JAIPUR, India (Reuters Life!) - Living in exile often drives authors to cut all ties with their homeland, but for Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, being away from Nigeria just made him more eager to return to fix what he believes ails his country.
Soyinka, who in 1986 became the first African author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been dubbed the “conscience” of Nigeria, speaking out against dictatorship and corruption in his country and its African neighbors, despite the risk to his own life and safety.
“Some writers, when they are exiled, their circumstances are so bad, they literally shake the dust off their feet and never want to come back,” he said at a discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival, billed as Asia’s biggest literary event.
“I, on the other hand, when I was kicked out, used euphemisms to describe my condition, saying ‘I‘m on political sabbatical’. I couldn’t wait to get back. I was never totally comfortable outside Nigeria,” he said.
“When in exile you see the situation in your home from the outside, and get even angrier: you see how people elsewhere are allowed to be creative, logical and progressive and think, why can’t things be the same?”
Soyinka, now 75, has played an active role in Nigeria’s political history and remain as outspoken as ever about what he believes ails his country, despite being jailed for it several times in the past.
He was arrested in 1967 for writing an article appealing for a ceasefire during Nigeria’s civil war, spending nearly two years in a tiny cell as a political prisoner after the government accused him of conspiring with the rebels.
During his imprisonment, he wrote poems on tissue paper and recounted his experiences in the autobiographical “The Man Died: Prison Notes.”
A few years after he was released, he went into exile, returning to Nigeria in 1975, where he continued to campaign for democracy and against corruption, raising the ire of the government of Sani Abacha, who was then the military ruler.
Soyinka again went into exile in 1994, and was sentenced to death, in absentia, three years later, only returning to Nigeria after Abacha’s death in 1998.
He continues to be active in politics, acting as a mediator with the government on behalf of the country’s main militant group, The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, in negotiations over disarmament. He remains a vocal critic of adapting blindly all aspects of modernity at the cost of traditional ways of life, and believes Nigeria’s oil wealth was doing far more damage than good because it marginalized the poor.
Soyinka, a poet, playwright and novelist whose works have been compared to William Faulker and James Joyce, has published more than 20 works.
Nigeria has produced a strong crop of writers including Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, and Soyinka said his Nobel prize went a long way in influencing young writers.
And while his own writing has been heavily influenced by politics, Soyinka said more Nigerian writers were now focusing on other themes, adding variety to his country’s literary produce.
“I sometimes think the quality of writing suffered because of an overwhelming responsibility to be political. Political writing continues, but more attention is being paid to the sheer joy of writing without genuflecting to some ideology or other,” he said.
Editing by Miral Fahmy