A Nobel Laureate’s Lessons

Wole Soyinka ruminates on the wide range of unexpected topics he was prepared to teach at his masterclass in NYU Abu Dhabi.

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate writer and activist who ushered in generations of African writers, taught a masterclass at NYU Abu Dhabi, but it wasn’t specifically on writing or storytelling – the professions that made the Nigerian Academic a household name.

“It’s easy enough to teach a masterclass, let’s say in directing or writing or acting, but in this particular case they are coming from different disciplines. I thought I would begin with some remarks about my own work, and then see what they would like to extract from my own experience and career. Because they were coming from different directions so I don’t want to take advantage of one section except with their own permission and consent. In short, I’m playing it by ear,” he said.

In a wide-ranging conversation that encompasses African unity, exophony, and trolls on the internet, Soyinka imparted his opinions and guiding principles – topics that students should expect to confront in his masterclass. 

He held on true to the beliefs that made him a unique voice in the literary world, drawing comparisons to how many of the students on campus might feel leaving their homes to study. Many who attend foreign universities abroad come from places that have experienced struggles similar to that of his own and many of the individuals wrestle with a feeling of identity as they accumulate more of a sense of internationalism into their personalities. 

“I find it very difficult to experience a kind of compelling sense of identity. How is it possible for people to kill themselves over the preservation of boundaries that they themselves did not will? It was just a colonial act of conquest, or arbitrariness and disdain, sitting around the table covering up the continent of Africa and portioning nationalities to people. I find that mentality totally absurd. I don't feel it. However, I have an attachment to my piece of earth and that piece of earth is sometimes defined ideologically, sometimes defined culturally and sometimes by shared struggle,” he said. 

During the apartheid struggle, Soyinka felt closer with the South African blacks then he did to his own people. He said their anti-racist struggle was one that he felt solidarity with, thinking ‘that’s my family, that’s my nation.’ He said the ability to empathize with people who share your own struggle despite where they come from is important to those whose identity is not clearly defined but are attempting to solidify themselves. 

“It’s a political ideological mishmash of identity management, but that’s the reality, so unlike other writers I do not suffer any anguish. Other writers say they feel as if they have been traitors to their own language, I don’t feel any such thing. Language is a tool of communication and I use whatever language is at hand."

Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate

Soyinka shares much with the student population at NYU Abu Dhabi. He is an international citizen whose first language is Yoruba but decided to build his career abroad and work in English, not his mother tongue. With students from 115 different countries on campus, many NYUAD students learned English as a second language but have chosen to study in it and lead careers in the lingua franca.

The issue brings anxiety to many writers who are from non-English speaking countries but choose to write in the language. Exophonic writers such as the Turkish storyteller, Elif Shafak, the Russian Vladimir Nabokov and the Pole, Joseph Conrad, all struggled with why they write in a language other than their native one. Often it leads some to doubt their loyalty, or question if they are being true to themselves. For Soyinka, there’s a quiet ease about why he chose not to write the majority of his work in Yoruba, and his rationale may put others like him at ease.  

“It’s a political ideological mishmash of identity management, but that’s the reality, so unlike other writers I do not suffer any anguish. Other writers say they feel as if they have been traitors to their own language, I don’t feel any such thing. Language is a tool of communication and I use whatever language is at hand.”

Despite that he has tried, and admittedly failed, to create a common African language such that the entire continent can communicate with each other. English is still what he works in mostly. However, being multilingual, Soyinka has a curiously simple solution to the challenge of translating thoughts he might have that stem from a non-english word in his writing. 

“Sometimes I make up words to carry certain ideas. I sort of mangle an English word, especially when I am translating classical Yoruba work. When I encounter a word in Yoruba and I don’t know how on Earth I can translate it unless in a long sentence in English. I just tweak that word and the sense comes through,” he says. 

During his masterclass, Soyinka spoke about the themes that have grasped his attention in this stage of his career, namely the role of Africa in the world, writers as political activists and power and creativity. The latter he truly explores as the internet has changed dramatically owners of power, such that anyone can publish their words and have others read it. 

He says the creative writer, or any creative person when given acknowledgement, is given a certain amount of power. That power is easy to abuse, especially for those unable to wield it towards positive outcomes and lacking a sense of justice and morality. However, he says the much bigger fear is not those writers or creators whose names are accountable for their work to be subject to criticism and challenge. It is internet trolls, or as Soyinka puts it ‘anti-minds’ who misabuse the internet to threaten democracy, human dignity and the creative spirit. 

“The internet has been seized by barbarians, the most negative kind of minds, I call them the ‘anti-minds'. Normally, they are this anonymous type who actually enjoy the secret power to destroy and distort reality. I don’t know how bad it is in the Arab world but I can tell you in my own society these fascistic controllers of people’s lives and distorters of worthwhile causes, they become the enemies of creativity. So today, I think we should worry more about the abusers rather than abusing power, one should bother more about the internet control by the trolls rather than the possible abuse of creative work by writers.”