Section: LIFE & LEISURE
Thursday, March 6, 1997
AUTHOR OUTLINES AFRICA'S AGONY
PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Imagine you're a writer heading off to work in the morning and each day you're confronted with a corpse on your front doorstep. What would you do?
Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate and exiled Nigerian writer, posed that question to his audience Tuesday at the University at Albany. His appearance was co-sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute and the African Students Association at UAlbany.
``Do you walk around the corpse, pretend it's not there and go to the office? Do you continue to write the truth and probably end up in prison or disappeared? Or do you find your voice in a new place, using your language as a weapon, the most immediate way of contradicting the ideas of a brutal military regime?''
Since winning the world's highest honor for literature in 1986, instead of exulting in the sweet delight of international recognition, Soyinka has endured the bitter irony of a predicament not of his making.
After Nigerian military strongman Gen. Sani Abacha seized his passport, Wole (WAH-li) Soyinka (shoy-INKUH) managed to slip out of his homeland in 1994 after being tipped off that his arrest was imminent. Soyinka had been imprisoned for 22 months beginning in 1967 after publishing an appeal for a cease-fire during the Nigerian civil war. He had been under surveillance and harassed by the government for his writing ever since.
``I did not have the luxury of choosing this situation. It imposed itself upon me,'' said Soyinka, who currently teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. ``For a year after I had to leave Nigeria, I tried to convince myself I was on political sabbatical. I came to accept the definition of my current predicament very reluctantly. Yes, I am in exile.'' A university professor and theater director in Nigeria, Soyinka has written plays, poetry, memoir, an opera, essays and novels. The New York Times selected his memoir of childhood, ``Ake,'' as one of the 12 best books of 1982 and called Soyinka ``unquestionably Africa's most versatile writer and arguably her finest.''
Since his exile, the past three years have been fruitless for the Nobel Prize winner in a literary sense. ``I haven't had time to write except scribbling a few things on a plane or waiting for a plane,'' said Soyinka, who travels frequently and widely decrying the civil rights abuses of the military regime in his west African nation of 90 million people.
``I must admit I resent when I wake up with a wonderful creative thought and I can't let it play itself out because that would take time away from my work,'' Soyinka said. ``I've never been comfortable being as political as I've had to become. I'd rather be home, writing, or drinking with my friends, or out in the bush, hunting.''
Dressed in black sneakers, black slacks, a collarless moss green shirt and dark gray cardigan sweater, Soyinka, 63, looked more like a village priest than an international ambassador. He seemed tired, eyes tinged with sadness behind black metal-framed glasses, shoulders sagging below a thick afro and goatee gone gray.
Reading his poetry transformed Soyinka, however, as he delivered his words like spear thrusts in a rumbling thunderclap of a baritone that made James Earl Jones' voice sound thin. The most powerful verse was dedicated to Ken Saro-Wiwa, a dissident writer and Soyinka's friend, who was executed by Abacha's henchmen in Nigeria along with eight other activists on Nov. 10, 1995.
``He wore his exile sparsely on his frame,'' the poem began in a bit of self-reflexive imagery amid a theme of death and the transcendence of soul and spirit. The military regime was described as ``a parasite in the nation's bowels'' before ending with a prayerful and hopeful thought: ``Take his hand. Lead him and be led by him.''
Soyinka's voice was choked with emotion at the conclusion of the poem, ``Calling Yourself Brodsky.'' Soyinka said it was the first time he had finished reading it without breaking down in tears. He admitted he had fortified himself with an extra glass of wine at dinner before the reading. ``Writing the poem was the only way I could subsume my anguish,'' he said.
Whether he was reading his poetry or answering questions from the audience, Soyinka spoke with the passion of a revolutionary, giving voice to what others are afraid to say, drawing strength from the truth of bearing witness.
A line from a poem that resonated throughout Soyinka's Albany visit was this: ``How shall I tell what my eyes have seen?''
