As a writer, what else can beat the thrill of receiving two email letters in one day signed WS, from the lionized writer on the eve of your 67th birthday? I was over the moon! He would write and I would reply and he would write back in an ecstatic to and fro between a newspaper writer and a Nobel Literature Prize winner—a prize I can only win in my dream. Reading Soyinka’s short jocular words, rich in literary flourish, all sent to me, I want to treasure and keep them for a future book. The experience took me on memory lane, there to recapture an unforgettable moment with him many years back when he was not yet a Nobel laureate but on the cusp of becoming. By the way, I am writing this piece on my birthday, July 23, just to show how this means to me.
How can I forget the 18th day of February 1983, the very first time I encountered my literary hero face to face and experienced a moment of satori right in in his office at the University of Ife where he was a key figure of the Unife Theatre Company? My big brother and friend Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi (a former student of Wole Soyinka) heading the Dramatic Arts department had arranged through my immortal editor and mentor the late Dele Giwa for me to do a Sunday Concord magazine cover story on the Unife Theatre with the added bonus of interviewing the writer whose name kept being bandied around year after year for the elusive Nobel Prize in Literature—the Holy Grail of every writer.
There he sat opposite me, aged 49 and I was 31, both of us darkly bearded. His famous white hairs were still in their infancy, yet to cover his brainy, bushy head as they have now. On his table were books, not the books he wrote, but books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Autumn of the Patriarch and Chronicles of a Death Foretold, all of them authored by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 on the ticket of a literary genre called “magical realism.” Soyinka described Garcia Marquez as “a fascinating novelist.” He said he had been familiar with the man’s literary works long before he became a Nobel Prize winner. “Even in my inaugural lectures here (at the University of Ife) two years ago, I referred to his works because they are very little known here and I used the opportunity to talk briefly about his works,” Soyinka told me.
I asked him what he felt was responsible for African writers not winning the Nobel Literature Prize and he replied: “I don’t think we should even bother our heads with these. Nobel Prize, unfortunately, has become a sort of marketing thing. It has become a big thing to be nominated, to be considered, especially in the United States. Suddenly all names are being bandied around and articles are being written. I believe that even the dignity is going out of the Nobel Prize because of the hustling which is done on the pages of newspapers much to the distress of all the writers I know.”
I asked if he was aware that his name had been mentioned as a potential winner and he replied: “I find it the most embarrassing issue and I just hope they leave me alone to do my writing. Quite frankly, I am not interested.”
I kept on exploring, charging, gloves in hand, trying to corner him like Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring and asking hypothetically:
“Supposing you suddenly win this Nobel Prize, how would you feel?”
“If I win the Nobel, I’ll just think aah…I’ve got the money to make film at last,” he replied jovially.
Around this time, his book Ake: The Years of Childhood was taking the literary world by storm. It’s an autobiographical novel covering his first 11 years of growing up in Ake in Abeokuta. The world of Ake to the young Wole was a ‘Tutuolaic’ world of daemons and wood spirits (known in Yoruba as iwin). And to this precocious African child, the world of these spirits appeared as real and as intrusive in his childhood adventures as the evocative images of his parents, Hausa traders, missionaries, ‘babalawos,’ educators, administrators, Hitler War (Ogun Hitila) and the women’s uprising in Egbaland which he vividly recreated from a child’s viewpoint.
Re-entering his childhood world was not easy, Soyinka told me. “I first began it many years ago and I just found I could not re-enter that world, so I had to suspend it for some years. I think I wrote a chapter or two when I started about five or six years ago. Somehow it just dried up. I found I could not re-enter that world. So I just locked it away and then one day I just felt I was ready again.”
Soyinka said he was surprised by the global response to the book. “I am pleasantly surprised that it has given spontaneous pleasure to people all over the world. I wanted to capture a little piece of my life. Not just of my life but of an environment I found unique and felt special to me even as a child. I felt I should try and do a word-painting of what things were like. I had no serious, no grandiose intention while writing the book. I am just surprised that it has received some response.”
Soyinka feels he has portrayed and presented the most innocent period of his life which he calls the “age of innocence” and if he ventures to write the remaining part of his life story, it is going to be “severely edited” by him. He said he would not like to continue his autobiography beyond the “age of innocence” at Ake because he would be compelled to omit many things about himself which he considers private. After the age of eleven, “nearly every line which I write, nearly every episode which I describe would have to be rethought because one is reaching teenagery, maturity, other people are being involved in one’s existence and so one should be careful.”
Soyinka is of the view that biographies and autobiographies are “generally untruthful documents because one must edit things out. I believe in my privacy. I don’t believe in that tradition of biographies which expose everything, the seamy side of intimate relationships of family life. They disgust me and that applies to any written by some of these great writers. I don’t think it’s fair to other people with whom you have certain form of relationship and I think it’s not just right, because they do not have the facility to write their own side of the story. So in the whole biography thing, there is a big question mark where I am concerned.”
It was the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth who wrote in “Rainbow” that “The Child is the father of the Man.” Soyinka said right from childhood, right from primary school he had been interested in theatre. In secondary school, he wrote short stories and won prizes, and wrote essays for the school magazine. He does not think his parents personally or deliberately exercised any influence on his literary career. His dad was called “Essay” in Ake and mum “Wild Christian.” He remembers mum as “among a band of Christians who would go to the markets, trying to get the market women to turn away from the worship of the various deities. It was exciting to watch my mother and her band of Christians going hammer and tongs at them and singing and praying. It was fun. I enjoyed it.”
“My father, for instance, was a very literate person,” Soyinka told me. “And my mother had a bit of a performer about her. She still dances. So you could say it was a background conducive to the development of my interests. But I don’t think they deliberately or consciously influenced my literary career. If anything I suspect they would have frowned heavily on pursuits which were not strictly academic at that time.” (To be continued)