The language of exile
Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka talks about his writing and how the political situation in his homeland, Nigeria, impacts his work. TISHANI DOSHI
Photo: Tishani Doshi
Activist and writer: For Wole Soyinka, justice is the first condition of humanity.
I AM sitting with Wole Soyinka, one of Nigeria’s most famous literary sons, in the Four Seasons, a Chinese restaurant in Queensway, London. The woman next to us is digging into a plate of spare ribs and rice with relish. Soyinka, eyeing her fro
m the corner of his frames, leans over to me and says, "Oh, I wish my friend Femi Johnson was here to see this. There was nothing he liked better than to watch someone enjoy their food." Soyinka’s latest book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, is a memoir. It opens with his return to Nigeria in 1998 after five years of exile, accompanied with the body of his friend Femi Johnson from Germany, whom he says he could not leave "like a stray without ties of family and friends". The book is an elegiac tribute to lost friends and family, but it is equally, a renewed appeal for justice, which, for Soyinka, is the first condition of humanity. During our meal, some of which is shamefully wasted (Femi wouldn’t have approved), there are things I learn about Soyinka that extend beyond the activist and writer. He is a beverage lover for one, barring water, which he despises: espressos, wines and whiskeys being his speciality. He is the lightest traveller in the world - after effects from the Abachi regime when agents were known to plant contraband in luggage in order to arrest people. He calls his Blackberry a blueberry, goes to the opera to escape, and thinks the burgeoning Nigerian film industry Nollywood is "appalling and unoriginal." In 1967, at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka was wrongly accused of assisting rebels in the breakaway republic of Biafra to purchase jet fighters. He spent 22 months in solitary confinement in a cell measuring four feet by eight feet. During this time, to keep the "inertia of his mind" at bay, he observed the microscopic lives of lizards and ants, rediscovered mathematical principles that he hated as a child, and wrote notes on scraps of toilet paper, which would eventually become the classic prison memoir The Man Died. Soyinka is now 72-years-old, and it has been over 20 years since he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature -- something he describes as a mixed blessing, because "everybody wants something as a result of that prize … you become the property of the world." If the constant ringing of his blueberry is anything to go by, he doesn’t seem to have stopped moving since. There are constant demands on his time to deliver interviews, keynote addresses and pronouncements. And while he doesn’t seem to show any signs of flagging, he does wish that he had more time to pursue some of his favourite solitary pastimes in his home in Abeokuta. Excerpts from the interview:
Wole, how long did it take you to write this memoir?
It was written on a break. I’ve said again and again that I’ve never been interested in writing about myself. I find it tedious, sometimes painful, frustrating, recollecting things you’d rather not recollect. Above all, the biography is supposed to be about you, but after a certain age, you cannot and should not write about everything because other people are involved, and I believe one has no right to intervene in other people’s lives, those parts that have been private to them and to thrust them into the public.
Since one cannot tell the full story anyway, why bother with biography? Let others try to capture your life, that’s their problem.
So why did you finally write it?
Politics. Before this, there were two biographies that again, I had no interest in writing. I wrote Ibadan in exile, mostly here in London, because I decided that I wanted to go back and join the others. I also had the compulsion to
set something down about a similar route of a problem for whatever its worth, which would speak to the younger generation.
The second, Isara, again was written on the run, with Scotland Yard and an FBI minder and all of that. Living that kind of existence for two years led me deeper and deeper into it.
Besides, from time to time, whether you like it or not, you run into people at literary conferences — these people who are feeding on you.
A lot of the time it’s pure fantasy. They don’t even know what the hell they’re writing about. It goes in wild directions, and it could be amusing for a while, but afterward, when you get older and you’re really on the knife-edge of existence, and when those idle flatterers who call themselves academics are writing about you in a way that has nothing to do with reality, you think it’s better if you write it yourself, so at least, if they want to write some more, they can write operatively, from somebody who knows something about the subject.
How do you think your time in exile changed or affected your writing?
I don’t believe that it changed my style, no, but it certainly changed my rhythm. I had to extract time whenever possible. I worked everywhere and anywhere in cafes, in restaurants, on the plane. I developed a habit of shutting out the world completely. In terms of what I actually wrote, I don’t believe it changed. I actually wrote those memoirs on the move.
You’ve written that there’s an epidemic of religion in Nigeria and in the world. Do you think that the world would be better off without religion?
I think so. It would be less beautiful perhaps, because some religions have created really beautiful architecture, incredible music, some of the most moving dances stem from religion — this idea or acknowledgement of something that stems from something larger than yourself. But I have a feeling that the world would have found a way of substituting it, or creating the same thing from a different source of inspiration.
Tell me about the recent Nigerian elections and the mood of the country when you last left it.
We’ve had bad elections before, but we’ve also had good elections. This time, I think we’ve plumbed the abyss. You know, we have someone (past President Olusegun Obasanjo) who believes that he is the answer to all Nigeria’s problems and he is willing to subvert the constitution to perpetuate his control. There is video evidence of police officers carting off ballot boxes, places where elections were never held but results declared — astronomical figures.
Let’s see what the tribunal is going to do about it. But the mood is war-weary. Again and again, how we are going to go around this circle. …
I’ve used the word insult before, because it’s like stealing from the people and then slapping them in the face in the bargain.
What was and what continues to be your relationship with Obasanjo?
I think now, the final breach has taken place. I have no problem in forgiving personal wrongs, and this is a man who has done his best to have my life taken, but when you chose to belittle a committee to which I belong, then a certain line has been crossed.
Since the elections, it’s been war footing between him and me. There’s no more pretence. I consider him totally irredeemable.
What gives you hope?
I don’t experience hope. I cannot remember a time when I thought that a situation was hopeful, but neither have I thought that a situation was hopeless. I just don’t think in such terms. There are moments when I undergo a sense of impotence; what next can one do to effect change, but as long as organisational options are available, one doesn’t get to a point of hopelessness or hopefulness.
I accept the condition in which I find myself. But I have a very clear vision of what things should be. The important thing is to keep thinking, to keep agitating. I feel anger, lots and lots of anger.
The other problem that I have is the problem of deciding when you are faced with no choice but to respond to violence with violence. This is the overriding dilemma of my existence.
One does everything to avoid it, but there are certain moments, like when my friend, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were executed after a show trial in 1995.
My colleagues and I decided that not only was violence justified, it was inevitable.
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