You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir

Overview

The first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a political activist of prodigious energies, Wole Soyinka now follows his modern classic Ake: The Years of Childhood with an equally important chronicle of his turbulent life as an adult in (and in exile from) his beloved, beleaguered homeland.
In the tough, humane, and lyrical language that has typified his plays and novels, Soyinka captures the indomitable spirit of Nigeria itself by bringing to life the ...

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You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir

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Overview

The first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a political activist of prodigious energies, Wole Soyinka now follows his modern classic Ake: The Years of Childhood with an equally important chronicle of his turbulent life as an adult in (and in exile from) his beloved, beleaguered homeland.
In the tough, humane, and lyrical language that has typified his plays and novels, Soyinka captures the indomitable spirit of Nigeria itself by bringing to life the friends and family who bolstered and inspired him, and by describing the pioneering theater works that defied censure and tradition. Soyinka not only recounts his exile and the terrible reign of General Sani Abacha, but shares vivid memories and playful anecdotes–including his improbable friendship with a prominent Nigerian businessman and the time he smuggled a frozen wildcat into America so that his students could experience a proper Nigerian barbecue.
More than a major figure in the world of literature, Wole Soyinka is a courageous voice for human rights, democracy, and freedom. You Must Set Forth at Dawn is an intimate chronicle of his thrilling public life, a meditation on justice and tyranny, and a mesmerizing testament to a ravaged yet hopeful land.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Wole Soyinka

“What if V. S. Naipaul were a happy man? What if V. S. Pritchett had loved his parents? What if Vladimir Nabokov had grown up in a small town in western Nigeria and decided that politics were not unworthy of him? I do not take or drop these names in vain. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist, playwright, critic, and professor of comparative literature, belongs in their company.”
–John Leonard, The New York Times

“[Soyinka is] a master of language, and [is committed] as a dramatist and writer of poetry and prose to problems of general and deep significance for man.”
–Lars Gyllensten, from his presentation speech awarding Wole Soyinka the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1986

“A brilliant imagist who uses poetry and drama to convey his inquisitiveness, frustration, and sense of wonder.”
–Newsweek

“If the spirit of African democracy has a voice and a face, they belong to Wole Soyinka.”
–Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The New York Times

Norman Rush
This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so, and lightened by a certain amount of thematic skipping around. You Must Set Forth at Dawn is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now — with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo — free to recount his history more fully.
— The New York Times
Keith B. Richburg
This is not always an easy book to read. A chronology of key dates helps the casual reader sort through the various coups and conflicts that have defined Nigeria's four-plus decades of independence, but the memoir jumps back and forth between dates and events, sometimes confusingly. Still, as a chronicle of modern Africa and its troubles from the continent's foremost literary giant, You Must Set Forth at Dawn triumphs.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this engrossing follow-up to his acclaimed childhood memoir, Ake, the Nigerian poet, playwright and Nobel laureate demonstrates what it means to be a public intellectual. Soyinka revisits a tumultuous life of writing and political activism, from his student days in Britain through his struggles, sometimes from prison or exile, against a succession of Nigerian dictatorships. Soyinka may be on a first-name basis with almost every major Nigerian figure and he's sometimes involved in high-level intrigues; his chronicle of political turmoil is very personal, full of sharply drawn sketches of comrades and foes, and cantankerous rejoinders to critics. His novelistic eyewitness accounts of repression and upheaval widen out from time to time to survey the humiliation and corruption of Nigerian society under military rule. Soyinka also includes recollections of friends and family, of sojourns abroad with W.H. Auden and other literati and of stage triumphs and fiascoes. His lyrical evocations of African landscapes, the urban nightmare of Lagos, the horrors of British cuisine and the longing a dusty fugitive feels for a cold beer will entertain and educate readers. By turns panoramic and intimate, ruminative and politically resolute, Soyinka's memoir is a dense but intriguing conversation between a writer and his times. (Apr. 18) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Nigerian Nobel laureate Soyinka here continues his story that began in Ake: The Years of Childhood (1982). A political activist, as well as a poet and playwright (Climate of Fear), Soyinka reflects on his adult life in turbulent postcolonial Nigeria. Since that country gained independence from Great Britain in 1960, a series of governments has kept Nigeria dangerous and unstable. Soyinka's untiring efforts to bring democracy and freedom to his homeland resulted in his arrest in 1967, when he was accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels and imprisoned for two years, along with several periods of exile. While Nigerian politics dominates the book, Soyinka shares some amusing anecdotes, too, such as his problem with the climate in Boston, which he refers to as the "Arctic wastes." He also discusses the dual meaning of the Nobel prize, which he won in 1986: he is honored to be chosen (he was the first African to win the prize) yet is aware of the price to be paid in loss of privacy and obligations to the public. Soyinka's lyrical accounts of Africa's natural beauty, his eyewitness chronicle of political intrigue, and his forceful voice for human rights and democracy make this an important book for our time. Strongly recommended for all collections.-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Picking up where Ake (1982) leaves off, Nigerian Nobel laureate Soyinka (Climate of Fear, 2005, etc.) brings his dossier up to the present. This latest volume is haunted by the hardships of exile and intimations of mortality. Soyinka has known the first since before 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, when he returned from studying abroad. "I was not pessimistic about the future but extremely cautious, having come into contact with the first-generation leaders in my student days in England," he writes-sagely, for those leaders would become a string of dictators, and he would find himself in their prisons not long afterward. Even in Nigeria, he recalls, Soyinka was a wanderer: "The road and I . . . became partners in the quest for an extended self-discovery." As it did his cousin Fela Kuti, the road took Soyinka all over the world, sometimes to fine and desirable places such as Jamaica, which becomes a transoceanic reflection of the mother country, and sometimes to less hospitable climes such as Harvard ("No one had informed me that my sentence of exile would be served in the Arctic wastes"). The road also brought Soyinka fame and, with the attainment of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986, a certain fortune as well. About that honor Soyinka is clearly of two minds; as he writes, somewhat elliptically, "the Nobel appears to be a bug whose bite is craved, sometimes without a sense of discrimination or inhibition," while elsewhere he grumbles that "the moment the next beauty queen [is] crowned had better be recognized as my hour of liberation." The burden of the Swedish medal aside, though, Soyinka attends to other weighty matters, including the seemingly constant passing of friends,the continuing crisis of Africa and his homecoming to one new dictator after another. Humane, sensible and impeccably written; a fitting summation of a life interestingly lived, and one hopes with more reflections to come.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375755149
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/13/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Wole Soyinka is a writer of global stature, the first African ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was imprisoned in Nigeria for his opposition to dictatorship. Soyinka is the author of Ake: The Years of Childhood and Climate of Fear, based on the prestigious Reith Lectures he delivered on the BBC.

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Read an Excerpt

IBA—For Those Who Went Before

..... Outside myself at moments like this, heading home, I hesitate a moment to check if it is truly a living me. Perhaps I am just a disembodied self usurping my body, strapped into a business-class seat in the plane, being borne to my designated burial ground—the cactus patch on the grounds of my home in Abeokuta, a mere hour’s escape by road from the raucous heart of Lagos. Perhaps I am not really within the cabin of the plane at all but lying in a coffin with the luggage, disguised as an innocent box to fool the superstitious, while my ghost persists in occupying a seat whose contours have grown familiar through five years of a restless exile that began in 1994. For my mind chooses this moment to travel twelve years backward when, drained of all emotion, I accom- panied the body of my friend Femi Johnson from Wiesbaden in Germany, bringing him home in defiance of the unfathomable conspiracy to leave him in that foreign land like a stray without ties of family and friends. And the pangs that assail me briefly stem from the renewed consciousness of the absence of this friend, whose thunder-roll laughter and infectious joy of life would have overwhelmed those welcoming voices that I know await me at my destination. Despite the eternal moment of farewell by his open coffin in the funeral parlor in Wiesbaden, it was difficult then, and remained continuously so, to reconcile that self with the absence of a vitality that we had all taken so long for granted, his big but compact frame in a box, immaculately dressed as though simply from habit—be it in a double-breasted suit with a carnation freshly cut by his chauffeur from the frontage garden, then laid ritualistically beside his breakfast set, or else in his casual outfit, its components no less carefully matched for all its seeming casualness, or his hunting attire, which appeared selected for a genteel English countryside ramble instead of a “rumble in the jungle.” Difficult to accept the closed eyes that would bulge at some inspired business idea, at the prospect of a gastronomic spread, at the sight of a passing generously endowed female, or simply when charged with a newly thought-up mischief—but always lighting up the space around him. Still, I could not rest until I had brought him home, exhuming him from the graveyard in Wiesbaden, and the clinicality of my motions at the time made me wonder if I had left my soul in that alien graveyard in his stead.

