Soyinka and Achebe

On Saturday, Soyinka gave a rather revealing account of his relationship with Achebe and his sense of Achebe’s work within the context of the African literary tradition. It was in the form an interview done by Sahara Reporters, who as we all know are very skilled at making interviewees respond to controversial questions. I find the interview to be a strange document.

First of all, I find it odd that the first substantial set of reflections that Soyinka shares about Achebe after his death should take the form of an interview that, for all its aspiration to honesty, comes across as bitter and smug. On the eve of Achebe’s funeral the world should be poring over the most beautiful eulogy ever written in the history of African writing, written by none other than the great African wordsmith, Soyinka, and not feasting on one-sided accounts of stale quarrels. Do I really need to know that Achebe busted Soyinka’s balls for imagining that getting the nobel prize made him “the Asiwaju (Leader) of African literature?” Yes, I do. But perhaps at a much later time and in a different context.  While I laud Soyinka’s intention to clear up the controversies surrounding his relationship with Achebe, many of his comments have too much of an airing-the-dirty-laundry feel about them and seem a tad out-of-place in the days leading up to Achebe’s funeral on the 23rd.

There were many uncomfortable moments in the interview like when Soyinka passionately denounces claims that Achebe is the father of African literature. Such claims may not be entirely valid from a literary historical perspective, but the vehemence with which Soyinka dismisses them was quite unnecessary. In my opinion, there is certainly nothing “embarrassing” and “ridiculous” about imagining even if for a moment that Achebe’s work marks the beginning of something great in African literature.

But the most unsettling of Soyinka’s statements was his response when asked about Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country. He says:  “[There Was a Country] 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?” How can you say, after a man’s death, that a book that clearly meant so much to him ought not to have been written? What does that even mean?

Imagine for a moment that Soyinka had written a review (no matter how critical) of Achebe’s book while he was alive. It would have been excellent publicity for the book, but most importantly, it would have opened up a wonderful (perhaps difficult) conversation between him and Achebe and certainly among us. Instead seven months after the book is published, two months after the author has passed away, he makes this weird comment that will most likely devolve into a social media sound-byte.

As Achebe’s funeral draws close, Soyinka’s responses to Sahara Reporters should have been limited to a series of uplifting anecdotes of his time with Achebe, heartwarming stories that would deepen our fondness for a man who gave us so much. If Soyinka feels so strongly about refuting controversies, dissing haters, giving us the dish on African literary spats, and lecturing the world on literary fan-etiquette, he should write another memoir.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

21 Responses to “Why Soyinka’s Sahara Reporters Interview is Disappointing” Subscribe

  1. Jo! 2013/05/20 at 09:40 #

    “How can you say, after a man’s death,…” So the fact that he is dead means he shouldn’t speak his mind? I am not a fan of his approach, but I think your logic isn’t logical (sic).

  2. daydor 2013/05/20 at 09:59 #

    I really feel the writer of this piece is not getting the d content of the interview rite either u go read it again “unbiased” or u rili just keep quiet! Cos u are doin wat u are accusin Soyinka of!

  3. Immanuel James 2013/05/20 at 10:07 #

    Someone said that writers who have been screaming about this Soyinka interview are desperate to appropriate fame by driving the matter to curious proportions. Perhaps that is not true. But I expected this writer to lead by example: wait till after Achebe’s burial before responding to this issue too.

  4. Africa 2013/05/20 at 10:35 #

    I was initially defending Soyinka, but couldn’t any longer when faced with reality. This isn’t going to help him. The greatest damage is his true position on the war, something he had hidden from the public for over four decades. It was that war that popularized him. Alas, he wasn’t at all sincere.

  5. Tope 2013/05/20 at 10:44 #

    Your piece, though well written is illogical. That a man has died does not make it a taboo to speak of him. After all, Achebe spoke of Awolowo three decades after Awolowo’s death.

