his final flight from Nigeria.

"It entailed about eighteen hours of continuous movement through unorthodox routes in a very inconvenient and uncomfortable contraption," he says in his elegant, sonorous baritone. "I should have made the journey at least two months before, but we decided to wait until the last possible moment, until there was no doubt at all in our minds about what the junta had in store for me."

Soyinka believes he would be either dead or in prison had he stayed. "No question at all in my mind," he says without the slightest hesitation.

Soyinka is regarded by many as Africa's greatest writer and one of the world's most important dramatists. In a recent lecture, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. described him as "a master of the verbal arts. . . . He bears a relation to the poetics of Africa akin to that which Shakespeare bore to England."

The Nobel laureate's arrival on campus has met with universal acclaim. President William M. Chace says Soyinka's time here "has made present to our students one of the great dramatic imaginations of the twentieth century."

Theater Emory Artistic Director Vincent Murphy says having Soyinka on campus "is like Christopher Columbus arriving at Emory. I've always thought artists need to be people who went off to discover and then reported back. We suddenly have one of the great adventurers and discoverers of the twentieth century here on campus. He's very much like Vaclav Havel in Eastern Europe. He's one of those statesmen-artists who clears away the distress of history and forces us both aesthetically and morally to come to terms with what we believe the twenty-first century should be."

Rudolph Byrd, former director of the Program of African American Studies, believes Soyinka's impact at Emory goes beyond his role as a teacher and theatrical mentor. "Above all, it signals a commitment the University has to certain political and moral beliefs," says Byrd, who first met Soyinka as a graduate student at Yale University about a decade ago. "I think it is splendid that we are using our resources to support an intellectual who is both a symbol of African literature as well as a symbol of African resistance. He could easily have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature."

After serving for a semester last spring as Distinguished Visiting Professor in African American Studies, Soyinka joined the faculty in the fall of 1996, becoming only the second Nobel laureate to teach at Emory. (The first was South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.) Soyinka will teach in the fall and focus on personal writing and dramatic projects during the rest of the year. At Emory, he will lecture in various disciplines, including art history, drama, and political science, as well as collaborate with Theater Emory. Last year, he directed a staged reading of his play 1994, a satire on political correctness, in conjunction with Theater Emory.

Soyinka, who was awarded an honorary doctor of letters from Emory in 1996 and who is an artistic consultant to the National Black Arts Festival, says flexibility and climate were two qualities that attracted him to Emory. "My movement and my commitment to the cause [in Nigeria] is such that I cannot teach classes on a regular basis," he explains. "And I need one semester entirely to myself, so the arrangement suits me perfectly.

And finally, it's warmer here than at Harvard."


Wole Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, Western Nigeria, and lived with his family in the Aké quarter of the city. At that time, his homeland was still a British dependency. His father was the headmaster of an Anglican primary school, and his mother, whose nickname was "Wild Christian," was a shop owner and teacher. In 1981, Soyinka published Aké, a memoir about his youth, which James Olney of the New York Times described as "a classic of childhood memoirs wherever and whenever produced."

A precocious, intellectually omnivorous child, Soyinka sated his hunger for knowledge at his home, which he describes in the book as "the intellectual watering-hole of Aké and its environs." His memoir is filled with the poignant, often hilarious misadventures of a hyperenergetic young boy, but toward the end the narrative takes a decidedly intense turn. Soyinka becomes involved in and inspired by both Nigeria's fight for independence and the revolt against a tax on women that his mother leads. In Aké, Soyinka writes, "I sensed the beginning of an unusual event and was gripped by the excitement."

The author admits that his lifelong political activism has its roots in his childhood. He describes the tax revolt as "the earliest event I remember in which I was really caught up in a wave of activism and understood the principles involved. Young as I was, it all took place around me, discussions took place around me, and I knew what forces were involved. But even before [the tax revolt], I'd listened to elders talking, and I used to read the newspapers on my father's desk. This was a period of anti-colonial fervor, so the entire anti-colonial training was something I imbibed quite early, even before the women's movement."

After studying Greek, English, and history at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria from 1952 to 1954, Soyinka traveled to England to attend the University of Leeds. There he was a member of the school's Theatre Group and earned his bachelor's degree with honors in 1957.

Following graduation, Soyinka worked as a play reader for London's Royal Court Theatre, where he was also able to direct some of his early plays. In 1960, he returned to Nigeria to study West African drama at the University of Ibadan. The following year, Soyinka wrote a number of radio plays until the government quashed his efforts for being overly critical.

Four years later, Soyinka would once again run afoul of the government. After being wrongly accused of conspiring to broadcast false election results on the radio, he was arrested. A protest of his imprisonment was organized by an international group of writers, including Norman Mailer and William Styron, and he was freed three months later.

