Background: The Early Years Professor Soyinka, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you very much.
Looking back on the life of little Wole in your masterpiece, Ake: the Years of Childhood, what values did he develop that were most important for the adult Soyinka?
I strongly suspect self-confidence, and I wonder if that was such a good thing because it's got the adult Wole into so many corners. I think that feeling that if one believed absolutely in any cause, then one must have the confidence, the self-certainty, to go through with that particular course of action.
Where does the ability to master words come from?
I suspect that probably comes from a long family of word-spinners. And by that I mean the extended family, family in the sense in which ours was a large one. I was constantly surrounded, I recall, by aunts, uncles, my father's intellectual companions, all of them raconteurs of some sort or the other. They recounted episodes involving themselves, battles, conflicts. I grew up in an atmosphere where words were an integral part of culture.
And what was a contribution of your mother?
Oh, unquestionably she was ... I call her the Wild Christian. She was full of stories also, of a more religious kind, I suppose. But then she also grew up in an atmosphere of these rather gray divisions between, shall we say, the world of the living and the supernatural world. So she also had her own stories to tell.
In the book there is a facility between this world partly of your mother, and the world that the colonizer brought, the world of clerics and bishops and canons and so on. There is a remarkable sense of navigating between these worlds. What accounts for that?
Well, it's as we found it. Take for instance the Canon, the Christian prelate who presided over the bishopric, the parsonage. Now where did he live? In this beautiful, very impressive white house, which, however, backed the rock hills and some woods which were supposed to be the habitation of certain denizens of the woods. So that the forest should meet Christian urbanism was the most natural thing in the world. And I think that there were narratives in which the priest himself had to confront, shall we say, the equivalent of what you might call the goblins of the woods. And he had to bring his own Christian powers and negotiate a kind of existence with them. This was a very common phenomenon of my childhood.
What was the contribution of the Yoruba culture of your ancestors?
Well, I was thoroughly surrounded and immersed in aspects of the Yoruba culture. Even the Christians understood that they had to come to terms with what they called "pagan" cultures. For instance, to win over adherents, one grand-uncle of mine found that his best bet was to set Christian lyrics to traditional pagan tunes. That way the sense of estrangement was not very heavy, not too distanced. In addition, you had the ancestral masquerades constantly parading the streets of Abeokuta, passing in front of the church. And I asked for their significance, what was their meaning? What did they do? I was very curious. And if you recollect from Ake, I even grew to superimpose the masquerades, the masks themselves, to identify them with the figures of the saints of the stained glass window of the church. So there was this fusion, constantly, of images. And I found no contradiction between them.
The book is the memories of a child, written by an adult. But I was so taken by how the mind of a child pervades the work, the ability to associate -- for example, you mentioned the Canon. I was struck by your description of the colonial house with the cannon in front of it which you immediately associate with the cleric who is a canon and so on. Does the child remain an important part of your creativity today?
I hope so. I expect so. That kind of instant association of ideas, even if that association is provoked by the sound of words, is a facility I think which all writers and poets have to retain to some extent. Of course the Canon helped also by having a head like a cannon. That helped matters.
And the reader understands exactly what he looked like as a result of your description. The book is so filled with a pageant of rich characters, I'm reluctant to ask you this but I will anyway: does one individual stand out as a more important mentor for you as a child?
I'm not very sure, I don't think so. Perhaps if there's anybody it would be my early teacher, Mr. Lagberju. Not so much a mentor as a kind of representation of the smooth interflow of life and learning and enjoyment and strife, and debate. He was the teacher with whom I used to stay as a matter of course. If I didn't want to go home I stayed with him. And he believed very early in my ... he encouraged. It was to his class that I first went when I forced myself onto school. And it was in his house I enjoyed palmedian, which is a traditional meal. So I associate him with books, with palmedian and vegetables, with learning generally. With debate, because then he used to come and debate and have arguments with my father. So you could say, if there's anybody, he was a kind of connecting thread between the various aspects of living which make the eventual man.
I smile because I recall from the book that when you started school you literally one day decided to go to school and followed your sister and attended her classes.
What books most influenced you as a child?
