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What my father does when he is angry–Soyinka’s son

Olaokun Soyinka

Olaokun Soyinka

Olaokun Soyinka is the first son of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. A medical doctor and most recently the Ogun State commissioner for health, Olaokun talks about the Soyinka that people don’t know, having to share his father with the world and lots more. It was  great interviewing Ola and I hope you enjoy it.

First published in Daily Trust, July 18, 2015.

 

 

Away from the public eye, what is WS really like?

He is probably quieter and more private and solitary than people might expect. He needs his space. Once you think about the nature of his work, the need to read, absorb, analyse, write and talk on so many topics, then it becomes obvious that he would need a lot of thinking time. His pastimes reflect this. Going hunting alone or playing chess against the computer.

When he is ready to socialise, for example at mealtimes, he is more like the public persona; humorous, entertaining, informative. Conversation always flows. He is a magnet for all sorts of informants so there are plenty of anecdotes to share.

Your father has a reputation as an upright man. How much of a disciplinarian is he?

He is not what I would describe as a strict disciplinarian. As kids there were certain things you didn’t do, you knew the boundaries not to cross. But he was not a parent with lots of rules  to control all aspects of your behaviour.

When he is really angry what does he do?

Well for sure you can see it in his face. Apart from raising his voice I don’t think he is different from most people.  I have never seen him raise his hand to anyone.

Growing up, was there a time you incurred his ire? What did he do then?

There was a time we had a party at the house at the University of Ibadan. As a treat, I was allowed to be one of the waiters. I was about ten years old I think. I wore my matching short-sleeved shirt and shorts and felt very smart. I was proud of being given the responsibility. Many of the glasses I cleared had some drink in them and out of curiosity I tasted a few of them. I don’t know what I drank or how much, but it was noted that I had disappeared. I was eventually found asleep behind one of the drums of drink. I got a stiff telling off the next day but he didn’t ban me from drinking wine! I hasten to add I did not take up habitual drinking at that age – it was a one off.

He is a famous writer, you are a medical doctor. Did he try in any way to influence your course of study or did he allow you a free hand?

He didn’t put pressure on me at all, I don’t think he did to any of us. I’m glad he didn’t because I think if his advice had been different from what I wanted to do I would probably have followed it – unless he encouraged me to be a writer, then I would have declined on the grounds of unfair competition. Right now, I think he would like at least one of his offspring to be a billionaire!

He is known as a spiritualist. Did he try to share his beliefs with you?

He is not a spiritualist! I think he has said that he is a spiritual person. I hope I am not misrepresenting him but I believe that means accepting that, while not adhering to a particular religious faith, there is possibly a metaphysical aspect to our existence, something beyond our perception or understanding. It’s a very personal thing and he therefore doesn’t try to share those thoughts as a means of convincing one to adopt a particular belief system. If it comes up it is more of a philosophical discussion. I for one am happy with that. Most people have their religion determined by their parents but we were allowed to explore and make our own decisions.

Does he have a favourite among his children?

I honestly couldn’t say, I can’t say that I have noticed.

How tough has it been sharing your father with the whole world, especially when you were growing up?

Growing up, it seemed normal to me for my father to be away a lot. As I got older I understood why and by the time I might have resented it I had become used to it. My view is, if you want the privilege of having a famous role model as a dad then you had better be ready to pay the price.

What trait of his do you think you have inherited?

Certainly not his white hair or creative flair! I have been told that I resemble him facially, (I do have the Soyinka nose) and also my voice is similar – I have confused a few people over the phone, including my boss, (that was amusing, he was calling me Sir until he realised!) In terms of behaviour, it is hard to know which is nature or nurture but my wife tells me that I am more like him than I think. I can’t say more than that – if I am self-critical, I will be implicitly criticising him and if I refer to his positive traits it would appear immodest. I am trying my best to emulate his sense of fairness and justice and his adherence to principles but I have no idea how much is in me and how much I am following example.

What have been the reactions when you introduce yourself as a Soyinka?

