Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, Nobel Prize in Literature 1986

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Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, Nobel Prize in Literature 1986

Also Known As: "Wole Soyinka"
Current Location:: Nigeria
Birthdate: (82)
Birthplace: Abeokuta, Gbawojo, Nigeria
Immediate Family:

Son of Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka
Husband of <private> Soyinka (Folake)
Ex-husband of <private> Soyinka (Skeath) and <private> Soyinka (Idowu)

Occupation: Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, first black African who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Managed by: Private User
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About Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, Nobel Prize in Literature 1986

Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, where he was recognised as a man "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence", and became the first African in Africa and in Diaspora to be so honoured. In 1994, he was designated UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication.

One of the most prominent members of the eminent Ransome-Kuti family, his mother Grace Eniola was the daughter of Rev. Canon JJ Ransome-Kuti, sister to Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti and Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, making Soyinka cousin to the late Fela Kuti, the late Beko Ransome-Kuti, the late Olikoye Ransome-Kuti and to Yemisi Ransome-Kuti.

Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta, specifically, a Remo family from Isara-Remo on July 13, 1934. His father was Christian Clergy, Canon SA Soyinka (aka "Teacher pupa" (light skinned teacher)). He received a primary school education in Abeokuta and attended secondary school at Government College, Ibadan. He then studied at the University College, Ibadan (1952–1954) where he founded the pyrates confraternity (an anti-corruption and justice seeking student organization) and the University of Leeds (1954–1957) from which he received a First class honours degree in English Literature. He worked as a play reader at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria to study African drama. He taught in the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, and Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife). He became a Professor of Comparative Literature at the then University of Ife in 1975. He is currently an Emeritus Professor at the same university.

Soyinka has played an active role in Nigeria's political history. In 1965, he made a broadcast demanding the cancellation of the rigged Western Nigeria Regional Elections following his seizure of the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio. He was arrested, arraigned but freed on a technicality by Justice Esho. In 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War he was arrested by the Federal Government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring Nigerian and Biafran parties. While in prison he wrote poetry on tissue paper which was published in a collection titled Poems from Prison. He was released 22 months later after international attention was drawn to his unwarranted imprisonment. His experiences in prison are recounted in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1972).

He has been an implacable, consistent and outspoken critic of many Nigerian military dictators, and of political tyrannies worldwide, including the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. A great deal of his writing has been concerned with "the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it". This activism has often exposed him to great personal risk, most notable during the government of General Sani Abacha (1993–1998), which pronounced a death sentence on him "in absentia". During Abacha's regime, Soyinka escaped from Nigeria via the "Nadeco Route" on motorcycle. While abroad, he visited parliaments and conferred with world leaders to impose a regime of sanctions against the brutal Abacha regime. These actions and his setting up of the Radio Kudirat helped immensely in securing Nigeria's return to civilian democratic governance. Living abroad, mainly in the United States, he was a professor first at Cornell University and then subsequently taught at Emory University in Atlanta. When civilian rule returned in 1999, Soyinka returned to a hero's welcome back in Lagos, Nigeria. He accepted an Emeritus Professorship at Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) on the condition that the university bar all former military officers from the position of chancellor. Soyinka is currently the Elias Ghanem Professor of Creative Writing at the English department of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the President's Marymount Institute Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, US.


Early life

Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934, in the city of Abeokuta, Ogun State in Nigeria's Western Region (at that time a British dominion), as the second of six children of Samuel Ayodele Soyinka and Grace Eniola Soyinka. His father, whom he often refers to as S.A. or "Essay" in literalized form, was the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abẹokuta. Soyinka's mother, dubbed by him as "Wild Christian", owned a shop in the nearby market and was a political activist within the women's movement in the local community. His mother was Anglican, although much of the community followed indigenous Yorùbá religious tradition. Soyinka grew up in an atmosphere of religious syncretism, with influences from both Christianity and his culture's traditional beliefs. The home of the Soyinka family had electricity and radio (chiefly thanks to his father).

In 1940, after attending St. Peters Primary School, Soyinka went to Abẹokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time one of Nigeria’s elite secondary schools. After the completion of his studies there, Soyinka moved to Lagos where he found employment as a clerk. During this time he wrote some radio plays and short stories that were broadcast on Nigerian radio stations. After finishing his course in 1952, he began studies at University College in Ibadan, connected with University of London. During this course he studied English literature, Greek, and Western history.

In the year 1953-1954, his second and last at University College, Ibadan, Soyinka commenced work on his first publication, a short radio broadcast for Nigerian Broadcasting Service National Programme called "Keffi's Birthday Threat," which was broadcast in July 1954 on Nigerian Radio Times. Whilst at university, Soyinka and six others founded the Pyrates Confraternity, the first confraternity in Nigeria.