  6. Gndaiu Ysie 2013/05/20 at 11:59 #

    Rubbish! If Achebe had the right to write whatever he chose in whatever way he wished, how come Soyinka forfeits his own right to express his opinions however he deems fit? And remember, not everybody is a fan of these two men; beyond reading a few of their interesting works, I don’t see how else they have helped Nigeria. One decided to join forces with one of the sides involved in the needless and stupid civil war; the other is always ever so sublime and both – always playing to the gallery; both always looking for cheap, sensational popularity. Cheap men, including the author of this redundant anti-soyinka article.

  7. Ekaabor Ogiso 2013/05/21 at 02:10 #

    I really do not believe you read the same article I did and if you read it, you certainly did not understand it.

  8. Shina 2013/05/21 at 02:54 #

    Let us agree with the author that there is nothing “embarrassing” and “ridiculous” about imagining even if for a moment that (Africa is a country). what a ridiculous reasoning.

  9. Felix Kayman 2013/05/21 at 05:14 #

    I did not (and still do not) agree with Professor Soyinka’s assertion that Professor Achebe should not have written his book (There was a Country) in the way he did, simply because I do not believe that individuals or the general public should prescribe what and how writers write. The writer of this piece, however, seems to have fallen into a similar trap of prescribing the sort of responses that WS should have offered to the interview questions. Everything Achebe wrote in his book is covered under the ‘clause’ that the book is A[chebe’s] personal narrative of the Nigerian Civil War, and I think everyone should view it in that context. In the same vein, WS should be free to air his views on everything that Achebe and indeed any other person writes about any subject. This does not make either the writer or the commentator right or wrong. What everyone should avoid is to try and prescribe what and how anyone should write, because it fetters creativity and freedom of expression.

  10. Sima Jr. 2013/05/22 at 03:02 #

    Ainehi, you have not made a good point here, really, write something else that may be worth the time.

  11. aj4real 2013/05/22 at 07:22 #

    The distasteful comments and misdirected spittle in people’s reaction to WS’s interview portray them as literary ignoramus,most of whom have hardly read the interview and works of the two great writers.let them know that the literary circuit is too intellectual for sycophancy; it adds no value to literary criticism,in debases it.WS&CA were popular for their pragmatic criticism.these,among other factors made them the searchlight in African and world literature at large.WS should not be vilified for expressing his factual opinion on a purely literary issue.people have ridiculously isolated a portion of the interview just to score their myopic point.it is bizarre and grotesque.it shows their tribal sentiment and parochial mindset.when WS writes or speaks,or does so as a literary guru and a statesman,not as a Yoruba man.i think people in their schemish and mischievous manner are just over simplifying the man,s point to advance thier selfish points,

  12. JACOBS 2013/05/24 at 17:28 #

    Soyinka was an African writer for Western audience. Achebe was an African writer first for Africans and then for the world.

  13. kaycee 2013/05/24 at 18:22 #

    the man soyinka is a wretch who has never written anything himself.. I think it was Dame Patience Jonathan who called him an ‘educated illiterate’? quite appropriate in my view

  14. Ugo 2013/05/24 at 22:25 #

    I thought I kept it under the bed, can’t find my shoes

  15. juek 2013/05/25 at 03:21 #

    I was, to say the least, disappointed by the content of the interview Prof Wole Soyinka granted Saharareporters on the late Prof Chinua Achebe and the his last book – There Was A Country. It’s something I least expected by such a highly regarded personality like Prof Soyinka. Every letter of his word was dribbling with contempt, envy and utter disapproval of the poise and prominence of the man and name Prof Achebe. It’s like something an envious, poor and lazy market woman could about her more prosperous neighbor.
    Well, since Prof Soyinka is neither lazy nor a pauper, then his comments and opinions about the achievements and more especially, the book – There Was A Country, must have been borne out of envy or something in the line of ‘ The Problem of The Igbo’ which Prof Achebe himself largely talked about in his book – The Trouble With Nigeria.
    …. ‘The Igbo man is loud and more successful than any other man from other tribes in Nigeria …… warranting hatred and ill-feeling for him…’ (Paraphrasing, mine)
    Prof Soyinka, in his interview, said Prof Achebe was never good enough to be associated with the accolade, ‘The Father of African literature,’ offering that they are far more better writers in Africa whom late Prof Achebe wouldn’t hold a candle to, yet he failed to name any of those Achebe’s betters. I won’t want to call Prof Soyinka a liar, but my people, IGBERE, said: ‘a liar points far away.’
    Moreover, in his characteristic highfalutin, multi-syllabic fluency, he decried all Achebe’s fans, like him, as ignorant rascals clamoring for deification of over-rated wooden idol (interpretation, mine). If he mustknow, he is also
    Honestly, it beats nothing but my imagination why he granted this sensitive interview at the back of Achebe who would be more than able to reply him were he alive. This is like shaving a man’s hair in his absence. Obviously, Achebe will be writhing in his grave.
    On the book – There Was a Country – he waved it off as a compendium of the drifting thoughts and views of a pen drunk fellow, who only wanted to hear his own voice. He said it contained inconsistencies which he won’t mind waking Achebe from the dead to account for. Well, I have not read the book itself, but I have read countless reviews and critiques and criticisms from every corner. As matter of fact, my friend, Ms. Nwachukwu, is about finishing the book, described it as a ‘phenomenon.’ Anyway, that depends on her angel of reflection.
    Nevertheless, Achebe was never known as an author of confusion, but a master story-teller with a mission: to reveal, educate and entertain in a style distinct and near divine. No other literature in Africa has smelt the success and recognition of his book, Things Fall Apart, which has been translated in nine major languages of the world. Yes, Prof Soyinka won a Noble Price, but none of his books has ever attained that fame.
    I have not come to condemn Prof Soyinka. He is equally a successful writer with something Achebe never had – Noble Laurel. But I’m just disappointed that he came to cast aspersion at the back of Achebe when he could have done that while he was still alive. It is fair even in battle to a man a chance to defend himself. And now, he scored an own goal: because, more and more people, like me, will continue to sympathize with Achebe, making our hearts his shrine. For me, whatever subtle rivalry that existed between the two should have been swallowed by the death of Achebe. And I won’t want believe, like Pro Soyinka claimed, that Achebe was envious of his Noble-hood.
    They are both accomplished writers in their respective genre, style, content and outlook. And I respect them.

  16. Kiza 2013/05/25 at 04:04 #

    Soyinka is a bigot hiding under pseudo-intellectualism. He is more or less, a politician than a social crusader which explains the mediocre work he has been churning out in recent years.

  17. Tony 2013/05/25 at 11:24 #

    To be honest I really don’t know what WS is talking about and I don’t care. All I know is believe it or not Achebe was a great writer if not Africa best prose writer. I read Ake by WS in my first year in the university and I true fully find it a bore and so did all my classmates at least all said so. Tony

  18. spatacus 2013/05/25 at 14:58 #

    Kaycee you are the one that is educated illiterate if you say Soyinka has never written anything. did you even go to school?

  19. K F Adams 2013/08/28 at 07:18 #

    When the Arrow of God is No Longer at Ease, Things Fall Apart. The god Achebe had fired arrow in his “There was a Country, with which Yorubas are not at ease, the god Soyinka fired arrow in the Sahara Reports interview with which Igbos are not at ease. Now see how things are falling apart btw Yoruba and Ibo

  20. williams 2016/05/10 at 18:37 #

    comparatively I will liken Achebe to Ronaldinho and wole to Messi.While the later has won many individual laurels,he still hasn’t been sale to match the creativity, skill and magic of Ronaldinho.wole is good but Achebe is better.In fact wole’s interview further plays down his reputation.He should be careful to avoid people ranking him as a mediocre writer due to his unnecessary envy.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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