It must be, of course, the coincidence of the airline that triggers such a somber recollection, in the main—that final homecoming for Femi was also on a Lufthansa flight. And it was a coming home for me also, since my moment-to-moment existence from the time of his death until his reburial was in some ethereal zone, peopled by eyes of the restless dead from distances of silent rebuke. I came back down to earth only when he was himself within the earth of his choice, earth that he had made his own: Ibadan. And it is this that now reinforces the unthinkable and irrational, that this same Femi—“OBJ” to numerous friends, business partners, and acquaintances—is not in Ibadan at this moment awaiting my return, his sweaty face, black as the cooking pots, supervising the kitchen in a frenzy of anticipation, with an array of wines lined up to celebrate a long-anticipated reunion! Femi should be alive for this moment. If any single being deserved and could contain in himself the entirety of the emotions that belong to this return, it is none other than OBJ, and he is gone.

It is a long-craved homecoming, my personalized seal on the end of the nightmare that was signaled by the death of a tyrant, Sani Abacha, yet here I am, trying to find reasons for my lack of feeling, trying to ensure that it is not just a mask, a perverse exercise in control, this absence of the quickening of the pulse. It is that other homeward journey of twelve years past that stubbornly sticks to the mind, that of a friend forever still in a casket in the belly of the plane, I seated among the living but stone cold to the world, conscious of this fact but only in a detached way and wondering why I was still so devoid of the sensation of loss. It could be, I acknowledge, the aftermath of the battle to bring home his remains—plainly, it had left me drained of all feeling. This return has not, so it must be that I have carried that home so obsessively in my head these past five years that I am unable to experience the journey as one toward the recovery of a zone of deprivation. The absence of Femi, who persists in looming large, a territory of dulled bereavement, is only a part of it. The adrenaline had been secreted over time, stored up, and then—pfft—evaporated in an instant, there being no further use for it.

One seeks these explanations somewhat desultorily, since I already acknowledge that this is not quite the homecoming I had anticipated, not quite the way my return had been planned, not this legitimate arrival, swooping toward Lagos on a normal flight as if Lagos were Frankfurt, New York, or Dakar. Surely it is not the same white-haired monster, that same “wanted” man with a price on his head, hunted the world over, who is headed home, steadily lubricated by the aircraft’s generous bar. I continue to interrogate the featureless flatness of my mind—compared to it, the pastel evenness of the Sahara Desert, over which we appear to be eternally suspended, seems a craggy, wild, untamable, and exotic piece of landscape.

I acknowledge that I am not much given to sentiment, but after all, I am not normally averse to being welcomed home! Indeed, I often wonder if, for others similarly embattled, homecoming does not gradually become a central motif of their active existence. For instance, I find I dislike airport farewells—the exceptions have usually been preceded by some kind of tug-of-war to which I eventually yielded, often through emotional blackmail. By contrast, I am somewhat more accommodating with the motions of being welcomed back, though, even here, I am just as likely to be found sneaking in through the back door. Generally, my inclination is simply—to have returned. To find myself back in the place I never should have left. Or where returning is no different from never having left, a routine recovery of a space of normal being, temporarily fractured, restoration of which has no significance whatsoever and requires no special recognition. In any case, each homecoming differs wildly from the last, and this goes back to my very earliest awareness of such an event, the end of a physical separation, when I first returned home from studying overseas—on New Year’s Day 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence. Then, feeling already long in the tooth at twenty-five, I had contrived to sneak home, to the discomfiture of parents, family, and relations. Normally, such a return should have been an occasion for celebration, varying from modest and restricted to festive and all-embracing, the latter gathering in distant clans and even total strangers with that ringing invocation that must have been adopted by the first-line beneficiaries of European education—Our Argonaut has returned from over the seas after a long, perilous voyage in his quest for the Golden Fleece!—or any of its hundred variations.

It is perhaps the sedateness of this return that continues to sit awkwardly on me, an abrupt usurpation of the other furtive homecoming that nearly was! Not that I regret the change, oh no, not for a moment! T’agba ba nde, a a ye ogun ja—thus goes the Yoruba wisdom—“As one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.” Some hope! When that piece of wisdom was first voiced, a certain entity called Nigeria had not yet been thought of. In any case, I appear to have failed in my ambition to “grow old gracefully”—no more strife, no more susceptibilities to beauty’s provocation, and so on—a process I had once confidently set to begin at the magic figure of forty-nine, seven times seven, the magic number of my companion deity, Ogun. But at least I accept that there comes a moment when age dictates the avoidance of certain forms of engagement. That makes sense and is also just. There comes a point in one’s life when one should no longer be obliged to sneak into one’s homeland through mangrove creeks and smugglers’ haunts, and in ludicrous disguises!

