Wole Soyinka turns glorious 80

What you need to know:

  • Yet, the importance of Soyinka for me is not so much his global repute as a colossal African writer who, with others of his generation, thrust Black Africa onto the scene of global literary networks, but in the immediacy of his pronouncements to our Kenyan experiences.
  • Soyinka’s sensibility to the perils of bigotry is captured in poems on the Biafran war and the human displacement that arose out of that implosion.
  • If Soyinka’s early poetry concerns itself with such profound issues, it is also known for having stylistic and structural barriers that make the poems almost impenetrable.

In Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman, the drama of human weakness plays out in Elesin’s flip-flop when he should will himself to death as custom prescribes.

Having lived gloriously as the king’s horseman, nothing humanly desirable is beyond Elesin’s reach, not even on the day he should die to accompany the king. But then, Elesin begins to demonstrate human fear of death in a poetic language that baffles those around him.

In the Praise Singer’s words, “Elesin’s riddles (become) not merely the nut in the kernel that breaks human teeth; he also buries the kernel in hot embers and dares a man’s fingers to draw it out.”

Besides the gravity of issues that Soyinka deal with in this and his other plays, it is his use of language that makes his works a joy to read for some and, for others, students especially, an agonising experience that can only be done under the duress of impending examination.

For this reason, Soyinka’s works have attracted immense critical responses, most of which have been metacritical.

INCOMPLETE DEBATES

In fact, James Gibbs and Bernth Lindfors state that while “more has been published on Soyinka than on any other Anglophone African writer, much more needs to be written before we will be able to comprehend and measure the expansive dimensions of his creativity.”

This is urgently necessary as Soyinka, the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, turns 80 this month.

Born in 1934 in Abeokuta, among Nigeria’s Yoruba people whose cultural ethos have been dominant reference points in his creative and critical writings, Soyinka is a global literary figure whose extensive use of mythology has contributed immensely to the sociology of African literature.

Yet, the importance of Soyinka for me is not so much his global repute as a colossal African writer who, with others of his generation, thrust Black Africa onto the scene of global literary networks, but in the immediacy of his pronouncements to our Kenyan experiences.

This is more prominent, for instance, in his Dubois Institute Macmillan Lecture series, later published in The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, in which he deals with issues ranging from Africa’s incomplete debate on reparations and our political leaders’ rather simplistic initiatives aimed at unravelling ‘truth’ and bringing about ‘reconciliation.’

As words, what I mark in quotes are good to talk about and possibly to pursue; but beyond that they convey difficult impositions on people whose experiences of being systemically diminished render any pronouncements to the effect of forgiveness or what is true mere lip service.

I agree with Soyinka that “there is something about the magnitude of some wrongs that transcends the feelings of vengeance, even of redress in any form.” This, for us in Kenya, resonates quite clearly with the old talk of tusahau yaliyopita tujenge taifa, propagated by a father, and the rehashed version of ‘accept and move on’ chorused by his son’s supporters.

The tragedy in this dismissive approach to real grievances is that it impedes the necessary examination of our collective memory, thereby undermining the possible imagination of a seamless Kenyan nation. That is why our country has many ethnic bigots who are reluctant Kenyans.

Soyinka’s sensibility to the perils of bigotry is captured in poems on the Biafran war and the human displacement that arose out of that implosion. In Massacre, October ‘66, he decries the tendency to alienate compatriots on some quirky basis, as ‘strangers’ who ‘are not strangers at all’, but who are forced to ‘borrow seasons of an alien land / in brotherhood of ill, pride of race around….’ As a country, we have come quite close to such a state, and for other Kenyans in Mpeketoni, Marsabit and Bungoma, they have seen it.

If Soyinka’s early poetry concerns itself with such profound issues, it is also known for having stylistic and structural barriers that make the poems almost impenetrable. Like Elesin, Soyinka easily buries his poetry kernels deep in the kilns of obscurity from which his readers must pull out before attempting to decipher them.

This is due to many reasons; his deep knowledge of the polytheist worldview of the Yoruba that he conflates with ‘the African world’, traditional Yoruba poetic techniques, use of private symbols, besides the Judaeo-Christian religious and Western literary influences in Soyinka’s poetry.

BROTHER JERO

Yet, it is this ability to infuse diverse influences into an established poetic and dramatic tradition that makes Soyinka one of Africa’s outstanding poet, dramatist and essayist. In his transformation of the classical Greek play The Bacchae of Euripides, Soyinka demonstrates the inter-connectedness of human experiences in Europe and Africa, but also a universal philosophy of human life before and after Christianity.

Soyinka also knows that Christianity as a faith has not been successful in creating a moral code that can be practised fully even by church leaders.

So he has created the memorable Brother Jeroboam in The Trials of Brother Jero, a rogue pastor whose little failings, in Gogol’s words, is a roving eye which  reassures him in the wake of his overbearing wife.

Like many seasoned writer-critics, Soyinka does not easily fall for or into simplifications.

In both Jero and his wife, Amope, Soyinka gives as characters that invite acceptance than rejection. While we may laugh at Jero’s double life and his diminished status before other people, we mainly sympathise with him when he increasingly becomes helpless in the hands of his whining, demanding wife — herself credited for her abiding commitment to her marriage.

In The Trials, as in other plays, Soyinka seems to push the idea that our humanity is reinforced by weaknesses more than strengths — some irrational logic, one would say, but which he keeps harping on even in his autobiographical works. We see this in Ake: The Years of Childhood, where the young Soyinka, preparing to leave his home for high school, embarks on ‘mental shifts for admittance to yet another irrational world of adults.’

To revisit the beginning, the Praise Singer says: “A man is either born to his art or he isn’t,” and clearly Soyinka was born to his art. I have heard it said by my betters in my department that Soyinka is pompous. I don’t know about that, but I know that his stylistic prowess and language use; his characterisation and engagement with real human conditions, are the sterner stuff that literature is made of.

The beauty about literature, especially the oral component, is that one can cut a long story short by citing a proverb.

From my part of the world, they say it is only when an elephant walks away that we begin talking about the smallness of its posterior.

In its presence? Silence. In the Yoruba part of the world, thanks to the Praise Singer, they say the “elephant deserves better than that we say ‘I have caught / A glimpse of something.’ If we see the tamer / Of the forest let us say plainly, we have seen / An elephant.”

At the age of 80, the elephant is, once again, coming to us.

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