Warring faction

January 6, 1995

Wole Soyinka's outspokenness remains undiminished since becoming Africa's first Nobel literature laureate, as found out.

No sooner had the freshly escaped Wole Soyinka begun to address a packed press conference on his arrival in Paris last November than he scolded the journalists for the media mobbing he had undergone on the announcement that he was Africa's first Nobel literature laureate . . . back in 1986, when half the assembly were probably still in journalism school. He had sworn then that he would not go through with it again, but to his extreme regret, here he was, he joked, rather grimly.

No later than line two of the foreword to Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, a volume of memoirs published last July, Soyinka starts to harangue the "abuse of faction", by some American writers who do not even await the demise of victims before "factionalising" their lives. This salvo is in no way the primary, or even a secondary, purpose of the foreword, any more than chastisement of the media pack was the point of the press conference.

Soyinka at 60 can no more help speaking out on any and every issue that annoys or outrages him than the Ibadan "factionalised" version of himself, Maren, who, as a tirelessly argumentative 12 year old, fails to relate that to why he was regarded as a pestilence.

His outspokenness first survived all the punishment it earned the young pestilence. It reached thundering dimensions in The Man Died, the account of his months in jail, earned during the Nigerian civil war for promoting peace with breakaway Biafra. Today it remains undiminished by all the deference meted out to one with Nobel status.

So when in that Ibadan foreword, Soyinka explains that he has a love-hate relationship with the university in Nigeria, which he regards as his "primary constituency", the reader winces in anticipation for that institution and for the academics of Ife, Ibadan and Lagos, many of whom, sure enough, are lambasted in ensuing chapters. Likewise, when he begins telling The THES what he likes about United States and European universities, the dislikes inevitably followed, unremittingly incisive.

One key to the writer's un-staunched and un-stemmable critical vein -- apart from his own suggestion in one interview that it was "something he ate when young" -- lies in his high expectations of humanity, of society, of academia. Only in one case have his exacting standards been slightly modified. Where academia was concerned, the younger Soyinka had expectations that were too high, too enmeshed in illusions.

He mocks his own naivety in Ibadan, when Maren pleads, in capital letters, that capitulation to political interference would be the "end of University Autonomy".

"The University is more secure than the throne of Isara", Maren tells his father, then later, his illusions gone, he wonders why he still leans towards the university, despite its "treacheries, clowns and phonies".

Soyinka, who will next month give one of this year's Amnesty lectures, on the theme "The Dissident Word", will not let go -- easily -- of his expectations, will not let go of his extraordinary degree of active involvement in their defence and will not allow this to be called dissidence.

"One has a very positive end in mind, one is not merely reacting against something, one has a distinct vision of what society should be . . . it is the other world, the corrupt world, which is dissident, one must stay with the reality of one's vision and consider the rest as the aberration," he says.

It is typical of Soyinka to throw the charge dissident back on to the powers that be. The most common criticism of him is that he is arrogant -- an arrogance he does at least know how to put to good use. The Nobel laureate is poised, slightly aloof and refers to himself as "one" with greater ease than the Queen.

But the poise is not a pose or, if it is, only partially so. It is the stance of a man who has weathered "Mr Soyinka writes about his native folklore, using English" as the introduction to his induction ceremony of an Academy of Arts and Letters and who can expect such ethnocentric stereotyping to crop up at any time.

The poise is equally the result of a hard-earned resilience to the much more concrete risks of political combat. He left Nigeria when there appeared to be little doubt that arrest, or worse, was imminent. When he recalls the nightmarish situation so recently left behind and its wearing effect on his thinking process, "one" suddenly changes to "you".

"Creative thinking has its own inhibition -- it almost rebukes you. Your colleagues are in jail, hostages are being taken all around you . . . you're wondering 'what have I failed to do that allowed this to happen in my environment which I've been struggling for all my adult life?' It gives you not writer's block, it turns you into a blockhead," he says.

Yet Soyinka is not prepared to leave Nigeria to its political morass and move over in any way permanently to international academia. Although he slipped out of Nigeria after his passport was confiscated, he insists he is not in exile and will return the same way whenever he sees fit.

Stints in Western universities are fine, part of the ideal life Soyinka would like to "withdraw" to, writing and lecturing, if and when Nigeria's crisis lets him keep up an output that now amounts to some 20 plays, four collections of poetry, essays and novels. But such stints, however necessary a part of his existence, would be only temporary interludes away from home, especially as far as America is concerned.

