Authors: Wole Soyinka

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Nigerian playwright, poet, and activist

July 13, 1934

Abeokuta, Nigeria

Biography

One of Africa’s most important writers, Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka (shoy-IHNG-kuh) became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986. His extraordinary work exemplifies his vision as a Yoruba, an African, and a world citizen. His knowledge of oral and written literature is a fusion of his traditional Yoruba and his Western and world literary heritage. He was born of mixed Ijebu and Egba parentage in western Nigeria. His father was a catechist elementary school principal; his mother, a businesswoman, provided the stimulating home environment that Soyinka describes in Aké. Both of his parents were Christians, and on both sides of the family were three generations of distinguished relatives. He attended St. Peter’s School, Abeokuta Grammar School, and, later, Ibadan Government College forty-five miles away. Although he was not permitted to be initiated into manhood in the traditional Yoruba manner until after years of family discussions with Isara relatives, he overheard relatives speak of òrò uncles as well as British rule; in his youth Soyinka also observed the rise of the women’s movement begun by his mother and women friends to help inform illiterate young women about children, family, health, and business. When yet another market tax was imposed, the women marched on the Alake until the District Officer secured a withdrawal of the tax. Early observation of leadership by family women enabled Soyinka to portray women with independence, whether urban professionals and businesswomen or village traditionalists. The importance of the earth or fertility is central to Soyinka’s cyclical view of the past, present, and future, wherein those living are in touch with ancestors and are the vehicles for spirits to be reborn, ensuring the future.

From 1954 to 1957 Soyinka studied English literature at Leeds University in West Yorkshire, England, where he earned a BA. Soyinka began his drama career as a play reader at London’s Royal Court Theatre, 1957 to 1959. In 1958 he married Barbara Dickson, and that same year he produced his first play, The Swamp Dwellers, at the London Students’ Drama Festival. During these years he also taught, wrote, acted, and finally directed for the Royal Court Theatre, which, in 1959, produced his first play about South Africa, The Invention, and then the comedy The Lion and the Jewel (which was also performed in Lagos with The Swamp Dwellers, which is considered one of his most important works). In 1960 Soyinka formed the Masks drama group in Lagos and traveled widely in Nigeria on a Rockefeller grant before writing the commissioned play A Dance of the Forests; he also wrote Madmen and Specialists for Nigerian Independence Day on October 1.

Wole Soyinka

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By Chidi Anthony Opara [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nearly every year for more than two decades, Soyinka prodigiously produced poetry, drama, prose, and criticism, each work always showing a clear moral pattern. All works in each genre have proved to be significant. His views have ranged from traditional (The Strong Breed; Idanre, and Other Poems; Ogun Abibiman; The Road; and A Dance of the Forests) to colonial (The Interpreters and Death and the King’s Horseman) to postcolonial (“October Poems” in Idanre, and Other Poems; Madmen and Specialists; A Shuttle in the Crypt; and Season of Anomy) to international (Opera Wonyosi, Ogun Abibiman, and A Play of Giants) to pro-black diaspora (Ogun Abibiman; Myth, Literature, and the African World; and most of his literary criticism). His plays have been produced worldwide, and he has lectured on campuses in Nigeria, Europe, and the United States. Always he has spoken out against apartheid and affirmed African life; for Soyinka, to write is to be both political and religious as part of the African character. To be an artist, and to perform dramatically and verbally, is to be like Ogun, whom Soyinka considers the most admirable god in the Yoruba pantheon. He chose to emulate Ogun because to act physically, which includes speech, is to cross the abyss of transition between the visible and invisible worlds. Each of Soyinka’s works, as he explains in Myth, Literature, and the African World, reflects his devotion to Ogun.

Soyinka’s The Man Died, the autobiography in which he recounts his treatment in isolation during the Nigerian Civil War, stridently criticizes the atrocities he witnessed during that time. Denunciation of leaders who abuse their power runs throughout Soyinka’s canon, from The Swamp Dwellers through Season of Anomy and beyond: The purpose of art is as much a moral one, to denounce the perpetrators of oppression, as it is a celebratory one in service of the Dionysian qualities embodied in Ogun.

