"New Plantations for Old" - Presented by Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel Prize-Winner for Literature)

Conference Address: Wole Soyinka
(Nobel Prize-Winner for Literature, 1986)

9th May 2009
18.00-19.30
Leacock 232, McGill University
Reception to follow


Cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances


Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright. Some consider him Africa's most distinguished playwright. In 1986, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature - the first Sub Saharan African so honoured.

Wole Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds, where, later, in 1973, he took his doctorate. During the six years spent in England, he was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, "The 1960 Masks" and in 1964, the "Orisun Theatre Company", in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, Yale, and most recently Duke.

During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire. For this he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969.

Though he was refused basic materials, such as books, pens, and paper, for continuing his creative work during much of his imprisonment, he did manage to write a significant body of poems and notes criticizing the Nigerian government. Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play The Lion and The Jewel was produced in Accra, and in November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry entitled Idanre and Other Poems. Idanre, considered by many to be a masterpiece, was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom Soyinka regards irreligiously as his companion deity, kindred spirit, and protector.

In 1968, also in New York, the group Negro Ensemble Company showed Kongi's Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D.O. Fagunwa, called The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga.

In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka was released from prison. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend's farm in southern France, where he sought solitude after the period of mental stagnation. From this experience emerged one of his most prominent masterpieces, "The Bacchae of Euripides". He soon published out of London a tome of his poetry based on his experience in prison, Poems from Prison. At the end of the year, he returned to his office of Headmaster of Cathedral of Drama in Ibadan, and cooperated in the founding of the literary periodical "Black Orpheus".

In 1970 he produced the play "Kongi's Harvest", while simultaneously creating a film by the same title. In June 1970, he concluded another play, called "Madman and Specialists". With the intention of gaining theatrical experience, along with the group of fifteen actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the famous Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Centre in Waterford, Connecticut, in the United States, where his latest play premiered. In 1971 his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. While "Madmen and Specialists" was exposed afresh in Ibadan, Soyinka took the lead role as the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, in the Paris production of "Murderous Angels". His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison, was issued the same year. In April, concerned about the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and began a few years of voluntary exile. In July, in Paris, fragments of his famous play "The Dance of The Forests" were performed.

In 1972 he was declared an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, another of his novels, Season of Anomy, came out, in addition to his Collected Plays, published by the Oxford University Press. The same year, the National Theatre of London, which actually commissioned the play, put on a performance of "The Bacchae of Euripides". In 1973 the plays "Camwood on the Leaves", and "Jero's Metamorphosis" were first published. From 1973-1975, Soyinka devoted himself to scientific activity. He underwent one year probation at Churchill College, Cambridge University, and gave a series of lectures at a number of European universities.

In 1974 "Collected Plays, Volume II" was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975 Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for "Transition", a magazine based in Accra, the Ghanaian capital (where he moved for some time). Soyinka utilized his columns in Transition to once again attack the "negrofiles" (in his essay "Neo-Tarsanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition"), and military regimes, protesting against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After the political turnover in Nigeria, and the subversion of Gowon's military regime in 1975 he returned to his homeland and re-assumed his position of the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.

In 1976 the poetry collection Ogun Abibiman appeared, and a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World, in which Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from the literatures of both continents, compares and contrasts European and African cultures. At The Institute of African Studies at the University of Legon in Ghana, he delivered a series of guest lectures and became a professor at the University of Ife. In October, the French version of “The Dance of The Forests” was performed in Dakar, while in Ife “Death and The King’s Horseman” premiered.

In 1977 one of his greatest plays, an adaptation of Bertold Brecht's "Three Penny Opera" called "Opera W?ny?si", was staged, and in 1979 he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton's drama "The Biko Inquest", a work based on the story of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist beaten to death by Apartheid police forces. In 1981 W?le Soyinka’s first autobiographical novel Ake: The Years of Childhood was released.

Soyinka founded another theatrical group (after Nineteen-Sixty Masks), called Guerrilla Unit, its aim being to cooperate with local communities analyzing their actual problems and then responding to some of their grievances in dramatic sketches. In 1983 the play "Requiem for a Futurologist" had its initial performance at the University of Ife. In July one of Soyinka's musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-play record titled "I Love My Country", where a number of famous Nigerian popular musicians play songs composed by and provided with lyrics by W?le Soyinka. In 1984, he directed his new movie "Blues for a Prodigal", which premiered the same year as a new play, "A Play of Giants".

The years 1975-1984 were for Soyinka a period of increased political activity. During that time he was among the authorities at The University of Ife; among other duties, he was responsible for the security of public roads. He continuously criticized the corruption in the government of democratically-elected President Shehu Shagari, and often found himself at odds with his military successor, Mohammadu Buhari. In 1984 a Nigerian court banned The Man Died and in 1985 the play "Requiem for a Futurologist" went into print in London.

In the midst of several violent and repressive African regimes, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, as one "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence" becoming the first Sub-Saharan African laureate. His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka's speech was a humane and characteristically outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the indigenous population by the Nationalist South African government. In 1986, he received another award - the Agip Prize for Literature.

In 1988, his new collection of poems Mandela's Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. The year 1990, the second portion of his memoir called Isara: A Voyage Around Essay was released. In July 1991 the BBC African Service transmits his radio play "A Scourge of Hyacinths", and the next year (in June 1992) in Siena (Italy), his play "From Zia with Love" has its premiere. Both the performances are very bitter political parodies, based on events which took place in Nigeria in the 1980's. In 1993 Soyinka was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Harvard University. The next year appears another part of his autobiography Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946-1965). The following year brings the publication of the play "The Beatification of Area Boy". On 21 October 1994 Soyinka is appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African Literature and Communication. In November 1994 Soyinka flees from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis is first published.

In 1997 Wole Soyinka was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. In 1999 a new volume of poems of W?le Soyinka entitled Outsiders was released. His newest play, released in 2001, "King Baabu" is another strong, political satire on the theme of African dictatorship. In 2002 a collection of his poems Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known is printed by Methuen. And in 2004 Bankole Olayebi publishes A Life is Full, an illustrated biography of W?le Soyinka, with more than 600 photographs dating from 1934. In April 2006, his memoirs, titled "You Must Set Forth at Dawn", were published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A Wrie Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai miltary’s successful coup.

In April 2007 Wole Soyinka called for the cancellation of the Presidential elections held two weeks earlier in his native Nigeria because of the widespread fraud and violence that characterised the process.


Sponsors: Indian Ocean World Centre (McGill); Provost (McGill); Centre for Developing Area Studies (McGill); Department of Political Science (McGill); Department of History (McGill); Department of English (McGill)