I don't know. I can only tell you what I read, and I read them simply because they were there. I remember that my father had a collection of Dickens. Charles Dickens, I remember very well. He had some anthologies of poetry. He read poets like Tennyson, I remember, some Browning I think I remember. It's very difficult from this distance but I just read what was there. So it's difficult to say what did influence me.
And another question that comes to mind is the impact of history on you, even as a child. The last part of the book is about the organization of a women's group which became an important part of the decolonization process. Would you comment on the effect of that personal experience for you?
Well, in retrospect, I think it had a strange effect of appearing at once ordinary, normal, to be expected, and yet combined with an awareness that something monumental was taking place. After all, it wasn't every day that you had such a movement of women from one corner of the town to another. It wasn't every day you had the women totally flooding the premises of Abeokuta Grammar School. It wasn't every day when the women actually made up songs deriding such a powerful potentate as the Alake of Abeokuta. And yet there was an ordinariness about it because it was taking place with my aunt, with my mother, with their womenfolk, with my formidable uncle who also treated me as a friend. So there was a whole domestic ambiance. And at the same time, there was this epochal quality about the whole thing. And perhaps that sense of proportion, that combination of ordinariness and monumentalism has stayed with me as far as history-making is concerned, an awareness that history very often is made up of the most mundane events which grow into formidable historic proportions.
An important person in the book, one that's striking, is the bookseller and the role that he played. Was that an important element in your gravitation toward writing, the window that he opened up for you?
Curiously enough, no. He was a bookseller, but you know he wasn't what I would call one of my intellectual mentors. I mean, I used to enjoy the debates, the arguments in which he participated with my father in that circle. But he as an individual -- in fact I think apart from the wife, who was like a second mother to me, there was the phenomenon of this strange daughter of theirs, who was the child of two worlds, this twilight child who used to just go into a kind of trance. And I think that aspect, that sort of contribution from their family was the most important in shaping my sense of the metaphysical world, the strange world of the living, the unborn, and the ancestral world. That's a kind of Yoruba cosmology.
�How do you write? Is it a long struggle for the product to emerge?
One thing I can tell you is this, that I am not a methodical writer. I'm not one of those writers I learned about who get up in the morning, put a piece of paper in their typewriter machine and start writing. That I've never understood. I can write days on end, not wanting to do anything else. And at other times gestate. I consider the process of gestation just as important as when you're actually sitting down putting words to the paper.
What are the virtues that are prerequisite for being a writer in your view?
Allowing one's self to be overwhelmed by phenomena, by experience. In other words, the ability to submit one's ego, one's personal self-awareness, to the phenomena around one. Off-the-cuff, I would say this is one of the most profound prerequisites.
Before we talk about theater, I wanted to ask you what are the different challenges that the different literary forms that you've worked in? Or are they the same? You're a poet, you're a playwright, you're a novelist, you're an essayist.
Well, first of all I'll say that I come alive best in theater. And that means even when I enter an empty theater, physically, doing nothing. There's something about the theater which makes my fingertips tingle. Perhaps it's because I come from a society which is very rich in theatrical traditions, and I saw from my childhood the traditional forms of theater, and it became for me a logical means of expressing some of my most profoundly felt intuitions, if you like, and felt material experiences of my environment.
But there are certain experiences which are concise, which are so miniaturized in their impact, that a poem becomes a logical mode of expression for it. And of course, certain polemical demands require the essay form. The novel, for me, was an accident. I really don't consider myself a novelist. If I remember my first novel, The Interpreters, this came out of frustration. Even when I'm writing plays I enjoy having company and mentally I think of that company as the company I'm writing for. And I think when I was writing The Interpreters, I was deprived of the company at the time and certain things needed to be put down. I always call The Interpreters a happening. I don't really consider myself a novelist, it just came out purely by accident.
You said that "Theater is more that text. Theater is the most revolutionary art form." What did you mean?
Simple, because it's so prone to self-transformation. It changes all the time. It responds to the atmosphere. There's a kind of dynamic quality about theater and that dynamic quality expresses itself in relation to, first of all, the environment in which it's being staged; then the audience, the nature of the audience, the quality of the audience. The space, the mutual space of interaction between audience and stage. And no two performances are ever the same. Theater can respond immediately. What I call "guerrilla theater" for instance, can respond immediately. Some people call it living theater, some people call it newspaper theater. Whatever it is, street theater, it can respond immediately to both events and the changing pattern of events. It responds to the dynamics of any situation.
