A chat with Wole Soyinka during Chinese literary festival

Wole Soyinka

Beijing poet Zhao Si, writer Tony Mochama and Nobel Literature Prize laureate Wole Soyinka at the Grosvenor House in Shanghai early this month.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • If Wole Soyinka was the interior of a building, he would be this lobby.
  • But he is an institution of world literature, and instantly recognizable.

“You look well and sprightly,” I say, as we warmly shake hands with Professor Wole Soyinka, 89, the first African, and still only wholly one of negritude extraction, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is, I believe, fairly common to feel a tremor of intimate recognition on your first glimpse of Wole Soyinka (although, in all fairness, I have met him twice before, at a North American literary festival in 2005, and at the Storymoja Hay Festival of 2014, where he had come to show support after the death, the year before, of diplomat-poet Koffi Awunoor, during the attack at Westgate mall). Like most literate residents of the planet, you have known this presence - calm, professorial, slightly self-ironic - all your reading life.

And now here he is, here we are, at a cosy self-contained lobby at the Grosvenor House in Shanghai, China, with its old world charm and warm and polished and burnished wood décor.

If Wole Soyinka was the interior of a building, he would be this lobby. But he is an institution of world literature, and instantly recognizable – that face with its old lion of literature mane, the intelligent eyes with their slightly quizzical look, but especially that world-famous Wole Soyinka afro, now white, that literally looks like a halo.

“Hallo, again,” he smiles. “I may look well on the exterior, but inside, I do feel incredibly old.”

This Yoruba man from Abeokuta, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka was born in 1934 in Nigeria, and has had quite an eventful life, outside of the literary arts (as poet, playwright and novelist). In 1967, he was sentenced to two years in solitary confinement during the Biafra War by the government of General Yakubu Gowon, for appointing himself a non-State mediator.

The poet Christopher Okigbo, a contemporary of Soyinka, was shot dead during that Civil War, for picking the pistol over the pencil, in a conflict where some chose the bullet over the ballot.

Quarter a century later, Wole Soyinka, although now a Nobel Prize winner and a teacher of literature at the Obafemi Awolowo University would find himself crossing the border on a boda boda. He was a wanted man by another ruling General, Sani Abacha, aka the ‘Butcher of Abuja.’

Having sentenced Professor Soyinka to death in absentia, Abacha went on to hang the famous writer Ken Saro Wiwa in November of 1995, ignoring world pressure to release the man of letters. Saro Wiwa’s crime had been to question the environmental exploitation of the Ogoni homelands as Abacha, like an ogre, plundered it for its oil. By the time of his poison death in 1998, Abacha had embezzled over $3 billion (Sh500 billion) from state coffers.

In 1999, Wole Soyinka made a triumphant return back to Nigeria.

And now here we are, in the December of 2023, as the only African participants in this Chinese literary festival in Shanghai that seeks to answer the question of the Arts in the Age of ‘AI.’

“I reject the term ‘Artificial Intelligence.’ All knowledge is a creation of human beings, including language, so that as a Yoruba, I will not presume to translate what AI means in English, as it is not my original language. I only have ‘artificial knowledge’ of the English language, do you see?”

I can see how this conversation is life imitating art intimating artificiality of language, but I also do know that Soyinka has been a visiting professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, those most English of places that not only compete in boat races but in giving us dictionaries (I’m Oxford).

As well as having actually taught for stints in American universities like Cornell, of course Emory, Loyola in LA, as well as UoN (University of Nevada) with visits to Duke, Harvard and Yale.

“Shall we call it not ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ but Surrogate Intelligence?” Wole Soyinka suggests.

“Chatbots, for instance, are the work of human beings, and not an act of science by AI. It did not fall like manna from the heavens, it was programmed by man. So I celebrate the human intelligence that created Surrogate Intelligence.”

“You do not see it, at all, as a threat in any way?”

“We can make up new phrases as we go along, like this Surrogate Intelligence, just as humans create new scientific systems as they go on along,” Soyinka says, deftly sidestepping the question. “I believe you are old enough to remember when telephone conversations were conducted through telephone operators?”

I nod, thinking of the mostly female voices from the 1980s at some Tele-Posta places across space, as one held on to be connected from a town, another country, to a different continent.

“We had fixed locations,” Wole Soyinka says. “Button ‘A’, Button ‘B,’ Button ‘C,’ Button ‘D,’ etc.

Robots do not suffer from insomnia, so they eventually replaced the Operators. Then we replaced the entire phone system. From the static, we went mobile. Satellite. Star Systems. Now we are our own operators, thanks to our artificial knowledge(s) and surrogate intelligence.”

When I remove my smartphone for the inevitable ‘selfie’ with Wole Soyinka, he becomes courteously and objectionably old school.

“Sorry, son, I don’t do selfies!”

Instead he asks the Polish Professor Dariuz Tomasz Lebioda who is there with a proper camera, carried like a bazooka, if he could do us the courtesy of an old school ‘photograph,’ us being Prof Soyinka, myself and well known Chinese poet Zhao Si, whom as Vice President of the European Medal of Poetry and Art, is there to present Wole Soyinka with the Homer Medal for Literature, for being the ‘African Shakespeare across literary genres for many decades,’ beginning in the mid-sixties with the play ‘The Lion and the Jewel,’ the novel ‘The Interpreters’ and ‘Poems from Prison.’