“I’ve got the Soyinka nose”

Invariably positive, (unless they say something like ‘I’m a great fan of his, ‘I loved Things Fall Apart) which is one of the great things about being his son. People assume you must be a decent person, it’s easier to gain their trust. They are also more interested in you. As a youngster it’s always good. As an adult as your sense of individuality grows, it is tempting to become irritated that you are identified or praised as someone’s offspring rather than yourself. I’m sure I’d hate it if I were a writer or creative artist of some sort. I made a conscious decision not to be bothered because I felt it was a sign of insecurity and in any case, one would never escape it. Rather, it’s best to use the advantage to let people get to know you more quickly – then they will see you as your own person. That won’t stop them introducing you as Soyinka’s son though, but it is flattering when people do it because they are doing it with pride.

What is his favourite food?

He has such a wide range of tastes I don’t think I can pinpoint a favourite. There is a joke amongst those who dine with him often that his favourite desert is dodo, (fried plantain). Even if he has eaten dodo for the main course he will happily follow up with a plate of dodo and stew. Despite being what I would term a gourmand, you will notice he is not overweight – he doesn’t overindulge.

Winning the Nobel Prize was very big. How did the family react? Did you understand the impact of it then when it happened?

We were all ecstatic. In retrospect I certainly didn’t understand the full significance of the Nobel Prize. When I got to the ceremony, the grandeur of the occasion (which lasted some days) was overwhelming. Meeting royalty, banquets and lectures, riding in motorcades – one convoy per Laureate, and of course the almost non-stop celebration. No other nationalities celebrated in Stockholm like we did. The Grand Hotel was overrun with euphoric Nigerians, it was great.

I think the longer term significance also was not apparent. It is not a one-off thing that makes your CV look better, it is something that sets you apart for life – it puts you in a very elite group celebrated for intellectual achievements.

How did you cope with your father’s many incarcerations and exiles?

Because he was often away, one got used to the separations whatever the cause. It was worrying when he was jailed during the civil war because for the first time ever, one got the sense that this was dangerous – anything could happen. As a kid a lot is kept from you and if I had known then what I know of his activities now, I would have been far more worried.

Ola and his father Wole Soyinka

Ola and his father Wole Soyinka

Which of your father’s works is your favourite?

I think it would have to be Death and the Kings Horseman. It is so powerful in its exploration of the meaning of culture and of deep issues that affect us in Nigeria to this day. It is deep, rich and lyrical and importantly accessible on many levels. It is a classic tragedy.

What I enjoy reading most though are his essays, lectures and commentaries on current issues. I often struggle to work out or express my strong feelings about issues that affect us in this country: terrorism and fundamentalism, corruption, human rights abuses, our response to homosexuality and other sexual issues and so forth. Invariably he will have written something that makes me exclaim to myself – ‘Yes! That is what I was trying to say! That releases me from the struggle for words but I am also pleased to find my thoughts aligned with his. I occasionally have a different viewpoint but it is quite rare.

One problem I have is that I am expected to be familiar with all his works. I have read most and seen many productions but often it is so long ago that I have forgotten so much. Maybe now I am between jobs I should go and read up again!

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Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Mutiny at Oxford

The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. In an unusual gesture, Serpell decided to “share the prize” with her fellow shortlistees. What does this gesture mean for the prize?

 

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

The annual Caine Prize Dinner had moved. A change of venue from the old Bodleian Library built in the elegant English Gothic style in 1602, where the award ceremony for Africa’s most prestigious literary prize has held over the last 15 years. The new venue is the New Bodleian, just across the street from the old one, a sprawling modern building with glass walls and electronic displays.

Perhaps it was indicative of the shift that would happen that night, 16 years after the Caine Prize came into being when the winner of the ₤10, 000 prize for short story led what was in effect a mutiny against the establishment.

Zambian Namwali Serpell, with her cherubic looks and innocent eyes, which belly an enormous self-assuredness, does not strike one as the rebellious type. And when she was announced as the winner of the prize by the enchanting Zoe Wicomb, Chair of Judges, one immediately thinks, that would be the perfect poster girl for African literature.

But on mounting the podium, overwhelmed at first by her triumph, Namwali took little time to make an impression. She did something that had never been done before. She invited the other writers who had been shortlisted alongside her to join her on the podium and declared that she wanted to “share the prize with them.”

