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.

Wole Soyinka (Pius Utomi Ekpe/Getty Images); Chinua Achebe (AFP/Getty Images)
Wole Soyinka (Pius Utomi Ekpe/Getty Images); Chinua Achebe (AFP/Getty Images)

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.

SR: Did you and Achebe have the opportunity to discuss his last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, and its critical reception? What’s your own assessment of There Was a Country? Some critics charged that the book was unduly divisive and diminished Achebe’s image as a nationally beloved writer and intellectual. Should a writer suborn his witness to considerations of fame?

Soyinka: No, Chinua and I never discussed There was a Country. Matter of fact, that aborted visit I mentioned earlier would have been my opportunity to take him on with some friendly fire at that open forum, continuing at his home over a bottle or two, aided and abetted by Christie’s [Editor’s note: Achebe’s wife, professor Christie Achebe] cooking. A stupendous life companion, by the way — Christie — deserves a statue erected to her for fortitude and care, on behalf of us all. More of that will emerge, I am sure, as the tributes pour in.

Unfortunately, that chance of a last encounter was missed, so I don’t really wish to comment on the work at this point. It is, however, a book I wish he had never written — that is, not in the way it was. There are statements in that work that I wish he had never made.

The saddest part for me was that this work was bound to give joy to sterile literary aspirants like Adewale Maja-Pearce, whose self-published book — self-respecting publishers having rejected his trash — sought to create a “tragedy” out of the relationships among the earlier named “pioneer quartet” and, with meanness aforethought, rubbish them all — W.S. especially. Chinua got off the lightest.

A compendium of outright impudent lies, fish-market gossip, unanchored attributions, trendy drivel and name-dropping, this is a ghetto tract that tries to pass itself up as a product of research, and has actually succeeded in fooling at least one respectable scholar. For this reason alone, there will be more said, in another place, on that hatchet mission of an inept hustler.

SR: One of the specific issues raised constantly in recent Nigerian public “debate” has to do with whether the Igbo were indeed victims of genocide. What are your thoughts on the question?

Soyinka: The reading of most Igbo over what happened before the Civil War was indeed accurate. Yes, there was only one word for it: genocide. Once the war began, however, atrocities were committed by both sides, and the records are clear on that. The Igbo got the worst of it, however. That fact is indisputable. The Asaba massacre is well-documented, name by victim name, and General Gowon visited personally to apologize to the leaders.

The Igbo must remember, however, that they were not militarily prepared for that war. I told Ojukwu this, point blank, when I visited Biafra. Sam Aluko also revealed that he did. A number of leaders outside Biafra warned the leadership of this plain fact. Bluff is no substitute for bullets. 

SR: Your joint statement with Clark balances the “sense of depletion” you felt over Achebe’s death with “consolation in the young generation of writers to whom the baton has been passed, those who have already creatively ensured that there is no break in the continuum of the literary vocation.” How much of the young Nigerian and African writers do you find the time to read?

Soyinka: Yes, I do read much of Nigerian [and] African literature — as much as my time permits. My motor vehicle in Nigeria is a mobile library of Nigerian publications — you know, those horrendous traffic holdups. That’s where I go through some of the latest. The temptation to toss some out of the car window after the first few pages or chapter is sometimes overwhelming. That sour note conceded — and as I have repeatedly crowed — that nation of ours can boast of that one virtue; it’s bursting with literary talent! And the women seem to be at the forefront.

SR: In the joint statement issued by J.P. Clark and you following Achebe’s death, you stated: “For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter.” There’s the impression in some quarters that Achebe, Clark and you were virtual personal enemies.

In the specific case of Achebe and you, there’s the misperception that your 1986 Nobel Prize in literature poisoned your personal relationship with a supposedly resentful Achebe. How would you describe your relationship with Achebe from the early days when you were both young writers in a world that was becoming aware of the fecund, protean phenomenon called African literature?