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Soyinka Weighs in on Nigeria's Political History

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nigeria's most famous writer knows well the fragility of democracy in his country.

A Nobel Prize for literature didn't protect Wole Soyinka from a succession of Nigeria's dictators. He spent two years in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement, for his political writings and activism. And more years in exile, fleeing threats that could have meant his death - as happened to fellow writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed 11 years ago.

Now 71, Wole Soyinka looks back at decades of political turmoil in his new memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn.

The book opens with Soyinka's return to Nigeria in 1998. As he flies into Lagos, the playwright-novelist imagines the fate he escaped.

Mr. WOLE SOYINKA (Author/Playwright): (Reading from “You Must Set Forth at Dawn”) “Perhaps I'm not really within the cabin of the plane at all, but lying in a coffin with the luggage. Disguised as an innocent box to fool the superstitious; while my ghost persists in occupying a seat whose contours have grown familiar through five years of a restless exile.”

MONTAGNE: You describe yourself as somewhere between - possibly being mistaken for dead, somewhere between alive and dead - at a, what could have been a very happy moment for you.

Mr. SOYINKA: That mood, the mood which is expressed there, I suppose was the overwhelming motif of my experience returning home. In other words, the element of surprise that I actually made it back. Because, don't forget, even in exile, I was hunted all over the place. I'd been reconciled for quite a while to the fact that I might not make it back alive.

MONTAGNE: Even as far back as some of your first plays, the play A Dance in the Forest…

Mr. SOYINKA: Mm hmm.

MONTAGNE: This is a play commissioned to celebrate independence...

Mr. SOYINKA: That's correct (unintelligible), yes.

MONTAGNE: But you proceed to warn, in a sense, against replacing colonial rule with dictatorship.

Mr. SOYINKA: Yes. It was a kind of fear I had at the time. I think I had seen enough of the first generation rulers to take over, and the signs were already clear that some of them would behave exactly like - even worse than some of our colonial masters. So, the euphoria of independence was a little bit qualified by my fears.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about the Yoruba deity, Ogun. As you write it, you have a deity of your own - almost a personal deity.

Mr. SOYINKA: Well, Ogun is, for me, a paradigm of human nature. There is a destructive aspect of Ogun, and then the creative aspect. But, you have to remember that I didn't come to Ogun directly. My grandfather - when I was very young and I went through this manhood ritual in which I had incisions around my wrists and my ankles - he said to me at the time that I was a creature of Ogun.

So, then I forgot all about it, of course. When I began to explore and mature in years - my student days - the mythology of the Yoruba, naturally, I became curious about Ogun. Who was this deity as a lyricist, as a warrior, as a lover of solitude? And at the same time a lover of (speaks foreign language), which means he can get careless, get drunk, and then commit atrocities which he then regrets afterwards when he becomes sober.

And I found that, yes, there were many things which I admired in this deity. It would be wrong to suggest that I tried to live up to Ogun, no. Let's just say that I recognize the fact that we had affinities.

MONTAGNE: You write in the book, there comes a point in one's life when one should no longer be obliged to sneak into one's homeland through mangrove creeks and smuggler's haunts and in ludicrous disguises. You certainly don't seem to do that, although what was your most ludicrous disguise?

Mr. SOYINKA: I don't want to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, how about your second most ludicrous disguise?

Mr. SOYINKA: Yes, I would say it's Rasta - my Rasta disguise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: What did you have, dreadlocks to your shoulders?

Mr. SOYINKA: Yes. You know, wearing those knotted cords.

MONTAGNE: You, early on in the memoir, you quote a Yoruba expression. It begins, as one approaches an elder status...

Mr. SOYINKA: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SOYINKA: (Speaks foreign language)

MONTAGNE: And that translates to?

Mr. SOYINKA: As one approaches an elder status, one ceases from strife.

MONTAGNE: You have not been able to cease from strife.

Mr. SOYINKA: Well, yes, I agree with you, but it's not of my own choosing. I resent the fact that one cannot say, for the next year, I'm just going to mess around with some plays and do a bit of hunting and drink some wine on my veranda. But, unfortunately, that's the way it goes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: When your grandfather tells you you're the spiritual descendant of Ogun...

Mr. SOYINKA: Well, I wish he had been wrong.

MONTAGNE: Mm.

Mr. SOYINKA: I wish he were wrong.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SOYINKA: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Nigeria's Wole Soyinka. His new memoir is called You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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