Art, Exile and Resistance: An Interview with Wole Soyinka

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Even the briefest of encounters with Wole Soyinka - celebrated playwright, essayist, activist and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature - is enough to make evident the qualities that are at the crux of his accomplishments. A formidable and centered man, he speaks with a quiet and utter confidence - a confidence that belies his personal fury for the events of June 12, 1993, which rendered him into exile from his native Nigeria.

It was on that day that a military coup prevented a newly elected civilian government from assuming power. Large numbers of Nigerians had voted across ethnic and regional lines in what was widely seen as the country's most democratic election ever - an event that, in Soyinka's eyes, was his homeland's last best hope of becoming a free and viable nation. But the military strongman Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled Nigeria for eight years (in the process building one of Africa's largest private fortunes), forbade publication of the voting results and, in place of the election's ostensible winner, installed his own deputy, the brutal Gen. Sani Abacha, as head of state. Soyinka celebrated his 60th birthday with a protest march against Abacha's takeover, an action that led to threats of house arrest and the writer's movement into exile.

From this vantage, stateless but hardly alienated, Soyinka has continued to bring the issues of Africa to the table, so to speak. His most recent play, The Beatification of Area Boy, arrived in America in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following its debut in Leeds, England last year; his impassioned philosophical essay The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, was published last August by Oxford. The two works illuminate distinctly different but complementary sides of Soyinka: the anecdotal, celebratory playwright with a penchant for portraiture and whimsy, and the fiercely angry polemicist, producing what he once called "monster prodigies of spleen."

A full measure of the writer's righteous anger cannot be taken without considering a second incident of outrage: On Nov. 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Soyinka's friend and fellow dissident writer, was executed by the military government, along with eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic minority. Soyinka, himself a member of the Yoruba majority, had arduously campaigned throughout the world community for their release, and for the cause of the Ogoni, who have waged a desperate battle for survival against overdevelopment and international oil interests.

Soyinka's plays - the best-known of which is the Yoruban epic Death and the King's Horseman, which was directed by the author in an acclaimed 1987 production starring Earle Hyman at Lincoln Center Theater - keep such practical political matters at arm's length, or at a poetic remove. The Beatification of Area Boy takes the form of a lively slice of life as it explores the condition of Nigeria's urban poor, young boys who survive in the environs of a shopping complex in Lagos through a savvy that almost always involves hoodwinking the unwitting, innocent shopper or tourist. Sanda, a failed revolutionary, surreptitiously manages the "boys" while serving as the complex's chief security guard. Street vendors and madmen are the play's other principal characters. The plot thickens when Sanda encounters Miseyi, a former lover and college student, on the eve of her wedding to a key military officer. But flowing like a stream beneath the play's buoyant surface is an underlying awareness of the offstage exodus of a million people, forcibly resettled at the whim of the military government.

Soyinka the dramatist clearly shies away from prescribing solutions to the wretched conditions in the play, reserving his ideas about correctives for Open Sore of a Continent. There Soyinka summons the international community to discuss the urgent problems of African nationhood, fashioning a philosophic imperative to do the right thing in Africa. …