“None of us wants to compete against each other,” she said, “we just want to be honoured.”

This she said was as a result of a pact she had made with the other writers; Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi from Nigeria and FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa. The pact that whoever won would call up the others and share the prize with them was not unanimous among the writers but it was still a powerful statement.

Namwali said she hoped it would “restructure the prize”, an ambitious statement if ever there was one.

In the last 16 years the prize has always been structured like this: Five shortlistees emerge, the five go to London, read their stories, engage in promotional activities, eat and wine and in the end, one person goes home with ₤10, 000. This year, there have been changes. The other shortlisted writers, who in previous years would have gone home without a dime, are leaving with 500 pounds as consolation. Apparently this was not enough for the shortlistees this year and they decided to take things into their hands.

The choice of Oxford as the setting for this mutiny, if you like, is telling. After all, it is here, not too far from where Namwali, made a statement that Zimbabwe’s greatest writer to date, Dambudzo Marechera made a name for himself as a self-destructive genius. He made an even more violent statement when being awarded the 1979 Gaurdian Fiction Prize when he started to launch dinner plates at a chandelier in protest over perceived wrong. It was from this same Oxford that his anarchist conduct led to his expulsion after threatening to set the school ablaze.

Namwali is by no means an anarchist. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley English Department and is on the prestigious Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 40 (And I am not just saying it is prestigious because I am also on that list), and there is a method to her mutiny.

She will share the prize money with her fellow shortlisted writers but to what extent will she “share the prize” with them?

It was only Namwali that posed beside the bust of Michael Caine, along with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, not the other writers. The media have announced Namwali winner of the prize, despite this grand stand. It will most likely be only Namwali going to  take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, as well as get an invite to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi and the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Those are some of the perks associated with winning the Caine Prize.

In reality, as some would argue, were the shortlisted writers competing against each other? Technically, not really. The prize is awarded at the discretion of the judges; the writers have nothing to do to affect the outcome of the prize, they can’t improve or enhance their chances of winning it, neither will any misconduct cost them the prize. The days of reading and public engagement in London do not in any way give extra points to the shortlistees. The judges and the shortlistees are not even allowed to interact or engage the same space in a way that could influence the outcome of the award.

When I was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, an unforeseen situation occurred. By some coincedence, the shortlisted writers and one of the judges ended up attending the same event, a public lunch that included a tour of the gallery of the British Museum. The instructions came in thick and fast. No conversation. No eye contact with the judge. No moving close to her. No gestures to draw attention. Nothing. She is expected to do likewise.

And so we spent the awkward evening wandering the gallery of the British Museum suddenly changing direction each time this judge was sighted. And she spent the evening doing the same. A beautiful woman had suddenly been made a Medusa to us.

So in reality, it is hardly a contest. The judges sit, read the stories and decide which of the stories will be awarded the prize.

As Zoe Wicomb, chair of this year’s judges said while announcing the prize, “From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading.  Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

But even she admits that the story is a difficult read saying they had to re-read it to get it, and she knew readers would have to reread it again. Not everyone will agree with the decision but almost everyone ought to respect it.

Alongside Zoë on the panel of judges are Neel Mukherjee, author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010) and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014); Brian Chikwava, author and former winner of the Caine Prize (2004); Zeinab Badawi, the prominent broadcaster and Chair of the Royal African Society; and Cóilín Parsons, Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University who has written on Irish, South African and Indian literature.

Namwali winning the prize is also a huge validation for the Africa39 list, which has identified a number of talented writers on the continent, among them several past winners and shortlisted writers for the prize as the future of writing from the continent. Namwali’s winning story ‘The Sack’ is from the Africa39 Anthology and one could see the obvious pride on the face of the anthology editor, Ellah Allfrey, who got emotional after Namwali’s triumph and unusual gesture.

How this statement will shape the prize remains to be seen, but no one should underestimate the power of idea. And with this act, Namwali has embodied an idea that some writers may have nurtured over the years.

 

This article was first published in Daily Trust newspaper of July 11, 2015

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