"I'm not totally enamoured with academia in the US. There is, even within the most famous universities, a kind of mental insularity the like of which I've never encountered anywhere," he says. "It is an inability even to grasp the notion that the centre of the world, the material world, or the world of thought, of tradition and custom, might either begin somewhere else or equally have its own reality somewhere else.

"I've held chairs in American universities and I find that after a semester I am so numbed that I find it very difficult to continue," he recalls. Part of the frustration comes from trying to tell US colleagues what is wrong with this and finding they do not know what he is saying.

Paradoxically, argues Soyinka, the American system is also receptive to certain intellectual notions from outside, but it tends to co-opt them and produce its own apostles of "ill-digested, trivialised, oversimplified new creeds".

"There is a certain amount of fadism which is elevated to a real evangelical approach," he says.

Fads, from political correctness to post-structuralism, then become "badges for terminating arguments" and "politicising academia". He admits it is far more complex than he can state in a few words, but it does explain why "I find it difficult to cope with American academia, to thrive in it, join in it in the way I do, let's say, in European universities".

This compliment being paid to European academia, he then warns that the same "unilinear, fadist thing is creeping in and beginning to take over. America has a very aggressive, self- disseminating machinery and is very seductive because even non-ideas can be put so strongly that you persuade others there is something inside."

One area where he gives US academia its due is its thriving multiculturalism, which he sees as "part of the entire questioning of canonism in literature in the university curriculum -- for me it's a great thing". The move towards multiculturalism has been far less dramatic in European letters and scholarship, he says.

Britain was very hesitant, he remembers, when it first introduced books by Chinua Achebe into schools, where multiculturalism should begin. France still thinks it has made a huge advance when it adds an African novel or two to the curriculum.

Back in Nigeria, Soyinka experienced a different kind of frustration with the university system. Once he lost his illusions about its ability to be a bastion of untainted autonomy amid the creeping post-colonial "penkelemes" -- a Nigerian coinage for "peculiar mess" -- he then witnessed its gradual decay.

He finally left the university in 1985. "I left out of frustration because the entire education system was collapsing and I was using far too much energy to achieve too little in terms of uplifting the human awareness of my students," he says.

Even supposing all the penkelemes melted away, the role of an internationally acclaimed African writer would still leave Soyinka with grist for the combative mill. When the regular charge of "assimilationism" comes up, he takes a swipe at the African intellectuals who use their hostility to Western values to take refuge in untenable positions. When Westerners praise the "universality" of his work, he demands to know why, when the universal always comes out of the particular, it should be a surprise in the case of a Nigerian, but not in the case of a Russian or an American.

He categorically condemns the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism waged in Algeria, but also inveighs against the narrow focus on Islam, when religious fundamentalism in general, from India to sects in Switzerland, reveals a "lethal" rise of intolerance.

"If the phenomenon of fundamentalism is treated globally, it will at least remove the suspicion of some in the Islamic world that there is some kind of threat from the Western world," he says. "The problem needs to be studied, addressed -- it is a most important function for academics now."

For Soyinka's generation, hoisting oneself up to a global view was a process that often began with a colonial education. Much has been written, by Soyinka and others, of the kind of "internal exile" experienced by the colonised imbued with colonial schooling.

Soyinka's response to that dichotomy was to turn it into a greater plurality -- reclaiming, for example, a strong Yoruba identity in the face of blanket "anti-tribalism".

"In spite of our colonial background . . . maybe it was because we were so conscious of weaning ourselves intellectually from this surrogate intellectual mother, that we really went on our own in so many different directions," he says. Maybe it is also because of this, that the university remains his "primary constituency".

At the moment, Soyinka is back in the overseas part of that constituency, travelling and lecturing, getting back to literary projects he is unwilling to talk about while working on them. Emerging from the protracted political contestation in which he was engaged in Nigeria, he said he felt not only "not creative" but "not cultured".

"There are times when no word is adequate, no word is sufficiently dissident," he explains. For over a year since the cancellation of elections that were due to mark the return to civilian rule, Soyinka used all the words there were, in speeches, interviews and articles.

When the playwright and poet rolled up his sleeves and dished out "Gestapo on the rampage", "stone-age despots" and a stream of other epithets hurled at the junta, the creative words dried up. But even if the political penkelemes leaves him wordless, for the writer return is the only answer.

"I'm temperamentally unsuited for an external base of withdrawal. I can only withdraw within my own environment. I need the ambience, the osmosis," he says. In his home town and place of residence, Abeokuta, are giant, sacred rocks. Standing in the way is the military junta of Sani Abacha.

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