Biography of Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is an esteemed Nigerian playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and professor, whose works celebrating African culture and lambasting European imperialism occupy important places in 20th century arts and letters. His work draws from both Western traditions and those of Yoruba mythology and symbolism. He was the first African to win the Nobel Prize, was awarded several honorary degrees, received numerous literary awards, and is currently a Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University.

Soyinka was born in 1934 in western Nigeria. He was caught between the English world of his parents and the world of his grandfather, who taught him the Yoruba religion and customs and sent him away for his traditional manhood initiation rites. He went to the Government College as a teenager and then attended University College, Ibadan. He received a scholarship to study English literature at the University of Leeds in England and completed his B.A. there.

After graduating Soyinka spent time as a play reader at the Royal Court Theater in London. There he began writing plays and poems of his own; some of his plays began to be produced in London and Nigeria.

In 1960 Soyinka returned to Nigeria, where he taught at universities and continued to write dramatic plays. He married Olayide Idowu in 1963 and had four children with her. His works from this time were similar to those of the Negritude writers, who espoused breaking with the cultural heritage of Europe and utilizing the unique voice of the African people. Soyinka was not officially part of that movement, and his work straddles both cultures.

In 1965 Soyinka was arrested on a charge of armed involvement in the radio broadcast of the false results of an election, but this came to naught. It did, however, augur a period of persecution for his political beliefs. His working for the freedom of Biafra, a Nigerian province, led to his arrest again in 1967 for aiding rebel forces in obtaining military aircraft. He stayed in prison for 2 years, much of it in solitary confinement. Books were smuggled into his cell, and he wrote in their margins before they were smuggled back out; later, his works from this time were reconstructed into several collections, such as A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972).

Upon his release Soyinka went back to Ibadan but felt he had to leave the country. He traveled to England, the U.S., and Canada. He was finally able to return to Nigeria, where he continued to teach and write. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. His political problems did not end, however: he was forced into exile by the Nigerian government in the mid-1990s and was charged with treason. He was able to return after five years, but is still a global citizen, teaching all over the world. His current concerns include religious fundamentalism and the stoning of women. His works are read and staged throughout the world.


Study Guides on Works by Wole Soyinka

The Lion and the Jewel is one of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s most famous works. While it is a light and amusing comedy, it is also renowned for its complex themes and allegorical structure; it is also notable for its insights into Yoruba...

The Trials of Brother Jero was first published in 1964. Its original performance was organized by Farris-Belgrave Productions and held at the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York City in 1967. Today it is known as one of Soyinka’s most popular...