Studies abroad and at home

Later in 1954 Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds. He became acquainted then with a number of young, gifted British writers. Before defending his B.A., Soyinka successfully engaged in literary fiction, publishing several pieces of comedic nature. He also worked as an editor for The Eagle, an infrequent periodical of humorous character. In a page two column in The Eagle, he wrote commentaries on academic life, often stingingly criticizing his university peers. Well known for his sharp tongue, he is said to have courteously defended, affronted and insulted female colleagues.[citation needed]

After completing his degree, he remained in Leeds with the intention of earning an M.A. Influenced by his promoter, Soyinka decided to attempt to merge European theatrical traditions with those of his Yorùbá cultural heritage. In 1958 his first major play emerged, titled The Swamp Dwellers. One year later, he wrote The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy which received interest from several members of London's Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka left Leeds and moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan.

However, by 1960, Soyinka had received the Rockefeller Research Fellowship from his alma mater in Ibadan, and returned to Nigeria. In March he produced his new satire The Trials of Brother Jero. One of his most recognized plays, A Dance of The Forest, a biting criticism of Nigeria's political elites, won a contest as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. Also in 1960, Soyinka established an amateur ensemble acting company which would consume much of his time over the next few years: the Nineteen-Sixty Masks.

In addition to these activities, Soyinka published various works satirizing the "emergency" in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. This had usurped the democratically-elected, Yorùbá-based Action Group (AG) political party by installing the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), an amalgamation of conservative Yoruba interests backed by the largely Northern-dominated federal government. The increasingly militarized occupation of the Western Region eventually led to a disequilibrium in power, placing the more left-leaning Action Group and the Igbo-centric National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in tenuous positions, as national politics began catering exclusively to more conservative interests. This imbalance eventually led to a coup by military officers under Major Kaduna Nzeogwu.

With the money gained from the Rockefeller Foundation for research on African Theater, Soyinka bought a Land Rover and began traveling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan. In an essay published at this time, he criticized Leopold Senghor's Négritude as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernization. "A tiger does not shout its tigritude," he declared, "it acts."

In December 1962, his essay "Towards a True Theater" was published, and he began working for the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ifẹ. Soyinka discussed current affairs with "negrophiles," and on several occasions openly opposed government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie emerged, Culture in Transition. In April 1964 The Interpreters, "a complex but also vividly documentary novel",[5] was published in London. That December, together with other scientists and men of theater, he founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. This same year he resigned his university post, as a protest against imposed pro-government behavior by authorities. A few months later, he was arrested for the first time, accused of underlying tapes during reproduction of recorded speech of the winner of Nigerian elections, but he was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he also wrote two more dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout, the comedy Kongi’s Harvest, and a radio play for the BBC in London called The Detainee. At the end of the year he was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at Lagos University.

Soyinka's political speeches at that time criticized the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. April 1965 brought a revival of his play Kongi’s Harvest at the International Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal, where another of his plays, The Road, was awarded the Grand Prix. In June, Soyinka produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.

Civil war involvement and imprisonment

The coup led by Major Chukwuma K Nzeogwu in January 1966 was counteracted by another coup in July of the same year, this time led by a cabal of largely Northern officers, placing General Yakubu Gowan in the position of head of state. Immediately following the coup, sectarian violence erupted as many Igbo living outside of their homeland in the southeast were subjected to violent retaliatory action, which many considered to be of genocidal proportions. Droves of Igbos were forced to return home, where calls for secession from the Nigerian state increased under military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.

After becoming chief of Cathedral of Drama at University of Ibadan, Soyinka who had gained considerable respect within Nigeria would involve himself in the destabilizing political situation. In August 1967, he secretly and unofficially met Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu, with the aim of averting civil war. For his attempts at negotiating a peaceful solution to the conflict, Soyinka was forced to commence living underground.

However, his involvement in the developing national crisis did not end here. Wọle returned to Ẹnugu to meet with Victor Banjọ, a Yorùbá who had been swayed to the Biafran side. Banjọ intimated to Soyinka a message of critical importance in regards to Biafra's goals, which he claimed were "national liberation" for the whole of Nigeria. For these efforts, Banjọ sought the support of Western military leaders; in particular, he delivered Banjo's message directly to Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, who had recently been appointed to commanding officer for the Western Region. Four evenings after Soyinka returned to the West, Biafran forces invaded the Midwest region, an area which previously maintained de facto neutrality; this altered the terms and conditions of the war drastically, as the Biafrans had turned into both secessionists and expansionists.

