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Reith Lectures

Reith 2004
Open University Discussion Forum


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The Lecturer: Wole Soyinka

"Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who week to suppress the truth."

Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

Nobel Laureate, playwright, poet and political activist, 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 hyper-energetic 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 foul of the government. After being wrongly accused of conspiring to broadcast false election results on the radio, he was arrested. A protest over his imprisonment was organised 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 Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan. His tenure would not last long. The 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 travelled 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 honoured. The Swedish Academy described him as "one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English." 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."

Soyinka's 1996 book, The Open Sore of a Continent, is an impassioned examination of more recent political unrest in his homeland of Nigeria. "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."

This biography adapted from an article by John D. Thomas first published in Emory Magazine.

Wole Soyinka's books are published in the UK by Methuen.

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Lecture audio and transcripts will be available after each broadcast.

  • Lecture 1:
    The Changing Mask of Fear
  • Lecture 2:
    Power and Freedom
  • Lecture 3:
    Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds
  • Lecture 4:
    A Quest for Dignity
  • Lecture 5:
    I am Right; You are Dead

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