In 1967, at the beginning of the Nigerian civil war, he was unjustly accused of assisting rebels in the breakaway republic of Biafra to purchase jet fighters. Soyinka was arrested but never formally charged and spent most of the next twenty-seven months in solitary confinement in a cell that measured only four feet by eight feet.

During his imprisonment, Soyinka surreptitiously composed on discarded cigarette packages, toilet paper, and between the lines of books he secretly managed to acquire. Many of those scribblings were later compiled in his 1972 book, The Man Died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. Gerald Weales of the New York Times wrote that "A few of the notes in this book are among the best things that Soyinka has done." However, the journalist asserted that "the real subject matter of the book [is] the author's attempt to survive as a man, as a mind."

Soyinka readily admits that being able to write while in prison was essential for his survival. "It was crucial," he says. "That saved my sanity, just to be able to scribble some things from time to time. And I think that would be true of most writers."

In October 1969, Soyinka was released from prison and became chair of the Department of Theater Arts at the University of Ibadan. His tenure would not last long­the following year he left Nigeria and went into voluntary exile in Europe for the next five years. During that time, he served as editor of Transition, Africa's leading intellectual journal.

In 1975, Soyinka traveled back to Nigeria and the following year became a professor of English at the University of Ife. During the 1970s and throughout the next decade, he was a force in local and national politics in his homeland and also served as a visiting professor at numerous universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Cambridge.

In 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African to be so honored. The Swedish Academy described him as "one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English." Reporting on Soyinka's award, Los Angeles Times critic Stanley Meisler wrote, "His drama and fiction have challenged the West to broaden its aesthetic and accept African standards of art and literature."

Ironically, Soyinka says winning a Nobel Prize was something of a mixed blessing for him. "A lot of people find this difficult to believe, but for me it was just another prize, only bigger and more demanding on me in terms of what you give back, because everybody wants something as a result of that prize. It has such a prestige and such a hold on people's imagination in all corners and on all levels that you become the property of the world. I don't regret it, don't misunderstand me, but it is a mixed blessing."

Even though he received the award more than a decade ago, Soyinka says the demands on his time have not let up in the slightest. "They never do," he says. "I met Garcia Marquez in Cuba shortly after my prize, and he looked at me very sympathetically and asked me how I was coping. And I said, 'I'll survive. I've made up my mind that I have to undergo it and be quite stoical. Fortunately, the year is nearly over, a new beauty queen will be anointed, and I can go rest.' And he laughed and said, 'It never ends, my brother.' And he was right, it never ends."

Soyinka's most recent book, The Open Sore of a Continent, is an impassioned examination of the current political unrest in his homeland and was named one of the twenty-five best books of 1996 by The Village Voice. Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, critic Steven G. Kellman commented that "in English prose that is at once sumptuous and blunt, Soyinka broods over the combination of avarice, venality, intolerance and cruelty that threatens the virtual collapse of civic society in Nigeria."

In The Open Sore, Soyinka's ire is focused like a laser on one day-June 23, 1993-and on one man-Nigeria's current brutal military dictator, General Sani Abacha. It was on that date that the nation's free and fair elections, held about two weeks earlier, were annulled, and the victor, Moshood Abiola, was imprisoned, where he remains to this day.

"Under a dictatorship, a nation ceases to exist," Soyinka rails in The Open Sore. "All that remains is a fiefdom, a planet of slaves regimented by aliens from outer space."

Soyinka says that on the surface the situation in Nigeria appears quite bleak, but that hope may be brewing underground. "The opposition is very much on the run, the leadership has been decapitated by imprisonment, and the rest have been forced into exile," he explains. "So overtly, there appears to be no real opposition to Abacha, but in fact what has happened is that the opposition has been driven underground and is quietly mobilizing. But the odds are very high, and we have easily the most ruthless, unconscionable dictator we have ever known in Nigeria."

But when times are at their worst, Soyinka says, the successful defeat of apartheid in South Africa serves as an inspiring example to his people. "It was a triumph of the human will and a triumph of racial will for black peoples all over the world. If anything, it is a challenge to Nigeria. Compared to the gap between the self-imposed ruling caste in Nigeria and the populous, the gap between the white minority and the blacks in South Africa is a difference of several light years."

Rudolph Byrd believes Soyinka will return to Nigeria and become its president once the current conflict in Nigeria is resolved. "I suspect that when Abacha falls into the pit from which he came, Wole will return to Nigeria," he says. "And given the fact that he is a person of conscience, he would want to be there to move his country towards a democratic resolution of its deeply complex problems."

Soyinka says he would certainly never seek to be president of Nigeria, but he would accept the challenge on a very limited basis. "If it were a crisis which required a kind of temporary role, understood that it would be very temporary, it's possible that I might consider it," he says.

"But not as a regular structured thing for four or five years. You can forget that. Me, I don't want any such prediction to come true. I just hope that we can win this battle, and I can settle down to a normal life of writing and directing and spasmodic teaching here and there. That's what I want."

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