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Alan Jacobs


Wole Soyinka's Outrage

The divided soul of Nigeria's Nobel laureate.

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Like many teachers of literature, I am sometimes asked to name the Greatest Living Writer. (I can hear the capital letters in the voices of those who ask.) Invariably I name two candidates: the Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz and the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. These names are usually greeted by puzzlement, for, though both have won the Nobel Prize for literature—Milosz in 1980 and Soyinka in 1986—and both have been on The McNeil-Lehrer Newshour, neither has entered the American public consciousness in a potent way. Milosz is more likely to be familiar, though, and apparently my interlocutors think him a more plausible choice; my claim for Soyinka almost always earns skeptical looks.

I imagine that this skepticism derives from the still-common picture of Africa as the dark continent, full of illiterate savages (a picture that the Western media do little to dispel); and also from the suspicion that any African Nobel laureate must be the beneficiary of multicultural affirmative action. But if anything, Soyinka is a more comprehensive genius even than Milosz. Here is a writer of spectacular literary gifts: he is an acclaimed lyric and satirical poet, a brilliant novelist of ideas, a memoirist both nostalgic and harrowing, and almost certainly the greatest religious dramatist of our time. The assumption that he has come to our attention only because of academic politics is profoundly unjust—though perhaps understandable, considering the number of mediocre talents who have assumed recent prominence for just such reasons.

That assumption also carries a heavy load of irony, given the distance between the triviality of American academic politics—what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has aptly called our "marionette theater of the political"—and the real political crises which have continually afflicted Soyinka and his work. Soyinka's 1996 book on the political collapse of his native Nigeria, The Open Sore of a Continent, teaches us how absurdly misbegotten our whole literary-political conversation tends to be. Through this book, and through the shape his career has assumed, Soyinka brings compelling messages to our warring parties. To the traditionalists who deplore "the politicization of literary discourse," Soyinka serves as a living reminder that writers in some parts of the world don't get to choose whether their work will be political; that is a privilege enjoyed by those who happen to be born into stable and relatively peaceable societies. Others have politics thrust upon them. But Soyinka also tells our Young Turks that their cardinal principle—Everything is Political—is true only in an utterly trivial sense. To adapt a famous phrase from George Orwell, if everything is political, some things are a hell of a lot more political than others.

Whichever side of this dispute one tends to be on, or even if one isn't on either side, Soyinka's story is worth paying attention to, because his career has been virtually derailed by the collapse of his native country into political tyranny and social chaos. Soyinka has not eagerly thrown his energies into protest and polemic in the way that, for instance, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in the days of the Soviet empire; unlike Solzhenitsyn, he is no natural polemicist. However, Soyinka has also been unable to follow the route of Solzhenitsyn's older contemporary Boris Pasternak, which was to combat political tyranny by ignoring it, by cultivating a realm of personal feeling impervious to the corrosive solvent of Politics. (As Czeslaw Milosz writes of Pasternak, "confronted by argument, he replied with his sacred dance.") Soyinka has felt called upon to respond to the collapse of Nigeria, and as a result his career has taken a very different direction than it once promised to do. It is hard to question his choice; it is equally hard to celebrate it, for it has led a fecund and celebratory poetic mind into an abyss of outrage.

Soyinka's homeland has suffered from the same consequences of colonialism that have afflicted almost every modern African state. The area now called Nigeria is occupied by many peoples, the most prominent among then being the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Ibo. The boundaries of the country do not reflect the distribution of these ethnic populations; there are Ibo people in Cameroon, Yoruba in Benin, Hausa in Niger. The physical shape of Nigeria is an administrative fiction deriving from the way the colonial powers parceled out the "dark continent" in the nineteenth century. (Somalia alone among African countries is ethnically homogeneous.) So when the British granted independence to Nigeria in 1960, this most populous of African nations had some considerable work to do to make itself into a real nation, as opposed to a collection of adversarial ethnicities. These problems have been exacerbated by almost continually increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country.

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