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Topical Excerpts from Interviews
with Wole Soyinka


Soyinka
©1986, United Press International
On writing...
On reading and influences...
On the theatre...
On imprisonment...
On his exile from Nigeria...
On the mythic figure Ogun...
On the university system...
On return-to-Africa movements...
On Eurocentrist thought...
On Christian philosophy...
On the effects of social upheaval...


On writing...

(Growing up) I was constantly surrounded, I recall, by aunts, uncles, my father's intellectual companions, all of them raconteurs of some sort or the other. They recounted episodes involving themselves, battles, conflicts. I grew up in an atmosphere where words were an integral part of culture...One thing I can tell you is this, that I am not a methodical writer. I'm not one of those writers I learned about who get up in the morning, put a piece of paper in their typewriter machine and start writing. That I've never understood. I can write days on end, not wanting to do anything else. And at other times gestate. I consider the process of gestation just as important as when you're actually sitting down putting words to the paper. ..(Of great importance is) allowing one's self to be overwhelmed by phenomena, by experience. In other words, the ability to submit one's ego, one's personal self-awareness, to the phenomena around one. Off-the-cuff, I would say this is one of the most profound prerequisites (to becoming a writer). But there are certain experiences which are concise, which are so miniaturized in their impact, that a poem becomes a logical mode of expression for it. And of course, certain polemical demands require the essay form. The novel, for me, was an accident. I really don't consider myself a novelist.

Interview by Harry Kreisler
April 16, 1998
Institute of International Studies
UC, Berkeley
Full text of this interview available online.

There are different kinds of artists and very often, I'll be very frank with you, I wish I were a different kind. I mean all of them are quite valuable. I have always rejected any special responsibility for the artist. I've never belonged in that school and I feel like striking those who insist that artists should have a particular burden. No, I don't accept it. What we should recognize is that some artists are temperamentally different from others. I mean, I'm a consumer of the artistic product and I do not want to read "engaged" literature all the time. My horizons on humanity are enlarged by reading the writers of poems, seeing a painting, listening to some music, some opera, which has nothing at all to do with a volatile human condition or struggle or whatever. It enriches me as a human being. And so the artists who are lucky to be temperamentally gifted that way should not be tempted to make propaganda of their lives. No. They should just create and thereby assist those of us who are unfortunate enough to constantly immerse ourselves in all this diversion. To at least enjoy a little bit of their essence, which for me is every bit as important as the work of the artist/activist. For me there is no distinction, but sometimes I wish I were the other kind of artist.

Interview by Harry Kreisler
April 16, 1998
Institute of International Studies
UC, Berkeley
Full text of this interview available online.

I personally find that I work more in solitude. I find the company of other writers pretty trying if, that is if such writers insist on talking about their work because I don't like talking about the process of writing. But I do acknowledge that there are some writers who thrive on this continuous exchange of ideas...I really find it very, very difficult for me to try and intrude into the creative process of another writer. In fact this creates difficulty for me when young writers come to me for help and advice...if it is worthwhile and I can recognise the actual organic process of bringing out this matter then I find myself very, very reluctant to offer any suggestion. I must confess that I find it impossible to enter into a dialogue with a writer over a work in progress.

Interview by John Agetua
Excerpted from: When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interview on Wole Soyinka's Controversial Book.
Benin, Nigeria: Agetua, 1975.
HV 9865.5 A15


On reading and influences...

I've read widely in the world's literature, European, Asiatic, American, there are Buddhist reference points and mythologies in my poetry too. In other words, I cannot cut off and will not attempt to cut off what is my experience and what is after all, the world's experience. There is a great deal of intercommunication in the world. A lot of people tend to forget that. As long as I find the means of expression, a form of communication which does not alienate my immediate readership and I do not deliberately cram my work with foreign references to a point where the work is indigestible -- these are faults which should never be permitted by any serious writer. I believe that in expanding the horizons and the curiosity also of my readership, I think I'm contributing to both their intellectual and general universal conceptualization even of their immediate experiences. The actual form, the medium, the metaphor, which one uses is ultimately unimportant because this is merely the framework upon which one poses certain themes. As I said as long as the actual metaphor itself does not become an obstacle to the appreciation of the entire message, I don't think a poet should worry unduly about the eclectic appearance or structure of his work. We must not think that traditionalism means raffia skirts; in other words it's no longer possible for a purist literature for the simple reason that even our most traditional literature has never been purist.

