Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka Biography.com

Activist, Playwright(1934–)
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, author, teacher and political activist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Synopsis

Wole Soyinka was born on July 13, 1934, in Nigeria and educated in England. In 1986, the playwright and political activist became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. He dedicated his Nobel acceptance speech to Nelson Mandela. Soyinka has published hundreds of works, including drama, novels, essays and poetry, and colleges all over the world seek him out as a visiting professor.

Early Life

Wole Soyinka was born Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Babatunde Soyinka on July 13, 1934, in Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, was a prominent Anglican minister and headmaster. His mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, who was called "Wild Christian," was a shopkeeper and local activist. As a child, he lived in an Anglican mission compound, learning the Christian teachings of his parents, as well as the Yoruba spiritualism and tribal customs of his grandfather. A precocious and inquisitive child, Wole prompted the adults in his life to warn one another: “He will kill you with his questions.”

After finishing preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, Soyinka moved to England and continued his education at the University of Leeds, where he served as the editor of the school's magazine, The Eagle. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1958. (In 1972 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate).

Plays & Political Activism

In the late 1950s Soyinka wrote his first important play, A Dance of the Forests, which satirized the Nigerian political elite. From 1958 to 1959, Soyinka was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship and returned to Nigeria to study African drama.

In 1960, he founded the theater group, The 1960 Masks, and in 1964, the Orisun Theatre Company, in which he produced his own plays and performed as an actor. He has periodically been a visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.

"The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism."

Soyinka is also a political activist, and during the civil war in Nigeria he appealed in an article for a cease-fire. He was arrested for this in 1967, and held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969.

Nobel Prize and Later Career

In 1986, upon awarding Soyinka with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee said the playwright "in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence." Soyinka sometimes writes of modern West Africa in a satirical style, but his serious intent and his belief in the evils inherent in the exercise of power are usually present in his work. To date, Soyinka has published hundreds of works. 

In addition to drama and poetry, he has written two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), as well as autobiographical works including The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972), a gripping account of his prison experience, and Aké ( 1981), a memoir about his childhood. Myth, Literature and the African World (1975) is a collection of Soyinka’s literary essays.

“Against my rational instincts, I believe that we have here a genuine case of a born-again democrat,” he said. Ultimately, “the real heroes of this exercise have been the Nigerian people and that gingers me up.”

Now considered Nigeria’s foremost man of letters, Soyinka is still politically active and spent the 2015 election day in Africa’s biggest democracy working the phones to monitor reports of voting irregularities, technical issues and violence, according to The Guardian. After the election on March 28, 2015, he said that Nigerians must show a Nelson Mandela–like ability to forgive president-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s past as an iron-fisted military ruler, according to Bloomberg.com.

Soyinka has been married three times. He married British writer Barbara Dixon in 1958; Olaide Idowu, a Nigerian librarian, in 1963; and Folake Doherty, his current wife, in 1989. In 2014, Soyinka revealed he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and cured 10 months after treatment. 

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