#100PENMembers No.18: Wole Soyinka

Our writer for today is the Nobel Prize winning author and playwright, Wole Soyinka. First as an imprisoned writer who required defending, and then as a literary activist working to protect other writers, Soyinka is one of the most important figures in the organisation’s history.

Since the mid-1960s Soyinka’s writing has confronted tyrannical governmental authority, first in his native Nigeria, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years for his criticism of the Yakubu Gowon’s government, and then in countries across the world. As he put it, ‘books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.’

On Soyinka’s imprisonment in 1967 International PEN acted quickly. Arthur Miller, International PEN President at the time, dispatched Peter Elstob to Nigeria to gather information and make the case for his freedom. At the International PEN Congress in Menton, France, David Carver, International PEN Secretary, reported back on the success of Elstob’s trip. Despite his efforts over several days, Elstob had not been ‘permitted to see Soyinka, and he was understood still to be in prison and to be suffering from a disease of the eyes’. 

Elstob’s endeavours were followed-up by cables from both the American and English PEN centres to the Nigerian Government. The Congress expressed dismay that Soyinka has never appeared in court to address the charges against him. They decided to continue to rally the British and Nigerian governments. 

Soyinka was finally released in 1969, when the Nigerian Civil War ended and an amnesty was declared, and not – as PEN myth proclaims – because Gowon received a telegram from Arthur Miller and was star-struck into fulfilling a request from Marilyn Monroe’s husband.

As with many of its efforts on behalf of writers in prison PEN’s influence lay in ensuring that Soyinka’s name was brought to the attention of the world-wide public. It was the beginning of Soyinka’s life-long connection to the organisation. 

Soyinka acknowledged these connections, as well as the power of literary naming, in his lecture for the Sixth Annual PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, delivered in 2011. He spoke of his appreciation of the human rights organisations who bore witness to his own imprisonment; and the importance more broadly of writers bearing witness to and publicising the names of the imprisoned. 

Recognising the multiple meanings of the word freedom, from the ‘freedom to cow-tow to power’ to the ‘freedom of exile’, which ‘for some is no freedom at all’, he was also sober about the protests of the ‘literary tribe’ which can often be so much ‘sound and fury’, signifying nothing. However, writers can sometimes mobilise their power to challenge authority through the power of the name and the word. Relating his experience of visiting Tunisia in 2011 to give a lecture on behalf of International PEN, he described the moment he spoke the names of imprisoned dissident writers, including Taoufik Ben Brik. The authorities, believing in the power of Soyinka’s public declaration of the names of the imprisoned, immediately extinguished the lights.

For Soyinka, this moment reveals both the authoritarian state’s belief in the power of the word, and the responsibilities of writers to defend other writers. The names of dissidents, as he put it, ‘have meaning’ in such contexts. Soyinka’s literary anti-authoritarianism and experiences of imprisonment make him one of the most insightful writers in identifying the limits, and the power of authors. He continues to be a powerful activist in defence of free expression.