YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN:
By Wole Soyinka.
528 pp. $26.95
Wole Soyinka, who in 1986 became Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has long been one of the continent’s most imaginative writers. He also embodies the effort by its native cultures to reclaim their identities after colonialism by a return to the rhythms of native ritual. It’s a complicated task, as Soyinka illustrates repeatedly in this third installment of his memoirs.
The tale of his first professional homecoming is typical. After early studies at the elite Government College in Ibadan, in western Nigeria, near his birthplace, Soyinka had gone to England to earn a degree in drama from the University of Leeds. He then worked a few years at London’s Royal Court Theatre before returning to Nigeria with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. He had also won a competition to produce a play as part of the new nation’s independence day celebrations on October 1, 1960. A Dance of the Forests presented Africa’s “recurrent cycle of stupidities” through a complex use of Yoruba traditions combined with European modernism. Nigeria’s new rulers, recognizing themselves in the drama’s depiction of corruption and abuse of power, branded it subversive on the basis of rehearsals and canceled the performance. Pan-Africanists meanwhile attacked the play’s embrace of Western dramaturgical devices.
Despite this initial setback, Soyinka persevered in his pursuit of an Africa where traditional cultures freely assimilate those elements of modernity consistent with their own proud identities. This vision draws on the writer’s own fruitful encounters between a rich African heritage and the “greats” of the Western literary and modernist canon. Soyinka’s first memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), told how these two influences mingled from the beginning. Born in 1934, Soyinka grew up at the Anglican mission of Aké, where his father was headmaster of the primary school and his mother, nicknamed “Wild Christian,” was a social worker. Though raised in an English-speaking and Christian environment, Soyinka regularly visited his father’s ancestral home in Ìsarà and nourished an affinity for the mythic, ritual, and cultural world of the Yoruba, where sorcerers, spirits, and gods were living realities.
A second memoir followed, in 1994, describing his early pro-democracy activities (Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years—A Memoir, 1946–1965) and the difficulties they caused him. Soyinka’s appeal for peace during the 1967 Biafran conflict led to his arrest and two years’ imprisonment, most of it spent in solitary confinement. The exile that followed was the start of a period of extraordinary literary productivity as well as political activism. That period, the subject of the current memoir, brought Soyinka into contact, and eventual conflict, with Nigeria’s increasingly corrupt and abusive regimes, culminating in repeated bitter exiles, emotional returns, and his own sentencing to death in absentia by the brutal General Sani Abacha. (The memoir’s title evokes Soyinka’s repeated flights from repressive regimes; his preferred ploy was to pretend to head off into the bush to hunt.) In 1995, Abacha executed Soyinka’s fellow playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists.
In his 1986 Nobel Lecture, Soyinka shattered taboos by reminding his audience that many of the most revered names of the European Enlightenment—including Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and Voltaire—were “unabashed theorists of racial superiority and denigrators of the African history and being.” However, he quickly reassured his listeners that his purpose was “not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present.” This new memoir is not an easy read, but it is a profoundly rewarding one. Soyinka weaves the adventures of his adult life into a rich, dramatic narrative that is evocative of African storytelling by word of mouth. Perhaps he intends the complex tapestry of You Must Set Forth at Dawn to be understood in the same light: as the synthesis of a wealth of ancient myths and traditions with the best of humanism and modernity, addressing the drama that is not only the author’s life but Africa’s contemporary reality.
—J. Peter Pham