After the mid-1960s Soyinka’s writing was often attacked by anti-democracy Nigerian political leaders. In October 1965, he was arrested in connection with a pirate radio broadcast protesting a rigged election; he was acquitted two months later. Two years later he was arrested for campaigning against the Nigerian Civil War and spent two years in prison. Fighting against censorship of pro-democratic literature, he became secretary-general of the Union of Writers of African Peoples in 1975. In 1979 he joined the People’s Redemption Party (which collapsed soon afterward). During a more favorable political climate he was awarded the Order of Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in conjunction with his 1986 Nobel Prize. However, after the militarist government annulled an election in June 1993, Soyinka again found himself the target of government suppression. In November 1994, fearing arrest, he fled Nigeria after the government raided his office, banned two books about him, and seized his passport. He began living in exile, traveling mainly between London and the United States. In December 1994, he asked the United States government to impose sanctions against the military government in Nigeria for civil rights violations. Because of his strident support of democracy, Soyinka has been called “the conscience of Nigeria.”

Three plays that Soyinka wrote during the 1990s—From Zia, with Love; A Scourge of Hyacinths; and The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope—were his responses to the military dictators and irresponsible governments of Nigeria. For his critical portrayals, Soyinka paid an additional four years (1993 to 1998) of self-imposed exile. During that period, he taught and traveled in the United States and England. Both From Zia, with Love and A Scourge of Hyacinths were originally written as radio plays. Each grew out of real situations. Whether parodying the dictatorship of General Sani Abachu by comparing life under him to living in a prison in From Zia, with Love or likening the destruction of civil liberties to an invasion of water hyacinths in A Scourge of Hyacinths, Soyinka used his position as a world-respected writer to protest and was charged with treason for his efforts. In 2014, he received the International Humanist Award for promoting universal freedom of expression and denouncing extremism and fundamentalism.