Following the occupation of the Midwest, Soyinka met Obasanjo face-to-face to relay the goals of the Biafrans to the man in control of the West. Unfortunately Ọbasanjọ's decision to side with the Nigerian federation had already been made. The invasion of the Midwest eventually sparked counter-attacks into the Midwest by federal government forces, signaling the commencement of civil war. Ọbasanjọ disclosed his meeting with Soyinka to his superiors, who declared the writer a traitor and convened search parties to obtain Soyinka for arrest, which they eventually did. Soyinka was then incarcerated until the end of the unfolding civil war.

He endured imprisonment for 22 months as his country slid into civil war between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though he was refused basic materials, such as books, pens, and paper, for continuing his creative work during much of his imprisonment, he did manage to write a significant body of poems and notes criticizing the Nigerian government. Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra, and in November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry entitled Idanre and Other Poems. Idanre was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom Soyinka regards irreligiously as his companion deity, kindred spirit, and protector.

In 1968, also in New York, the group Negro Ensemble Company showed Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D.O. Fagunwa, called The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga.

Release and literary productivity

In the late 1950s, Soyinka completed his first two important plays, "The Swamp Dwellers" and "The Lion and the Jewel," both tackling the uneasy relationship between progress and tradition in Africa. His play "The Invention" was staged in 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as "The Immigrant" and "My Next Door Neighbour," which appeared in the magazine Black Orpheus. In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka was released from prison. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude after the period of mental stagnation. From this experience emerged The Bacchae of Euripides, a reworking of the Pentheus myth. He soon published out of London a tome of his poetry based on his experience in prison, Poems from Prison. At the end of the year, he returned to his office of Headmaster of Cathedral of Drama in Ibadan, and cooperated in the founding of the literary periodical “Black Orpheus”.

In 1970 he produced the play Kongi’s Harvest, while simultaneously creating a film by the same title. In June 1970, he concluded another play, called Madman and Specialists. With the intention of gaining theatrical experience, along with the group of fifteen actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the famous Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut in the United States, where his latest play premiered. In 1971 his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. While Madmen and Specialists was exposed afresh in Ibadan, Soyinka took the lead role as the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, in the Paris production of Murderous Angels. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison, was issued the same year. In April, concerned about the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and began a few years of voluntary exile. In July, in Paris, fragments of his famous play “The Dance of The Forests” were performed.

In 1972 he was declared an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, another of his novels, Season of Anomy, came out, in addition to his Collected Plays, published by the Oxford University Press. In 1973 the National Theatre, London, which commissioned the play, premiered The Bacchae of Euripides in a "reputedly misconceived" production. In 1973 the plays Camwood on the Leaves, and Jero's Metamorphosis were first published. From 1973-1975, Soyinka devoted himself to scientific activity. He underwent one year probation at Churchill College of Cambridge University, and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.

In 1974 Collected Plays, Volume II was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975 Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for Transition, a magazine based in the Ghanaian capital, Accra (where he moved for some time). Soyinka utilized his columns in Transition to once again attack the “negrofiles” (in his essay “Neo-Tarsanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”), and military regimes, protesting against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After the political turnover in Nigeria, and the subversion of Gowon's military regime in 1975 he returned to his homeland and re-assumed his position of the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.

In 1976 the poetry collection Ogun Abibiman appeared, and a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World, in which Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from the literatures of both continents, compares and contrasts European and African cultures. At the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon, he delivered a series of guest lectures and became a professor at the University of Ife. In October, the French version of The Dance of The Forests was performed in Dakar, while in Ife Death and The King’s Horseman premiered.

In 1977 Opera Wọnyọsi, his adaptation of Bertold Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, was staged, and in 1979 he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton's drama The Biko Inquest, a work based on the story of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist beaten to death by Apartheid police forces. In 1981 Wọle Soyinka’s first autobiographical novel Ake: The Years of Childhood was released. From the memoir, it is vivid to the five senses of man that he is an infant prodigy. The memoirs, "Ake: The Years of Childhood" and "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" portray literature as a foundation of pleasure. Both are sublime and classic. With a total of five memoirs, Soyinka is regarded number one producer of memoirs in the world.

Soyinka founded another theatrical group (after Nineteen-Sixty Masks), called Guerrilla Unit, its aim being to cooperate with local communities analyzing their actual problems and then responding to some of their grievances in dramatic sketches. In 1983 the play Requiem for a Futurologist had its initial performance at the University of Ife. In July one of Soyinka's musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-play record titled I Love My Country, where a number of prominent Nigerian musicians play songs composed by and provided with lyrics by Wọle Soyinka. In 1984, he directed the film Blues for a Prodigal, which premiered the same year as a new play, A Play of Giants.

The years 1975-1984 were for Soyinka a period of increased political activity. During that time he was among the authorities at the University of Ife; among other duties, he was responsible for the security of public roads. He continuously criticized the corruption in the government of democratically-elected President Shehu Shagari, and often found himself at odds with Shagari's military successor, Muhammadu Buhari. In 1984, a Nigerian court banned The Man Died, and in 1985, the play Requiem for a Futurologist went into print in London.

