Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity

Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity

by Biodun Jeyifo (Editor)


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This collection of the most significant and illuminating critical essays about the works of Wole Soyinka over the past three decades is evidence of the international esteem he has achieved. This Nobel Prize winner from Nigeria is arguably Africa’s greatest living writer. His novels and plays are appreciated throughout the world. His works have attracted the attention of such acclaimed authors and critics as Wilson Harris, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Kwame Anthony Appiah, as well as such leading academicians as Philip Brockbank, Joachim Fieback, Abiola Irele, Femi Osofisan, and Niyi Osundare.

Gathered here in this remarkable collection, the essays simultaneously showcase Soyinka’s postcolonial politics and his literary aestheticism. They reveal the irony that the downtrodden peoples whom Soyinka champions are those who cannot read his stirring books or see his compelling dramas. Biodun Jeyifo was Soyinka’s student, junior colleague, and even, Jeyifo says, his “adversary in the ferocio

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578069309
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication date: 05/16/2001
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Chapter One

Tradition and theYoruba Writer

D. O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola,and Wole Soyinka

~ 1975 ~

Abiola Irele

In this essay, Abiola Irele, the doyen of African and Africanist literary scholars, locates the sources of the underlying sensibilities at work in Soyinka's writings in a Yoruba literary tradition whose major precursors, prior to Soyinka, are the late D.O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola. In a rigorously Hegelian fashion, the essay reads the works of these three writers as particular "moments" in the Being and becoming of a tradition of Yoruba writing in both Yoruba and English. Apart from superb profiles of each of these three writers, the essay makes a powerful, if debatable case for a literary-critical project which would apply not only to Yoruba/Nigerian writers but also to all of African writing: "the working out of (a) spiritual coherence out of the historical disconnection between the African heritage and modern experience". This is a position Irele was later to substantially revise, if not reject, in his famous Inaugural lecture at the University of Ibadan, In Praise of Alienation. In the essay re-published here, Irele confidently affirms the reality and value of an essential "spirit" in Soyinka's writings which links him with the other writers in the Yoruba literary tradition. To his credit, the strong Hegelian cast of his conception of this "spirit" is elicited through rigorous exegeses backed by an erudite scholarship from readings of the works and careers of the writers explored in the essay. In thisrespect, the essay has exerted enormous influence in Soyinka criticism, an influence shown, for one instance, in Ato Quayson's essay, "The Space of Transformations: Theory, Myth, and Ritual in the Work of Wole Soyinka" which is the concluding item in the essays collected in this volume.

Abiola Irele is Professor of French and African literature at The Ohio State University. He was formerly Professor of French and Head of the Department of Modern European Languages at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He is the author of the critically acclaimed The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, and he has edited authoritative editions of the poetry of Aime Cesaire and Leopold Sedar Senghor.

    The title of this paper is a deliberate echo of that of one of the most celebrated ofT. S. Eliot's essays, namely, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. In that essay, Eliotdefined the relationship of the European writer to the entire literary tradition ofEuropean civilization, and sought to clarify the manner in which the work of thesignificant new talent coheres, as it were, with that tradition and creates a new patternof meaning within its total framework. Eliot's idea offers, I believe, an extremelyprofitable perspective for a comprehensive view of European literature not merely withrespect to its historical development, but also, and perhaps primarily, with respect toits essential spirit. But what strikes one as significant about this essay is the originalunderstanding which it offers of the meaning of 'tradition'—as not so much an abiding,permanent, immutable stock of beliefs and symbols, but as the constant refinementand extension of these in a way which relates them to an experience that is feltas being at once continuous and significantly new.

    I have taken Eliot's idea as my point of departure here because of what I believeto be its immediate relevance to a consideration of the literary situation in Africain our times. It is my personal belief that what gives a special character to literarycreation in Africa today is the movement to establish and to maintain the sense oftradition, the sense that Eliot gives to the word. The essential direction of modernAfrican writing, of the work of the truly significant writers, is towards the definition,in and through literature, of a distinctive mode of thought and feeling, towards animaginative apprehension and embodiment of an African spirit. And the main motivepower in this movement proceeds from the endeavor of the African writers to workout a new spiritual coherence out of the historical disconnection between their Africanheritage and their modern experience. In no other area of Africa is the current alongwhich this elaboration in literature of a continuous stream of the collective consciousnessfrom the traditional to the modern so clearly evident, and so well marked out, asin Yorubaland. For while it is true to say that, in other parts of Africa, the writer hasbeen aware of the compelling reality and importance of the essential structure oftraditional patterns of life for his experience and for his artistic expression, and hassought either a thematic or formal integration of his work to the specific mode ofliterary expression which has been associated with these traditional patterns of life, itis only among Yoruba writers that, to my knowledge, the various levels of this transitionfrom the traditional to the modern can be illustrated to bring out its flail implications.In Yorubaland we have the extraordinary situation where the vast folk literature,alive and vigorously contemporary, remains available to provide a constant supportfor new forms- for the literate culture developing within the language itself as a resultof its reduction to writing, as well as for the new popular arts that sociological factorshave brought into being, particularly the so-called 'folk opera'; and beyond these, toprovide a source for the new literature in English, the language through which themodern technological world made its entry into the awareness of Yoruba people andconstituted itself part of their mental universe.

    Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the evolution of Yoruba culture over thepast century or so has been the way in which it has been able to afford a stableinstitutional and spiritual groundwork for the transformation of collective life andfeeling for the individual within this culture, at the critical moment when Westerncivilization introduced an element of tension into African societies. Yoruba culturehas played an integrative role in the process of acculturation which all African societieshave undergone, in such a way that this process can be seen today as one largely ofadaptation, the adjustment of the native culture with the foreign, the harmonizationof two ways of life into a new entity.

    The integrative role of Yoruba culture in the situation of contact created by theadvent of Western culture is fully reflected in the work of the Yoruba writer, not onlyat the level of content analysis of individual works, which reveals the direct working-outof the process, but more significantly in the pattern of evolution established bythe inter-connections between the various levels of literary expression in Yorubaland.It is in this perspective that I would now like to discuss the theme I have chosen, byreference, to the work of three outstanding Yoruba writers, D. O. Fagunwa, AmosTutuola, and Wole Soyinka. If I have chosen these three, it is because of the intimaterelationship that exists in their work not only by their derivation from a commonback-cloth (to echo Soyinka himself) but also through the active influences at workfrom one writer to another all along the line of development which can be seenrunning through their writings.


    The death of D. O. Fagunwa on the very day on which his article on vernacularliterature appeared in one of the Nigerian dailies (December, I963) is surely one ofthe most tragic coincidences in literary history. By an obscure irony of fate, this writer,whose work was steeped in the mystical world of Yoruba folklore, seemed to have felta premonition of his departure, and to have wanted to leave behind a final testamentof the faith in his vocation which animated his literary career.

    But not only his end, his whole career now appears as an irony. While his worksenjoyed an immense popularity among the Yoruba public as evidenced by the publicationhistory of his novels, each one of which has been reprinted no less than ten times,he does not seem to have attracted until very recently the kind of serious attentionthat lesser writers working in English have had. Even now, the recognition that he isbeginning to get as a writer is a grudging one. There is interest in him as a vague forerunnerof Tutuola, and in a mention of this connection, in his History of Neo-AfricanLiterature, Janheinz Jahn is able to affirm confidently: 'Tutuola's source, everyone agrees,is the oral Yoruba tradition, and he is closer to it than the author Fagunwa, who wrotein the Yoruba language and influenced him' (p. 23). In an earlier article by Beier, fromwhich Jahn probably derived his impression, we read, after an analysis of a passage ofFagunwa, this surprising comment: 'It is in passages like this that Fagunwa is closestto Tutuola. The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts abound with descriptionslike this, and they may well have been influenced by Fagunwa' (Introduction toAfrican Literature, p. 191). The whole tone of that comment, as of the article itself,suggests that Beier was concerned primarily with pointing out the achievement ofFagunwa, while taking care to safeguard the foreign reputation of Amos Tutuola. Butthe ultimate injustice to the memory of Fagunwa and to the nature of his achievementcomes however from his own publishers who seem to have appreciated his value as asource of profitable business rather than as a writer in his own right. In the translationof Fagunwa's novel Ogboju Ode, prepared by Wole Soyinka and published by Nelson,the title page and blurb are designed to relegate Fagunwa into the backdrop as muchas possible, and to bring the translator into focus; obviously, Nelson are more interestedin having Soyinka on their list (with the prospect of good sales that this entails)than in giving the wider world a taste of Fagunwa's creative genius. The cynical attitudeof Fagunwa's original publishers with regard to his work is seen at its height inone advertisement of Soyinka's translation I have seen in which they have gone as faras to suppress Fagunwa's name altogether.

    I have insisted at this length on Fagunwa's fate at the hands of critics and of hisown publishers not simply to give vent to personal indignation, but rather, to make apoint which needs to be vehemently made, that his work stands at the head of creativewriting in the Yoruba language and exerts the most pervasive influence on every categoryof Yoruba literary expression; to highlight the extreme importance of a proper

Excerpted from Perspectives on Wole Soyinka by . Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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