A delayed flight kept the DADA books trio of Adenike Fagade, Onyeka Nwelue and Ayodele Arigbabu from meeting Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s presentation at the Jaipur Literary Festival which held between the 21st and the 25th of January 2010 in the pink city of Jaipur, India. Soyinka gave a stellar performance, wowing the crowd with his sonorous voice and earning a remarkable headline in a national daily: “Soyinka casts a spell over Jaipur!” The Nigerian Nobel laureate was practically mobbed by young Indian literary enthusiasts who desperately wanted his autograph. And the exquisite Rambaugh Palace Hotel where he was lodged was soon besieged by fans and associates who wanted a bit of his time. The three writers did their fair bit of stalking afterwards; after all, he was their countryman! They got rewarded with an interesting discussion reproduced herewith.
Onyeka Nwelue: There’s a headline this morning in the Hindu newspaper that says Soyinka casts a spell over Jaipur. This headline surpasses any re-branding project that we’ve been rambling about. What do you think Nigeria should do concerning its hazy image in India? Each paper reports concerning Nigerians who are peddling drugs and Nigerian students in India face this sort of discrimination? How do you think we can work towards changing all these?
Wole Soyinka: It’s something we unfortunately have to live with and it’s important that those who say that they are correcting the image of Nigeria- rebranding I think is the expression- they better understand what a task they have. It’s a situation whose responsibility lies at the door of the Government and the citizens. Let me tell you what happened on my way here to give you an idea. I went to St. Lucia for the 80th birthday of my colleague- Derek Walcott, the Caribbean writer. I went to deliver the keynote address at what they called the Nobel Laureate Week in St. Lucia and my flight took me via San Juan in Puerto Rico to re-enter the United States. And there I was pulled aside! When I came through the immigration, they looked at my passport, saw I was Nigerian, asked me all sorts of questions, I answered them. So I was told to go for what they called a secondary check. So I had to sit there with illegal immigrants or suspect immigrants or whatever….just a few days ago, on my way here. I must have been kept there for 20- 25 minutes – I nearly missed my connection – and eventually I was called to the desk and I was not asked one single question. The man smiled, he just asked a perfunctory thing…”how long are you staying? Okay, do have a nice stay”. He did not ask me one single security question and gave me back my passport, they all smiled and so on. So I said, is that what we, who carry this passport now have to undergo every time? I said, you haven’t asked me any question but obviously, you’ve been making enquiries. He just smiled an apologetic smile. So this is what this passport now means. This was just a few days ago. So the problem is not trivial at all and I can imagine that’s happened to me, I can imagine it’s happening to hundreds of other Nigerians. So those who say they are re-branding, they’ve got to understand that that exercise has to begin at home. The reputation, the re-branding of the Nigerian nation must begin within Nigeria itself. It’s not going to take place with junkets across the continents of the world, it’s not going to take place by taking – as they say – an entourage… attending conferences all over the place. It’s not re-branding, it’s a fundamental internal change within the country itself. It’s that which we will have to take outside and that kind of internal transformation involves the kind of creating socio-political circumstances which end the kind of religious massacre we’ve been witnessing in Jos. It’s a kind of internal transformation which puts an end to glaring open corruption, a loss of confidence in the electoral system parading itself as democracy instead of putting an end to the prosecution of those who are already regarded as attempting to change the corrupt image of Nigeria. It’s got to go towards ending the culture of celebrating those who are known felons, known criminals, known corrupt agents of society in Nigeria, who however are celebrated and paraded as true representatives of Nigeria. It starts instinctively, not carrying caravans, milking the nation of estacodes- exorbitant daily allowances; that’s not what’s going to do it, that’s not transformation. People like me, okay, once ‘functioneers’, who’re just doing their jobs, who have their orders and the country recognise who they are dealing with, of course they… like what happened to me in San Jose… they immediately change their tune.
