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Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka, in full Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, (born July 13, 1934, Abeokuta, Nigeria), a Nigerian playwright and political activist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He sometimes wrote of modern West Africa in a satirical style, but his serious intent and his belief in the evils inherent in the exercise of power were usually evident in his work as well.

A member of the Yoruba people, Soyinka attended Government College and University College in Ibadan before graduating in 1958 with a degree in English from the University of Leeds in England. Upon his return to Nigeria, he founded an acting company and wrote his first important play, A Dance of the Forests (produced 1960; published 1963), for the Nigerian independence celebrations. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by stripping it of romantic legend and by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past.

Left: Wole Soyinka as a ten-year-old choir boy in 1946. Center: Wole and Tinu Soyinka in 1952, the same year Wole entered University College, Ibadan. Right: Wole Soyinka matriculating at the University College, Ibadan in the 50s.

He wrote several plays in a lighter vein, making fun of pompous, Westernized schoolteachers in The Lion and the Jewel (first performed in Ibadan, 1959; published 1963) and mocking the clever preachers of upstart prayer churches who grow fat on the credulity of their parishioners in The Trials of Brother Jero (performed 1960; published 1963) and Jero’s Metamorphosis (1973). But his more serious plays, such as The Strong Breed (1963), Kongi’s Harvest (opened the first Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, 1966; published 1967), The Road (1965), From Zia, with Love (1992), and even the parody King Baabu (performed 2001; published 2002), reveal his disregard for African authoritarian leadership and his disillusionment with Nigerian society as a whole.

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, a lecturer in drama at the Ibadan University, although not a religious man, sits between a god and goddess at his residence in Ibadan, Western Nigeria, a week he was released after two years’ detention for alleged involvement in the Nigeria crisis.

Other notable plays included Madmen and Specialists (performed 1970; published 1971), Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), and The Beatification of Area Boy (1995). In these and Soyinka’s other dramas, Western elements are skillfully fused with the subject matter and dramatic techniques deeply rooted in Yoruba folklore and religion. Symbolism, flashback, and ingenious plotting contribute to a rich dramatic structure. His best works exhibit humor and fine poetic style as well as a gift for irony and satire and for accurately matching the language of his complex characters to their social position and moral qualities.

October 14, 1998: Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka reacts to questions from the media after returning home from almost four years in exile. Soyinka was the most prominent critic of late dictator General Sani Abacha. An outspoken opponent of oppression and tyranny worldwide and a critic of the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka has lived in exile on several occasions. A few years after he was released from prison, he went into exile, returning to Nigeria in 1975, where he continued to campaign for democracy and against corruption, raising the ire of the government of Sani Abacha, who was then the military ruler. Soyinka again went into exile in 1994 and was sentenced to death, in absentia, three years later. The sentence was later lifted and he returned to Nigeria after Abacha’s death in 1998.

From 1960 to 1964 Soyinka was co-editor of Black Orpheus, an important literary journal. From 1960 onward he taught literature and drama and headed theatre groups at various Nigerian universities, including those of Ibadan, Ife, and Lagos. After winning the Nobel Prize, he also was sought after as a lecturer, and many of his lectures were published—notably the Reith Lectures of 2004, as Climate of Fear (2004).

Though he considered himself primarily a playwright, Soyinka also wrote the novels The Interpreters (1965), Season of Anomy (1973), and Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (2021), the latter of which drew particular praise for its satirical take on corruption in Nigeria. His several volumes of poetry included Idanre, and Other Poems (1967) and Poems from Prison (1969; republished as A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972), published together as Early Poems (1998); Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988); and Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known (2002).

October 16, 1986: Newly nominated Nobel literature prize, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, answers newsmen in front of Paris’ UNESCO building on in Paris shortly after he was told of his prize. “It cannot be just a political gesture; I have not been in trouble or in jail for a great many years now,” the 52-year-old poet, novelist, critic, & playwright told reporters in Paris, where he was tracked down at UNESCO headquarters. “I see it more as a historical gesture,” he said. “I feel very fortunate I was selected for this.”

His verse is characterized by a precise command of language and a mastery of lyric, dramatic, and meditative poetic forms. He wrote a good deal of Poems from Prison while he was jailed in 1967–69 for speaking out against the war brought on by the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria. The Man Died (1972) is his prose account of his arrest and 22-month imprisonment. Soyinka’s principal critical work is Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), a collection of essays in which he examines the role of the artist in the light of Yoruba mythology and symbolism. Art, Dialogue, and Outrage (1988) is work on similar themes of art, culture, and society. He continued to address Africa’s ills and Western responsibility in The Open Sore of a Continent (1996) and The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1999).

Portrait of author Wole Soyinka w. cigar in hand.

Soyinka was the first Black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. An autobiography, Aké: The Years of Childhood, was published in 1981 and followed by the companion pieces Ìsarà: A Voyage Around Essay (1989) and Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: A Memoir, 1946–1965 (1994). In 2006 he published another memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. From 2005–06 Soyinka served on the Encyclopædia Britannica Editorial Board of Advisors.

Soyinka was long a proponent of Nigerian democracy. His decades of political activism included periods of imprisonment and exile, and he founded, headed, or participated in several political groups, including the National Democratic Organization, the National Liberation Council of Nigeria, and Pro-National Conference Organizations (PRONACO). In 2010 Soyinka founded the Democratic Front for a People’s Federation and served as chairman of the party.

Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, Soyinka’s first novel in nearly 50 years.

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