Whether answering questions for an overflow, afternoon, ethnically diverse audience of 250 students or reading to an evening gathering of 500 people, including many African-American teenagers, Soyinka painted compelling images of the Nigerian crisis drawn from his book of essays, ``The Open Sore of a Continent'' (Oxford University Press, 1996).
``Nigeria now is run by the most brutish dictator the nation has ever known,'' Soyinka said. ``Abacha has led a reign of terror on the scale of Idi Amin (the genocidal former Ugandan president). He has ordered tortures of the most horrendous kinds, and large-scale disappearances, imprisonments and assassinations. This particular beast has set out to humiliate and suppress anyone who is superior to himself and that's 90 million Nigerians.''
Since its independence from Britain in 1956, oil-rich Nigeria has tried to establish stable civilian democratic governments, but each has fallen to a military coup. The post-colonial history of the nation has been marked by a string of corrupt and inept regimes, culminating in the brutality of General Abacha, who seized power in 1993 after a presidential election meant to restore civilian rule was annulled by army generals.
Soyinka described a recent massacre by Abacha's soldiers of 37 college students in Nigeria who were protesting a 500 percent tuition increase. ``That is part of this monster's strategy of choking off the schools,'' Soyinka said. ``The universities are virtually dead. He's a monster. His only methods are bribery and terror. Let's call him a monster and do something.''
Soyinka said the United States generally does not register Nigeria on its internal radar.
``The U.S. is a very insular nation, too big for its own good,'' Soyinka said. ``Unless Nigeria has a civil war or there are graphic pictures of starving children, the U.S. does not relate to Nigeria. And when the civil war is over, it's forgotten. There's no mental follow-up.''
Soyinka said the precise format of government Nigeria eventually takes does not concern Soyinka. ``I don't care what it is as long as it involves participation and accountability,'' he said. ``The people must have the right to choose. We will have equal say as citizens however long it takes.''
The audience gave Soyinka a standing ovation.
In an introduction, Edwin Kaliku, executive director of the African Center in Albany, talked about meeting Soyinka as a high school student in Nigeria and following his writing career from afar.
``His writing has achieved a constant summing up of Africa's agony,'' Kaliku said. He went on to explain that Nigerians believe when a hunter kills an elephant, he cannot eat the beast alone, but must invite the whole village to partake of the bounty if the hunter expects blessings. ``Wole Soyinka has killed an elephant and we all must help him eat it,'' Kaliku said.
Copyright 1997, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
Tuesday, November 22, 1994
TIP ON IMPENDING ARREST LETS WRITER SLIP OUT OF NIGERIA
Tipped off that his arrest was imminent, 1986 Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka slipped out of Nigeria even though the military dictatorship had seized his passport and United Nations travel document.
He surfaced Monday, flanked by eminent writers in Paris, to assert that his country ``is retreating into the Dark Ages'' under leaders as repressive as the white-minority regime that ruled South Africa in the heyday of apartheid.
The 60-year-old Soyinka said his fate in Nigeria would have been comparable to that of anti-apartheid activists who were ``banned'' constantly under surveillance, forbidden from making public statements or meeting with groups of people.
Since independence from Britain in 1956, oil-rich Nigeria has tried but failed to establish stable civilian governments. Each experiment in democracy has ended with a coup by the military, which has dominated post-colonial history with a string of corrupt and inept regimes.
Civil liberties in the nation of 90 million have eroded since June 1993, when army generals annulled a presidential election that was to restore civilian rule. Repression worsened when a new dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, seized power a year ago.
Soyinka declined to give details about his flight from Nigeria, but said he slipped into a neighboring country at a point away from any police posts.
In the next two weeks, he plans to visit London and the United States, including a visit to the Carter Institute in Atlanta on Dec. 3. He said he did not know when he might try to return to Nigeria. Federico Mayor, director general of UNESCO, appointed Soyinka as a goodwill ambassador Oct. 21 and authorized him to obtain U.N. travel papers to come to UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Authorities in Nigeria confiscated the travel document Nov. 3 as Soyinka tried to leave Lagos. Toni Morrison, the American who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year, was among seven authors with Soyinka at the news conference.
Copyright 1997, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.