How school bullies shaped Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka's view of power

Wole Soyinka has gone from political prisoner to Nobel Laureate in Literature. His writing, brimming with wit and rage, bears witness to the tragedy and triumphs of his native Nigeria. He spoke with Nahlah Ayed about power, the corruption of language, and his first novel in almost 50 years.

'We have a new set of would-be colonialists... those are religious fundamentalists,' says the Nigerian writer

Nigerian playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka has gone from being a political prisoner to being the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. At 88, he has wielded words in some of the biggest battles of his time from confronting colonialism, corruption and war to religious fundamentalism. (Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on September 13, 2022.

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka would have preferred a quiet, peaceful life. But that's not quite how things have worked out. 

"Maybe I'm a closet masochist," he told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed, laughing.

As a writer, he has confronted colonialism, war, corruption, and fundamentalism. 

"We have a new set of would-be colonialists right now. Very vicious, very violent, absolutely uncompromising, ruthless in every sense of the word. Those are the religious fundamentalists," he said.

In the 1960s, Soyinka became one of Nigeria's leading writers and public intellectuals. He was also a vocal critic of the new nation's government, a stand that led leading him to his imprisonment in 1967. He served 22 months in jail — 18 of them in solitary confinement. 

Now, the Nobel Laureate in Literature is 88 years old, and is often frustrated at the inadequacy of words to effect change. 

Soyinka spoke to Nahlah Ayed at the Stratford Festival in the summer of 2022 about words and power and how both are wielded by the forces threatening the world.

Here is part of their conversation:

What moment from your childhood had the biggest impact on how you now understand power?

Oh, that began straight from school when I was very tiny. I went to school very early for those times and so I was easily the smallest in the class. And even by my third year in secondary school, what you call high school here, I think I was still the smallest. So I saw how people loved the opportunity of bullying me. Which I was not very amenable to. And I wondered: what is it that's pushing them? And I realized that people just enjoy being able to dominate others. 

How does that help you understand what goes on in the world today? 

I relate many things to that childhood experience. I look at Mr. Putin, for instance, and I just see another school bully, except that he's armed with the most dangerous toys. I look at even the situation which is going on in my own country, the various insurgents, religious fundamentalists.

A house was burned down by Fulani herdsman in the Ganaropp village in the Barikin Ladi area of Nigeria, June 27, 2018. Wole Soyinka says Fulani herdsmen descend on villages, burn crops and houses, kidnap women as potential sex slaves and then occupy those villages. 'What is the difference between that and Putin sitting down and firing rockets? There is no difference," the writer told IDEAS. (Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images)

And at the base of it, it's this instinct, this genetic limpet in the makeup of human beings that you must forcibly get other people to see the world your own way. Even their own spirituality to be understood and manifested in your way. And what's the explanation for that? Just so you can bring others under your dominance. And that has been the major theme in my preoccupations. 

And is that necessarily an act of bullying? 

It's not always active, sometimes it's very passive. You know, there are people who exercise power, even when they seem to be reticent. When it's a kind of passive domination… We come into that all the time. Even parents exercise what I call passive domination. One look at their child, and that child would prefer that you took the cane to his or her bottom as sort of discipline rather than undergo that look. 

Is there a difference in your mind between the pull that leads you or has led you in the past to political action and the pull that leads you to writing? 

Well, you know, we talked about passive domination, inactive domination. There's also resistance which can be both active and passive. Writing belongs, I think, to the more passive one. It's very different from, let's say, a late colleague of mine, Christopher Okigbo, he was a marvellous poet, a marvellous human being. And at a certain stage in his life, he felt he just had to take up arms in defence of what he believed in. Obviously, at that point, writing no longer sufficed. 

That marvellous statement: 'the pen is mightier than the sword' goes only so far. After a while, it takes time, energy and also a different kind of commitment to sit down and explore the contradictions which make you uncomfortable in society. And that, again, requires a kind of discipline that you feel, 'Let me at least get this down.' So it's both relief, and at the same time aggression. 

But how often do you feel the frustration of the limits of the writing process in furthering one's aims? 

All the time. Yes.

'Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth' by Wole Soyinka is his first novel in almost 50 years. It was recently published in August 2022. (Glenn Gatty/Penguin Random House)

And sometimes you even feel guilty about it. It's the kind of escape that you feel that you ought to be out in the streets. You ought to be out conspiring with others to make a change. And sometimes it has been blocked because you feel this is not what you should be doing. 

So what's the retort to yourself when that comes up? What do you say to yourself when you think, 'Boy, I should be out there instead of writing'? 

Well, 'guilt' perhaps is too strong a word. You're just not comfortable with yourself — let's put it that way.  You're convinced that even writing is a contribution, especially if a certain kind of writing is a contribution, so maybe guilt is too strong a word.

Maybe it has something to do with temperament, that you get bored with your laptop and you want to do something a little bit different.

*Q&A edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Philip Coulter, Nahlah Ayed and Pauline Holdsworth.

Tomorrow on IDEAS, hear excerpts from Soyinka's famous play Death and the King's Horseman, alongside an interview with director Tawiah M'Carthy. 

Based on events in British-occupied Nigeria, Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play, Death and the King's Horseman, shares the story of a community striving to uphold its culture in the face of colonial power. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)


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