Ake, Soyinka's village, was mainly populated with people from the Yoruba tribe and was presided over by the ogboni, or tribal elders. Soyinka's grandfather introduced him to the pantheon of Yoruba gods and to other tribal folklore. His parents were key representatives of colonial influences, however: his mother was a devout Christian convert and his father acted as headmaster for the village school established by the British. When Soyinka's father began urging Wole to leave Ake to attend the government school in Ibadan, the boy was spirited away by his grandfather, who administered a scarification rite of manhood. Soyinka was also consecrated to the god Ogun, ruler of metal, roads, and both the creative and destructive essence. Ogun is a recurring figure in Soyinka's work and has been named by the author as his muse.
Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka's account of his first ten years, stands as "a classic of childhood memoirs wherever and whenever produced," stated New York Times Book Review contributor James Olney. Numerous critics have singled out Soyinka's ability to recapture the changing perspective of a child as the book's outstanding feature; it begins in a light tone but grows increasingly serious as the boy matures and becomes aware of the problems faced by the adults around him. The book concludes with an account of a tax revolt organized by Soyinka's mother and the beginnings of Nigerian independence.
"Most of 'Ake' charms; that was Mr. Soyinka's intention," wrote John Leonard in the New York Times. "The last fifty pages, however, inspire and confound; they are transcendent." Olney was of a similar opinion, writing that "the lyricism, grace, humor and charm of 'Ake' ... are in the service of a profoundly serious viewpoint. ... Mr. Soyinka, however, does this dramatically, not discursively. Through recollection, restoration and re-creation, he conveys a personal vision that was formed by the childhood world that he now returns to evoke and exalt in his autobiography. This is the ideal circle of autobiography at its best. It is what makes 'Ake' in addition to its other great virtues, the best introduction available to the work of one of the liveliest, most exciting writers in the world today."
Soyinka published some poems and short stories in Black Orpheus, a highly regarded Nigerian literary magazine, before leaving Africa to attend the University of Leeds in England. There his first play was produced. The Invention is a comic satire based on a sudden loss of pigment by South Africa's black population. Unable to distinguish blacks from whites and thus enforce its apartheid policies, the government is thrown into chaos. "The play is Soyinka's sole direct treatment of the political situation in Africa," noted Thomas Hayes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986.
Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1960 shortly after the country's independence from colonial rule had been declared. He began to research Yoruba folklore and drama in depth and incorporated elements of both into his play A Dance of the Forests, which was commissioned as part of Nigeria's independence celebrations. In his play, Soyinka warned the newly independent Nigerians that the end of colonial rule did not mean an end to their country's problems. It shows a bickering group of mortals who summon up the egungun (spirits of the dead, revered by the Yoruba people) for a festival. They have presumed the egungun to be noble and wise, but they discover that their ancestors are as petty and spiteful as any living people. "The whole concept ridicules the African viewpoint that glorifies the past at the expense of the present," suggested John F. Povey in Tri-Quarterly. "The sentimentalized glamour of the past is exposed so that the same absurdities may not be reenacted in the future. This constitutes a bold assertion to an audience awaiting an easy appeal to racial heroics." Povey also praised Soyinka's skill in using dancing, drumming, and singing to reinforce his theme: "The dramatic power of the surging forest dance [in the play] carries its own visual conviction. It is this that shows Soyinka to be a man of the theatre, not simply a writer."
After warning against living in nostalgia for Africa's past in A Dance of the Forests, Soyinka lampooned the indiscriminate embrace of Western modernization in The Lion and the Jewel. The plot revolves around Sidi, the village beauty, and the rivalry between her two suitors. Baroka is the village chief, an old man with many wives; Lakunle is the enthusiastically Westernized schoolteacher who dreams of molding Sidi into a "civilized" woman.
In Introduction to Nigerian Literature, Eldred Jones commented that The Lion and the Jewel represents "a clash between the genuine and the false; between the well-done and the half-baked. Lakunle the school teacher would have been a poor symbol of any desirable kind of progress. ... He is a man of totally confused values. [Baroka's worth lies in] the traditional values of which he is so confident and in which he so completely outmaneouvres Lakunle who really has no values at all." Bruce King, editor of Introduction to Nigerian Literature, named The Lion and the Jewel "the best literary work to come out of Africa."
