African Literature - while still not receiving the recognition it richly deserves - has long been a catalyst for change. Writers in Africa are much like artists in the 19th and 20th century who were capable of great fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays and more. Any media, for the best writers, presents opportunities to turn words into action.
No African writer better exemplifies this more than Wole Soyinka. A descendant of one of the founding families of Nigeria, Soyinka turned his wide swath of scholarly work (heavily educated in literature and history) into activism.
In 1954, he moved to Leeds, England to work on his Masters. He began to write satire about the university's levels of class and hierarchy. He also began developing a way to compose his own literature in a style that would combine the classical-texts he studied with the rich history of Yoruban tradition he brought with him from Africa.
Moving from Leeds to London, Soyinka started writing satirical comedy for the Royal Court Theatre. Like a comedian turning a mirror on the audience to show them their own faults, Soyinka's plays illustrate the hypocrisy of his homeland, where the twin heads of progress and tradition were almost eradicating all beneficial change.
His first poems, published in the Nigerian magazine "Black Orpheus," went even farther in pressing this point. "The Immigrant" seethed a bitter irony, while "The Dancer" was a mood piece that captured the tradition of the land and the frustration - "Flailing over heated air/Like firemen's hoses/Dehydrated at the four storey height" - felt by the fledgling nation.
As his plays grew in popularity, they were embraced by his homeland until his anti-government activity resulted in his arrest. Soyinka tried to persuade Nigerian leaders to avoid a civil war in 1966, hoping to save his nation and its traditions from political corruption. His imprisonment for 22 months while Nigeria and Biafra fought a bloody war may have kept him quiet, but his plays suddenly spread around the world. Productions of the earlier Royal Court plays even arrived on American shores in 1968.
In 1969, the terrible conflict ended and Soyinka was freed. His release was accompanied by books of poetry and plays that he had written while locked away.
In June 1970, he traveled to the U.S. with his group of actors to premiere "Madmen and Specialists," where he reframes classical Greek tragedy to tell the story of man and his abuse of power via an absurdist/tragicomic glimpse of the Nigeria/Biafran civil war.
Throughout the ‘70s, Soyinka continued to establish more theatre groups.He found that this method of storytelling was the clearest way to get his message across and echo the oral traditions of the Yoruba people and even his own influential family.
When matters of policy and politics became too much for him to tolerate, he would then re-enter government work to attempt to fix it from within.
Soyinka found some of his works banned in the ‘80s. After taking his writing back overseas to England, he became the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. This honor was highly significant because no one from any of the former colonized nations had ever received this prize. In true Soyinka fashion, he used his speech to criticize apartheid in South Africa and dedicated it to Nelson Mandela.
Over his lengthy career, Soyinka wrote plays, novels, essays, poems and even translated other works to both preserve the traditions of his homeland and illuminate the plight of its politics and military to the world. Soyinka, despite being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, is still writing today. His latest book "Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth" will be released this Fall.
Mik Davis is record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe.