A Hunger for Justice

Wole Soyinka, who spent time in a Nigerian prison and years in exile, has used his 1986 Nobel Prize for literature as a platform to fight injustice, such as the atrocities in Darfur.
Wole Soyinka, who spent time in a Nigerian prison and years in exile, has used his 1986 Nobel Prize for literature as a platform to fight injustice, such as the atrocities in Darfur. (By C.j. Gunther For The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The oak-paneled colloquium room at Harvard's Barker Center is too small for the noontime crowd. Another 25 chairs arrive before the speaker does, but with the body count nearing 100, there still aren't enough seats. Several women in the back corner perch on a table, beneath an outsize portrait of a Harvard notable in academic robes, as the 72-year-old winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature strides in.

"Quite simply, Wole Soyinka is Africa's most acclaimed writer," the professor introducing him says.

Soyinka has a new memoir out this month and before something more urgent seized his attention, he'd been planning to speak about it today. He was going to call his talk "How Not to Write an Autobiography."

Don't start on a negative note, would have been his most important advice. In the late 1990s, as he began his book, he was in exile from his native Nigeria -- forced to flee because he opposed the brutal dictator Sani Abacha. At first, he allowed his rage to take over the narrative.

Not that anyone could blame him for being angry: As long as Abacha remained in power, Soyinka was a marked man. Previous Nigerian dictators might have hesitated to go after a Nobel laureate, but Abacha had shocked the world by hanging writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, and he was trying Soyinka for treason in absentia.

For this dictator, he says, killing off a Nobel laureate would be "like adding a very special scalp to your collection."

Abacha died in 1998. Soyinka begins and ends his memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," with his triumphant return home. But he's decided not to talk about any of this at Harvard. He is a man blessed or cursed with what he calls an "overactive sense of right and wrong" -- and right now his anger has a different focus.

Earlier this month, he had planned to visit the scene of the most extreme current African injustice with several fellow Nobelists. The Sudanese government found an excuse to postpone the visit. But it can't stop Soyinka from voicing his outrage.

For the next hour and a half, he ignores his own history and talks, instead, about atrocities the world has been ignoring in Darfur.

It's the story of his life, this tendency of political engagement to trump the literary and the personal, as he makes clear both in "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" and in an interview, over lunch at an Indian restaurant, after his Harvard talk.

Soyinka, who will read tomorrow at Politics and Prose, is a tall man who appears even taller because he carries himself so straight. If not for his shock of white hair, he would look younger than his years. "I don't think I've ever met anyone who had such a commanding presence," says his Harvard host, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. "You go: Wow, check out this guy."

Hang around Soyinka for even a short time, however, and you'll find his formidable presence leavened by a sometimes edgy but mostly joyful sense of humor.


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