Soyinka was well established as Nigeria's premier playwright when, in 1965, he published his first novel, The Interpreters. The novel allowed him to expand on themes already expressed in his stage dramas and to present a sweeping view of Nigerian life in the years immediately following independence. Essentially plotless, The Interpreters is loosely structured around informal discussions among five young Nigerian intellectuals. Each one has been educated in a foreign country and returned, hoping to shape Nigeria's destiny. They are hampered by their own confused values, however, as well as the corruption they encounter everywhere. Some reviewers likened Soyinka's writing style in The Interpreters to that of James Joyce and William Faulkner. Others took exception to the formless quality of the novel, but Eustace Palmer asserted in The Growth of the African Novel: "If there are reservations about the novel's structure, there can be none about the thoroughness of the satire at society's expense. Soyinka's wide-ranging wit takes in all sections of a corrupt society. ... He is careful to expose [the interpreters'] selfishness, egoism, cynicism and aimlessness. Indeed the conduct of the intellectuals both in and out of the university is a major preoccupation of Soyinka's in this novel. The aimlessness and superficiality of the lives of most of the interpreters is patent."
Neil McEwan pointed out in Africa and the Novel that for all its seriousness, The Interpreters is also "among the liveliest of recent novels in English. It is bright satire full of good sense and good humour which are African and contemporary: the highest spirits of its author's early work. ... Behind the jokes of his novel is a theme that he has developed angrily elsewhere: that whatever progress may mean for Africa it is not a lesson to be learned from outside, however much of 'modernity' Africans may share with others." McEwan further observed that although The Interpreters does not have a rigidly structured plot, "there is unity in the warmth and sharpness of its comic vision. There are moments which sadden or anger; but they do not diminish the fun." Palmer noted that The Interpreters notably influenced the African fiction that followed it, shifting the focus "from historical, cultural and sociological analysis to penetrating social comment and social satire."
The year The Interpreters was published, 1965, also marked Soyinka's first arrest by the Nigerian police. He was accused of using a gun to force a radio announcer to broadcast incorrect election results. No evidence was ever produced, however, and the PEN writers' organization launched a protest campaign, headed by William Styron and Norman Mailer. Soyinka was released after three months. He was next arrested two years later, during Nigeria's civil war. Soyinka was completely opposed to the conflict and especially to the Nigerian government's brutal policies toward the Ibo people who were attempting to form their own country, Biafra. He traveled to Biafra to establish a peace commission composed of leading intellectuals from both sides; when he returned, the Nigerian police accused him of helping the Biafrans to buy jet fighters. Once again he was imprisoned, this time held for more than two years although never formally charged with any crime. Most of that time, he was kept in solitary confinement. When all of his fellow prisoners were vaccinated against meningitis, Soyinka was passed by; when he developed serious vision problems, they were ignored by his jailers. He was denied reading and writing materials, but he manufactured his own ink and began to keep a prison diary, written on toilet paper, cigarette packages and in between the lines of the few books he secretly obtained. Each poem or fragment of journal he managed to smuggle to the outside world became a literary event and a reassurance to his supporters that he still lived, despite rumors to the contrary. He was released in 1969 and left Nigeria soon after, not returning until a change of power took place in 1975.
Published as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, the author's diary constitutes "the most important work ever written about the Biafran war," believed Charles R. Larson, a contributor to the Nation. "The Man Died is not so much the story of Wole Soyinka's own temporary death during the Nigerian Civil War but a personified account of Nigeria's fall from sanity documented by one of the country's leading intellectuals." Gerald Weales's New York Times Book Review article suggested that the political content of The Man Died is less fascinating than "the notes that deal with prison life, the observation of everything from a warder's catarrh to the predatory life of insects after a rain. Of course, these are not simply reportorial. They are vehicles to carry the author's shifting states of mind, to convey the real subject matter of the book; the author's attempt to survive as a man, and as a mind. The notes are both a means to that survival and a record to it." Larson underlined the book's political impact, however, noting that ironically, "while other Nigerian writers were emotionally castrated by the war, Soyinka, who was placed in solitary confinement so that he wouldn't embarrass the government, was writing work after work, books that will no doubt embarrass the Nigerian Government more than anything the Ibo writers may ever publish." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer expressed similar sentiment, characterizing The Man Died as "a damning indictment of what Mr. Soyinka sees as the iniquities of wartime Nigeria and the criminal tyranny of its administration in peacetime." Many literary commentators felt that Soyinka's work changed profoundly after his prison term, darkening in tone and focusing on the war and its aftermath.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, Hayes quoted Soyinka on his concerns after the war: "I have one abiding religion--human liberty. ... Conditioned to the truth that life is meaningless, insulting, without this fullest liberty, and in spite of the despairing knowledge that words alone seem unable to guarantee its possession, my writing grows more and more preoccupied with the theme of the oppressive boot, the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it and the struggle for individuality." In spite of its satire, most critics found The Interpreters to be ultimately an optimistic book. In contrast, Soyinka's second novel, Season of Anomy, expresses almost no hope for Africa's future, wrote John Mellors in London magazine, commenting that the author seemed to write the book "in a blazing fury, angry beyond complete control of words at the abuses of power and the outbreaks of both considered and spontaneous violence. ... The plot charges along, dragging the reader (not because he doesn't want to go, but because he finds it hard to keep up) through forest, mortuary and prison camp in nightmare visions of tyranny, torture, slaughter and putrefaction. ... Murder and mutilation, while sickeningly explicit, are justified by ... the author's anger and compassion and insistence that bad will not become better by our refusal to examine it."