I worry therefore about the absence of feeling, the absence of even a grateful nod to Providence, and seek some reassurance that my senses are not fully dead, that the emotional province of the mind is still functioning. I obtain a measure of relief, however—indeed, I begin to worry now that the senses may be roaming out of control—when, even within the recycled air of the plane’s interior, overflying nothing but Sahara dunes and dust, I could swear, suddenly, that I already smell the humid air of Lagos, the fetid dung heaps, the raucous marketplaces and overcrowded streets. I am certain that I can hear, dominating even the steady purr of the jet engines, the noisy street vendors with their dubious bargains, see the sly conspiratorial grins of some as they offer contraband of the most dangerous kind—and this had become routine even before I fled into exile in November 1994—banned publications that they slide out from under the pile of other journals, like pornography in other places. Psst! They sidle up to motorists at traffic junctions and delays, with the mainstream journals on conspicuous display. Then, indifferent to the risk that the prospective customer might turn out to be a secret service agent or one of Abacha’s ubiquitous informers, they flash the sensational cover of Tempo, The News, The Concord, Tell, or some other hit-and-run samizdat: sani abacha bares his fangs! whom the gods will destroy! abacha’s agents on rampage: mother killed, eleven-year-old held hostage in police cell! scandal rocks aso rock! who killed bagauda kaltho? Then the cat-and-mouse games, the mandatory raids—some days, weeks, even months in police cells for these stubborn vendors, some of them no older than ten or eleven. And no sooner are they released than they are back on the streets. Even the police grew weary of the charade. Such sights filled one’s bloodstream with a political rush; the truth was, however, that I would rather be miles distant from the obligations they imposed, “taking my gun for a walk” in the bush, far from the stressful streets.

...

I cannot wait to repossess the bush, or maybe it is the other way around, let the bush repossess me. The bush and its furtive breath. Refuge and solace. The mere thought brings in its train the smells, and soon my seat is isolated and wreathed in nothing but the very smells of the bush! The thought of resuming my forays into those silent growths finally quickens my pulse, hesitantly, just perceptibly, sobered by the thought that Femi, whom I also taught to hunt, will no longer be a part of it. Yet there, perhaps, is where I would most painlessly recover his presence—in those swathes of isolation, that terrain of so many sensory ambiguities. Enfolded within the tropical bush, the effect is tranquilizing—until of course the moment of the approach of a quarry—not that the pulse quickens all that noticeably even then. It does not matter whether it is the Harmattan season of dry air with its parched or burnt vegetation— except in the early morning when the foliage is misted over and even the earth is deceptively damp—or the rainy season, which leaves you tangling with moist thickets, fording swollen gorges, sliding on treacherous rocks, and being sucked into mud gullies, day or night, at night with nothing but a few stars seen through branches or fireflies to test your patience and judgment as you wonder whether they are the eyes of a wildcat, a tree cyrax, or twin raindrops caught in the light of your night lamp.

All that matters is the escape into timelessness, interrupted by furtive pads of a four-footed quarry or the sudden burst of the brown bush fowl or gray-streaked guinea fowl soaring and screaming over trees. An instant only to decide whether or not the latter is worth the try—even if you downed it, how much time would it demand to plunge into the hostile fastness to retrieve your booty? In the process you become insensitive to the rank presence of a far larger quarry, the prized egbin* or igala,† or a patriarch or matriarch of the etu‡ family, the archsurvivor of the species—adimu—whose heavy meat could feed a fair-sized company of guerrillas long lost in the bush. . . . Definitely it is the bush, the bush alone—its smells, muted sounds, textures, and often impenetrable silence that finally bathe me in a glow of warm anticipation. It is that, that alone, not any other resumption of relationships or recovery of suspended voices. Is this some form of misanthropy?

Or perhaps it is the suppressed fear that my house is gone anyway, that I

• A quadruped of the deer/antelope family.

† Same as above.

‡ A large specimen of the rodent family.

am returning to a conspicuous gap in the landscape at which I had hacked and quarried, years before my departure, to give expression to my appetite for space. News of the invasion had reached me, but the dimension of destruction had been vague and guarded, as if the kind couriers had agreed to hold back the worst. In truth, regarding the building itself, I had not planned to encase so much space within walls, just a small cottage, after my retirement from university service, but with as much ground as I could afford. Still, hovel or mansion, the soldiers’ violation hung over it, as it hung over many other homes that were owned by perceived enemies of the dictator, Sani Abacha. The house had been built almost entirely from the windfall of the Nobel Prize. I had expanded it from its original design only because I wanted to create a space for periodic retreat for writers and artists—typical of the fantasies of those who are suddenly bombarded with more money than generations before them ever laid eyes on! Thus was born the notion of the Essay Foundation for the Humanities, named after my father, whose initials, S.A., had coalesced in my childhood mind as one word: Essay.*

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