Author Works Drama The Swamp Dwellers, pr. 1958 The Invention, pr. 1959 (one act) The Lion and the Jewel, pr. 1959 A Dance of the Forests, pr. 1960 The Trials of Brother Jero, pr. 1960 The Strong Breed, pb. 1963 Three Plays, pb. 1963 Five Plays, pb. 1964 Kongi’s Harvest, pr. 1964 The Road, pr., pb. 1965 Madmen and Specialists, pr. 1970, revised pr., pb. 1971 The Bacchae, pr., pb. 1973 (adaptation of Euripides’ play) Jero’s Metamorphosis, pb. 1973 Collected Plays, pb. 1973-1974 (2 volumes) Death and the King’s Horseman, pb. 1975 Opera Wonyosi, pr. 1977 (adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Three-Penny Opera) Requiem for a Futurologist, pr. 1983 A Play of Giants, pr., pb. 1984 Six Plays, pb. 1984 From Zia, with Love, pr., pb. 1992 The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope, pb. 1995 Plays: Two, pb. 1999 King Baabu: A Play in the Manner—Roughly—of Alfred Jarry, pb. 2002 Long Fiction The Interpreters, 1965 Season of Anomy, 1973 Poetry Idanre, and Other Poems, 1967 Poems from Prison, 1969 A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972 Ogun Abibiman, 1976 Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems, 1988 Early Poems, 1997 Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, 2002 Radio Plays Camwood on the Leaves, pr. 1960 A Scourge of Hyacinths, pr. 1990, pb. 1992 Nonfiction “The Man Died”: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, 1972 (autobiography) Myth, Literature, and the African World, 1976 Aké: The Years of Childhood, 1981 (autobiography) Art, Dialogue, and Outrage, 1988 Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay,” 1989 The Credo of Being and Nothingness, 1991 Wole Soyinka on “Identity,” 1992 Orisha Liberated the Mind: Wole Soyinka in Conversation with Ulli Beier on Yoruba Religion, 1992 “Death and the Kings’ Horseman”: A Conversation Between Wole Soyinka and Ulli Beier, 1993 Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946-1965, 1994 The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, 1996 The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness, 1999 Seven Signposts of Existence: Knowledge, Honour, Justice, and Other Virtues, 1999 Conversations with Wole Soyinka, 2001 (Biodun Jeyifo, editor) Salutation to the Gut, 2002 The Climate of Fear: The Reith Lectures, 2004 You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, 2006 Translation Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, 1968 (of D. O. Fagunwa’s novel Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale) Bibliography Adelugba, Dapo, ed. Before Our Very Eyes: Tribute to Wole Soyinka. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum, 1987. Collection of sixteen essays divided into two parts. The first part consists of ten personal tributes, and the second of six analytical essays. Brian Crow’s essay on Soyinka’s romanticism is particularly useful. Coger, Greta M. K. Index of Subjects, Proverbs, and Themes in the Writings of Wole Soyinka. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A valuable key to references and allusions in much of Soyinka’s work. The introduction is particularly useful for its brief discussion of connections between works, for its descriptions of topics of interest to Soyinka, and for its commentary on Soyinka’s use of Yoruba proverbs and rituals. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. In the House of Oshugbo: Critical Essays on Wole Soyinka. London: Oxford University Press, 2002. Large collection of essays that includes analyses of individual plays, biographical information, comparative studies involving contemporary writers such as Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, and discussions of literary theory, the art of writing, and Yoruba culture. Gibbs, James. Wole Soyinka. London: Macmillan, 1986. Part of the Macmillan Modern Dramatists series, this is a very detailed source that follows Soyinka’s career from his earliest plays. Contains some good biographical information, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index. Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Contains introductory essays by Bernth Lindfors and Abiola Irele; fifteen essays on individual plays and such subjects as popular theater, tragedy, Third World drama, and dramatic theory. Other essays cover Soyinka’s poetry and prose. Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Conversations with Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. The first book to feature recorded interviews of Soyinka. Interviewers include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Anthony Appiah, and Biodun Jeyifo. These interviews help clarify obscure aspects of Soyinka’s most difficult plays. Jeyifo, Biodun, ed. Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. This collection of critical essays covers three decades. Its major contribution is its analysis of Soyinka’s work using several schools of critical theory, from feminism to recuperated phenomenology. Also discussed are his postcolonial politics and aestheticism. Jones, Eldred Durosimi. The Writing of Wole Soyinka. Rev. ed. London: Heinemann, 1988. For years, the standard general introduction to Soyinka’s work and still a useful resource. Contains lucid analysis of all the major works and helpful information about Soyinka’s background. Lindfors, Bernth, and James Gibbs, eds. Research on Wole Soyinka. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992. Essays representing a wide variety of critical methodologies applied to Soyinka’s works, including linguistics and structural, textual, and cultural interpretations. Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing. New York: Garland, 1986. A helpful, critical study designed to clarify difficult aspects of Soyinka’s works. Its four parts include “The Poems,” “Fictional and Autobiographical Prose,” “Five Metaphysical Plays,” and “The Literary Essays.” Maja-Pearce, Adewale. Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1994. This book is a collection of essays primarily by African writers. Topics include Soyinka’s fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as the African culture from which he writes. His Nobel lecture is the lead entry. An interview with Soyinka is also presented. Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka. 2d ed. London: Evans Brothers, 1978. This expanded new edition of Moore’s chronological study devotes most of its pages to the plays. It begins with a biographical introduction that helps explain “the foundations of Soyinka’s dramatic career.” “Early Work in the Theatre,” “A Dance in the Forests,” and “The Tragedies” treat the plays before Soyinka’s imprisonment, and later chapters look at postwar plays through Death and the King’s Horseman. Okome, Onookome. Ogun’s Children: The Literature and Politics of Wole Soyinka Since the Nobel Prize. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002. An analysis of Soyinka that focuses on his work since receiving the Nobel Prize. Wright, Derek. Wole Soyinka Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. This introductory study of Soyinka includes critical studies of his works, biographical information, and a chronology of his life and works.

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