Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities; a conversation with Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyink

Wole Soyinka’s visit to the Ertegun House, on October 20, 2016, was one of the liveliest episodes of my first term as a student at Oxford. Following the inaugural Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities, where the Director and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, interviewed Soyinka, the Nigerian writer spent a good deal of time discussing writing – his and theirs – with a number of Ertegun Scholars. At the interview with Professor Boehmer, Soyinka described African Literature in English, in its current state, as ‘varied,’ ‘robust,’ and ‘liberated’ from its former anxieties about ideology. According to Soyinka, African Literature in English, having outlived the period where it was paralyzed by a kind of ‘ideological spasm,’ has progressed to a phase where it privileges the truthful depiction of human relationships over the stubborn advancement of overt political agendas. For Soyinka, we the littérateurs should rejoice over the fact that African Literature in English is being published around the world. I would, however, temper Soyinka’s call for celebration with a reminder to readers of African Literature in English to endeavor to ask questions about the complex forces which propel and regulate the circulation of this literature across the globe. How is this literature being presented to audiences in locations distant and different from its location(s)-of-origin? What are the pressures shaping the publication of a specific kind of African Literature in English, in North America and Europe? These are not original questions, and I have oversimplified them here, but they are questions that any attentive reader of African Literature in English ought to keep within his/her purview.

At dinner, where many of my fellow Ertegun scholars were in attendance, I beheld, with concealed wonderment, the legendary gray-white Afro and beard of Soyinka, in all of its enviable magnificence. Soyinka was attired in a loose-fitting sky-blue long-sleeved shirt detailed with small white patterns. Draped over the long-sleeved shirt was a sleeveless indigo jacket that bore striking resemblance to the color of Ẹtù, a Yorùbá woven cloth. In anticipation of the reality of seating next to Soyinka at dinner, I concocted a mouthwatering talking point for facilitating conversation with the famous gastronome. I planned to amuse him with a question about the presence of lyrical descriptions of food and eating in his autobiographies. Take, for instance, Soyinka’s depiction of the pomegranate, in his classic childhood memoir, Aké, as ‘the Queen of Sheba…the passion of Salome, the siege of Troy, the Praise of beauty in the Song of Solomon.’ ‘This fruit,’ Soyinka continues, ‘with its stone-hearted look and feel unlocked the cellars of Ali Baba, extracted the genie from Aladdin’s lamp, plucked the strings of the harp that restored David to sanity, parted the waters of the Nile and filled our parsonage with incense from the dim temple of Jerusalem.’

Coda: ‘It was clear that only the pomegranate could be the apple that lost Adam and Eve the joys of paradise. There existed yet another fruit that was locally called apple…Before the advent of the pomegranate it had assumed the identity of the apple that undid the naked pair. The first taste of the pomegranate unmasked that imposter and took its place.’

An ebullient set piece—a cup brimful of colorful, divergent, narratives.

Soyinka also examines Yoruba gastronomy in his essay-poem ‘Salutations to the Gut,’ and he discusses food and eating in quite a number of his other works of ‘faction’.

And so I unapologetically, and apologetically, tried to monopolize Soyinka for most of the duration of the dinner. Not quite successfully: Soyinka ensured that he spoke to us all. He imparted a particularly entertaining story to me on the subject of mythmaking—a story I have carefully archived in a reliable compartment of my memory. With a vibrant twinkle in one of his eyes, Soyinka described his late friend, Femi Johnson, as a ‘raconteur extraordinaire,’ a person who meticulously planned the contents of his meals, and a major influence on Soyinka’s writings about food. Soyinka also passed on, in a kind of whisper, a story about the portable pepper pot he carries, from continent to continent, stowed away in his jacket. The pepper from this mysterious pot is deployed whenever the need to enliven bland food arises.

Fellow Ertegun scholar, Spence Weinreich, delivered a captivating speech thanking the literary lion on behalf of the Ertegun House. Smiling softly, Soyinka bid the Ertegun scholars goodnight after giving a brief parting speech in response. His warm speech ended with a reference to a line from what I think is a poem by another famous writer. ‘I shall return,’ goes the memorable line.

Mayowa Ajibade