Wole Soyinka turned 81 today. For many, that milestone must seem incredible. He looks scandalously young and vibrant, his physique trim, his mind ever engaged with some of the major literary and political issues of our time. He’s the kind of man who provokes the question, “What is the secret…?”
The 1986 Nobel Prize for literature often strikes me as a kind of birdman. The metaphor is inspired by his amazing restlessness, his constant trips around the world in the service of the arts and ethics.
An old joke among his friends and close admirers is that the man lives in the air. The joke is far from an exaggeration. Soyinka maintains an itinerary that would daunt many people half his age. I have had the privilege of being present as he gave a public lecture in Nigeria or the United States, often in an academic setting.
I have also run into him at several airports in different parts of the world—New York, Atlanta, London, Amsterdam, Lagos. He’s easy to spot because he stands out in any crowd. There’s that signature dome of hair, a puff of white, as regal as halo. There’s that sartorial air all his own, a sleeveless vest often hanging over a band collar shirt. And there’s that briskness of movement befitting a man who is called, again and again, to attend to some fire in his country or around the world.
It’s as if Soyinka’s patron deity, Ogun, prepared him well—in mind and body—for his tough assignment as artist and activist. In fact, the implied dichotomy between artist and activist is often erased in Soyinka. His art frequently embodies his ethical outlook and concerns, which is not to say that his art is reducible to his politics.
The constant seeking of a balance between art and political engagement has been Soyinka’s inescapable burden and boon. One suspects that more Nigerians have encountered Soyinka through his unceasing interventions on political issues than in his artistic enterprise. It’s something of an odd situation, but wholly understandable. Soyinka’s language is, as a rule, stylistically and structurally challenging.
His language is far above the diction quotient of most users of the English language in the world. That conjuncture—the rarefied register of Soyinka’s language and the fact that most readers have relatively modest linguistic funds—accounts, in part at least, for the often-levied charge that the Nobel laureate’s art is elitist and that he delights in esoteric speech.
For me, the seeming legitimacy of that charge is mitigated by the fact that Soyinka is the closest contemporary example in Africa of what—for want of a better word—I would describe as a total artist. I know of no African writer—and few in the world—who has approached the sheer breadth of Wole Soyinka’s artistic arsenal. He is, quite simply, Africa’s preeminent artist par excellence, a catholic entrepreneur of the expressive arts.
By catholic, I allude, of course, to his insistence that no artistic form would be foreign to him. He has worked in such varied genres as drama, poetry, fiction, memoir, cultural theory, music, film, criticism, journalism, and translation. He has most excelled as a dramatist, several of his world-class plays commanding critical praise for their dramatic tension, their resonance of language, their equal evocation of the social and the mythic, and for the playwright’s flair for plumbing the depths of his characters’ psychology. His achievement in the other areas, including his two highly unique novels, is significant.
I’m often curious how Soyinka has been able to maintain such a remarkable, if not unsurpassed, level of artistic productivity despite the incessant intrusion of the peculiar mess called Nigeria.
In 2006, shortly after the publication of his most comprehensive memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, I had an occasion to broach the issue. In an interview sponsored by the Chinua Achebe Foundation, I asked Soyinka: “Your new book, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, has just come out. You are not only a writer, but also an activist, an agent provocateur…something of a conscience of the nation. How do you reconcile such diverse demands?”
Here’s how he answered that question: “I don’t know about being the conscience of the nation. I’m satisfied with being my own conscience, and perhaps that’s what drives me. I have never really separated the two functions, which means that I have never given myself the burden of trying to reconcile incompatibles. We are all, before anything else, citizens. We belong to an environment and have a sense of community. Being part of a community means enjoying the security of being part of a family, but at the same time, accepting responsibilities towards that family. I mean, a nation is an extended family. So I have never seen my function as being different from the functions of any other citizen, except, of course, that my profession happens to be that of the word. And so I use that tool in the interest of my responsibilities. There’s no contradiction, whatsoever. Okay, from time to time I resent it very strongly. Let’s say I’m in the midst of, or planning a particular creative project. I’ve become internally committed to it, and something external impinges—like, what you’ve just mentioned; the politics of one’s existence—and of such urgency, that I have to abandon my project. And then there come strong resentment: Oh my God, not again, not again. When will I be able to plan my life according to my immediate moods, and so on? But it’s only in terms of those periods that there is resentment.”
Some people criticize Soyinka for the frequency of his critical comments on Nigeria, for his jeremiads against what he might call the “anti-men/women” leading Nigeria to ruination. Yet, I greatly admire Soyinka’s stipulation that we are, above all, citizens. As citizens, as Soyinka reminded us in his prison memoir, The Man Died, we cannot afford silence in the face of tyranny. As citizens, we must abhor the climate of unreason that darkness our space and deadens every facet of our society. As enlightened citizens, we ought to challenge ourselves and summon our fellows to rise to a loftier imagination and achieve a vital, vitalizing community.
I am in Soyinka’s debt for modeling what it means to be an engaged citizen and committed artist, and for demonstrating that the two impulses are not incompatible. May he be granted many more years of service to society and the artistic muse.