In 1965, five years after Nigeria gained independence, 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 1960s, Soyinka tried to avoid the fighting. He was accused of conspiring with the rebels and jailed by the Nigerian government. He is a writer with an astonishing story of endangering his political and social commitments.
Soyinka received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote over two dozen plays, a great deal of poetry, several memoirs, essays and short stories, and only two novels. Her third novel has now been released, almost five decades after the last one. Entitled “Chronicles of the Land of the Happiest Peoples on the Planet”, it is both a political satire and a mysterious murder. It involves four friends, a secret society that deals with human body parts, and more corruption than any country can handle. Editor-in-chief Vinson Cunningham spoke to Soyinka at his home in Nigeria.
I really want to tell you about “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”, a title that I love. I have heard that you have been thinking about this story for many years now. How does it feel to have him in the world?
It was a bit overwhelming, I think. I wasn’t expecting the standard reception of this one. I mean, it’s just part of my own creative continuum, in a different format, you know, like taking time off from the theater to write a novel.
This is your third novel and of course you are best known for your theatrical works. But what does the novel do for you that the theater doesn’t? This change of form, are there necessities that it meets that the theater does not meet, and vice versa? What is the form about for you?
What the novel does for me as a medium is to appease the masochist in me, because the novel is very trying, trying in the sense that it is tempting to go in so many directions. The theater, for me, is more focused. When you’re a storyteller, you juggle several characters, and they persist in wandering very intentionally in directions you didn’t foresee, you know? And then you forget where you last saw them, and so on. I really praise novelists, those whose profession is the novel. I have a hard time with that.
You offer us this total panoply of great characters. There is a rogue religious leader. There are politicians, a sort of serious diplomat, a famous doctor. Did you have a favorite character during the writing of this book that you came across? Was there one that was particularly willful and kind of surprised you in different ways?
There is no doubt that a number of characters were “inspired” or “triggered” by personal encounters. I took great care to make sure that some of the villains knew they were providing the basic material and, in fact, I’ve even run into one of them since the novel came out. He walked up to me and I said, “Well, you’re coming over to me. Hope you realize you were that in the novel. He was a politician and, like a good politician, he said, “Oh, professor, it’s okay, but I really want to discuss a certain problem with you in the novel. Forget this character. So the novel gives this latitude, I must admit, and then we can play variations, much more than in the theater. I think the theater is almost pre-written. By that I mean they’re more restricted in the case of the theater, and that’s one of the reasons to approach a theme like this human uproar I’ve lived in, watch others survive – me too, surviving in my own way, watching this deterioration of society – the novel intuitively struck me as the only way I could actually purge myself of this oppressive sense of society going haywire.
It’s interesting: there’s that sense, that dark sense, of, as you say, a society going haywire, and that contrasts with that wonderful title, “The Land of the Happiest People on Earth.” Now I have heard that it was inspired by the “World Happiness Report” where Nigeria was ranked among the happiest countries in the world. First of all, is this true? And what has this reality presented to you artistically?
Well, when I saw this 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 this was meant to be a serious poll, a serious estimate. She wanted to be objective, analytical, even scientific. And so I looked at this – I said: Maybe I’m in the wrong place, but when I looked around it was still a society that I recognized as mine, as the one in which I work. So that stuck in my head for quite a while. It was a few years ago. And, when I started working on it, it actually started with other titles. Finally, I slowly realized, Oh, wait a minute. This estimate, this analysis, is the exact title I was looking for.
You know, happiness is such a heavy idea. Here in America, of course, we’ve kind of encoded it into our national myth – you know, the “pursuit of happiness”. What does this mean to you? Because, of course, it can be totally tasteless, fun, superficial – sort of epicurean, I guess. But it can also speak of real joy. What does this mean to you, and why does it look so good on you?