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?
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
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!