Wole Soyinka loves his Red Stripe beer. Evidently. And being in Jamaica, what better libation to wet your lips and damp your throat as your prepare to launch into a nuanced, hour-long conversation centred on your film-worthy life as a Nobel Prize winner, revered author, groundbreaking activist, scholar, educator, thinker and a man both celebrated and despised by allies and “adversaries” at home and abroad.
A round of reverberating applause greeted his entrance inside the large white tent minutes before his scheduled noon-time stage appearance at Calabash on Saturday. It was the kind of enthusiastic welcome befitting an esteemed stalwart, whose buzzed-about debut appearance for the festival’s tenth anniversary generated an anticipation which only heightened as the weeks leading up to Calabash 2010 dwindled into days and hours. So, he came.
My first impressions: Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed. Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, is not a spotlight glutton. As with the region’s own laureate, Derek Walcott (and other authors of their ilk) there are unmistakable traces of ego and massive pride in his character but also evidence that he craves solitude and is prone to perfectionism.
And though it was quite refreshing to see him looking like a normal human being, he’s still Wole Soyinka. He’s 75, attired in a thin, breezy white cotton shirt and black pants (perfectly in sync with his crown of white and grey hair), but he doesn’t look a day over 50. What’s more, there’s faintly a hint of an African accent in his moderately booming baritone, which lends a sort of crispness to his diction and pitch.
Joining Paul Holdengraber for the eagerly awaited ‘Chatterbox’ segment at noon, a conversation of engaging give-and-take ensued; an easy rapport between two accomplished literary figures, who know all too well the expectations that come with being a writer of note.
‘Art is like slow poison in the body’
2010 marks Soyinka’s first appearance at the Calabash Literary Festival, but the laureate has visited Jamaica on numerous occasions in the past, including his trip here in 1997 to lend support to Sheila Graham, who was on the verge of launching the Area Youth Foundation, a not-for-profit artistic body (comprising inner-city youths) that uses theatre, music and dance in the fight against inner-city violence and hopelessness. For Soyinka, there are few driving forces more powerful in the quest for social change than the arts. “Theatre is a transformative social agent. The theatre brought those kids together. It gave them hope, it gave them a connection,” he told his attentive audience.
While stressing that art should reflect the underbelly of society, Soyinka was equally quick to point out that people should not expect magical, overnight results. “Art is not a magic wand that cures everything; it cannot be expected to effect instant changes; it’s accumulative, it’s dynamic, it works under people’s subconscious.” Continuing, he added: “Art is like slow poison in the body of the audience; it won’t change them immediately, but you hope it does. It’s a collective process. It involves a human to human connection.”
Paul Holdengraber: [Looking back on your childhood], were you a troublemaker?
Wole Soyinka: Adults are very funny people. They considered me as such.
Holdengraber: Were they lying? [Audience erupts in laughter]
Soyinka: Well, I had the tendency of wanting to do my own thing. I used to sneak off a lot…
Holdengraber: You skipped school?
Soyinka: No, no, no. I loved school. I was never a truant. I found books fascinating. There were more books at school than in my father’s library.
The Prison Years
At the height of the “dehumanizing” Nigerian Civil War (disputed elections led to a problematic military coup), Soyinka found himself at odds with the Nigerian government. “I was accused of buying arms for Biafrans, and colluding with the enemy. I was put in jail promptly without trial,” shared Soyinka. “I was deprived of reading and writing material. The warders were told that they would be executed if they spoke to me.”
The first few months behind bars, bereft of the essentials that formed a crucial part of life on the outside, were “difficult”, Soyinka admitted. “We had daily rations of cigarettes, toilet paper and coffee." It is famously known that Soyinka wrote poems on toilet paper while in prison. How did he pull this off – when he had been deprived off ink and other writing essentials? “[In prison] you begin to think back to your school days and how you made things [during those days]. I hated Mathematics; the moment I left school I threw away my maths books. I also hated Science,” he recalled.
“But some things lingered. [So] by experimenting [in prison] I was able to make ink. Even today, things I wrote still have an imperishable gloss. So in the end, I was grateful for Maths [and Science]. I was able to recall the principles. So hate them as much as you want, but let them stay in your subconscious.”
Soyinka on repatriation and healing from the effects of slavery:
The only way we can truly heal is: “If the European nations return all that they stole, as a symbolic gesture of remorse and restitution. Such gestures matter. Otherwise, it diminishes the receiver. And if
On his detractors:
Before commencing his reading of the poems “Journey,” “Civilian” and “Soldier,” Soyinka quipped: “I’m going to start with some positive poems. My adversaries say there is no African leader I have never abused. That is a lie! But has there ever been an African leader who doesn’t deserve abuse?”
“One of the beauties of leadership is when you fail, you acknowledge it, and you move on.”
On being labelled “the conscience of
“I have no problem being my own conscience, but it is a hard task. So to be the conscience of a nation, I have no wish. But that’s why we are writers. It is our function to be witnesses to reality and to express a kind of vision that is possible for others.”
On violence and conflict versus peace:
“I’m not a pacifist, but I’d say I am a closet glutton for peace. I like my peace."
And his Red Stripe beer...