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Wole Soyinka: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian writer, political activist, and the first African to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. In this lesson we'll learn about his history, works, and influence.

Who is Wole Soyinka?

Some writers are driven by their imagination to write fiction or fantasy. Other writers, like Wole Soyinka, write because they are driven to make a statement about their culture or circumstances.

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian writer whose plays, books, and poems capture his cultural traditions, are frequently autobiographical, and use language that is rich and visual. Let's take a closer look at his life and works.

Wole Soyinka
wole soyinka

Soyinka Gets His Start

Born in Nigeria in 1934, Wole Soyinka lived on a mission compound where he learned the Christian ways of his parents and the Yoruba ways of his paternal grandfather. The culture and language of the Yoruba is the basis for much of Soyinka's writing. These cultures played a large role in the work that would be the mainstay of his social and political voice.

He was educated in his primary years in the British system, and later at the University of Leeds, where he graduated with a degree in English. He was an excellent student, and became the editor of the school's magazine, The Eagle.

Soyinka Finds His Activist Voice

Soyinka spent some years in England working as a dramatist at the Royal Court Theater in London and wrote plays that opened to audiences in England and in Nigeria. In 1960, he returned to Nigeria, and taught drama and literature in universities in Lagos, Ibadan, and Ife.

He wrote, produced, and acted in plays and founded two theater groups, The 1960 Masks and Orisun Theatre Company. His voice grew stronger and stronger as he spoke out against the politics of Nigeria. He has worked as a visiting professor at universities around the world, including Yale, Cambridge, and Sheffield.

Soyinka's Political Activism

Soyinka was vocal about his dislike of Nigerian politics, and was willing to put it all on the line to fight oppression and tyranny. During the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960's, he was arrested and incarcerated for twenty-two months as a result of an article he wrote demanding a cease-fire.

While behind bars he wrote The Man Died: Prison Notes. It's a memoir about his time in solitary confinement, which was the direct result of his speaking out against Yakuba Gowon, the head of state at the time.

Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986; the first one given to an African. Shortly after, he was given the honorary title of Commander of the Federal Republic.

In 1996, during a period of self exile, he wrote The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, which angered military government leader General Sani Abacha because it exposed his selfish, greedy practices.

While in exile, Wole Soyinka was convicted and given a death sentence for his anti-military activities. Only after Abacha died in 1998 and was replaced by a more forward thinking successor did Soyinka choose to return to Nigeria.

Justice, oppression, freedom, and social responsibility are all recurring themes in Soyinka's writing. He uses his writing as a vehicle for social change, with little or no concern for the impact it might have on his well being.

Writing for Social Justice

Novels

Soyinka's first novel, The Interpreters came out in 1965 and is a story seen through the eyes of recent university graduates who have come back to Nigeria to play a role in the evolution of a newly independent country. Soyinka's writing is sensitive and vivid. He captures the characters as they struggle to become a part of the new Nigeria.

In 1973 Soyinka wrote Season of Anomy, which was derived from experiences he had in prison. It introduces the use of vivid details and myth and offers an engaging, realistic look at ritual. The novel attempts to make sense of the upheaval that was the status quo and represents an attempt to achieve wholeness of community, something that was clearly lacking.

Poetry

As a poet, Soyinka creates verses that are lyrical, visual, and often filled with African myth and ritual. The language is particularly visual in 'Post Mortem' where he says:

'in the cold hand of death...

his mouth was cotton filled, his man-pike

shrunk to sub-soil grub'

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