It's the tension between the performers on stage and the audience watching, where the hope for some kind of a transformation comes about.
That nebulous territory which is constantly being traversed by lines of force from both sides. I think that's really what creates the magic of theater.
And for you, and let me quote you, you said that "Theater is the most social of the art forms." What did you mean by that?
Well, let's take a painting for instance.
You go into a gallery and you respond to the artworks in the gallery but it's one to one. Yes, you can discuss a painting with a nearby observer or afterwards. And that's quite normal, in that sense there's a social extension of this individual communication between a painting and an individual. A concert, the same thing happens. There's a kind of absorption by every individual on different levels of emotion in a response to a concert. But theater, because of its nature, both text, images, multimedia effects, has a wider base of communication with an audience. That's why I call it the most social of the various art forms.
You said earlier today in a talk with students on campus that you thought that community involvement was the place where theater could have its greatest social impact.
Yes, there's no question at all about that. I distinguish between the theater of socialization, relaxation, even of a quest for experience, for emotion, the kind of well-made theater, Broadway, West End, the completed work, with stars, and even with sparks of genius. Really a unique experience. I distinguish that from the theater which emerges from the community and is returned to the community, takes place within the community. There are various forms of that. There's is the kind of theater where a side of the community is encouraged to bring out its themes, and those themes are worked over either by a separate company or by a core company in relation to that community. Or the kind of theater which I describe as "guerrilla theater," which is a group which studies a situation within a community and responds to that situation, those anomalies, those problems, theatrically. Obviously that has greater transformational potential than, shall we say, the theater of Broadway.
Most recently you've been in Jamaica and you've been working with inner-city kids along the lines that we're talking about.
Yes. It is one of the happier experiences I've had since I went into exile. And it was a very creative process, a creative interlude, which I appreciated enormously and which had ramifications that I had not expected. I was going to direct The Beatification of Area Boy in Kingston, Jamaica, an opportunity at which I leapt because I know Kingston very well. I've taught at the university there periodically as a visitor. I had not, however, been aware of how really deeply, profound similarities there were between, shall we say, the deprived youth of, let us say, Lagos, and the deprived or inner-city youths of Kingston. And some of the things I did were very similar to what I used to do in Nigeria.
Take the kids, that was the basis of the foundation of Orisun Theater, which I've run for a number of years in Nigeria. I just took these kids, inexperienced, totally underprivileged, and extracted from them their hidden talents and turned them into my theater company. I did something similar in Kingston. We brought these kids and auditioned them and integrated them into the production of the The Beatification of Area Boy, increasing their roles. But in addition, they then reformed themselves into a group which they called the Area Boy Crew or Area Boy Company, and began to bring their own experiences from the ghettos, their difficulties. They had really horrendous lives. And [we began to] write little sketches about them which were then worked upon by a small team, The Company Ltd., it's called, headed by Sheila Graham. And eventually they built their own repertoire of sketches and songs depicting their lives and their hopes and ambitions, experiences. Entitled these, "Border Connections." And now they are a group unto themselves, they perform everywhere. They publish their own little magazine, a four page thing called Area Boy News with cartoons and so on. And I'm looking forward to going back on Sunday, to just interact with them again and see how they developed, and talk to them.
�Truth and Power
We've talked about truth and society and the transformative possibilities of theater. What about the relationship of truth to power?
Well, the first thing is that truth and power for me form an antithesis, an antagonism, which will hardly ever be resolved. I can define in fact, can simplify the history of human society, the evolution of human society, as a contest between power and freedom. And whether this contest is being performed along ideological lines or along religious lines, ultimately, really what we have is truth versus power. Truth for me is freedom, is self-destination. Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective form of truth which is a lie. And the polarity between these two, in fact, forms for me the axis of human striving in the creation of an ethical society, an ethical community
Your work as a political activist and as an essayist and as a human rights activist took a decisive turn at a period before the Biafran war in which, in your efforts to prevent that conflict from occurring, you became a political prisoner in Nigeria for two years. You recounted that story in a book called The Man Died. Where did that title come from?
