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Wole Soyinka

(b. 1934) Nigerian dramatist, novelist, and critic

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1934– )

Nigerian writer whose work fuses African and European traditions. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Born near Abeokuta, western Nigeria, Soyinka was the son of the headmaster of a European-style school and the grandson of a tribal elder, who cherished the traditions of the Yoruba people. This dual heritage led Soyinka both to study at the University of Ibadan and to undergo scarification at a tribal ceremony consecrated to Ogun, divinity of metals. A scholarship enabled Soyinka to progress to the University of Leeds in England, from which he graduated in 1957 to become a play reader at London's Royal Court Theatre. While at the Royal Court he wrote his first plays, The Swamp Dwellers, The Lion and the Jewel, and The Invention, in his spare time. Subsequently he returned to Nigeria to study village folk drama at the University of Ibadan (1959–61), where he established an English-speaking amateur company, Masks, to perform A Dance of the Forests to mark the advent of Nigerian independence in 1960. Its warning of the destructive potential of returning to a mythical tribal past proved all too accurate when the Ibo people attempted to secede from Nigeria and establish the separate nation of Biafra in oil-rich eastern Nigeria. In the meantime Soyinka had founded the Mbari Writers and Artists Club to foster a new Nigerian fusion of past and emerging cultural traditions. In 1963 he resigned from a teaching post at the University of Ife for political reasons and in 1964 established another theatre company, Orisun Repertory.

In 1965 Soyinka's first novel, The Interpreters, won the New Statesman Literary Prize. Appointed senior lecturer at the University of Lagos, Soyinka was soon in trouble for protesting against the fraudulent election of a local chief. Arrested for theft, he was released only after an international outcry from writers abroad. Following his first visit to the USA (1967), Soyinka was arrested again and held without trial for two years, mostly in solitary confinement, on account of his alleged sympathies for the Biafran cause. Denied proper writing materials he maintained a tenuous contact with the outside world by means of smuggled poems and journal entries scrawled on scraps of paper.

Freed in 1969, Soyinka returned to academic life as head of drama at the University of Ibadan. In 1970 a play based on his prison experiences, Madmen and Specialists, was first performed in the USA. Prison also supplied the inspiration for The Man Died (1973). Awarded the Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1986), the first African to be so honoured, Soyinka was once again forced into exile as a result of his outspoken denunciation of the human-rights abuses of the military regime of General Abacha. He was formally charged with treason in 1997 but in the liberalization that followed Abacha's death in 1998 the charge was withdrawn and he returned to his homeland

Soyinka's work has drawn on classical Greek motifs as well as Nigerian folklore; he has set out his belief in the value of cultural cross-fertilization at length in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976).


Subjects: Literature

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