Nobel Laureate and Nigerian author Wole Soynika, in India recently for the Jaipur Literature Festival, chats about his writing and his activism.
“There is a belief in the Yoruba tradition that a child must be rich in names whatever happens later on, so uncles, grandfathers and great grandfathers all give names so that the child is very wealthy and my names are...”
Wole Soyinka is solemnly speaking about his roots with a twinkle in his eyes and reeling off a string of names. “…and one or two others which I can't remember… in addition to our lineage. In the lineage song, which has the interpolation of all those names, you feel like a king.”
A poet, playwright, myth-maker, essayist, memoirist, translator, Soyinka slips into each role with ease. “The subject generally dictates the form in which it falls naturally.” On the lives of ordinary human beings caught between opposing forces of creation and destruction that form the basis of his writing, Soyinka said, “I wouldn't think that my responses to the realities of existence and the entire history of humanity can be based on this statement. I'm passionate about the whole issue of human liberty, human freedom and that all human beings are born with a fundamental attribute of the spirit of choice, to formulate one's principles of existence and follow them, as long as they are not inimical to the right of others. I live in a continent, which is my immediate constituency and is confronted by a robbery of fundamental rights, then I use literature as my weapon with which I fight them.”
Dealing with political activism, human rights, he uses an intriguing mix of Yoruba mythology and Western imagery and yet is playful, humorous. “One of the things about religion and deities is that many of these Gods have a marvellous sense of humour. This entire creation is a piece of humour; the absurdity of human existence strikes me as a big joke. The deities without humour are the dangerous ones. Deities that represent the solemn, the profound, the grave can sometimes dangerously exaggerate one of these elements, which makes for a lack of balance, of letting the negative take over the positive. It is the fundamentalists who lack a sense of humour and are dangerous. It's important to see the comic side of existence to be able to recognise the profundity of human life.”
It's been said that if the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Soyinka. He laughs; a self-deprecatory chuckle. “That's flattering but one is never alone in the struggle from democracy. People are constantly sacrificing themselves on the battle front. This accolade has been equally earned by the people of the African continent.”
Between Ake and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, which chronicle his life and also are strong documents of Nigeria, does the country take over the author? “If one allowed that, I'd be totally submerged in the realities of the nation. I won't be able to write and I don't let one substitute for the other. I have a strong sense of compulsion in making people remember the passage of a nation's growth. To narrate this is sometimes frustrating, sometimes amusing but the need is to put it in perspective. This is what gives me the nerve to write about myself. It's different in fiction where you can kill off a character or change it but with a biography there is an enormous burden of responsibility to truth.”
Soyinka calls his mother a wild Christian. “She was a deeply religious woman, a disciplinarian and I found her devotion to Christian religiosity wild. Everything was interpreted through her Christian spectacles, her work, upbringing of her children, eating habits, evangelic zeal, relationship with her neighbours… ”
In the face of so much tyranny, hope means, “It's a word I never use. I am a realist and I'm obliged, as a citizen of sensibilities, to confront seemingly overwhelming atrocities. So I don't use words like hope.”
Paradox of tranquility
Being called a private artist and a compulsive activist, the split embodied in his Yoruba God Ogun, Soyinka can be at peace and at war at a pinch. “I recognise that Ogun expresses the paradox of tranquillity and activism as a protagonist who hacked the way through the jungle of time to reunite the past with primordial humanity. Then he retreated into the mountains to complete isolation. I recognised this essence and that is how I survived 21 months of solitary confinement. It was difficult, without human company, without books. Yet I led a tranquil life and survived mentally intact. The moment I came out, I was back to action.”
His writing and his themes resonate at various levels with today's generation, Soyinka feels, “but I tell them when you set out to write, to act, to express, you aren't attempting to gather a followership. When it happens, it's secretly joyful because you suddenly realise that you are a teacher. Some told me they set out to be a Wole Soyinka. I told them you can't, in the same way that I can't be Gandhi. You can be inspired but you have to find your own voice…'