Nobel Prize laureate

In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence” becoming the first African laureate. His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka's speech was an outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the majority by the Nationalist South African government. In 1986, he received the Agip Prize for Literature.

Soyinka's Nobel Prize Lecture, "This Past Must Address Its Present," judged to be very revealing, revelling, poignant, eloquent, is an eye-opener to the misdeeds of the Apartheid South Africa. The Lecture is the most revealing and downright message concerning the enslaved, colonized and disparaged Africans and International Affairs since the foundation of Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901. It is an ideal legacy for people interested in rhetorics, history and International Relations. The power of words cannot be underestimated. They can move passionate hearts to reason and tears. At long last, the disparate words moved the entire world to reason and tears, resulting in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, after 27 years behind bars.

In 1988, his new collection of poems Mandela's Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. In the same year, Soyinka accepted the position of professor of African studies and theatre at Cornell University. In 1990, the second portion of his memoir called Isara: A Voyage Around Essay appeared. In July 1991 the BBC African Service transmits his radio play A Scourge of Hyacinths, and the next year (in June 1992) in Siena (Italy), his play From Zia with Love has its premiere. Both works are very bitter political parodies, based on events which took place in Nigeria in the 1980s. In 1993 Soyinka was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Harvard University. The next year appears another part of his autobiography Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946-1965). The following year his play The Beatification of Area Boy was published. On 21 October 1994 Soyinka was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication. In November 1994 Soyinka fled from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis was first published.

In 1997 Soyinka was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. In 1999 a new volume of poems entitled Outsiders was released. His play King Baabu, premiered in Lagos in 2001, is a political satire on the theme of African dictatorship and the "warped aspect of human nature that makes people think they have the right to dominate others and also inflict very agonising experiences on fellow humans". In 2002 a collection of his poems, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, was published by Methuen. In April 2006, his memoirs, titled You Must Set Forth at Dawn, were published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A. Write Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai military's successful coup against the government.

In April 2007 Soyinka called for the cancellation of the Nigerian presidential elections held two weeks earlier because of widespread fraud and violence.

Soyinka, along with theatre director Richard Schechner, actor Alan Cumming and filmmaker Brad Mays was interviewed about The Bacchae as part of an up-coming series Invitation to World Literature, which officially launched on Annenberg Media's educational website in September, 2010. The series, produced by Annie Wong for WGBH Boston, began airing nationally on PBS in October, 2010. Soyinka continues to serve as resource person globally while acting as inspiration and voice of conscience to leaders and recently in the wake of the Christmas Day (2009) attempted bombing cautioned that the United Kingdom's social logic which allows every religion to openly proselytize their faith is being abused by religious fundamentalists thereby turning England into a cesspit for the breeding of extremism. He affirmed that freedom of worship is logical and correct but warned against the consequence of the illogic of allowing religions to preach apocalyptic violence.

Political Philosophy

Granted that political philosophy is the participation, the contribution and the study of the issues and concerns pertaining to the nature of the city, government, politics, laws, rights, liberty and justice for mankind, Soyinka has associated himself with all these. Literarily, philosophically and politically, he has done all the above, and excelled in all, as a multi-talented political philosopher.

He was a peace maker (putting his life in harm's way) during the Nigerian Civil War. In 1994, he was appointed by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African cultures in Africa and in Diaspora, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication--as a result of his indefatigable savvies/activities as a political philosopher who knows how to start a journey and how to end it.

Now that political culture is sprouting in Nigeria, we cannot but doff our tasselled hats to the "Bringer of Light" and his comrades who have fearlessly fought for a marked or charted direction--politically and philosophically.

In recognition of Governor Fashola's political philosophy and politics of success in Lagos State, Soyinka lets the world know that Governor Fashola is not our typical politician but a politician who works like "a skilled mechanic."

After decades of struggle for democracy and freedom of expression, Soyinka announced in 2010 that he has decided to retire from public life. Soyinka has been married three times. While in England, Soyinka married Barbara Skeath, a fellow student at Leeds; the marriage was brief. His second wife, Laide Idowu, whom he met while studying at the University College, Ibadan, worked before her retirement as Librarian of Olabisi Onabanjo University. In 1989 he married his third wife, Doherty Folake, also a Nigerian.

Following President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on the country's uprising, Soyinka and other writers, such as Umberto Eco, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie, urged in June 2011 the United Nations to condemn the repression in Syria as a crime against humanity.

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Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, Nobel Prize in Literature 1986's Timeline

July 13, 1934
Abeokuta, Gbawojo, Nigeria