Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:22 am
For all the lucky breaks that could come the way of a young, aspirant writer, there’s no fortune greater than the early discovery of a grand writer whose craft, creative temper and ethical posture so closely mirror the ideal. In that light, I confess to being exceedingly fortunate to have encountered Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka quite early in my social and intellectual formation.
My first contact with Soyinka was through his poetry, specifically his widely anthologised “Telephone Conversation”. Something about the poem’s sonic sweep, arresting sensual power, and momentum just left me spell-bound. It became one of the first poems I ever memorised—not counting nursery rhymes.
There was something else that gripped me in the poem. In the persona of the poem’s speaker, I glimpsed something of Soyinka’s signature intrepid personality, his uncommon brand of courage, his aversion to injustice. The juxtaposition of the young African looking for a rental flat and a tightlipped, perhaps slightly superannuated English landlady scared of the ultimate, African “other” presented the perfect occasion for Soyinka’s mordant takedown of a species of racist ignorance.
Hooked, I began to search for other works by this writer. In the opening lines of Interpreters— “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes”—I discovered prose that was at once so primal I could feel it on my skin and so evocative I had a sense of awaking from a dream. But it was Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died that most powerfully branded itself on my imagination.
I first read it as a secondary school pupil. It was a novel experience, quite unlike anything I had read up to that point. On the best of days, Soyinka is a tasking writer, demanding from his reader that readiness to navigate a creative terrain again and again until it becomes familiar—or, at any rate, no longer strange. In The Man Died, the accustomed linguistic challenge is compounded, I suspect, by the author’s attempt to articulate both a psychic rupture and the maddening drama of a country that so quickly, so tragically traded in its promise and descended into war.
Intellectually ill-equipped to grapple with the book, I nevertheless visited it again and again. Each rereading yielded its own reward, its own harvest of insights. But at the heart of it was that gem of statement: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” It was a disarming, declarative, plangent claim. I couldn’t help admiring the man who could distil that truth as economically as Soyinka did.
For me, that stipulation continues to define Soyinka. His critics accuse him of all manner of imperfections, including the charge that he sometimes wears his emotions on the sleeves. But he has never failed to speak whenever and wherever tyranny has stalked the land. His abjuration of tyranny continues to be at the centre of his ethical project. As an artist and citizen, he has consistently eschewed silence; whenever speech is imperative, he can be counted on to speak.
And he has paid a steep price for this commitment, including a second exile during the years of the Sani Abacha dictatorship.
I often recall two exchanges that took place at a lecture Soyinka gave at Hampshire College, Massachusetts in 1998. One was between another Nigerian academic and me; the other between Soyinka and me. The college hall where the Nobel laureate spoke was huge, yet packed. I arrived moments before Soyinka was introduced, and found all the seats taken. I went to stand in the rear of the hall, and there ran into Ifi Amadiume, best known for her book Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society.
Like everybody else in the hall, my attention was riveted as Soyinka surveyed and described the climate of brutality in Abacha’s regime. I saw Amadiume turn my way, suddenly.
“Okey,” she said in a voice heavy with grief, “is it not terrible that Abacha sits pretty in Nigeria and this man is in exile?”
At the time, Abacha had promulgated a death sentence on Soyinka. Yet, the writer’s spirits showed no signs of sagging, no temptation to throw his hands up in despair.
The second exchange took place at the end of the lecture. I had been advancing towards the podium once I realised that the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture was about to end. As the audience stood and roared in applause, I finally stood before Soyinka.
“Ah, Okey, you came,” he said, once he saw me. As we greeted, he said, “By the way, one of your professors told me at lunch that you’d written a fascinating manuscript. I hope I can get to read it.”
I couldn’t believe the man’s generosity of spirit. Here he was, an exile for the second time in his life. He had a punishing travel schedule, landing in locations around the world to bring them direct accounts of Abacha’s bestial rule. And in the midst of his hectic engagements, he was asking to read the manuscript of what became my first novel, Arrows of Rain.
He asked me to send the manuscript to his office then at Emory University. For the next three months, he would send me the occasional email to say he hadn’t had time to read the manuscript and assuring me that he would get to it.
Then on Christmas Day, 1998, he rang and left a voice message. He’d finally read the manuscript and liked it. The news could not have come at a better time. My family and I had been invited by our best American friends to eat Christmas lunch and dinner at their home. Growing up in Nigeria, I had come to regard rice and chicken as inevitable staples of Yuletide meals. But there was neither chicken nor a single grain of rice in the two meals our friends served.
If I did nothing, I would mark the first riceless, chickenless Christmas in my life. At 10 p.m., I whispered to my wife that we had to run. I was determined to get home before midnight and boil a few grains of rice to eat. Chicken, I was willing to forego—but not rice. Yet, after listening to Soyinka’s message on our telephone voice message, I told my wife that I would not bother with rice, either. Soyinka had saved my Christmas. “His message is better than rice,” I explained to my wife.
There was a more solid reason I was moved. My first novel was inspired, in part, by my years of rereading Soyinka’s The Man Died, letting that stipulation about silence, tyranny and the loss of identity to sink deep in my psyche. On some deep level, that novel is a sort of unwitting homage to Soyinka, my attempt to come to grips, dramatically, with the perils of silence. In the novel, a wise, elderly woman tells her grandson, a journalist: “A story that must be told never forgives silence.”
Those words, which I put in my favorite character’s mouth, represent my own way of restating Soyinka’s ethical imperative. As the bard turns 80, how lucky we are, as a community of writers as well as citizens, to continue to learn from him the irreducible value of using our voices to combat tyranny.
•Okey Ndibe is Visiting Professor of African Studies, Brown University. He is the author of Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc.