Isara-brittle-paper-soyinka

 

I have borrowed Isara‘s subtitle from John Mortimer‘s play, A Voyage Around My Father. The expression captures in essence what I have tried to do with the content of a tin box which I opened some four years ago, that is, about two years after Ake was written. The completion of that childhood biography, rather than assuage a curiosity about a vanishing period of one’s existence, only fueled it, fragments of an incomplete memory returning to haunt one again and again in the personae of representative protagonists of such a period. Of course my own case may have been especially acute; I was in political exile when “Essay” 1 died. All plans to return home for the funeral were abruptly cancelled when I received a message from the “Wild Christian” 2 urging me to return home indeed if I wished to bury her with her lifelong partner. I recorded a message, which was played at the funeral, and stayed put in an indifferent clime.

Years later, I opened the metallic box, scraped off the cockroach eggs, and browsed through a handful of letters, old journals with marked pages and annotations, notebook jottings, tax and levy receipts, minutes of meetings and school reports, program notes of special events, and so on. A tantalizing experience, eavesdropping on this very special class of teachers of our colonial period; inevitably I would become drawn to attempting to flesh out these glimpses on a very different level of awareness and empathy from that of Ake.

I have not taken liberties with chronology, I have deliberately ruptured it. After all, the period covered here actively is no more than fifteen years, and its significance for me is that it represents the period when a pattern of their lives was set—for better or worse—under the compelling impact of the major events of their times, both local and global, the uneasy love-hate relationship with the colonial presence, and its own ambiguous attitudes to the Western-educated elite of the Nigerian protectorate.

Life, it would appear, was lived robustly, but was marked also by an intense quest for a place in the new order, and one of a far more soul-searching dimension than the generation they spawned would later undertake. Their options were excruciatingly limited. A comparison between this aspect of their time and their offsprings’, when coupled with the inversely proportionate weight of extended family demands and expectations, assumes quite a heroic dimension.

Isara then is simply a tribute to “Essay” and his friends and their times. My decision not to continue with real names, as in Ake, except in a few cases, is to eliminate any pretense to factual accuracy in this attempted reconstruction of their times, thoughts, and feelings. Like most voyages, this one has not followed the itinerary I so confidently mapped out for it; indeed it proved an almost impossible journey which came close to being abandoned more than once. “Ilesa” 3 is of course not simply one such institution nor Isara one such community. I hope the surviving “ex-Iles” 4 all over the nation will understand this compulsion to acknowledge in some form, and however tenuously, their seminal role in the development of present-day Nigerian minds, and will overlook the obvious lapses and areas of dissatisfaction.

W. S.

November 1988.

Notes:

  1. Soyinka’s father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka was called S.A. or “Essay” for short
  2. Soyinka fondly dubbed his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, “Wild Christian.”
  3. Soyinka is referring to Ilesa Teacher Training Seminary
  4. A blend of “Exile” and “Ilesa.”— A name that Soyinka’s father and his friends called themselves  “indicating that they are simultaneously graduates of Ilesa Teacher Training Seminary and cultural exiles”

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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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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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