Well, the title was directly from a telegram which was sent to me. The man who died was a victim of military brutality in whose case I was particularly interested as one of the many causes which support, investigate, challenge power on behalf of human dignity. And in this case this fellow had been brutalized by the military, it was a military government, and after I was forced into exile while I was writing the book, looking for a title for the book, I sent word home asking for information about this young man and a telegram came with the title, "the man died." And it just seemed to me just apt for the book, my prison experiences, which I was writing at the time.
What did that experience of the imprisonment teach you?
The many possibilities, the unlimited possibilities of human survival. I was placed in solitary confinement for a year and ten months out of the period in which I stayed in prison, which was just over two years. Very conscious of the fact that an effort was being made to destroy my mind, because I was deprived of books, deprived of any means of writing, deprived of human companionship. You never know how much you need it until you're deprived of it. You say to yourself when you are at liberty how desperate you are for your solitude, you love your periods of solitude, you scramble for it, you find ways of being by yourself so you can do what you want with yourself and your mind. But when you're deprived of it for a lengthy period then you value human companionship. But you have to survive and so you devise all kinds of mental exercises and it's amazing. You walk various, and sometimes dangerous, routes that kind of exercise can lead you. It's not very, very healthy for one to feed entirely on his or her mind without any replenishment from other sources.
What was most important for you in this regard? Or were there several strategies that you employed to survive?
Being able to continue to create in some way or other, being able to recover neglected areas of knowledge. One example, I hated mathematics when I was in school. I couldn't wait to drop it the moment I left school, just like that. But left with nothing to do except my own resources, I found myself going back and recollecting those mathematical formulas, geometric and algebraic, which I'd loathed in school, and now reworking them, reinventing them, rediscovering them and finding a logic to them. Even sometimes a beauty which I did not appreciate when I was in schools. That only lasted as long as I was in prison. As soon as I came out I could not see mathematics or anything of the sort.
There is a moving moment in the book where a young woman is mistakenly placed in your cell for a brief period, and your perception is that she sees you as a guard or somebody on the side of the people running the prison.
On the side of the devils.
On the side of the devils. Please tell us what then happened, because there's a moment of recognition on her part and your part.
Yes, this is before I was formally put in prison. I was still under interrogation so I was in a cell and she was just thrown into that police cell with me. It was a holding room really. And at first she was very suspicious, she thought maybe I was just a spy, you know. And I think she just wasn't expecting to find anybody in that room, didn't know I'd just been under interrogation myself. So she was very withdrawn and very suspicious. And suddenly she looked down and saw that I was shackled, I was in chains. And so she slowly for the first time brought herself to actually look up and look at my face and recognize me. It was a very overwhelming and humbling moment because she then just took herself down at my feet and started to cry. It's reminiscent of one of those episodes of Christ, the woman washing his feet with her tears. In a way it was frightening. And then it became strengthening because I now had to console her, reassure her, and in turn I was strengthened. I became very, very strong both for her and for everybody in her situation. And so became even tougher in myself, so she did me a lot more good than she could ever have guessed on that day.
How did this experience of the imprisonment affect you as a writer once you got out?
It's very difficult. It worked in all sorts of ways.
When I first came out -- I spoke just now about this need for human company, but after I first came out, I remember that after a few days I just couldn't stand so much company. It became too much again for me and I couldn't wait until I could go away and isolate myself somewhere. Fortunately a friend of mine had a little village on a farm in the south of France and I didn't really find any peace, any creative peace, any possibility of creativity until I spent a few months by myself on that farm where I wrote a play. I wrote the play, The Bacchae of Euripides, which was commissioned at the time by the National Theater of Great Britain. And I began again to write but I found on coming out immediately I couldn't get back to writing for some time.
After this period you assume the role of a political activist. You had had it before but it's even more evident in your work and you most recently wrote, decades later, The Open Sore of a Continent, which is about the tyranny that now exists in Nigeria. What accounts for General Abacha's current grip on power and what is it doing to the idea of a united Nigeria?