Interview by John Agetua, 1974.
Excerpted from: When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interview on Wole Soyinka's Controversial Book. Benin, Nigeria: Agetua, 1975. HV 9865.5 A15


On the theatre...

Well, let's take a painting for instance. You go into a gallery and you respond to the artworks in the gallery but it's one to one. Yes, you can discuss a painting with a nearby observer or afterwards. And that's quite normal, in that sense there's a social extension of this individual communication between a painting and an individual. A concert, the same thing happens. There's a kind of absorption by every individual on different levels of emotion in response to a concert. But theater, because of its nature, both text, images, multimedia effects, has a wider base of communication with an audience. That's why I call it the most social of the various art forms. It changes all the time. It responds to the atmosphere. There's a kind of dynamic quality about theater and that dynamic quality expresses itself in relation to, first of all, the environment in which it's being staged; then the audience, the nature of the audience, the quality of the audience. The space, the mutual space of interaction between audience and stage. And no two performances are ever the same. Theater can respond immediately. What I call "guerrilla theater" for instance, can respond immediately. Some people call it living theater, some people call it newspaper theater. Whatever it is, street theater, it can respond immediately to both events and the changing pattern of events. It responds to the dynamics of any situation.

Interview by Harry Kreisler
April 16, 1998
Institute of International Studies
UC, Berkeley
Full text of this interview available online.

First of all I believe implicitly that any work of art which opens out the horizons of the human mind, the human intellect is by its very nature a force for change, a medium for change. In the black community here, theater can be used and has been used as a form of purgation, it has been used cathartically; it has been used to make the black man in this society work out his historical experience and literally purge himself at the altar of self-realization. This is one use to which it can be put. The other use, the other revolutionary use, may be far less overt, far less didactic, and less self-conscious. It has to do very simply with opening up the sensibilities of the black man not merely towards very profound and fundamental truths of his origin that are in Africa in suddenly opening him...to new experiences...as a means of making the audience question an identity which was taken for so long for granted, suddenly opening the audience up to a new existence, a new scale of values, a new self-submission, a communal rapport. By making the audience or a member of the audience go through this process, a reawakening has begun in the individual which in turn affects his attitude to the external social realities. This for me is a revolutionary purpose...Finally and most importantly, theater is revolutionary when it awakens the individual in the audience, in the black community in this case, who for so long has tended to express his frustrated creativity in certain self-destructive ways, when it opens up to him the very possibility of participating creatively himself in this larger communal process. In other words, and this has been proven time and time again, new people who never believed that they even possessed the gift of self expression become creative and this in turn activates other energies within the individual. I believe the creative process is the most energizing. And that is why it is so intimately related to the process of revolution within society.

Interview edited by Karen L. Morell
April, 1974
Excerpted from: In Person -- Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle: University of Washington, 1975.
PR9340.I5


On imprisonment...

