Unmasking Wole Soyinka (1)

Professor Patrick Ebewo addressing at the Wole Soyinka's birthday in Uyo straightnews
Professor Patrick Ebewo addressing at the Wole Soyinka's birthday in Uyo

By: Israel Umoh

The invitation went out on time. Members of the club and guests were certain that the event was a window to satisfy their desire in understanding the works. The guest speaker’s adeptness to whet thirst of literature students and literary buffs using an almighty formula heightened people’s expectations. To the attendees, it was a golden opportunity to listen to  the great academic demystifying the ‘stubborn’ works of the Nobel Laureate.

The organizers of Uyo Book Club envisaging that the celebration of Wole Soyinka at 87 chronicling his life, times and works would attract many from both academic and professional community had to change the usual venue.

From Shakespeare hall to Lugard Terrace in Watbridge Hotels and Suites and Hotels, Uyo, the cerebral voyage beckoned. And the audience strolled in: one, twos, threes into the ambient hall. The auspicious occasion held on Saturday, July 31, 2021 was expected to nourish their brains and minds.

The guest lecturer was in a familiar academic turf. Undeterred, he did jaw jaw to Soyinka’s plays, novels and poems. Patrick Ebewo, Vice Chancellor of Topfaith University, Mkpatak in Essien Udim did his doctoral thesis on the famous works of the Nobel Laureate, after all.

Ebewo, a professor of Theatre Studies had gone on academic tourism to South Africa and Kenya. Indeed, he has swum in the literary sea and has full grasp of how to untie some knotty issues that the works might pose and provide therapies to the headaches facing other readers in decoding them adequately.

The man with magic wand in Soyinka’s works knows he was on the hot seat and he envisages some double-barreled criticisms and questions. ”Some arrows of criticisms have been landing on our platform critiquing the works of the playwright… Critics and writers are close door neighbours.

”A critic is a chaperon of the arts and constructive criticisms keeps the art alive…’’ He added a caveat ”Let’s not fight for we are here to celebrate. And that is why the title of my presentation is: ‘Having fun with Soyinka.’’

He forays into Soyinka’s literary bedroom with some wrenching questions. ”Can one have fun with a writer, an African writer alleged to be not regarded as a foreign cuisine; a writer whose writings are decked with Greek mythologies and imageries; a writer whose communication style is opaque? James Booths once accused Soyinka of wallowing in ‘celebrated obscurity,’ and others have spoken about his obscurantism and complexity in communication.’’

After allaying fears about some ‘heady works,’ he admits that ”True, Soyinka is not the easy writer around. Comparing him with Achebe is to me an injustice because they are two different personalities.

The revered academic notes ”Soyinka is not a difficult writer through and through. No writer engages one style of writing from youth to adulthood. Many writers change according to the dictates of their environment and age.

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”No author writes with one style. Styles differ. Read every work contextually and you will understand it better.’’

He queries ”If we claim that Soyinka is opaque in his writings, what about George Orwell’s Animal Farm? Though the language of the novel is cast in a deceptively simple English, is the novel ‘A Fairy story’ as claimed by the author?’’

The guest speaker sums it this way ”Soyinka is one of the enigmas of our time, an inscrutable or mysterious person. You cannot grasp his essence in one go. You must treat him like the Igbo Masquerade where you need different angles to savour its beauty.

”In our fast food generation and in an era when human blockages are lifted by the digital machines, this is a huge challenge. Many of us want cheap writings to consume as we go about our daily chores. Unfortunately, Soyinka is not our likely candidate.’’

He sees the Nobel Laureate as a satirist, an artist, not an arm chair critic, but an activist and pragmatist of no mean order. ‘’He does not call for a change for the better in a society with one hands folded; he oftentimes demonstrates practically even to the extent of exposing his life to imminent danger.

”His revolutionary and dissident attitudes earned him the wrath of several powers in government, not only in Nigeria but also in Idi Amin’s Uganda, Daniel Moi’s Kenya, Kofi Busia’s Ghana, and Botha’s South Africa, where Soyinka has established a tradition of raiding out against miscarriage of justice or repressive regimes,’’ Ebewo describes the Laureate.

He sums up ”His works are full of imageries, satires and folktales. He works are full of philosophies, existentialism and Yoruba cultures.’’

The Vice chancellor bisects the works to the understanding of even a layman. From The Man Died, Kongi Harvest, The Trial of Brother Jethro to The Lion and The Jewel, the professor does justice to the admiration of the audience that they wished to be reading more of the works that hitherto look like The Palomar Knot.

The Man Died talks about a man who keeps quiet in the face of tyranny; Kongi Harvest dwells on practice of authoritarianism that leads to undemocratic rule in the society The Trial of Brother Jethro x-rays the rift between Churchianity and Christianity while The Lion and Jewel zeroes on the clash of conflicting cultures, lambasting people who flirt with foreign cultures,’’ he concludes.

Another Soyinka’s aficionado was on hand to unmask his works. Iboro Otongaran who is a journalist did not hide his admiration and keen interest in the works of the Nobel Laureate.

”His writing is a rich treasure of language use, a pulsating depository of culture and all that is fun in the English language. And for those who love challenges, forensic challenges, that is, Soyinka is good company—especially his plays and poetry,’’ he begins.

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According to him, ”Soyinka is perhaps Nigeria’s best known brand. For a country that has had so little to celebrate lately, Soyinka is therefore worth all the drums and cymbals that can be rolled out for him at any time, and more so at this birthday anniversary.’’

His propositions are ”Soyinka is difficult to understand, he is opaque, inaccessible; he’s an obscurantist who writes for himself only. He writes to impress European and American critics. He’s elitist.’’

Otongaran’s view ”My response to these strictures is that though criticism is always welcome, it can be wholly unfair sometimes. Soyinka may not be accessible to everyone, but whoever writes for everyone? The mere fact that you commit thought to writing in the first place has already excluded some people. Every writing, to the best of my understanding, has its own readership.

”Soyinka communicates, and usually very intensely so, but his writing makes a demand on the reader to bring active participation to the encounter as the best way to negotiate meaning from his art. I intend to say a little bit more on this.

”Once we have conceded that Soyinka is not often an open book, we need to add that some genres of his writings are more accessible than others. His essays and novels—particularly his autobiographical works (Ake, Isara, Ibadan)—yield meaning more readily than some of his plays and poetry.

”And Soyinka is not the only major writer “tainted” with the reputation of being difficult to understand. I believe Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, all of them Nobel Literature Laureate, equally demand full time engagement of the reader to appreciate and enjoy their writings.’’

 He unearths thus ‘’Soyinka’s style is elliptical, redolent with allusions and hints, which the reader must be mindful of to unlock one of the richest mines of literary pleasure in the English language. This is well illustrated in the opening chapter of The Interpreters, one of his early writings.

‘’The novel opens onto what appears to be a street party in a shack—all too familiar in Lagos, which is the setting for the story—that is soon sacked by a sudden downpour. Soyinka typically doesn’t tell his reader this much prosaically.

To be continued