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Teju Meets Wole

Wole Soyinka, Siddhartha Mitter, and Teju Cole in Lagos (courtesy of cassava republic)

As you might have guessed from his tweets, Teju Cole was in Nigeria sometime in the summer. At some point during his stay, he paid a visit to Wole Soyinka. In a New Yorker piece, he mentions the meeting, but more as an aside. Much of the essay is about something else: Soyinka and the first lady of Nigeria had a fight. Soyinka called her a hippopotamus. She said he was an embarrassment to the nation. Soyinka fired back, called her a Shepopotamus.

It was not until the end of the essay that my antenna picked up something genuinely exciting. I have in mind Soyinka’s house. Teju describes it: Aso-oke cloth for curtains, an intriguing clutter of sculptures (or gods?). “Shadowed and quiet,” the house was perched on “the edge of the woods” where Soyinka would often go hunting like the true (literary) daemon he is.

I hope I’m not the only one intrigued by this tidbit on Soyinka’s dwelling. His house holds nearly as much fascination for me as his ideas and work. There are some who would squirm at such a confession. My post on Taiye Selasi’s sexiness got a lot of criticism. Some people felt that I was disturbing the boundary that needed to be maintained between the body of the artist and the genius of the work. My post they said was belittling and detracted from the beauty of her mind and her work.

#NoteToSelf: must value African novelists for their mind and not their bodies or things. Or maybe not. After all, when we deal with an author’s work, aren’t we also dealing with a kind of body, as in the body of the author’s work? Aren’t the body of work, the body of the woman, the image of the artist, the genius of her creativity all one broad tapestry of interlocking texts?

Teju is himself struck by Soyinka’s body. And I mean this literally. “[Soyinka], he writes, “looked vigorous, effortlessly handsome. His famous afro and beard, both a vivid white, looked less like signs of age than evidence of some unending efflorescence.” Through Teju’s gaze trained on Soyinka, we see an aging body still in bloom, “effortlessly handsome,” and strong, inhabiting a house populated with sculptures and things, poised on the edge of shadowy woods.

Are we surprised that an essay, which begins with a reading of Soyinka’s play ends with a reflection on Soyinka’s body?  An artist’s body—and all the things clustered around it— is always implicated in lot more things than we imagine it to be. The road from an artist’s body to the body of his work is a very short one. Both bodies are legitimate machineries of meaning and do some of the most beautiful kinds of literary work when we place them in relation.

It is a shame that the literary world, especial in Africa, has chosen to define itself against a celebrity culture it sees as commodifying and base, as something that should be left to lesser art-worlds of pop-musicians and movie stars or to Kim Kadarshian. We are not supposed to be intrigued by the lives our favorite authors live behind the books they write for us. That is why we are forever doomed to waiting for memoirs—such pretentious things—to learn the filtered and stilted versions of the lives of these famous men and women.

Alternatively, maybe we are long overdue for a literary paparrazi industrial complex.


Image via Cassava Republic

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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.

6 Responses to “Literary Paparazzi—Soyinka’s House and The Lives of Famous African Authors” Subscribe

  1. Mr. Typo August 29, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    And will Captain Plot Thicker of the Fiction Police lead the charges of this new Paparrazi complex?

  2. Mildred August 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    I hear you, but I think your previous piece on Selasi got a lot of criticism because of a long history of Africans being objectified, especially the women’s bodies. There’s hardly a conversation that considers sexiness+smart=beautiful. It’s a tender spot and society’s double standards doesn’t apply the same principles to men. It would be helpful to commend women on their sexiness but not end there, there has to be a leap into all these other multiple qualities that make them up. That way you’re not magnifying one quality above another but you’re celebrating the whole body; a body of works, a body of the person as the entity.

    That said, I would like to touch Soyinka’s hair. Of course someone can find this baffling: that i wish to have an audience with Soyinka just to touch his hair? What about his wisdom? all the great stuff he’s written? Shouldn’t I have an intelligent question for him to respond to…? No, I would just love to ask him if I can touch his hair.

  3. Ainehi Edoro August 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    The bit about touching WS’s hair…too funny!

  4. Oludipe Oyin Samuel August 31, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Yes. And that’s where it lacks. ‘Literary Communism’ in the African world. Something eclectic that defies all unspoken stereotypes!

    ‘Paparazzi’ is needed indeed. I can sense it’s trail on Brittle Paper too.

  5. Obinna Udenwe September 4, 2013 at 2:35 am #

    Then Ainehi, permit me to blame African writers as well as our journalists for this failure to dissect not just the author’s works but his body. His entire entitity. Let me use the daily newspapers for example, each has some columns for gossips on musicians and movie makers – inside these papers you get information like – Tuface just shaved at so so so salon. Don Jazzy kissed his girlfriend. MI bought a new watch worth so so amount. Flavour set to sing at so place or to release a new album. Unless we have our journalists and also our writers who are journalists begin to do same for the African literary world, we can never make our writers popular. Sometimes if a writer has released a new book, a fellow writer must charge him to do a review or to publish a review in a newspaper where he or she serves as one of the editors.
    And on and on I can go. No one even runs a gossip blog on writers – it is a pity 🙂

  6. Sara Perkins September 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    I hear you on this. I have always thought of such authors as “academic” or “literary” celebrities. The description of Wole Soyinka’s home sounds very cool with type of curtains and possible shrines and its location. Soyinka is wildin’ out with his commentaries these days!

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