Like Season of Anomy, Soyinka's postwar plays are considered more brooding than his earlier work. Madmen and Specialists was described as "grim" by Martin Banham and Clive Wake in African Theatre Today. In the play, a doctor returns from the war trained as a specialist in torture and uses his new skills on his father. Names and events in the play are fictionalized to avoid censorship, but Soyinka has clearly criticized life in Nigeria since the Civil War, depicting a police state where only madmen and spies can survive.
In a similar tone, A Play of Giants presents four African leaders--thinly disguised versions of Jean Bedel Bokassa, Sese Seko Mobutu, Macias Ngeuma, and Idi Amin--meeting at the United Nations building, where "their conversation reflects the corruption and cruelty of their regimes and the casual, brutal flavor of their rule," commented Hayes, in whose opinion the play demonstrates that, "as Soyinka has matured he has hardened his criticism of all that restricts the individual's ability to choose, think, and act free from external oppression. ... [It is] his harshest attack against modern Africa, a blunt, venomous assault on ... African leaders and the powers who support them."
In Isara: A Voyage around "Essay," Soyinka provides a portrait of his father, Akinyode Soditan, as well as "vivid sketches of characters and culturally intriguing events that cover a period of fifteen years," Charles Johnson related in the Washington Post. The narrative follows S.A., or "Essay," and his classmates through his years at St. Simeon's Teacher Training Seminary in Ilesa. Aided by documents left to him in a tin box, Soyinka dramatizes the changes that profoundly affected his father's life. The Great Depression that brought the Western world to its knees during the early 1930s was a time of economic opportunity for Africans. The quest for financial gain transformed African culture, as did Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and the onset of World War II. More threatening was the violent civil war for the throne following the death of their king. An aged peacemaker named Agunrin resolved the conflict by an appeal to the people's common past. "As each side presents its case, Agunrin, half listening, sinks into memories that unfold his people's collective history, and finally he speaks, finding his voice in a scene so masterfully rendered it alone is worth the price of the book," Johnson claimed. The book is neither a strict biography nor a straight historical account. However, "in his effort to expose Western readers to a unique, African perspective on the war years, Soyinka succeeds brilliantly," Johnson commented. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that, in addition, "Essay emerges as a high-minded teacher, a mentor and companion, blessed with dignity and strong ideals, a father who inspired his son to achievement."
Soyinka's work is frequently described as demanding but rewarding reading. Although his plays are widely praised, they are seldom performed, especially outside Africa. The dancing and choric speech often found in them are unfamiliar and difficult for non-African actors to master, a problem Holly Hill noted in her London Times review of the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Death and the King's Horseman. She awarded high praise to the play, however, saying it "has the stateliness and mystery of Greek tragedy." When the Swedish Academy awarded Soyinka the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, its members singled out Death and the King's Horseman and A Dance of the Forests as "evidence that Soyinka is 'one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English,'" reported Stanley Meisler in the Los Angeles Times.
In his 1996 work, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Soyinka takes an expansive and unrestrained look at Nigeria's dictatorship. A collection of essays originally delivered as lectures at Harvard, The Open Sore questions the corrupt government, the ideas of nationalism, and international intervention. The book begins with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. For Soyinka, his death, along with the annulment of the elections in 1993, signaled the disintegration of the state. According to Robert D. Kaplan in the New York Times Book Review, Soyinka "uses these harsh facts to dissect, then reinvent not just Nigeria but the concept of nationhood itself."