Just the day before, Professor Soyinka had been awarded the Golden Magnolia Poetry Award ‘for poetry that speaks to our innate humanity’ by the President of the Arts Council, Mr. Zhao Lihong.

“It is not the best of times in the world,” Soyinka says. “But then when could we last speak otherwise?”

Looking back, indeed, from the current conflicts in Ukraine by Russian invaders, the conflagration in the Congo, civil war in Sudan and Israel’s pulverization of the Gaza Strip, there are many things gone wrong with the world today, or as sings Steve Tyler in ‘Living on the Edge,’ “there something wrong with the world today, the lightbulb’s getting dim, there’s meltdown in the sky” (that one’s prophetically about global warming and climate change today)

“Still, in-spite of the fault lines, we exuberantly celebrate Humanity,” the Nobel laureate says, and then frowns. “What is human? When does ‘human’ happen? Poetry is simply the quest for ‘Human,’ and art the quest for humanity – across ideology, race, gender and religion – in us all.”

After a short pause, he adds: “It is a challenge for the poet, the writer, the playwright – and therefore our creative mission.”

“What do these awards, the Golden Magnolia, the Homer Medal of Literature, mean to you?”

“If I were to give voice to these awards,” Wole Soyinka says, “it would be that any honour be dedicated to the embattled children of the Middle East, the endangered species of the future.”

Around 12,000 infants and children have been killed by Israeli air and artillery attacks on the Gaza Strip since early October, with many dying trapped under the debris of destroyed buildings.

“The State that endangers these kids, and the States that are united in their support of it, the former must ask ‘Is what we are doing human?’ and the latter then have a fundamental responsibility to guide them back into the renewal of that quest, of what it is to be human.”

The inevitable black SUV is outside to take Professor Wole Soyinka for the next engagement.

The Polish Professor, Dariusz Tomasz Lebioda, is curious as to where Prof Wole Soyinka keeps his Nobel Prize for Literature medal.

“Actually, I lost it,” Soyinka reveals.

“What do you mean ‘lost’ it, sir?” Zhao Si cannot help it.

“To be more accurate, my publisher lost it,” Wole Soyinka says, graciously not revealing which of his many publishers. “They borrowed it, maybe to represent me in absentia, for an event. It disappeared, completely ...”

“Have you tried looking for it on e-Bay, Prof?” I risk the joke.

The Nobel Lit Laureate regards me with a wry smile. “I keep meaning to ask the academy in Stockholm to send me a replacement,” then he shrugs at his wife Folake Doherty as if to say ‘I forget.’

She is his third wife, his first one having been a British writer British Dixon that Wole Soyinka married young in 1958, with them divorced four years later.

He met his current wife when she was in university as a student, and he was a professor there.

They married in 1989, and it has been a lifelong union of love and companionship, a marriage that has borne three sons, and in spite of the three decades in age that separate them, they seem inseparable, so third time’s a charm.

It is also she who reminds me to get the autograph of the Soyinka novel I have been carrying, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” (and, no, it has no Finns in it), the book he wrote when Covid-19 had them in isolation, and his first novel in almost 50 years.

Later I will look at the book dedication above his magisterial and sweeping signature – “to the memory of DELE GIWA, investigative journalist, and BOLA IGE, politician sans pareil, both cut down by Nigerian assassins. And to FEMI JOHNSON, a thorough rounded human being and rare species of the creative joie de vivre,” and realise the trio embody Wole Soyinka’s interests – creativity, politics and the kind of investigative journalism that exposes the ills of Africa.

After all, it is the continent with the unhappiest people on the planet ...

“See you in 2032,” I say, by way of farewell, to Wole Soyinka. Seeing his perplexed look, I add: “It seems I get to see you every nine years, sire. 2005. 2014. 2023 ...”

“Life is mathematical, is it not?” and then we three are waving at our reflections on the rolled up windows of the car taking the Soyinkas to the poetry recital at No.300 Hehuan Rd, Pudong.

He will read his poem there, that one that goes “the human gaze be raised skyward/ not in fear or supplication, but to hail the fall of those who spew, what in its after-burn becomes ashes ...”

They will not join us that evening for the night cruise on the Huangpu River that the Shanghai International Poetry Festival has arranged for the 22 literary folks invited to this world bund.

Going to get my jacket that evening at the Jin Jang hotel, for it is chilly if beautiful in reception and perception, like some women, that Huangpu river in December, I come across an item on Al Jazeera. The Israeli Defence Forces, as they search for Hamas terrorists, have attacked Al Shifa hospital and killed dozens, many of them children.

Aghast, I will pick the pen and paper by my writing table in that Shanghai suite, and with Soyinka’s recited poem earlier that afternoon still echoing in my mind, write my own continuation: “...vessels that bear man, and Artificial Doom/ that seed what hews the human, post-humus / and in their aftermath (math of Hamas), a catacomb of Gaza’s children’s tombs.”

Mochama was the official E.A. African Union author of 2023, and has a dozen books to his name