Well, in fact I was going to just make a small correction. It isn't so much that I became more of an activist after my imprisonment, it's rather that the situation in Nigeria deteriorated to such an extent that the degree, the intensity, of my activism had to be elevated correspondingly. There is nothing which I would have loved more when I came out of prison than to be able to say to myself, and I believe I did say to myself, if this is what people want ... remember there was a military dictatorship at the time when I came out, it was still under Gowan, General Gowan. That was the first time I went into voluntary exile and that act was to distance myself from an environment which I felt had failed to come to grasp with the significance of the civil war, its immorality, and the future consequences. In other words, everybody had a sense of euphoria. The war was over, the nation had stayed together. Unity became a virtue. The ills, the anomalies, the contradictions which led to the war in the first place, the civil war, no longer existed. And then there was an oil boom. People expected the country to be impoverished as a result of the war. But the opposite happened. There was money. And I saw society all around me and I felt, it wasn't a question of being a voice crying in the wilderness, it was just a sense of isolation. I didn't even bother to cry out in the wilderness. I just knew that something was very profoundly wrong, that the platform on which the nation was sitting was worm-eaten and was going to collapse very soon. And so I went into voluntary exile, because I saw that to have said or written anything at the time would have sounded like, oh, this bitter individual who's coming from prison and doesn't want to see good, doesn't want to see prosperity, wants to bad-mouth the regime. It was impossible for me to speak. And in a sense, I felt a great sense of relief: "That's it, that's the way society wants to be, I'm going away to do some writing and to recover my sanity."
But then I was not left alone. I found, when I left, that there were others who felt the same way. We'd meet, they'd come and seek me out, we'd talk about the future. And I found that their depression and pessimism was every bit as acute as mine. And of course, when the reality began, when it was clear that this dictator had no intention of leaving, that he was in fact now busy transforming himself into a life president and was already squandering the resources, then gradually began coming back, even from exile, becoming involved in the affairs of the nation. The divorce, actually, didn't last longer than about six months to tell you the truth. Then, of course, things had gone from bad to worse in Nigeria. And so I became involved as a matter of course.
Are you surprised that the great powers, the United States, the European Community, are willing to reconcile themselves to the current regime in Nigeria even though it may be one of the worst tyrannies that the continent has seen?
Surprised, and at the same time not surprised.
See, even despite pious statements to the contrary, much of the industrialized world has not yet come to terms with the recognition of the fallacy of what I call the strong man syndrome. If you remember during the Cold War, where the East played against the other and the Third World nations played one ideological bloc against the other, both sides, both communist and capitalist worlds, were very fond of the strong man syndrome. A single individual to carry out their imperial will on that continent. The business world loved not to be accountable. You picked up the phone, you spoke to Mobutu Sese-seko, you got a contract worth a couple of billion dollars without any vetting, without any accountability, without going through the process of the appropriation committee, and so on an so forth. As for the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, they also loved that.
However, all that world of theirs, the rivalry fell to pieces. And gradually they're beginning to recognize the fact that there's nothing more secure than a democratic, accountable, and participatory form of government. But it's sunk in only theoretically, it has not yet sunk in completely in practical terms. And so on the one hand you'll find a government like the government of the United States or France or Britain talking about participatory, accountable government, the fact is that they still deep down prefer to do business with the "strong man" and find excuses to say, okay, this is only for a while. We're moving toward democracy but don't let's move too fast, and maybe this is the person who will bring it. In the mean time, hundreds have been liquidated, torture continues. They have the reports from their embassies, their missions. They have their reports from the United Nations Human Rights Commissions, Commonwealth, Amnesty International, European Union, they have all these reports. But that will to break with the past has not yet been thoroughly formed. And so they play it both ways.
What will bring the downfall of the Nigerian tyranny?
One, a mass movement from within, which, as you know, is constantly being put down brutally but which, again, regroups and moves forward as is happening right now as we are speaking. Some people have just been shot in Bada, but they won't give up, we won't give up. But additionally, international pressure: isolation of the Abacha regime, diplomatically, culturally; sporting links to be cut; but above all, economically. Making the Abacha regime understand that the color of the skin makes no difference, that when you have a minority regime oppressing the majority, as in Apartheid South Africa, the treatment has got to be the same as was meted out to Apartheid South Africa. Now it is that level of moral recognition and the reiteration of certain universal political values, only that, combined with internal resistance, will bring Sani Abacha down.
