So I was deeply honoured when heard recently that The Unseen Leopard was one of three books shortlisted for the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Although such news can a bit alarming for a lesser spotted author – I might have imagined for a moment that I could become more spotted, as it were.
However, this illusion was soon dispelled when I went into my local branch of Exclusives to purchase the two other books on the shortlist: Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets. I fought my way past towering heaps of Fifty shades of Tripe and all its tawdry little sequels, plus a newcomer to the stable – (Fifty shades of yellow) – which seems to be about having a sadomasochistic and pornographic relationship with a cello. I didn’t expect bunting and champagne, but I thought that the shop might at least stock the shortlisted books. No. There was one copy of Young Blood (although the slip of paper inside suggested it had been ordered for someone who didn’t pitch up) but none of Unseen Leopard, or Roses and Bullets. There wasn’t even anything by Wole Soyinka.
Anyway, I haven’t let that dampen my enthusiasm. I am completely delighted to have my name associated with Soyinka’s in any capacity, even more delighted that he will be at the award ceremony to hand out the prize. Not that I am expecting to be on the other end of the prize that he is handing out, but, since the Lumina Foundation is generous enough to pay my way, I will at least be in the audience.
I first met Soyinka’s work over 30 years ago, when I was a young and eager anti-apartheid activist, and English teacher. A big part of our activism as teachers was to redefine Africa for our pupils, to free them from the stultifying and racist garbage that they encountered in their official textbooks. An important weapon in our armoury was the Heinemann African Writer’s Series, which featured works by a range of notable African authors such as Soyinka, Achebe, Ousmane Wathionga’o to mention just a few. How refreshing these books were, with their assured African voices; their revelations of the profundity and wealth of African culture; their merciless exposé of the brutality, arrogance, and hypocrisy of the colonial forces.
I used passages and poems from these in my lessons, and kept copies in my classroom for interested pupils to borrow, until the authorities became sufficiently annoyed by such subversiveness to fire me. I then handed them out to other young activists, until they were all finally re-distributed. So I no longer have any of my original Soyinkas, although I managed to purchase his childhood memoir, Ake, which I have been rereading and absolutely relishing for its intelligent, wry and razor sharp observations.
John Updike had this to say of him:
“He is remembered in Nigeria with awe, both for a political boldness that landed him in prison and for a commanding intellect that is manifest in every genre he tackles” Hugging the Shore (New York: Knopf, 1983) pp. 683-4”
Soyinka’s intellect is indeed commanding (he presented himself to the schoolroom when he was not yet three years old, with an armful of his father’s books), and he has produced a prodigious number of plays, poems, novels and essays which led to him being the first African to win the Nobel prize for Literature in 1986. This is just one of a string of awards and honours, including the Golden Plate Award (2009) and several honorary doctorates from various institutions, including Harvard and Princetown. He has also been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.
Apart from his prodigious talent as a writer, Soyinka has always been a vociferous commentator on injustice. His outspoken criticism of the Nigerian government landed him in jail in 1967, where he was kept for 22 months. In the book he wrote to describe this, he said, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny” (The Man Died (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) p. 13).
He remains a fiercely independent thinker, highly critical of dictatorships and corrupt governance in Africa, while never losing his deep love for and appreciation of African culture and philosophy. His depth of thinking and intimate knowledge has enabled him to weave a richly nuanced tapestry of contemporary African thought. As William McPheron (Standford University) said, ‘Soyinka’s discordant mixing of genres, his wilful ambiguities of meaning, his unresolved clashes of contradictions cease to be the aesthetic flaws Western critics often label them and become instead our path into an African reality fiercely itself and utterly other.’ (Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts)
So come Friday, I’ll be on a plane to Lagos, courtesy of the Lumina Foundation and kindly arranged by the wonderful Promise Ogochukwu. Kennedy is withholding judgement until he knows Soyinka’s views on Chiahuahuas, but I imagine they will be as reasoned, open-minded and intelligent as all his others….
Below is another quote, written nearly forty years ago, and yet so pertinent to our contemporary imperilled world, which those in power persist in treating as if it were dispensable…
“There is only one home to the life of a river-mussel; there is only one home to the life of a tortoise; there is only one shell to the soul of man: there is only one world to the spirit of our race. If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?” Death and the King’s Horseman (1975); cited from Six Plays (London: Methuen, 1984) p. 189.
For more on the award, go to The Lumina Foundation.