Black History Month: Celebrating Wole Soyinka

by Duke Magazine

On July 13, 1934, Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, and became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1986). Canon S.A. Soyinka, his father, was an Anglican clergyman, and Grace Eniola, his mother, was an Anglican minister’s daughter.

Soyinka attended primary school in Abeokuta before going on to Government College in Ibadan to complete his secondary schooling. He studied for two years at the University of Ibadan (1952-1954) before graduating from the University of Leeds in England in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree.

Soyinka earned his bachelor’s degree in drama from Leeds University, where he studied under G. Wilson Knight, the world’s most recognized Shakespearean critic. Before returning to Nigeria to study African drama, he worked briefly as a play reader at the Royal Court Theater in London. In Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Soyinka taught at the Universities of Lagos, Ibadan, and Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). He has been a Professor of Comparative Literature at the latter university since 1975.

While working at the Royal Court Theater in London, Soyinka created his first significant works, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel. After returning to Nigeria in 1960, he wrote two more plays, The Trials of Brother Jero and A Dance of the Forest. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria’s Independence Day, A Dance of the Forest, a scathing critique of the country’s elites, was first performed.

Culture in Transition, his first feature film, was premiered in 1963, and The Interpreters, his most well-known novel, was published in London the following year. They both focused on the same subject.

By 1965, Soyinka had established himself as the country’s foremost dramatist and political critic. Soyinka was detained that year for criticizing recent elections, but he was released after international protests. In a futile attempt to prevent the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, he met with Ibo leaders in private and off-the-record. Soyinka was considered a traitor when the war broke out, and he was imprisoned for the duration of the conflict.

Soyinka taught and resided in Europe after his release. He returned to Africa in 1975 and lived for a time in Accra, Ghana, where he edited Transition, a literary magazine. He used the publication to condemn African rulers like Uganda’s Idi Amin. After his political opponent, General Yakubu Gowon, was deposed from power, he returned to Nigeria permanently later that year.

He continued writing and political rallies for the next decade, causing greater government harassment. A Nigerian court ruled in 1984 that his play The Man Died should be prohibited. Soyinka, on the other hand, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Soyinka went into exile in the United States in November 1994 after fleeing Nigeria. He wrote The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis in 1996 while living in the United States. The Nigerian military government prosecuted him for treason the following year.

When civilian control was restored in 1999, Soyinka returned to Nigeria. Nonetheless, he continues to criticize the regime. Because of significant violence and fraud, he urged for the cancellation of the Nigerian elections in April 2007.

Soyinka has created 21 plays, eight poetry collections, five essays collections, two novels, and five memoirs during his 52-year career. He’s also the director and producer of two feature films.

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