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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”[ref]Soyinka’s father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka was called S.A. or “Essay” for short[/ref] died. All plans to return home for the funeral were abruptly cancelled when I received a message from the “Wild Christian” [ref]Soyinka fondly dubbed his mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, “Wild Christian.”[/ref] 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” [ref]Soyinka is referring to Ilesa Teacher Training Seminary[/ref] is of course not simply one such institution nor Isara one such community. I hope the surviving “ex-Iles” [ref] 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”[/ref] 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.

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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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