Onyeka Nwelue: Yesterday, you were mobbed in India by autograph seekers
Wole Soyinka: Oh, my God, it’s not just autograph seekers …that’s the pattern of our lives… you see I’ve hidden in my room all day because I can’t undergo it a second time.
Onyeka Nwelue: It makes people like us proud. Because I’ve been coming to India since 2006 and when they ask me where are you from, I don’t tell them I’m from Nigeria, but today, I was able to tell them I was from Nigeria and immediately they ask about Prof. Wole Soyinka, so I’m a proud Nigerian, and I’m glad.
Wole Soyinka: I’m glad at least that I can clear the way for a few people but clearing the way for a whole nation is a harder task and that’s exactly what we are talking about.
Ayodele Arigbabu: You were quoted on a friend’s Facebook profile – Wole Oguntokun the playwright – You were quoted as having told him once during lunch that you put some plantain in his plate and you told him to eat; that young writers tend to starve (laughter) . I think I need to start collecting some quotable quotes from you- addressed at young writers. I also remember that you once said that young writers should think less of ideology and write first, that the ideology would naturally follow. Now you are somebody whose writing had been backed with ideology and you came out of a young Nigeria and you’ve made good use of the opportunities that the nation threw at you. Can I elicit another quotable quote from you for young writers?
Wole Soyinka: I don’t think of quotes, (laughter) it’s other people who sort of pick something out of what I’m saying; I don’t set about making quotes, you can forget that (laughter). So if you’re looking for a quote from me, sorry. I don’t manufacture them. It’s like me too; somebody says something, it strikes me and I use it and attribute it to the person, I acknowledge it. Maybe there are people who deliberately want to say something clever, but me, I speak naturally. I use language whether in Yoruba or in English and something might strike someone. So don’t look for quotes from me (laughter). But what you’re saying about ideology, let’s get this clear. Obviously, every individual, it’s like philosophy, every individual who’s reached a thinking stage, who’s reached the stage of reflection on society, on reality, has already an intrinsic philosophy. In other words, an approach to understanding and explication of life as well as a vision, it’s inevitable, and that includes ideology which is, if you like, a more ‘scientific approach’ towards the phenomenon of human existence, society development, evolution etc. But if you were to be a creative writer, and you put that at the forefront and in other words, you want to write around an ideology, you’re going to write nothing but propaganda. But if you put it in the back of your mind, just leave it where it is, and then just study human beings, study human relationships, be conscious of the anomalies in society, be conscious of the unacceptable face of social relationships, of governance, of the treatment of minorities, the unprivileged, the weak, and you have all that at the back of your mind, in other words, reintegrate yourself into the environment, the ideology is inevitable, it will be elicited from what you write by those who read but if you don’t place it at the bottom….then I’m afraid you’d just write nothing but tracts…..propaganda.
Ayodele Arigbabu: About the starving young writer, Onyeka for example spent six months in India partly researching this book and at a point he got stuck and he had to call home for help. For me, I published the book. I could see that involvement in his writing he had immersed himself and I know that you had quite a lot of adventures which we’ve read from some of your memoirs. At some point, you had it very rough, I’ve forgotten how you termed it in Ibadan about when you had it tough in France and all that. Can you just say something about that? This idea about writing and hunger?
Wole Soyinka: Well first of all, I don’t believe that writers should starve. The romantic notion of a writer or an artist having to starve is something which is repugnant to me. A carpenter doesn’t set out to starve, doesn’t say that starvation is part of his trade. For me, it’s a false romanticism; it’s a false romantic view of the artist’s life which is based on the Bohemian life, the Parisian Bohemian artists and so on. It doesn’t mean that we writers should be particularly privileged or anything of the sort, no, the writer is a citizen like any other being and is entitled to shelter, to health, to opportunities, social mobility… for me the writer is somebody, a worker in the society who happens to be using the instrumentation of words. So I don’t believe in starving, there are writers however who believe…some writers actually believe that they should be paid … and that society is responsible for them the artists, they are also of the opposite extreme and they are wrong. It’s a question of working and trying to make a living out of your art via hardwork.