I was placed in solitary confinement for a year and ten months out of the period which I stayed in prison, which was just over two years. Very conscious of the fact that an effort was being made to destroy my mind, because I was deprived of books, deprived of any means of writing, deprived of human companionship. You never know how much you need it until you're deprived of it. You say to yourself when you are at liberty how desperate you are for your solitude, you love your periods of solitude, you scramble for it, you find ways of being by yourself so you can do what you want with yourself and your mind. But when you're deprived of it for a lengthy period then you value human companionship. But you have to survive and so you devise all kinds of mental exercises and it's amazing. You walk various, and sometimes dangerous, routes that kind of exercise can lead you. It's not very, very healthy for one to feed entirely on his or her mind without any replenishment from other sources...(What was important was) being able to continue to create in some way or other, being able to recover neglected areas of knowledge. One example, I hated mathematics when I was in school. I couldn't wait to drop it the moment I left school, just like that. But left with nothing to do except my own resources, I found myself going back and recollecting those mathematical formulas, geometric and algebraic, which I'd loathed in school, and now reworking them, reinventing them, rediscovering them and finding a logic to them. Even sometimes a beauty which I did not appreciate when I was in schools. That only lasted as long as I was in prison. As soon as I came out I could not see mathematics or anything of the sort. When I first came out, I spoke just now about this need for human company, but after I first came out I remember that after a few days I just couldn't stand so much company. It became too much again for me and I couldn't wait until I could go away and isolate myself somewhere. Fortunately a friend of mine had a little village on a farm in the south of France and I didn't really find any peace, any creative peace, any possibility of creativity until I spent a few months by myself on that farm where I wrote a play. I wrote the play, The Bacchae of Euripides, which was commissioned at the time by the National Theater of Great Britain. And I began again to write but I found on coming out immediately I couldn't get back to writing for some time.

Interview by Harry Kreisler
April 16, 1998
Institute of International Studies
UC, Berkeley
Full text of this interview available online.


On his exile from Nigeria...

A lot of people think that the main reason for my staying away is the book (The Man Died) and some kind of official reaction to it. That's only a small fraction of the causes why I'm staying away...I recognised a long time ago that the problem of Nigeria has moved beyond the remedy of debate and controversy, that the options are very clear. I find it impossible to return at this stage...I see the disease in the country of such a nature that I cannot honestly with any sense of contributing something useful participate in any particular form of political engagement. At the same time I also recognise that if I'm in Nigeria, it is impossible for me to remain a private citizen. In other words, whereas before, I was content with a kind of catalytic peripheral underground association with activists, and political movements in the country and been quite at home in it because don't forget that I am not a professional politician -- and I don't want to be one -- having been involved on that level, it is not possible for me to pretend a lather of creative sweat if I were to revert to what seems to be the only thing possible -- the debate -- and controversy -- political contribution. For me these two options are close; one, of remaining completely an unpoliticised individual and two, the option of pretending to myself that I am achieving anything by the debate-controversy method. I don't because of this condemn, or suggest for a single moment that it is absolutely futile, the debate and controversy method -- there is a lot of education which can go on with it, a kind of preparatory work, a kind of rerunning of attitudes....I should add by the way that I am not absent from Nigeria; I feel very spiritually there and quite apart from the details of keeping in touch with events there I don't feel absent from Nigeria.

Interview by John Agetua, 1974.
Excerpted from: When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interview on Wole Soyinka's Controversial Book. Benin, Nigeria: Agetua, 1975.
HV 9865.5 A15


On the mythic figure Ogun...

You must know of course about my fascination with the symbol figure of my society -- Ogun. He represents this duality of man; the creative, destructive aspect. And I think this is the reality of society, the reality of man, and that one would be foolish not to recognize this. I cannot sentimentalize revolution. I recognize the fact that it very often represents loss. But at the same time I affirm that it is necessary to accept the confrontations which society creates, to anticipate them and try to plan a programme in advance before them. The realism which pervades some of my work and which has been branded pessimistic is nothing but a very square, sharp look. I have depicted scenes of devastation, I have depicted the depression in the minds even of those who are committed to these changes and who are actively engaged in these changes simply because it would be starry-eyed to do otherwise. I think one should not promise what is not there. Only one thing can be guaranteed and that is the principle of accepting the challenges of life, of society in the same way as nature does. Those who are expecting a one dimensional statement from me as a writer are looking for a cheap injection of optimism in their nervous system. What I'm saying is that we must all accept the negative potential of action and then transcend this. And this is why I use Ogun as a representative symbol because it represents the Promethean reality of our existence.

Interview by John Agetua
Excerpted from: When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interview on Wole Soyinka's Controversial Book. Benin, Nigeria : Agetua, 1975.
HV 9865.5 A15


On the university system...