Has it been hard for you to maintain hope with regard to the political situation? If we go from the period of the Biafran war to the present, it seems such a period of disappointment for someone like yourself who is so tied to the culture of the Yoruba on the one hand, but the idea of a united Nigeria, which unites all the different peoples, on the other.
It's been difficult, and without a question I've had moments when I just wondered whether we're not really pursuing an impossible ideal. I remember a particular period of total confidence, in which during a conference, which was presided over by the second-in-command to the former dictator Babangida, I called and demanded the termination of all dictatorships on the African continent by a certain date. I was confident that we would, while it would not be a thoroughgoing achievement, that in the large part we would have done it. And for a while it looked as if everything was moving that way. You had the termination of one-party rule in Malawe, Namibia became independent, a movement was made toward ending the Liberian situation. And dictatorships were just stumbling. Ono Fagindo had been killed in the meantime. This "Emperor" Bokassa had been dethroned. Macazinguima had been carted off in equatorial Guinea. It was a period of buoyancy. Then suddenly it all began again to go wrong. And who would take the lead but my own nation, my own base. If I was so confident we were already organizing the African Democratic League, which was to take its platform from Nigeria, because we were on the way to democratizing and we were to forge links with both the democracies in Africa and the struggling democracies and actually assist peoples who were still laboring under dictatorships. That was the confidence we had, that we would use our own resources in Nigeria to accomplish this. Now look at me. Suddenly remembering that charity began at home. So it is depressing from time to time. But at the same time, I don't like to use the word "optimism," let's just put it this way: we have no option. That's my space and I want it back. And so I have no option but to continue to fight to get it back. I'm not surrendering that space for some bunch of thugs and murderers and torturers and rapists and robbers. It's just unthinkable. So from that standpoint, you could say that I'm an optimist in the sense that I'm confident I will take it back.
I want to read you a quote from your grandfather in the book Ake, where he's telling you how to deal with bullies. "Wherever you find yourself, don't run away from a fight. Your adversary will probably be bigger, he will trounce you the first time. Next time you meet him, challenge him again. He will beat you all over again. The third time I promise you this, you will either defeat him or he will run away. Are you listening to what I'm telling you?"
He was very prophetic.
Let me ask you two final questions. Lessons of your life for students, and I want to focus on two. How do you reconcile the work of the artist and the work of the activist?
Oh, no division at all.
There are different kinds of artists and very often, I'll be very frank with you, I wish I were a different kind. I mean all of them are quite valuable. I have always rejected any special responsibility for the artist. I've never belonged in that school and I feel like striking those who insist that artists should have a particular burden. No, I don't accept it. What we should recognize is that some artists are temperamentally different from others. I mean, I'm a consumer of the artistic product and I do not want to read "engaged" literature all the time. My horizon on humanity is enlarged by reading the writers of poems, seeing a painting, listening to some music, some opera, which has nothing at all to do with a volatile human condition or struggle or whatever. It enriches me as a human being. And so the artists who are lucky to be temperamentally gifted that way should not attempt to make propaganda of their lives. No. They should just create and thereby assist those of us who are unfortunate enough to constantly immerse ourselves in all this diversion. To at least enjoy a little bit of their essence, which for me is every bit as important as the work of the artist/activist. For me there is no distinction, but sometimes I wish I were the other kind of artist.
Finally, how would you recommend that student prepare themselves to be a writer, whether as a playwright, a poet, or whatever?
Well, everything requires some craft. And I believe that the best learning process of any kind of craft is just to look at the work of others. It doesn't mean you're going to be influenced by them. I believe that there is a kind of osmotic process whereby one intuitively absorbs the various strands that went into the making of a play, a poem, etc. In some cases more craft is required. If you're going to stage a play you're going to involve other human beings who are going to be moved about in space and their spatial relations must respond to the textual pronouncements of the various characters. So there is a bit more craft involved in theater, in the theatrical arts, and let us say even in certain forms of poetry. It all differs. The important thing is just to consume as much as possible and then forget everything you every consumed, because in the process of consuming you have already begun to evolve your own distinctive creative pattern, even without your knowing it. But the ultimate lesson is just sit down and write. That's all.
Professor Soyinka, thank you very much for spending this hour with us and talking about your life and your work.
Thank you, it's been a great pleasure.
And thank YOU very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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