In 1998 Soyinka ended a self-imposed exile from Nigeria that began in 1993 when a democratically elected government was to have assumed power. Instead, General Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled the nation for eight years, prohibited the publication of the voting results and installed his deputy, General Sani Abacha, as head of the Nigerian state. Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Faced with a death sentence, Soyinka went into exile in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections. Soyinka's return to his homeland renewed hope for a democratic Nigerian state. When confronted following a series of lectures at Emory University in early 2004 with questions about why he continues to struggle against almost overwhelming political odds, Soyinka was quoted by Richard Halicks in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as commenting: "My conviction simply is that power must always be defeated, that the struggle must always continue to defeat power. I don't go looking for fights. People don't believe this, I'm really a very lazy person. I enjoy my peace and quiet. There's nothing I love better than just to sit quietly somewhere, you know, have a glass of wine, read a book, listen to music, that really is my ideal existence." However, just months after that comment, Soyinka was tear gassed and again arrested, albeit briefly, while protesting the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo for what he and other human rights activists called a "civilian dictatorship." Following his release, the almost-seventy-year-old Soyinka vowed to launch new antigovernment protests, which simply confirmed a statement he made several months before the arrest, quoted by Halicks, that seems to sum up his undaunted commitment to human liberty: "In prison I had lots of time to ponder, 'Why do I do things that get me into trouble?' I didn't find an answer. I also, to my surprise, didn't incur any internal suggestion that, when I get out of this one, I will stop. It has never occurred to me to stop."
In 2005 Soyinka published Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World, a series of lectures that were initially presented at London's Royal Institution. The lectures discuss all of the current political and environmental forces that create a 'climate of fear' and posit that the true function of fear is to rob of dignity, and that the function of robbing of dignity is to dehumanize. Although Derek Hook, writing in Theoria, called the lectures "important critical contributions," he also noted that they are "frequently offset by an unfortunate mode of psychologism." Hook was perhaps more laudatory when he stated "insofar as Soyinka's discussion retains a balance ... it holds something of promise." A Kirkus Reviews critic was more positive, commenting that the "gracefully stated" volume "wanders the boundary between memoir and political essay." Interestingly, Soyinka's You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir, was released shortly after the publication of Climate of Fear.
Of Africa (published in Africa under the title Harmattan Haze on African Spring, with an additional epilogue) is a collection of essays that focus on Africa's postcolonial experience in the new millennium. Soyinka begins by exploring how others, particularly westerners, perceive Africa, or to use his word, how they go about "fictioning" it. He examines the continent's politics of exclusion and the demonization of ethnic groups by those driven by a lust for power. He notes that liberation slogans disguise actions that are little different from those taken by the colonial powers in generations past, for they continue to reflect a politics of exploitation and domination, with one-party rulers dividing nations along ethnic lines. An example is provided by Kenya, where leaders have been playing the Luo and Gikuyu tribes against each other for years. The author's view is that the national boundaries of Africa are fictions created by the imperial powers, and he argues that the solution to Africa's problems lies with a reexamination of existing borders. Until the continent's borders are realigned in a way that makes sense ethnically and religiously, Africa will continue, in Soyinka's view, to be torn by interethnic conflicts. The second half of the collection, however, is more optimistic, for the author examines Orisa, one of the many traditional African religions and one that is found in the author's own Yoruba culture in southern West Africa. This religion is marked by many orisa, or spirits and demons that are manifestations of Olodumare, or God, with each governing a part of the physical world and human life. Soyinka argues that Orisa can function as an arbiter in a world that is riven by exclusivist religions such as Christianity and Islam.
Of Africa was greeted largely with applause, although Adam Hochschild, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was troubled by the book's style, characterizing it as "vague, ponderous and awkward." Hochschild wrote that when the author "makes broad generalizations and criticisms he sometimes expects the reader to mentally provide specific examples." But although he objected to the style of the book, Hochschild responded favorably to the book's intent, concluding: "Of course vast injustices remain, but the continent is lucky to have fearless men and women of conscience, like Soyinka, who are so acutely aware of them." Other critics were more unreserved in their praise for Of Africa. Mark G. Henninger, writing in America, found the book "wonderful and disturbing" and remarked that the author "writes with passion and elegance about his beloved and bedeviling Africa--the good, the bad and the ugly." In Booklist Brendan Driscoll concluded: "Soyinka does not deceive himself about the profound problems that Africa faces today. But the overall tenor of this selection is optimistic, emphasizing Africa's capacity to inspire authentic spirituality." A Publishers Weekly reviewer was enthusiastic: "Pitched to a general reader but with implications for specialists as well, this is necessarily big thinking laced with the subtle insights and analogies of a gifted writer, and a stirring defense of the 'spiritual aspirations' of human beings for freedom and peace." Finally, a Kirkus Reviews contributor agreed, finding the book to be "a brief but eloquent plea for peace." The contributor went on to remark: "Perhaps it takes a Nobel Laureate to see hope as the beating heart in the body of despair."
Soyinka has continued to publish valuable work throughout his fifty-plus-year career. Hayes, in a summary of Soyinka's literary importance, once stated: "His drama and fiction have challenged the West to broaden its aesthetic and accept African standards of art and literature. His personal and political life have challenged Africa to embrace the truly democratic values of the African tribe and reject the tyranny of power practiced on the continent by its colonizers and by many of its modern rulers."
From: "Wole Soyinka." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2014.