Universities are very much the slaves of a system of a bureaucratization. It is impossible really to rid the university of old brigades and old, jaded ideas and Eurocentric evaluation of ideas, even of learning, of discoveries, of research: the emphasis on trivia -- on scholastic-sounding trivia -- the waste of time, the waste of energy, the waste of intellect on the most irrelevant and generally immaterial details of learning. Sometimes I think nothing short of a real militant movement against the universities -- if necessary, the closing down of universities for a number of years while we start all over from scratch -- I sometimes think that nothing less than this will serve. There may be other methods, but I am afraid I have failed to think of them.

Evolution within our universities is going to take, at the pace it is going, another 1,000 years and will probably just travel the full circle and come back to the colonial system which we have inherited, not only inherited, but enshrined - the very pride which a lot of unproductive intelligentsia take in the principle of nonproductivity. By "nonproductivity" I refer to this business of the glorification of trivia-independent, autonomous trivia. So, for the process of evaluation and the process of the dissemination of new, valid ideas for our society, I think we must literally gain control ourselves -- that is, the real people, the masses of the people, the parallels of the power structure -- must somehow gain control of the universities.

Interview by Louis S. Gates.
Black World, v 24, #10
August, 1975


On return-to-Africa movements...

The move back to Africa by the Brothers from the diaspora is in itself, without any question, a valid desire. By move, of course, I do not really mean the physical move, although this can be a very fruitful, necessary experience or solution for a number of Black Americans. I am more interested in what you might call the cultural move, the spiritual move, even the intellectual move. The rediscovery of the social system, the beliefs, the philosophy of our own society, because this in itself means a long overdue rejection of European habits of thought and life-approach. It is quite true that quite a few who do come, Richard Wright for example, find that they are already too far conditioned to benefit, or even to successfully penetrate the, well, I wouldn't call them secrets -- the basic tenets and values of African society. I do not find this strange. I notice that some Brothers tend to criticize others for failing to find "themselves," so to speak, in Africa; I do not consider it strange at all. Those who do, then, it means that there is a gap within -- a hiatus within their soul -- which needs to be filled from this. I find that to those who are already complete beings in themselves, the rediscovery of Africa would only be an additional bonus if they do rediscover it. Well, they can still survive as revolutionary members of society without actually putting on a dashhiki. I am never overly concerned...when you listen to these Black American observers, you find that very often they are those who come to Africa and immediately align themselves with the power structure. They view the entire society through the spectacles of those who are in power. It's very amusing; but it shouldn't be amusing. It's really tragic and destructive in many ways, because they are the same people who shout about the totality of society. They're the ones who complain about writers and artists standing aside. And when they talk about the polity, when they talk about the entire society, they are really talking about a very small hierarchy.

Interview by Louis S. Gates
Black World, v 24, #10
August, 1975


On Eurocentrist thought...

I find myself very much preoccupied -- if you like, naturally prejudiced -- in favor of a wholesale re-examination, re-evaluation of European ideas. In fact, I question very much the intellectual value of a number of the preoccupations of European scholars. And taking as the foundation of my thinking the ideas, the world-view, the philosophical concepts of my society, I find that Europe has for too long brow-beaten the rest of the world, and especially the African world, into an acceptance of the very fundamental system (of evaluation) which is, I suppose, natural to Europe. It is time the paths which have been blazed by a number of very serious African scholars should be followed up very rigorously. And the damage which has already been done-the waste of toil which has been indulged in by universities-seems very ridiculous. Tiny, really minuscule, academic studies, with no relevance at all, to a true understanding of man's situation within the universe -- which I think is at the root the most fundamental aspect of all intellectual inquiry. I believe that one of the primary duties of African intellectual institutions is really not merely to question the system of thought of Europe, but to question the value of these systems, the value of these particular patterns of thought in European thinking...The deliberate suppression of facts, of historical facts, which are dug up by anthropologists; the biased, the very dishonest selectiveness of material, which then becomes the basis of supposedly rigid structuralism in analyzing social systems; the habit of ignoring or merely treating as curious the systems, the metaphysical systems, the philosophical ideas of African society. In other words, these are made sort of adjuncts to the European artificial systems...When I talk about the true liberation of the Black man, I speak of a complete rejection, a refusal even to begin from the untried axioms of the white academic -- you know, bored with his own society or seeking some kind of validation for his presumed superiority of his own people before he attempted to come to terms, in a very self-validating way, with African society. (My position) is to believe very implicitly that the African peoples live a very complete rounded self-sufficient existence, both emotionally and intellectually, and that all the postulations of the European scholar are either irrelevant, in fact they have no bearing whatever...or contradict the reality of the African peoples.

