On the Horizon

Nose to Nose with a Nobel Laureate WOLE SOYINKA CALLS HIMSELF "a stateless person." In his case, the term can be understood in two senses. Since 1994 he has been in forced exile from his native Nigeria because he is an outspoken, influential opponent of the dictatorial regime of General Sani Abacha.

But he is also a world figure, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1986), and an author-activist whose passionate involvement in the traditions and troubles of his nation and his continent resonates universally.

Soyinka is almost always on the move--not the least because of the ever present possibility that he may be the target of an assassination attempt by Abacha's agents. He is in constant demand to give interviews and lectures, to receive honors, and to meet with literary and political associates. So a week-long Five College residency last fall, initiated by two Mount Holyoke faculty members, was a first not only for Soyinka but also for the five campuses involved: Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts.

The visit was the brainchild of Soyinka's countryman, friend, and former student Awam Amkpa, assistant professor of theatre arts, and professor of English John Lemly. The six public events, two of them at Mount Holyoke, were given the umbrella title "Re-Mappings," a term borrowed from Soyinka's latest book, reflecting his relentless critique of the political, historical, and artistic status quo in Africa and the world.

As President Joanne Creighton said, introducing Soyinka to a group of students, he is an artist of impressive range: "Playwright, director, technological visionary, literary critic, social and political activist, poet, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, teacher, and scholar."

Soyinka is a slim sixty-two-year-old of medium height, his head crowned with a steel gray mane, his chin extended by a salt- and-pepper goatee jutting straight out. His voice is a resonant and eloquent baritone. He makes his points calmly and seriously, but with occasional flashes of the anarchic sense of humor that animates many of his plays.

As he went from campus to campus in a movable feast of lectures, workshops, and discussions, Soyinka returned repeatedly to several themes: the interrelationship of tradition and modernity, the role of ritual and sacrifice in art and society, the depredations of the corrupt military dictators who have stolen elections and smothered democracy in Nigeria, and above all, the seamless interaction of his literary and political lives.

To attend the MHC events--an evening of readings and a seminar with two African literature classes--was to see all these threads spun out and woven together by a restless, articulate intelligence. The evening of "Readings and Reflections" was, at Soyinka's request, not a one-man show but a sharing of works with Mount Holyoke students. As Amkpa explained later, "He wanted the occasion to be more student centered. He saw it as an opportunity for them to speak to their peers and to use their creativity as a form of dialogue with him."

Soyinka himself read from his childhood memoir and read two beautiful, spare poems that evoked the pain of his homeland. Introducing "The Children of This Land," he alluded to the intellectual nourishment offered by this academic setting, adding, "The children of Nigeria do not have the opportunity of this kind of rich experience in their lives."

Five African and African American students and one alumna, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks '85, read from their own works--witty, poetic meditations on race and heritage. One of them, fellow Nigerian Simisola Sanni '97, also had the chance to discuss her novel-in-progress before the event with the man she considers her literary mentor.

"I told him that I was scared," she reported later, "first because I was going to be sharing a podium with such a great literary figure, and second because I've never made my novel public; it's a very personal thing. He said, 'Writers are meant to write for people, and if you're afraid to let them know what you're writing, then you're not a writer.' I think he's very brave, he's very committed to his beliefs, and he inspires people like me."

On his last day in the area, Soyinka met with students in John Lemly's and associate professor of French Samba Gadjigo's African literature classes. The discussion ranged widely over issues of language in African politics and art--including his dream of a continental lingua franca and the myriad themes, viewpoints, and modes of expression that constitute "Africanness."

He illustrated the scope and variety of modern African literature with passages from two vividly contrasting works by contemporary Zimbabwean and Nigerian authors: a colorful prose description of an urban street scene and a poem pulsing with incantatory rhythms and ancient imagery. "Language can actually make you see things differently," Soyinka said, insisting on literature's active, vital role. "It can enhance the quality of normal day-to-day existence."

Afterwards, Amanda Sapir '99 marveled, "It's incredible to meet the person you've been studying, and this was a really unique opportunity--to sit down with a Nobel Prize winner and just ask away. I loved it. I reveled in it."

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