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Wole-Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is a generally private person. As a result, his readers have learned to make do with connecting to him through his work.

Except for fictional autobiographies where he shares very curated aspects of his personal life, there is very little access to Soyinka-the-man.

But last week, the Nigerian author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim posted an interview with Soyinka’s son, Olaokun Soyinka, who is a medical doctor and the commissioner of health in Ogun state.

Dr. Soyinka gives a rare glimpse into his father’s life beyond the world of writing and political activism.

He dishes on what Soyinka is like as a father, on his favorite food and opens up about the perks and drawbacks of growing up with a famous dad.

This interview is a special treat for Soyinka’s fans. I hope you enjoy it.

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Away from the public eye, what is WS really like?

He is probably quieter and more private and solitary than people might expect. He needs his space. Once you think about the nature of his work, the need to read, absorb, analyze, write and talk on so many topics, then it becomes obvious that he would need a lot of thinking time. His pastimes reflect this. Going hunting alone or playing chess against the computer.

When he is ready to socialize, for example at mealtimes, he is more like the public persona; humorous, entertaining, informative. Conversation always flows. He is a magnet for all sorts of informants so there are plenty of anecdotes to share.

Your father has a reputation as an upright man. How much of a disciplinarian is he?

He is not what I would describe as a strict disciplinarian. As kids there were certain things you didn’t do, you knew the boundaries not to cross. But he was not a parent with lots of rules  to control all aspects of your behavior.

When he is really angry what does he do?

Well for sure you can see it in his face. Apart from raising his voice I don’t think he is different from most people.  I have never seen him raise his hand to anyone.

Growing up, was there a time you incurred his ire? What did he do then?

There was a time we had a party at the house at the University of Ibadan. As a treat, I was allowed to be one of the waiters. I was about ten years old I think. I wore my matching short-sleeved shirt and shorts and felt very smart. I was proud of being given the responsibility. Many of the glasses I cleared had some drink in them and out of curiosity I tasted a few of them. I don’t know what I drank or how much, but it was noted that I had disappeared. I was eventually found asleep behind one of the drums of drink. I got a stiff telling off the next day but he didn’t ban me from drinking wine! I hasten to add I did not take up habitual drinking at that age – it was a one off.

How tough has it been sharing your father with the whole world, especially when you were growing up?

Growing up, it seemed normal to me for my father to be away a lot. As I got older I understood why and by the time I might have resented it I had become used to it. My view is, if you want the privilege of having a famous role model as a dad then you had better be ready to pay the price.

What have been the reactions when you introduce yourself as a Soyinka?

Invariably positive, (unless they say something like ‘I’m a great fan of his, ‘I loved Things Fall Apart) which is one of the great things about being his son. People assume you must be a decent person, it’s easier to gain their trust. They are also more interested in you. As a youngster it’s always good. As an adult as your sense of individuality grows, it is tempting to become irritated that you are identified or praised as someone’s offspring rather than yourself. I’m sure I’d hate it if I were a writer or creative artist of some sort. I made a conscious decision not to be bothered because I felt it was a sign of insecurity and in any case, one would never escape it. Rather, it’s best to use the advantage to let people get to know you more quickly – then they will see you as your own person. That won’t stop them introducing you as Soyinka’s son though, but it is flattering when people do it because they are doing it with pride.

What is his favorite food?

He has such a wide range of tastes I don’t think I can pinpoint a favorite. There is a joke amongst those who dine with him often that his favorite desert is dodo, (fried plantain). Even if he has eaten dodo for the main course he will happily follow up with a plate of dodo and stew. Despite being what I would term a gourmand, you will notice he is not overweight – he doesn’t overindulge.

How did you cope with your father’s many incarcerations and exiles?

Because he was often away, one got used to the separations whatever the cause. It was worrying when he was jailed during the civil war because for the first time ever, one got the sense that this was dangerous – anything could happen. As a kid a lot is kept from you and if I had known then what I know of his activities now, I would have been far more worried.

Read full interview HERE.

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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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