Interview by Louis S. Gates.
Black World, v 24, #10
August, 1975


On Christian philosophy...

This, again, I believe is part of the pattern of acceptance of European thought and ideas -- this idea of attributing the concept of self-sacrifice to the Christian, to the Euro-Christian or Judeo-Christian world, simply because a single figure emerged from that particular culture to espouse, in very beautiful mythological terms, the cause of the self-sacrificing individual as a kind of, as the surrogate for world suffering, social unhappiness, and general human unhappiness. It is often forgotten that the idea of individual sacrifice-the principle of the surrogate individual-is, in fact, a "pagan" one. Those who attribute this concept to Europe forget that Christianity itself is not a European religion. And that Christ, the central figure of Christianity, is really a glamorization of very "paganistic" ideas: the idea of personalizing the dying old year, the dying season; to insure the sprouting, the fertility, the idea of the emergence, in fact the very resurrection, of Nature. All this is "pagan" -- "pagan" as an expression used by the Christian world to describe the fundamentally natural, Nature religions. I see Christianity merely as another expression of nature religion. I cannot accept, I do not regard the principle of sacrifice as belonging to the European world. I completely reject the idea that the notion of the scapegoat is a Christian idea. This scapegoat idea is very much rooted in African religion...I think the obsession with individual salvation -- which, if you like, is on the opposite end of the axis to self-sacrifice -- is a very European thing. I am not aware that it occupied the minds of our people. I think it is a very European literary idea; in fact, the obsession itself is a very Christian principle. In our society, this kind of event, this process, is inbuilt into the very mechanism which operates the entire totality of society. The individual acts as a carrier and who knows very well what is going to become of him is really no different, is doing nothing special, from the other members of society who build society and who guarantee survival of society in their own way. I think there is one principle, one essential morality of African society which we must always bear in mind, and that is the greatest morality is what makes the entire society survive. The actual detailed mechanism of this process merely differs from group to group and from section to section, but it is the totality that is important. I think there is far too much concern about this business of the Christian ethic of individual self-sacrifice.

Interview by Louis S. Gates.
Black World, v 24, #10
August, 1975


On the effects of social upheaval...

In a statement I made last year I referred to my generation as the wasted generation and I was thinking in terms of all fields, not just the literary: the technological talents that we have which are not being used; but I also had in mind our writers of course, the fact that a lot of our energy has really been devoted to coping with the oppressive political situation in which we find ourselves. A lot of our energies go into fighting unacceptable situations as they arise while at the same time trying to pursue a long-term approach to politics such as, for instance, joining progressive-looking political parties, but of course each step is always one step forwards and about ten backwards. I find the political situation very, very frustrating, personally frustrating. I mean, forget even the amount of let us say personal work one could have done, writing and so on, and just think in terms of the amount of time one could have spent on training, in theatre for instance, would-be actors, or devoting more time to would-be writers, many of whom are constantly inundating one with cries for help; the qualitatively different kind of creative community atmosphere, structures that one would really love to give more time to...I know, very definitely, that I feel a great sense of deprivation in terms of what I could have contributed to the general productive atmosphere of the country in literary terms and I'm sure a lot of other writers feel the same. That is one of the penalties of the political situation we've been undergoing since independence and which has got progressively worse, progressively more lethal. The penalties for the wrong kind of political action in this situation have become far more depressing.

Interview by Jane Wilkinson, 1992.
Excerpted from: Talking with African Writers: Interviews with African Poets, Playwrights, and Novelists. London: Heinemann, 1992.
PR9340.T35



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