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.