Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

When Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he called the honor a tribute to all African writers.

Summary of Event

When a reporter in Paris informed Wole Soyinka that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka replied that he did not consider the award his alone but rather an honor bestowed on Africa itself: “I’m a part of the whole literary tradition of Africa. The prize is for all my colleagues who are just as qualified to win it as I. I see myself as part of their collective reality.” Nobel Prize in Literature;Wole Soyinka[Soyinka]
[kw]Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1986)
[kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka Receives the (Dec. 10, 1986)
[kw]Prize in Literature, Soyinka Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1986)
[kw]Literature, Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1986)
Nobel Prize in Literature;Wole Soyinka[Soyinka]
[g]Africa;Dec. 10, 1986: Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[06270]
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1986: Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[06270]
[g]Nigeria;Dec. 10, 1986: Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[06270]
[g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1986: Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[06270]
[c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1986: Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[06270]
Soyinka, Wole
Sjostrand, Osten

An uninformed observer might think such self-proclaimed selflessness a pose, but an examination of Soyinka’s career reveals that the remarks accurately reflect the way he has lived his life. Born in Nigeria, Soyinka was educated in Ibadan, Nigeria, and at Leeds University in England. After spending several years in London writing and working with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and in the theater, he returned to Nigeria in 1960, the year that country gained independence from Great Britain. There, amid the euphoria of independence, he plunged into the theatrical and political life of Nigeria.

Soyinka wrote for the stage, television, and radio and helped to found a theater company in which he acted and directed. His involvement, however, was not purely literary in nature; he set out to use art to work against racism and oppression. He also joined a human rights organization and spoke out on the critical issues that were facing the new nation of Nigeria. Nigeria;human rights abuses From the outset, Soyinka had little use for those black leaders he described as stepping “fast into the shoes of the departing whites” to gain wealth and to satisfy their lust for power.

By 1965, Soyinka had fallen afoul of the Nigerian government, and he was charged with stealing from a radio station tapes supposedly protesting a rigged election. He was tried on this charge and acquitted, but he was arrested again in August of 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War. As a result of his attempts to bring about a cease-fire with the rebels who had created the state of Biafra within Nigeria, he was charged with conspiracy and jailed for nearly two years.

While in prison, Soyinka continued to write; Poems from Prison
Poems from Prison (Soyinka) (1969) and “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka
“Man Died, The” (Soyinka)[Man Died, The] (1972) reflect his time in jail. Recalling this experience, he said, “Whatever I believed in before I was locked up, I came out a fanatic in those things.” In the years after his imprisonment, Soyinka lived on the larger international stage, establishing himself as a playwright—his work has been staged in London and New York—and gaining praise for his poetry, fiction, essays, and autobiographical writing. Considering himself “a man of the theater,” he often directs or oversees productions of his own plays—sometimes in prestigious theaters, other times with obscure companies sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). When he received the Nobel Prize, he was serving as president of UNESCO’s International Theater Institute and working with a company from Martinique.

Wole Soyinka.

(The Nobel Foundation)

In spite of his worldwide acclaim, it was to Nigeria that Soyinka went immediately following the Nobel announcement, in order to celebrate and to share the honor with his African colleagues. Shortly after he arrived in the capital city of Lagos, an investigative journalist there was killed by a letter bomb. Soyinka immediately made use of his increased stature as a Nobel laureate to call for the government to conduct a thorough investigation of the murder. As one critic has noted, Soyinka “often works in comparative obscurity in the theater and uses his renown to work for justice.”

On a practical level, then, Soyinka has worked to fulfill one criterion that Alfred Nobel set for the prizes established in his name: to confer “the greatest benefit on mankind.” Soyinka’s writings have also conferred such benefit. Most critics of Soyinka’s work consider his twenty or so plays his outstanding achievement, even though they do not disregard his considerable accomplishment in other genres. The Nobel citation speaks of how Soyinka “in a wide cultural perspective and with poetical overtones fashions the drama of existence.”

One significant aspect of Soyinka’s dramatic writing lies in the way it melds the author’s African inheritance—specifically the rich mythology of his Yoruba tribal background—with the Western tradition in which he was educated. A poetic drama such as Death and the King’s Horseman
Death and the King’s Horseman (Soyinka) (pb. 1975) has about it the cadence of Shakespearean verse and the structural purity of Greek drama, but the play is a hybrid at the same time; the story is based on Yoruba tribal mythology, and the overall effect suggests an ancient African ritual. While never denying Soyinka’s Africanness, critics have often noted the impact on his work of Western writers, ranging from Euripides, whose The Bacchae he adapted and subtitled A Communion Rite (pr., pb. 1973), to John Gay and Bertolt Brecht, whose techniques figure in Opera Wonyosi
Opera Wonyosi (Soyinka) (pr. 1977).

It might be said that Soyinka’s vision has its roots in the process of reconciliation: On a day-to-day level, Soyinka has worked to bring together, in equality, all peoples; on an artistic level, he has melded the literary traditions of his dual inheritance into a work marked by striking originality.


