Wole Soyinka: Holding up the Mirror

The Nigerian titan reflects on his first novel in almost 50 years

Illustration Fede Yankelevich

When Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming its first African laureate, the jury described him as a writer “who in a wide cultural perspective, and with poetic overtones, fashions the drama of existence”. The prolific playwright, poet, and author of landmark works such as Death and the King’s Horseman has been jailed twice for his criticism of the Nigerian government. His first novel in almost 50 years, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, reprises his career-long critique of his home country, with a maximalist mix of caustic humour and rhetorical flair.

To mark the book’s wider publication around the world after its initial release in Nigeria, Stephanie Sy-Quia spoke to Soyinka about the bonds of friendship, pessimism, and a new generation excavating history.

Stephanie Sy-Quia: Who did you write this novel for?

Wole Soyinka: Nigerians. This is one of the reasons I was very anxious for it to come out when it did in Nigeria, just before the 60th anniversary of the so-called independence of the nation. When it was published, I was gratified that it commanded a widening readership among politicians. It’s amazing how many politicians kept requesting the book. Some of the characters – I mustn’t lie about this – are built on real politicians. Some of them came to the launch. To my surprise, they wanted to talk about the issues raised in the book.

There’s a point where an unsympathetic character in the novel – a member of Yoruba royalty – says, “Our people know nothing about beauty,” and she makes several disparaging comments more broadly about Africa and Africans. Do statements like this risk confirming certain people’s laziest assumptions?

I think one of the targets of any serious writer is to report one’s society to itself. Many people tend to reduce the writer to a dissident against the state. But in fact, you often find that one’s own people can commit acts which can only be described as enemy action against themselves. The duty of the writer is to be constantly alerting, to always be saying ‘Look in the mirror.’

You evidently take a Dickensian delight in delineating your characters and making sure that they have rich back stories. What is your process for developing character?

There was one character who began totally on a fictional level. While I was writing, however, a real individual, through his own actions, brought himself very close to my creation. Well, it made my job very simple. I changed his name a little and shoved him into the portrait of that character – it was a perfect fit! The rest of the fictionalising emerged from the composite of the two. It grew and became something totally new. Sometimes the character already exists in fiction, and then somebody comes and inhabits the frame. Well, thank you very much. Come in. The writer has a responsibility not to malign the individual who has given impetus to the character. You can diverge, but not distort.

This novel shares its basic premise with its two predecessors, in that you have a cohort of old friends who have high hopes for a modern Nigeria and then find them gradually dashed over the course of their lives. What is so compelling to you about this premise of a group of friends? In your memoirs, it’s evident that friendship is a particularly deep and potent force in your life.

I’m a great believer in community; sometimes it’s just a community of two, sometimes three. In certain idealistic circumstances, it can be a whole village or town. But to me the most valued of these is the smallest: not something I started out with, but something I discovered over the course of my life. Friendship became a very crucial aspect of my world perception, the kind of friendship which survives even ideological disagreements. It’s the thing I value more than anything else. I believe in human bonding, as opposed to the religious, the ethnic, the national – to me the latter is the most grotesque.

Much of your Nobel lecture is about apartheid South Africa, which feels pertinent to issues Britain is dealing with at the moment. The current government is trying to suppress decolonisation initiatives and any acknowledgement of colonial guilt. What do you have to say to that, and where do we go from here?

It’s amazing on how many levels we find those who are afraid of history. We had a similar phenomenon recently, but cruder. In this case it was a sweeping declaration by those who were in power at the time, 2007, in which history was removed from the school curriculum in senior secondary schools. Many of us had of course left school ages ago, so we were not even aware that this crime was being committed against the young. Similar things have been going on in countries like Britain. Of course, the movement is being remedied by counter-action, like Rhodes Must Fall. This is what I call the ‘end of iconism’, whereby the icons of history, such as statues in public spaces or universities – all of that is being challenged by a new generation. The adventure of history is for each generation to keep quarrying, making sure they obtain their own holistic image of what their antecedents are.

In a previous interview, you described your career as “one long dance macabre in this political jungle of ours”. Overall, your work leans towards pessimism. What is its value?

Well, extreme and total pessimism is of course crippling. I don’t think I ever reached a level of total pessimism. Maybe that’s because of friendship. As long as you have a community, even as small as two, one’s faith in humanity keeps being restored. The greatest instigator of pessimism is Sisyphean labour: When an issue that you think is done with – sufficiently expressed, understood, and resolved – has to be resumed all over again years later. It extends to when your community says, “It’s not too bad actually; it’s better than the alternative,” or, “If we wait long enough it will correct itself.” And so when it returns, the dimension of it, the horror of it, has gone beyond the remedial energy that you put into it a few years ago. This is exactly what is going on right now. Anyone who is not pessimistic in Nigeria today is either superhuman or a super idiot.

You’ve been a professor of comparative literature for many years. What has been your favourite aspect of that discipline, and of teaching it?

Comparative literature crosses narrow boundaries, makes us re-examine not only culture as it evolves in societies, but how it is valued. It removes boundaries because it is an intellectual attitude that is the antithesis to a hermetic, isolated entity. When reading closely, multiple themes which are normally treated in isolation become part of a fuller, deeper understanding of humanity. This is the approach I take. I always call myself an unsuccessful teacher, because I get more out of it than I think I give. That’s not false modesty; I am fascinated by the responses that I get from people who are products of those different histories and cultures. When they contradict your own values and deductions, you are all the richer for it.

Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is published by Bloomsbury, September 2021

This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here