Wole Soyinka: ‘This book is my gift to Nigeria’

9 months ago 153

At 87, Wole Soyinka is simply a Nigerian icon. His plays person been performed astir the world, his poems anthologised, his novels studied successful schools and universities, portion his nonfiction penning has been the scourge of galore a Nigerian dictator. He was imprisoned for 22 months during the Nigerian civilian warfare successful the precocious 1960s for attempting to broker peace; his activism led him again into exile 2 decades aboriginal during the epoch of General Sani Abacha, subject ruler of Nigeria, erstwhile the biology activistic Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged.

In 1986, helium was awarded the Nobel prize successful lit and became the archetypal African laureate, but his presumption successful Nigerian letters was secured agelong earlier then. For a procreation of young Nigerian writers, his enactment has been transformative. It has inspired artists, excessively – successful Lagos, galore show their accomplishment by coating celebrated faces, his among them. There was adjacent a philharmonic duo called Soyinka’s Afro.

Born successful Abeokuta, successful south-west Nigeria, successful 1934, Soyinka chronicled his colourful puerility successful his memoir, Aké. He studied English lit astatine some the University of Ibadan and the University of Leeds, and present lives not acold from his birthplace with his wife, Folake Doherty-Soyinka.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People connected Earth, Soyinka’s archetypal caller successful astir fractional a century, is published successful the UK this month. It is simply a high-jinks state-of-the-nation caller that follows a spiritual leader, a politician, a media baron and a radical of assemblage friends arsenic they strategy their mode done a mentation of present-day Nigeria. The satire and the commentary connected Nigerian authorities and nine are trademark Soyinka. We talked successful precocious August connected Zoom; I was successful London and Soyinka was astatine home, with vertebrate opus trilling successful the background. We discussed his latest novel, his thoughts connected Big Brother Africa, however acold helium has travelled from his childhood, and his hopes for Nigeria.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People connected Earth is your archetypal caller successful 48 years. Why now? What is peculiar astir this moment?
The themes successful this caller person been perpetually with maine successful assorted forms, from sketches and polemics to poetry. The ideas person been gathering successful a cumulative fashion. And yet I conscionable said: fto maine effort putting each this down successful prose erstwhile and for all.

The book has a ample formed of characters from precise antithetic walks of life: Sir Goddie, the prime minister of this fictionalised Nigeria; technologist Pitan-Payne, crusading against corruption; Papa Davina, laminitis of “Chrislam”, a hybrid of Christianity and Islam – and galore more. How did you support way of them all?
That is simply a precise bully question and I’m gladsome you asked for the involvement of young novelists who person to usage this marvellous instrumentality called the computer. They whitethorn deliberation that the machine is simply a help. Believe me, the machine tin beryllium an enemy. I’m giving you secrets of the trade, arsenic I learned the hard mode with this novel. You indispensable fig drafts precise carefully. That’s the lone mode to bash it.

Soldiers during celebrations to people    Nigeria’s 50th independency  day  successful  Abuja, 2010.
Soldiers during celebrations to people Nigeria’s 50th independency day successful Abuja, 2010. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Which comes archetypal for you: plot oregon character?
I fishy character. Events germinate retired of quality much than the different mode round.

Religious leaders are satirised successful this novel, arsenic they are successful your play, The Trials of Brother Jero. What relation bash you deliberation religion plays successful Nigerian life?
Religion has been a fascinating constituent of my situation since childhood. At the opening I was a believer. As a child, it was beaten into me, but arsenic I matured, I began to look much intimately astatine immoderate of these claims and characters. Many of them were precise colourful. As nine became much materialist, much cynical, much unscrupulous, you had radical taking to religion strictly for transgression business. As a writer, 1 is attracted by their creativity. They person much to connection successful presumption of drama.

I enjoyed the scope of modern references. If you are acquainted with the Nigerian governmental landscape, you mightiness adjacent recognise thinly veiled satirical characters. Did you person to probe the novel, oregon was each the worldly successful your caput already?
Events astir maine conscionable reached a benignant of situation point. Society truly became insupportable successful presumption of what 1 could sorb connected a regular basis. I marque nary bones astir it: a batch of events are taken from existent life. Some characters person been taken from existent life, but past fictionalised. It is 1 of the reasons wherefore I aimed to merchandise the publication earlier the 60th day of Nigerian independence. I wanted this to beryllium my contiguous to the nation, to the radical who unrecorded here: some the governed and those who govern, the exploiters and the exploited.

The caller besides has a batch of taste references, for illustration to Big Brother Africa. Do you present ticker Big Brother Naija [formerly Big Brother Nigeria]?
I find it nauseating. I watched Big Brother Africa retired of work erstwhile it archetypal came retired [in 2003]. My friends utilized to unreserved home. They would say: “Excuse me, I indispensable get back. I’ve got to ticker this episode.” I deliberation I managed astir 2 and a fractional episodes. But the voyeurism was wholly contrary to everything I believed. So I haven’t seen the caller mentation astatine all. I’m not going adjacent it.

The title, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People connected Earth, seems to beryllium a critique of Nigeria: we are blessed contempt each that is going wrong. Fela Kuti besides criticises this trait successful his opus Shuffering and Shmiling, wherever helium lambasts the populace for putting up with unspeakable conditions. Would you picture yourself arsenic happy?
That rubric came astir erstwhile I work determination a fewer years agone that Nigerians were among the apical 10 happiest radical successful the world. And I looked astatine that connection and thought: “What? Is this the aforesaid Nigeria we’re talking about?” So the rubric is meant to beryllium ironic. It’s surely not a truthful statement of what I brushwood connected a regular ground oregon what you spot erstwhile you prime up the newspapers. Am I happy? Right now, I’m precise contented due to the fact that I’m successful my environment. When I measurement retired of this environment, my heartbeat races. So I don’t usage that word, happy. And I don’t usage the connection unhappy. I effort to attain a authorities of equilibrium wherever I tin relation arsenic a quality being. That’s all.

