Wole Soyinka Urges Children To Fight For Access To Books
A brainwavez.org Literary Feature

South Africa By: Anne Taylor on 7 September 2010
Category: Books > Features
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There is a Nigerian saying that "an old man is there to talk". Seventy-six-year-old Nigerian literary giant Wole Soyinka is never afraid to give his candid opinion. According to the Mail & Guardian newspaper, at a gala dinner hosted by the department of arts and culture during the Cape Town Book Fair, guest of honour Soyinka began his speech with an anecdote about what has always remained an important issue to him - access to books for the youth.

Earlier this year Wole Soyinka came across a group of children marching in Cape Town for the right to gain access to books and well-stocked libraries. Some of the young marchers recognised him, possibly because the author's trademark mass of grey hair is a dead giveaway. Realising the value of having him on their side, they asked Soyinka to join them in their protest. He replied that all he could do was provide moral support. This is because demanding the right to literature should be their fight.

Wole Soyinka and Nana Becky Ayebia Clarke at the Cape Town Book FairIn a discussion at this year's Cape Town Book Fair with his co-publisher Nana Becky Ayebia Clarke of Ayebia Clarke Publishing, the human-rights activist-writer Soyinka said book clubs and educative programmes, which enable children to have a normal relationship with their libraries, are some ways to make reading more exciting. Clarke, a Ghanaian publisher based in Oxfordshire in the UK, added that it would be wonderful if children could meet him so that they, too, could "feel empowered to write their own book". Soyinka is the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but he said others should be made to understand that they can also be creative and productive people. Passionate about encouraging people to read, he added that if South Africa made any profit from hosting the Soccer World Cup it should be used to enhance the reading culture or buy books for the less privileged, otherwise as far as he is concerned, the country can keep its vuvuzelas.

A poet, playwright, novelist, academic, and human-rights activist, Soyinka has been courageously fighting political injustice in Nigeria for most of his life. His autobiography, You Must Set Forth At Dawn: A Memoir, previously published in the United States in 2006, was re-launched at this year's book fair. Soyinka told the audience that he so disliked writing about himself that he cancelled his book and fled from his publisher. He was hoping he would be forgotten so that he could start working on a new project but fortunately he had a persistent editor who tracked him down and made sure he completed his memoir.

Clarke commented on the value of having a good editor. She bought up the widespread trend of authors in Africa who persist in self publishing their books without having them properly edited. A Nigerian publisher at another discussion at the book fair emphasised the arrogance of Nigerian writers who had obtained sponsorships from government officials or friends to publish their books. Clarke said that it is evident when one picks up a book that is self published because the quality of the writing as well as the book cover, binding, and printing is poor. "Good writers actually welcome editing," she said. "If you are properly edited, you are properly published." Soyinka added that he had learnt from personal experience that a writer should take advantage of good editors and collaborate with them to produce a professional, well-structured book.

In a response to a question about what keeps him writing Soyinka said that there are about two thousand reasons but one of his favourites is that he is a closet masochist because he willingly engages with such traumatising experiences. This entails constantly tearing up pages (or deleting text on his computer), fighting with editors, and being forced to detect errors on gallery proofs. He teasingly added that his top reason for being a closet masochist is that his publisher drags him to photo sessions telling him "it's a good thing".

Books have always played a special role in Soyinka's life. "For me, [books] are beautiful objects; they are mysterious objects," he said. He added that anyone who has read his other memoir Aké: The Years Of Childhood "will understand that this is a feeling I somehow acquired from the very beginning of life". He pointed out that his father was a school teacher and so, while growing up, books were all around him. "Somehow I developed almost a kind of mystic relationship with books," he said. His love for writing developed at a young age when the school librarian told him that he should start to "scribble" short stories, which he described as "school compositions except [...] with a little more imagination", to show to his friends and school teachers. He told his book fair audience, "I never knew I had talent. I just wrote the damn thing anyway, but the next exercise for me was a compulsion."

Soyinka said that reading books is an opportunity to see what other people are thinking and expose oneself to alternative viewpoints as well as become acquainted with humanity all over the world. He said that he must be among books, adding, "I feel books get us in touch with the rest of the world." This is in a different way to Soyinka's bug-bears: namely, Facebook; blogging; and Twitter. Compared to tweeting, he thinks that the reading of books is a unique kind of an experience. He appears to remain resistant to technological advancements, such as the iPad, and vehemently said, "I was born a Neanderthal, and I will remain one. The world of books is a Neanderthal one and I would hate to see it go away." He said that it is vital that book production remains part of the human world because of the aesthetic qualities it has to offer, such as the smell of leather. "We must defend our turf as strongly as we can," he declared. "Don't just surrender to the might of the iPad."

Clarke mentioned that technology can be a powerful means to get children to read. Soyinka agreed that technology could "be used to enhance and complement the written word, the book". However, despite the new electronic means to read books, Soyinka believes that school children should be encouraged to meet writers at the fair to give them the opportunity to realise that books are actually written by the hands of human beings. He added that books should be demystified for the youth "so that they understand that they are essential, normal companions to...hobbies, the games, and Walkmans". Clarke, on the other hand, is able to foresee the developing competition between books and the iPad. She said it is inevitable that in the future adults will need to explain to children why we no longer have access to physical books. "For us in Africa, when we think about the way that technology impacts on our lives and perhaps bring it down to the basis of electricity - and some of us have a problem even having electricity - then these technological advancements may actually be the answer to winning the young to the book," she said.

Clarke's final question to Soyinka concerned the phenomenal success of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series of books. Clarke said she would love to publish an African Harry Potter to win over both African children and children in the rest of the world, much in the same way that the book has "colonised" African children. In response, Soyinka said, "I have always considered myself, since childhood, to be totally, utterly without envy, but if I ever have the opportunity to meet [JK Rowling], I will strangle her. Do you know how many millions she has made from this formula? I am so envious. I can't describe it. She is a genius in her own right." He could not resist the opportunity to tell his publisher cheekily that she could make him a millionaire by giving him a hefty advance for writing a children's book.

Soyinka is unlikely to write a children's book though; he uses his writing to counter opposition. During the discussion he claimed, "Part of the defence of the written word is contestation." He has become used to those in power trying to prevent his work from being published. "The written word has always scared those in power", he declared. "The written word represents freedom [in contrast to] philosophy [which has] revolved around power and domination." Soyinka was reluctant to confirm if there is a third memoir in the pipeline. However, he claimed that he never suffers from periods of writer's self doubt; he cures it with a glass of lemonade, or preferably a glass of wine. He argued that there are far too many interesting activities in the world to waste any time on self doubt.

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