Soyinka on 'Obscene' Push for Achebe Nobel

A Nigerian Nobel laureate wants fans of the late fellow writer to table calls for a posthumous prize.

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SR: For any major writer, there's the inevitable question of influence. In your view, what's the nature of Achebe's enduring influence and impact in African literature? And what do you foresee as his place in the canon of world literature?

Soyinka: Chinua's place in the canon of world literature? Wherever the art of the storyteller is celebrated, definitely assured.

SR: In interviews as well as in writing, Achebe brushed off the title of "father of African literature." Yet on his death, numerous media accounts, in Nigeria as well as elsewhere, described him as the father -- even grandfather -- of African literature. What do you think of that tag?

Soyinka: As you yourself have observed, Chinua himself repudiated such a tag -- he did study literature, after all, bagged a degree in the subject. So it is a tag of either literary ignorance or "momentary exuberance" -- à la [Nadine] Gordimer -- to which we are all sometimes prone. Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: Have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages?

What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe, et cetera, et cetera, literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It's as ridiculous as calling W.S. father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate. As a shortcut to such corrective, I recommend Tunde Okanlawon's scholarly tribute to Chinua in The Sun [Nigeria] of May 4. After that, I hope those of us in the serious business of literature will be spared further embarrassment. 

Let me just add that a number of foreign "African experts" have seized on this silliness with glee. It legitimizes their ignorance, their parlous knowledge; enables them to circumscribe, then adopt a patronizing approach to African literatures and creativity. Backed by centuries of their own recorded literary history, they assume the condescending posture of midwiving an infant entity. It is all rather depressing.


SR: Following Achebe's death, you and J.P. Clark released a joint statement. In it, you both wrote: "Of the 'pioneer quartet' of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced -- one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe." In your younger days as writers, would you say there was a sense among your circle of contemporaries -- say, Okigbo, Achebe, Clark, Flora Nwapa -- of being engaged in a healthy rivalry for literary dominance? By the way, on the Internet, your joint statement was criticized for neglecting to mention any female writers -- say, Flora Nwapa -- as part of that pioneering group. Was that an oversight?

Soyinka: This question -- the omission of Flora Nwapa, Mabel Segun [née Imoukhuede], and [we] do [not] include D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, so it is not just a gender affair -- is related to the foregoing, and is basically legitimate. J.P. and I were, however, paying a tribute to a colleague within a rather closed circle of interaction, of which these others were not members.

Finally, and most relevantly, we are language users -- this means we routinely apply its techniques. We knew what we were communicating when we placed "pioneer quartet" in -- yes! -- inverted commas. Some of the media may have removed them; others understood their significance and left them where they belonged.