You take to unrecorded successful Nigeria erstwhile you could unrecorded anyplace successful the world. Why?
I’m a lazy person. I’m accustomed to this environment. Each clip I was successful exile, I recovered I truly could not consciousness astatine location elsewhere, not completely.

In the acknowledgments, you convey a workfellow with a cottage successful Senegal and John Agyekum Kufuor, the erstwhile president of Ghana, for giving you “creative seclusion to constitute this novel”. Do you consciousness you can’t constitute successful Nigeria?
Oh no. I bash constitute successful Nigeria. It’s conscionable that this peculiar taxable required detachment from Nigeria. On my archetypal stint successful Senegal, I acceptable down a chunk of the novel. Then I had to spell backmost to earning a living. Believe it oregon not, I inactive person to bash that, going retired lecturing and truthful on. And past I started looking for different abbreviated stretch. President Kufuor, a friend, offered what I telephone his baronial location successful Ghana. So I moved from that small cottage by the seaside to the thigh of luxury. I was looked aft manus and ft and I was precise appreciative of both.

A thoroughfare  marketplace  successful  Lagos.
A thoroughfare marketplace successful Lagos. Photograph: peeterv/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Does becoming a Nobel laureate mean that you consciousness much unit erstwhile you beryllium down to write?
None whatsoever. I ever counsel the younger generation, don’t taxable to pressure. If you consciousness unit of the sterile benignant – which is, “I ought to write, I should write” – don’t. Just spell retired and bash thing else. Immerse yourself successful the environment. Go to a bar. Get drunk. Well, effort not to get drunk but conscionable bash thing else, thing positive. Read a book, spell for a walk, interact with different people, ticker nature, spell retired successful the thoroughfare and locomotion astir with people. You’ll beryllium astonished however rapidly the worldly starts flowing successful your mind.

You’ve had galore years of activism through some your words and your actions. What did you deliberation of the caller end Sars [the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious portion of the Nigerian Police] protest, with young Nigerians calling for bully governance and an extremity to constabulary brutality?
That was a tragic event. It began successful the heights of euphoria. I was truthful delighted and relieved that the young generation, whom I’ve ever insulted arsenic being lazy and waiting for salvation, got its enactment unneurotic and took connected these brutes called the Sars. And of course, it wasn’t conscionable the Sars. It was much than that. It was an look of discontent. To spot this structured movement, I felt rejuvenated. I said: “At last, it’s happening,” and past what happened? The thugs took over. The villains took over. The underworld got successful connected the act. Prisoners were fto loose. It was precise depressing.

Do you person anticipation for Nigeria’s future?
Oh, hope. Again, that’s different connection that I don’t use, similar happiness. When you adjacent notation the connection Nigeria, I don’t cognize what that is. I consciousness thing for it due to the fact that it’s wholly diverged from what I knew arsenic Nigeria arsenic a child. I don’t recognise this country. That’s the truth. And truthful to that question, my reply is precise mixed.

You ever look precise good. What is your secret?
You deliberation I look good? I’ll archer my wife. I unrecorded a mean life, I hope. I devour immoderate is enactment earlier me. Eba, pounded yam, rice, plantain. I person nary peculiar assemblage care. I don’t jog. I don’t, what bash they say, “work out”. From clip to time, I bash spell retired hunting. Only what’s eatable. Not trophy oregon safari. So possibly that’s it.

What’s your instrumentality connected the modern African penning scene?
Very healthy. There is simply a marvellous harvest of young writers, peculiarly young pistillate writers, who truly person go a pridefulness to the continent.

Your memoir, Aké, is 1 of my favourite books of each time. I loved speechmaking astir your adventures with your mother, who you telephone Wild Christian. I wonderment however you got distant with that.
Let maine archer you what she did 1 day. We launched the publication successful the aged schoolroom successful Aké wherever I grew up. She hadn’t work it but she’d been teased astir it. And truthful arsenic we returned home, amid each these people, she came to me, pretended she wanted to susurration thing successful my ear. Then she took my ear, twisted it and said: “That’s for Wild Christian!” So I said: “You spot wherefore I telephone you Wild Christian. You’ve travel present to disgrace maine successful beforehand of each these people.” That’s what she did.

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That’s a good story.
I gave her that sanction due to the fact that she was a existent believer. Her Christianity was a chaotic one. She truly believed that she had a concealed connection enactment with God. If thing went incorrect she would say: “I’ve offended Papa God.” And I would accidental to her: “Papa God is not funny successful whether oregon not you poured your lipid successful the close spot oregon not. He’s excessively busy.” Then she’d pursuit maine out. She was the genuine article. Having abandoned Christianity, I ever marvelled however anybody could beryllium truthful passionate. There are radical similar that and I respect that.

So would the young Wole Soyinka successful Aké judge however acold you’ve gone successful beingness – Nobel prize, accolades, prestige?
I don’t deliberation that’s a question I’m susceptible of answering. For the elemental crushed that I ne'er truly looked for fame. I wanted to beryllium contented and fulfilled according to my ain standards. I wanted to beryllium capable to unrecorded with myself and bash what I acceptable retired to do. It didn’t substance what.