Adenike Fagade: Coming from the literary festival in Jaipur, how would you compare the literary scene in India with what we have in Nigeria?
Wole Soyinka: I find there exists a similarity to Africans, to our people in many ways, let me not say Africans, but many of our people in Nigeria. You can see the great enthusiasm for literature here. Nigerians are voracious readers. Now to qualify that, the reading appetite of Nigerians has gone down in the last decade or two. Nigerians do not read the way I know they used to read in the 60s, 70s, and towards the 80s. Something has happened; maybe the videos they sell, but the kind of order, the kind of interest of Nigerians has shifted qualitatively and even quantitatively as expected from literature as such to the visual things. The so called – because I hate that word Nollywood – Nollywood culture has taken over the hunger for books, I don’t notice that hunger any more. It has to do with the decay. We used to have public libraries, public libraries have gone to pot. We used to have mobile libraries in certain places; it’s gone to pot. Somebody came to me quite recently with an idea of resuscitating mobile libraries and immediately I linked him up with a Governor or two to see whether they were interested in his project and hopefully some of them would take it up. It’s a pity but you can see the appetite for literature here …and from correspondence, you can’t imagine the amount of correspondence I have from India; from would-be writers, people setting up literary journals. Today alone, there were a numbers of calls from people who want me to come, even if only for half an hour. I say listen, my schedule is already tight you now want to come and… just to come for a few minutes, you know, and they’d say if we get into a taxi, it would only take us about three and a half hours, I’d say, ah-ahn, don’t do it, because if you come here, I can’t give you more than a few minutes and it doesn’t make sense, please, just stay where you are. Nigerians also have that… it’s still there, latent, but as I said, it’s receded in the last decade or two. At the same time, the hunger to write, the urge to write is very high from those who are really interested in creative writing. Not all of them have the talent but the fact that they just want to contribute to that pool of literature, one way or the other, is still very impressive and they share that with the Indians.
Ayodele Arigbabu: It’s said that 1/5 of the world’s population would be Indian by 2015 and Nigeria has been touting having one out of every five black people being Nigerian. We share a similar history with them in that they are celebrating 60 years of independence while we are talking about 50 years but I’ve spoken to a few Indian in Nigeria who feel that we are not taking our destiny into our hands, we are leaving the political class to ride rough shod over us. They feel that we should just march to Abuja and effect change. You have recently led such a march; what hope do you see for us? Also, recently former president Obasanjo is said to have joined the voices of those saying President Yar’adua should resign. We’d like your view on this current issue.
Wole Soyinka: First of all, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo is a hypocrite. He bears full responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves today. And I don’t take him seriously and that’s all I want to say about him. I didn’t just lead the march to Abuja; I had been calling for marches. My last three lectures in Nigeria, I had been calling, trying to get Nigerians to wake up and seize their destiny in their hands and take their rightful place in the making. Rescue the Nation from the cabal of reprobate gangsters, extortionists and even political murderers; some of them are political murderers, political assassins responsible for some of the assassinations, the unprecedented scale of political assassinations we’ve witnessed in Nigeria in the last ten years. So I’ve been asking Nigerians just how much can you take? Don’t even feel you are degraded as human beings to exist in such a community and you go about your work every day. These were the themes of my lectures within Nigeria for quite a while. So, doing it, participating in that kind of march and ensuring that it worked was simply a continuation of something I had been saying for a long time. And all I have to say to you, all you people is- this Nation is yours, this country is yours. You should demand, you should take it back by any legitimate means you are capable of. You should demand your nation back and don’t just sit and watch it being degraded and expropriated by people who have absolutely no respect for you, no respect at all, even to their own. I mean, their own children are alright, but respect for humanity, Nigeria humanity, they lack it. They have nothing but contempt for the rest of society and that includes people like Obasanjo who is now coming up to offer hypocritical hogwash.