Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:30 am
By Tejumola Olaniyan
By the last two years of my secondary school, there was no one among my class mates who had not read one or two of Soyinka’s most popular early plays: The Lion and the Jewel, or The Trials of Brother Jero. This experience was generic and common, we all know. Then there was the uncommon: it was another book that I discovered myself, outside of school reading requirements, that made the greatest difference to me. The book was The Man Died: Prison Notes, Soyinka’s account of his experience as a political prisoner. I read the book non-stop. The wider political ramifications of the book as a prison diary, by a political prisoner, touched me only lightly, though I was worried now and then about the safety of the prisoner-narrator.
But contrary to this lukewarm response to the book’s manifest political content, I was absolutely enthralled at the level of the aesthetic. I thought the book was a great thriller, and sold the idea to any of my classmates who cared to listen. Plus, in every other line, I found highly melodious phrases but whose meanings I knew nothing about. The more difficult the phrase, the more I was determined to master it and make it part of my casual vocabulary. I began to gather them. By the time I finished the book, I had collected nearly 17 pages of phrases: lachrymose sermon, perfunctory interrogation, obsequious frenzy, geriatric consciences, noisy prodigality, ambiguous omen, pessimist intuition…I was completely dazzled; and with the phrases, I dazzled both classmates and teachers.
Whenever an English Language examination or test approaches, I would carefully select ten or twelve phrases, and practice making all sorts of sentences with them. My study mates never ceased to be amazed. “Has the exam question paper been leaked to you?” they would ask repeatedly, suspiciously. “If not, why are you preparing answers to questions you have not seen?” But the fact was that we all knew the unchanging three-part structure of our high school English examinations: a letter-writing section, a comprehension and composition section, and a multiple-choice section. No matter the letter-writing or composition question in the exam, I always made sure I found a way to use my prepared Soyinka phrases, violently taken out of context, and, of course, without any acknowledgment.
When I entered the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Drama Department a few years later and met Soyinka, Head of Department, it was as if I had known him intimately for a long time. I read more of his works and especially more about his works. I absorbed numberless new things, but I did not show any excitement at all. I responded to all my discoveries with the calm, Olympian haughtiness of a privileged veteran insider to Soyinka’s creative universe. I was a beginning apprentice but I had already imagined and convinced myself of my own expertise. Looking back now, my undiluted arrogance still astonishes me. In my mind, I competed with Soyinka in crafting urbane, sophisticated humour, in cultivating a spicy, overpowering sense of irony, in refusing to condescend to the reader or listener by explaining too much, and above all, in not conceding an inch of space to English in its domestication to serve ends radically against those which it was historically accustomed. And my imperturbable vanity always assured me I excelled in all. Amazing.
I had found a model, and I was a copycat, one hundred per cent. This was not completely deliberate, or absolutely conscious. On the part of the model too, there was no indoctrination, only the force, the very powerful force, of example. Even with that, I was briefly shocked when, after a while, classmates and departmental staff began to mistake my voice for Soyinka’s whenever I spoke. They were sure I was acting up. Remember, we were in a theatre department. “Oh, so it’s you,” a classmate or staff would tell me now and again, with disappointment or relieve, as if to say, Why are you pretending to be someone you are not? Once, I saw a secretary looked out into the hallway, saw me talking, and then said to his colleagues: “don’t worry, it’s not Prof., just a joker.” But sweet revenge was mine in the end, as I then began to use that voice to play pranks on many a staff or classmate.
Many aspiring scholars don’t discover themselves fully until well into their post-graduate school years. I discovered myself very early in my undergraduate studies. That undergraduate experience was the most decisive and most enriching of all my schooling. These are due to the leadership style of Soyinka. Theatre departments do have much closer teacher-student interactions than any other, largely because of their stage production activities. Even so, Ife Drama Department was unique. We the students were not only close to the lecturers but the lecturers, more significantly, encouraged us to be close to them as co-traders in the business of high level ideas about culture and society. We saw this as a great challenge, and rose to the occasion the best way we knew how. Particularly in my set, heated discussions replaced lectures. Many wrote lengthy class presentations and had to be politely stopped along the way to make room for general class discussion. We digested theories of ideology, and practices of ideological criticism, and were hyper-critical of every received opinion or idea, including our teachers.’
This was where I learned one of my greatest lessons from Soyinka. My classmates and I derived great inspiration from his embodiment of the intellectual with a social conscience that is partisan toward egalitarian social relations. He was our irresistible, omnipresent example. But we anchored this understanding of the intellectual in a philosophical source different from Soyinka’s. Following the most vocal intellectual current of the time, quite a bunch of us considered ourselves to be Marxists. We were inspired in this self-identification by the example of leading Marxist scholars on campus, some of who were Soyinka’s former students. But Soyinka was not a Marxist. Based on his pronouncements and our reading of his works, we described him as a Humanist, and then seized every opportunity—including in his classes—to criticize humanism for its just being liberal rather than radical or radical enough, for its supposed lack of serious attention to “class relations,” and therefore, for being “bourgeois.” You see, we read Marx in and out—or, we thought we did—and wasted no time at all spewing out at the slightest opportunity what I can now only describe—in affirmation—as infant Marxism.
In all this our brashness, even childishness, we never got from Soyinka any hint of resentment, or any attempt to remind us of our status as mere undergraduate students. He allowed us to intellectually roam widely, and take risks and responsibilities, perhaps self-assured that we would be the wiser for it, after we would have outgrown our adolescent impetuosity. We heard that he even defended us a few times, once, to a drama professor of another university who reported us to him for being such a bunch of presumptuous undergraduates in criticizing his paper at a conference. Just imagine, what we took for granted under Soyinka, and which his leadership style actively encouraged, were obviously frowned upon or punishable elsewhere.
I subsequently passed through the hands of several teachers but I never again came across anyone with such great facility for inculcating self-confidence in the student, such inspiring aura that challenges the student to strive for only the very best, such large-heartedness, and such nurturing patience, as Soyinka’s. And then there was and is that liberating and liberatory subculture in which support is considered an obligation and the gratitude of the supported is assumed and therefore never needs expression, much less public dramatization. No doubt at all I would have been the poorer for it today without my prodigious luck to land in the orbit of Soyinka at a critical juncture in my intellectual journey.
For Wole Soyinka my teacher, mentor, inspiring example, my very own Nobel Laureate in Literature, but also, and above all, a great human being, a happy 80th birthday. Because you are more precious than gold or silver, my birthday gift is a truly plebeian one: Thank you.
Tejumola Olaniyan is the Louise Durham Professor of English and African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. He is the author of Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics, and other publications.