The Nigerian writer explains the origins of his latest book’s title, why novels are harder to write than plays, and the masochistic pull of political activism.
Vinson Cunningham (The New Yorker)
“People in this nation are not the happiest,” Wole Soyinka says, of Nigerians. “But then…you do encounter those who extract, forcibly, a measure of contentment or fulfillment, even of the most meagre kind.”
In 1965, five years after Nigeria had gained its independence, the playwright Wole Soyinka was already known as an opposition figure.
Authorities falsely accused him of armed robbery, and, before the country’s civil war, in the late sixties, Soyinka tried to avert fighting. He was accused of conspiring with rebels and imprisoned by the Nigerian government.
He’s a writer with an astonishing history of putting himself on the line for his political and social commitments.
Soyinka has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has written more than two dozen plays, a vast amount of poetry, several memoirs, essays, and short stories, and just two novels. His third novel is out now, nearly five decades after the last one.
Called “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” it’s both a political satire and a murder mystery.
It involves four friends, a secret society dealing in human body parts, and more corruption than any one country can bear. The staff writer Vinson Cunningham spoke with Soyinka at his home in Nigeria.
I really want to talk to you about “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” a title that I love. I heard that you’ve been thinking about this story for many years now. How does it feel to have it out in the world?
It’s been a little bit overwhelming, I think. I wasn’t expecting the standard reception of it. I mean, it’s just part of my own creative continuum, in a different format—you know, like taking time off from theatre to write a novel.
This is your third novel, and, of course, you’re known most prolifically for your works of theatre. But what is it that the novel does for you that theatre doesn’t? This change in form—are there necessities that it meets that theatre doesn’t, and vice versa? What’s the form about for you?
What the novel does for me as a medium of expression is to assuage the masochist in me, because the novel is very taxing—taxing in the sense that it’s tempting to go in so many directions.
Theatre, for me, is more focussed. When you’re a narrator, you’re juggling a number of characters, and they insist on wandering very willfully in directions which you did not preview, you know? And then you forget where you last saw them, and so on. I really praise novelists, those whose métier is a novel. I have a hard time at it.
You offer us this total panoply of great characters. There’s a crooked religious leader. There are politicians, a sort of earnest diplomat, a famous doctor. Did you, in the course of writing this book—was there a favorite character that you alighted on? Was there one who was especially willful and sort of surprised you in different ways?
There’s no question at all that a number of the characters were “inspired” or “triggered” into being by personal encounters. I took great pains to insure that some of the villains knew that they provided the base material—and, in fact, I’ve even met one of them since the novel came out.
He came up to me and I said, “Well, you’re coming to me. I hope you realize that you were this in the novel.” It was a politician and, like a good politician, he said, “Oh, Prof, that’s O.K. But I really want to discuss a certain issue with you in the novel.
Forget that character.” So the novel does give one that latitude, I must confess, and then you can play variations, far more than in theatre. I think theatre is almost pre-written.
By that I mean they are more constricted in the case of the theatre, and that is one of the reasons why tackling a theme like this human tumult in which I’ve been existing, watching others survive—me, too, surviving in my own way, watching that deterioration of society—the novel intuitively struck me as the only medium in which I could actually purge myself of this oppressive sense of society going haywire.
It’s interesting: there is this sense, this dark sense, of, as you say, a society going haywire, and it’s contrasted against this wonderful title, “The Land of the Happiest People on Earth.” Now, I heard that this was inspired by the “World Happiness Report,” where Nigeria was rated one of the happiest countries in the world. First of all, is that true? And what did that reality present to you artistically?
Well, when I saw that world report, I thought, Look at these people laughing at us.
Why are they so cruel? Why are they doing this? And then I realized it was supposed to be a serious poll, a serious estimate. It was supposed to be objective, analytical, even scientific.
And so I looked into this—I said, Maybe I’m in the wrong place, but when I looked around it was still a society which I recognize as my own, as the one in which I function. So it stuck in my head for quite a while.
This was some years ago. And, when I began working on it, it actually began with other titles. Eventually, I slowly realized, Oh, wait a minute. That estimation, that analysis, is the exact title I’ve been looking for.
You know, happiness is such a fraught idea. Here in America, of course, we’ve sort of encoded it into our national myth—you know, the “pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean for you? Because, of course, it can be totally vapid, fun-seeking, surface—sort of epicureanism, I guess. But it can also speak to a real joy. What does it mean for you, and why did it fit so well?
It fits so well, of course, because it’s an irony. This country—people in this nation are not the happiest, by no strength of the imagination, and yet, at the same time, if they went deep enough in society, I think they would flee, or consign this nation to the place to be during your—what’s that season of yours, when you hang skeletons all over the place?
Exactly, Halloween. Maybe this is Halloween nation, and they’re not going to understand it. But then, again, as I was saying, you do encounter those who extract, forcibly, a measure of contentment or fulfillment, even of the most meagre kind.
They are buoyed either by religion or by an ingrained traditional philosophy that the worst is yet to come, and therefore you’d better enjoy the present. Because Nigerians do celebrate—I mean, that is not a lie.
People all over the world where Nigerians are, they do salute Nigerians for their spirit of celebration, which is why I took pains to insure that at least one character represented what the pursuit of happiness might be—through creativity, through just love of others, through just making others happy, if only for a few moments.
So it’s a mishmash of ironies, of acknowledgements, of concession, of even a measure of salute to the people. I hope that measure comes out, that element comes out.
Speaking of this issue of happiness and the different places where it can be found, or not found, you know—where it can be promised but not delivered, perhaps—one of those is religion.
And a lot of this book turns on a kind of an upswing in religious fundamentalism. Is it O.K. if I read a very short passage that I just love from this book?
It’s about a preacher who we get to know better later on, and his name is Papa Divina, and he has this epiphany. He’s on this kind of long comic journey across West Africa.
We see him in Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and he’s in Ghana, and he has this epiphany. He’s just kind of made this pun on the idea of a site of prophecy: a “prophesite.” And he says this:
He looked nervously around, hoping that no one else had caught that creative slip, or at least that it had not registered with anyone in that audience with apostolic ambitions. The flash momentarily unnerved him, as it inserted profound doubts in his mind––could it be that he was after all the genuine article?
That he had indeed responded to an authentic call to prophecy? Prophesite! Why had all his predecessors failed to formulate such an exquisite, indeed mellifluous name for a place of spiritual quest? Could it be that he was, unbeknownst to himself till now, truly…called?
This person, who’s clearly a charlatan of a kind but almost convinces himself that he’s not, in certain ways: I wanted to talk to you just about this emphasis on fundamentalism. What role did that play for you?
You know, some of the greatest charlatans of religion, of the religious profession, are really very likable people, very lovable people. First of all, they’re performers. They enjoy performing. Now, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re a happy person, and you infect others with some of that happiness.
So even while you are, you know, blabbering platitudes, knowing very well that you are conning your congregation, you do produce not just happiness; sometimes rapture—genuine, authentic rapture.
And so I find them very complex people, the genuine religionists. Of course, some of them are just sinister—the fundamentalists, for instance, both of Christianity and of Islam. And Hinduism, for instance. All religions have their fundamentalist sectors, and those are really sinister, dangerous people. They have no sense of humor.
They cannot see the pathetic side of life. They cannot even look at themselves in the mirror—and I give them a sort of pat on the back and say, “You charlatan, but today wasn’t bad.” They are incapable of it. Some of them just kill.
They believe, that’s it—they kill anybody who doesn’t aspire to your level of malevolent conviction.
I’d love to talk to you about, you know, over the course of your career—and I feel that “career” is not as capacious a word as I want—you’ve been able to bring your activism and your intellectualism and your sort of art all onto the same plane, all operating at once. I learned that—and please correct me if I’m wrong—is Fela Kuti your cousin?
Fela Aníkúlápó, my cousin? Yes.
I had not known that, and it struck me as so apt, because here was another person whose art and intellect and political sense were all inter-implicated, all together. I wonder if just your upbringing made you feel that as a responsibility. Was that a natural step for you to be sort of an activist, politically aware, a true citizen in the deep sense of that word, and also an artist at the same time?
It remains a mystery to me, and why should it be a mystery? It’s because, basically, I would rather not be all these things. In other words, an activist. I ask myself, I don’t know how often, “How on earth did you get on this path? Why don’t you just stick to what you love, really love, doing?” Which is, writing bits of poetry, writing plays, directing plays, exchanging ideas, getting into arguments simply because we live, also, with abstractions, and anybody who believes in the essence of things, the theory of things, loves the discourse about it, and this I enjoy, which is why I’m also a teacher by profession.
I would rather be doing all those things, honestly, but I end up using that expression of “closet masochist” for myself because I’m doing certain things which I know I would rather not be doing.
But I also love my peace of mind, my tranquility, and I cannot attain that—that’s a contradiction—I know I cannot attain that if I have not attended to an issue, a problem, which I know is pernicious, which I know is manifesting itself in a dehumanizing way in others, whether human beings, environment—child abuse, for instance.
So we’re not just talking about politics. We’re just talking about humanity—this is one of me. I get restless when I see such situations, and the only way I can attain that peace which I love so much, which I only very sparsely enjoy—that’s what drives one out again and again and again, using other means when once literature fails one, fails to address the issue. Then, of course, you have to address it frontally, physically, by whatever means.
I love how you just said that your pursuit of tranquility has in some ways required that you get yourself into trouble in these other ways—you know, it seems like there’s not much glory to be had among your own people when you are confronting them in this way. There’s a—it seems like a fraught position, just on a personal level. Have you made peace with that, or is it a constant?
It’s a constant. If I’m to be at peace with myself, I must confront the unacceptable from whichever side. Of course, the state has certain statutory responsibilities, so the state gets it more than the people themselves.
I love a quote in your book that there are two friends who really form the heart of this book, who are speaking at one point, and one of them delivers one of the book’s most affecting lines, for me. He says, “Something is broken. Beyond race. Outside colour or history. Something has cracked. Can’t be put back together.”
That something, that sort of ineffable something that’s beyond all of the ideology and all of anything that we can put our finger to—I wonder if writing this book helped you put a name to that ineffable something. And have maybe the politics of the last few years helped you to identify or reconsider what it might be?
You know, I’ve tried to put my finger on it, and I end up with a question: What is human? I think that’s what we’ve lost. It has gone on for too long, that condition of losing what is human, from the most profound aspects of our relationships to the most trivial. We lost what is human.
As a way to say goodbye, we mentioned Fela Kuti, your late cousin. Do you have a favorite song of his?
My favorite is “Zombie.” The reason, actually, is one that is not appreciated by most people. That song, “Zombie,” applies not merely to the military in terms of their conduct to the people of this nation, but “Zombie”—and that is what Nigerians have not yet realized—they have become mimic people.
They act like zombies. They accept orders, even if those orders are intolerable. They develop habits that they should not develop. So when I hear “Zombie” I see not merely sars (the Nigerian Police Force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad) , those murdering police. I see not merely the bullying soldiers. I see also what Nigerians have become. So I enjoy “Zombie” on many more levels than the average Nigerian does.
Thank you so much. This has been wonderful, and I really appreciate it.