Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:29 am
Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, owner of Tanus Communications Ltd., a Public Relations and book publishing company, is one of Professor Soyinka’s close friends, even from the university days when he learnt at the feet of the Nobel Laureate. In this interview with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, he characterises the Soyinka he knows
You are close to Professor Soyinka. How did your friendship begin?
I first met Prof. when we were at school in Kings College. We had gone from school to the University of Lagos to take part in a lecture delivered by a visiting Professor of Anthropology at that time and a group from Kings College, called The Thinkers Group, was invited to attend. At that time Professor Wole Soyinka was the Head of Department of English. I walked up to him to say hi. A colleague of mine who has now died, Akin Niyi, said to him: ‘Sir, we have been trying to read The Interpreters and we don’t understand it, how do we deal with this?’ He smiled and said, ‘Just keep on trying, read it again and again.’
We met again when I came to the University of Ibadan, to study English and he had just been released from prison by the Yakubu Gowon administration. We met and became very close from that point on. I recall, he came to visit with me at the Kuti Hall, and it was quite a scene. I was in the dining hall and here was Prof., he walked to the dining area and was looking for me and I panicked a little in the dining hall, wondering, ‘what is he doing here?’ He took me out that day, we drove out in his open jeep to the house of Femi Johnson for dinner. I met Chief Bola Ige for the first time in that place. That was for me the beginning of a close relationship.
Why did he come for you that day?
I had gone to see him in his office. We talked about his works, and he gave a lecture where I asked a question about his works. He then asked me to see him later in his office. I did and that was the beginning of it. Don’t forget, around that time, Prof. Soyinka didn’t talk that much on campus, so to be seen around looking for me was something very rare and at that time, very unusual.
As your teacher, in what areas did he help you?
I was just coming into University of Ibadan and at that time he was just coming out of prison, to go back as head of Theatre Department. It was Prof. Soyinka that recommended me to New York University Graduate School. I didn’t apply to go to NYU for my master’s degree, he just called them on the phone and said he had a student whom he thought would be a good material for graduate school. I just saw that from that conversation, I was admitted to study in NYU. That was how I was admitted. I didn’t fill out the form, or asked the usual questions. It was after I had been in New York and after I had been admitted and given a place, based on his recommendation, that I filled out the form and took up residency for my graduate programme.
In what other area did he influence you?
Prof. Soyinka is a very kind and compassionate person. I will tell you one or two stories about him to tell you what kind of person he is. When I lost my job at The Gaurdian I was abroad, I had gone to interview Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan for The Guardian. In my absence I was fired. And the first thing he did was to go and look for a house to rent for me before I arrived because he knew I lived in Alex Ibru’s house and that once I got back I would be told to relinquish the flat. So, on his own, he went to rent a place not far from where I lived in Ikeja, saying, ‘Yemi, I know you would need a place to go to, I got a place for you.’ That is the kind of person Professor Soyinka is. I was deeply touched.
I can also go back to my days at the university, even when I was living abroad as a student. Prof. would come to town and his time was so tight in terms of giving lectures to universities and institutions but he would create time to spend at least an hour with us. I was a graduate student, I was a nobody. I was nothing but he would come to the house, would demand to eat with us, spend the day with us. He is a man of great compassion and greatness. People don’t see that aspect of him. They see the activist, writer, but deep down, he is a very kind-hearted, very soft man who has shown great compassion in my dealings with him.
What are those jokes that you share together?
There are many. Prof. has an interesting eating habit; he eats once a day for instance and it is only dinner. That’s why I think he has kept so fit. He is one man who always takes his meal with a cup of wine. I have never known Prof. to eat anywhere without some glass of wine by his side. As for jokes, there are several little jokes… the one I said I was not going to tell you: When I was in the U.S., he came to see me. When we finished eating, he went into the kitchen, which was just by the dining, and he sighted plantains. At that time, plantains were very rare, we bought this from a Puerto Rican shop. Prof. said, ‘You have plantains, why don’t you fry some?’ I said, after all that meal? He said, ‘Of course, for dessert!’ So the dodo was fried for him, he consumed it all after that heavy meal. That is a joke any time and we always say to him, ‘Do you want some dodo for dessert?’ Everybody around knows the joke and the joke comes from me. Also, Prof. loves dodo in all his meals. Even when he takes a piece of yam, just make sure there is dodo at the table. That’s one of the jokes.
You wrote in Positive Review Magazine, criticising Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi. You were a Marxist then. How would you reconcile then and now that you are a big businessman?
I didn’t carry Marxism on my head, it was a review I wrote at a time. I was younger, and I confess to having a few nascent Marxist views at the time. It was a view he didn’t like.
His view at the time was that we were trying to coerce him into what he was not. No amount of coercion from the left would compel him. That, yes, his writings might not be what we need but I must say that those views at that time, those critical positions, may have unknowingly been also reflected in his writing. If you noticed, after those years, with plays like Beatification of Area Boys, while Prof. may have reacted to what we were saying, I think his writing also responded to that. There are about three other such plays that belong to such period of writing, where the central figures became working class persons who then take control of their own lives in their hands and are able to direct the course of their lives. Thus, I can say that in Beatification; I can say that in about two other plays.
Looking back now, Soyinka has written so consistently over time. The old man has produced more works, both in quantity and quality, almost without a break in the course of the past 55 years, a body of works and writings that would continue to generate intense, diverse, interpretative and insight for many years and generations to come. We give him that credit. I don’t think any living writer in Africa, in my recent memory, has that kind of corpus of writings.
What is your advice to current generation of Nigerians, let us say, youths, to be able to produce another Soyinka?
They should read. If they want to be writers, they should read extensively. Our younger people are not reading as much as we did, when we were younger. They should just read; reading makes you a writer. If you read a lot, you would become a writer. There is no other magic to it than hard work, dedication, commitment. Many young people these days want to get rich quickly, they don’t want to do the work needed to get there. People like Soyinka paid their dues, they worked very hard and that hardwork is there, you can see the evidence and result of it today.
The advice I have for upcoming writers, is to learn from that attitude to dedicate themselves to the craft, to read extensively. Many writers see themselves as big authors even before they write anything! You see that in some of our Nollywood stars, who have done one or two lightweight films [but] see themselves as superstars already, without the rigour that comes with it. There is no easy path to success. Many young writers don’t see that and that is my quarrel with them. Soyinka also tries to mentor a number of writers, and by what he is doing now, he wants to mentor young writers. You can see that this is what he is doing with his birthday celeberations, involving young people.
His life has been a blessing to our generation. So I don’t agree with him that his has been a wasted generation. Because of people like Professor Soyinka, JP Clark, this has not been a wasted generation.