Wole Soyinka

February 3, 1995

Six leading writers will speak on the subject of the Dissident Word in the fourth series of Amnesty Lectures which starts next week at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford.

The literary career of Nig-eria's Nobel prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka began, appropriately enough, when his play A Dance of the Forests won the main prize for the 1960 Independence celebrations contest. But by the time those celebrations were over and his play had been staged Soyinka, newly returned from England, was already at odds with Nigeria's nascent powers-that-be. And 35 years on, he travels the world on a Unesco diplomatic passport, his own confiscated by the Nigerian authorities.

Until he slipped out of Nigeria last November when arrest appeared imminent, Soyinka had been battling against the military leadership in speeches, articles and even in the courts. He has used his skill with words each time democracy has foundered in post-independence Nigeria. When he wrote an article appealing for a ceasefire in the Nigerian civil war, he was accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels and detained for 22 months.

For a writer who has found himself so often in the role of dissident, Soyinka is understandably circumspect about the word's implications. "I'm always uncomfortable with the word dissident, as if dissident writing is a special kind of profession, different from other writing," he said. "I prefer to consider myself a realistic writer, faithful to environment and circumstance and who, as a result, finds himself at loggerheads with those who try to distort reality and pretend everything is going well when it obviously isn't."

In 1986, Soyinka became the first African to win the Nobel prize in literature.

During a period of self-imposed exile in Ghana, he founded the Union of African writers to protect the interests of authors and campaign for human rights. But that move was also an attempt to rescue African writers from what he saw as the attempt to marginalise them.

Soyinka has always been a reluctant exile. He returned to Nigeria in the mid-1970s, teaching until he finally quit his university post in 1985 in frustration at the collapse of Nigeria's higher education system. The Nobel prize brought international engagements, always followed by a return to his home town, Abeokuta where he lived and wrote until this latest forced departure that he refuses to call exile.

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