Recalling Soyinka’s experiences with the Nigerian rulers in the 1960’s, reporters asked him if he thought his receipt of the Nobel Prize twenty years later might make life easier for those writers still persecuted by their governments. Soyinka’s response was not encouraging: “Writers have lost their lives and are in prison because they have refused to compromise. I don’t believe the prize will increase awareness of their plight.” Unjust treatment of uncompromising artists has been common in postcolonial Africa, and it was probably foolhardy for anyone to suggest that a literary prize, no matter how distinguished, would make much difference.

The broader impact of Soyinka’s award, then, may be a more symbolic one: It helps to validate African literature. Africa;literature When questioned on this point, however, Soyinka noted, “African literature is a concept, and I don’t know how you influence a concept.” It is understandable that Soyinka would question the accuracy of the term “African literature” and its application to the vast field it allegedly describes. The writing of Africa comes from a continent divided into a multitude of nations and peoples who vary in cultural heritage, religion, social customs, and historical experience. African authors use a number of languages, both native and European—English, French, and Portuguese. Although some might think that African literature originated when the colonizers introduced their languages or created alphabets for the native languages, such a view ignores centuries of oral literature. This form still flourishes among a sizable part of the African population and plays an important role in religious ceremonies. Oral literature also strongly influences African written forms, whether in native or European languages.

As African nationalism has seeped into the arts, some critics have insisted that works written in English are not African at all. Soyinka himself has observed that it is ironic that a colonial language should bring linguistic cohesion to Nigeria. Some critics, however, go further than admitting and accepting the irony and call for a “decolonization” of African literature. Soyinka has been one of the main targets of such criticism; some have questioned his dual relationship with Africa and the West and accused him of pandering to overseas readers, of being a “colonial lackey,” and of writing “tourist literature.”

This matter of language continues to cause debate among both writers and critics, as does the issue of the place of publication of African writers’ works. Prior to receiving the Nobel Prize, Soyinka, like many prominent African authors, published his work for the most part through London publishers whose editions were imported into Africa. After 1986, he reversed that practice, and his writing began to appear first in Nigeria. Soyinka continues to write in English, however—except for his poetry, which he composes in Yoruba and then renders into English. Some Africans, therefore, viewed Soyinka’s Nobel award as just another form of colonization. That is an extreme stance, however. Many others do not enter into arguments regarding what African literature is or should be; rather, they simply take pride that an African has been recognized for his outstanding achievement, no matter what language he used.

Despite the difficulty of defining the concept of African literature, the prestige the Nobel Prize carries cannot help but affect this concept positively. At the same time, African literature in English belongs to a larger body of writing that has emerged from the old British Commonwealth, including an impressive array of fiction, poetry, and drama from regions such as India, the West Indies, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan. Long relegated to the sidelines as a minor appendage to British literature, this writing began to come into its own in the last decades of the twentieth century. Nobel Prize in Literature;Wole Soyinka[Soyinka]

Further Reading

  • Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 3 (1988). Special issue devoted to Soyinka contains a variety of articles covering international responses to the Nobel Prize and Soyinka’s Swedish reception, along with essays on Soyinka’s sense of national responsibility and use of ritual and satire. Valuable source for specific discussions of various aspects of Soyinka’s writing and career.
  • Gibbs, James. “’Marrying Earth to Heaven’: A Nobel Laureate at the End of the Eighties.” In International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, edited by Robert Ross. New York: Garland, 1991. Includes a biographical sketch, an essay, a primary bibliography, and an annotated secondary bibliography. Essay focuses on how Soyinka has tried always to marry his social concerns to his writing and examines the significance of the Nobel Prize in Soyinka’s career. Presents an excellent discussion of Soyinka’s poetic technique.
  • _______, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Collection includes an overview of Soyinka’s work along with essays by international critics focusing specifically on his poetry, drama, and fiction. Excellent introductory resource. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Collection of interviews with Soyinka conducted by various scholars and journalists. Sheds light on Soyinka’s own views on his work and life. Includes index.
  • _______. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Collection of critical essays examines all aspects of Soyinka’s work. Contributors include such well-known critics and authors as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Includes index.
  • Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. 2d ed. London: Heinemann, 1983. Provides a comprehensive introduction to Soyinka’s dramatic, fictional, autobiographical, and poetic work, examining theme and technique. Attempts to show the development of Soyinka’s art over the years. Includes extensive secondary bibliography.
  • Katrak, Ketu H. Wole Soyinka and Modern Tragedy: A Study of Dramatic Theory and Practice. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Advanced scholarly work focuses specifically on Soyinka’s dramatic writing and offers intelligent discussion of the work in the light of dramatic theory, incorporating both Soyinka’s views and those of others.
  • Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. New York: Garland, 1987. Introductory work provides a guide to Soyinka’s writings in all genres. Offers an informative discussion of Soyinka’s critical and theoretical writing about literature. Includes extensive secondary bibliography.
  • Olney, James. “Wole Soyinka’s Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young Man.” Southern Review 23 (1987): 527-540. Focuses on Soyinka’s Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), an autobiographical account of his first eleven years. The issue in which the article appears also includes poetry by Soyinka and other essays on aspects of his work.

Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Ōe Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature