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Thursday, April 30, 2020

An Interview with Prof. Wole Soyinka

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The acclaimed playwright and Nobel laureate on the creative process, the role of the political in art, and what young writers should be ready for.  ♦ 
Wole Soyinka is not only one of the most prominent writers of the African continent but one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. He is a writer whose work takes on civil and human rights violations and abuses across the world, especially in the African continent, and whose plays have been produced as movies or stage dramas globally and translated into numerous languages. His credits across the genres of drama, poetry, and prose include such notable works as the plays A Dance of the Forests and The Lion and the Jewel; collections of essays including Myth, Literature and the African Worldand poetry collections such as Idanre and Other Poems and Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known.
   In this interview, Wole Soyinka explains how diverse cultures, diverse literatures, and political tyranny and dictatorships in his environment influence his work. He also gives up-and-coming writers advice on how to use literature as a weapon for freedom and human rights.


Was writing ever a struggle for you, or does it come to you easily? Do you consider yourself a natural-born writer?


I am the kind of writer I would categorize as being very lazy, meaning, I do not struggle greatly on writing. If at any time I’m having difficulty writing, I choose other tasks and hobbies to do. I am not always compelled to write, but when I begin writing, it becomes very irresistible for me, and because I started it, I eventually need to finish it. The ideas and characters in all the plays I have written crowd my head and demand to be let out, so therefore, I am compelled right there. Another thing is that ideas can be stuck for months and years in my head, waiting to be let out. One example I remember is Death and the King’s Horsemen. I had the idea in my head and I thought about writing it immediately, but because other things were there, I had to leave it for something else. Then one day after teaching a class in Cambridge, I saw a sculpture of a colonialist named Winston Churchill close to the dining facility of the school. I used to look at this monument, and I always felt like pushing and kicking it, and on this particular day I recalled the story that had been stored in my head for so long, though you would be surprised how many years that story was in my head after the encounter with Churchill’s monument. It was in my head for ten years. After a decade, I got my typewriter out and started work on Death and the King’s Horseman, and within weeks I had finished working on it. Writing to me is an inspiration which you can never force. I am very aware there are other writers who sit down religiously every morning, drink their coffee, put a piece of paper in and sit looking at the paper for a long time until they have finished at least some numbers of pages. For me, I’m not like that writer, I have to be ready and the ideas have to develop for some time, and then I write when it is ready to burst.


Do you believe a play is complete when it is performed on stage?


For most playwrights, including myself, when they finish writing a play, they believe that is just the beginning of the job. When readers read a play, they all long to see it fleshed out on stage or produced visually as movie. I’m a fan of that kind of idea myself, which means I am not satisfied until I see my play on stage, and that’s what I call a finished product.


Can you explain how some of your work is influenced by diverse cultures?


My idea of the creative process is very simple. All cultures are related to one another in some way. I am an African playwright, and I can use a play written by Brecht and adapt it with African classics. I have consciously adapted from Greek classics, Euripides and Oedipus. That has been a creative experience for me. Whether that influences me or not, I can’t decide. It is for critics and reviewers to decide. Culture generally is comparative, which is where the joy lies. There is joy when you can relate and connect another culture with yours and feel [a certain] air to them all. For example, there are parallels I can use from my Yoruba culture and compare them with Greek mythology. Just like Loki from the Greek myth, the Yoruba god Eshu is also a trickster and rascal. I would say a lot of my influence comes from my Yoruba culture, [and] that’s enough for my creativity.


You are known to infuse politics into literature using it as a weapon. How do you do that?


Writers around the world have one weapon, which is literature. One of my plays, King Baabu, which I premiered at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, is a loose adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. That play was used to take aim against the former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and other African dictators who have sacrificed their people for their stupid ambitions.


What are some advice you have aspiring playwrights?


There are things young writers should be ready for. They should be ready for rejection. I always tell aspiring writers to acquire a basket to collect all their rejection letters and mail, and to continue writing until the basket is full or when your work gets accepted. Keep on writing even after all those rejections. I am not really good at teaching people creative writing, as what I teach is literary criticism and comparative literature. When I read a young writer’s manuscript, what I look for is the content of the work and not the structure of the writing. Various publishing companies would look for both content and structure before publishing. For me, I have to read the work first, and when something strikes me, then I feel compelled to critique the writer about it. Another main point is not to get carried away by any ideology, or to please any school of ideology. Many writers waste their talents because they want to be ideologically correct, and this leads them to produce work made up of propaganda, thereby becoming ideological orphans.
  • About the Author
    Oluwaseun Oladimeji is currently a junior at Miami University majoring in Public Health and Environmental Science. He loves reading and attending stage plays, listening to poetry renditions, playing and watching the game of soccer, and all forms of literature he can get his hands on, irrespective of where it comes from.
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