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Reviewed by:
  • Wole Soyinka
  • Ato Quayson
Wole Soyinka By Biodun JeyifoCambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. xxxii + 322 pp.

It is a lamentable fact that there is very little in the way of intellectual history in African letters. This is not to say that there are not good quality discussions of intellectually salient events. However, the careful excavation of an interrelated network of associations between persons, events, politics, and the situational transformations of intellectual trends on the continent is yet to take root as a proper area of study. What passes for the biographies of politicians, in which there is a massive amount of detail concerning their routes to power and the discussions they had with a variety of interlocutors, is more tailored towards political than intellectual history.

These opening remarks are meant to suggest one way in which to read Biodun Jeyifo's much-awaited book on Wole Soyinka. For Jeyifo is one well-positioned to provide a fertile intellectual history while at the same time introducing the work of this titan of African letters. He has known Soyinka for decades and has worked with him on many projects. What is more, Jeyifo has been one of Soyinka's harshest critics, while at the same time being one of the most astute. He has already edited a book, Perspectives on Wole Soyinka (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001), and written Conversations with Wole Soyinka (2001), both very valuable additions to the growing body of work on the writer. Jeyifo's sharp critical sense is evident in many parts of the new book, but most specifically when he critiques Soyinka for his baffling clumsiness with the representation of female characters in his writing. It also helps that Jeyifo was taught briefly by Soyinka at the University of Ibadan, and that he had his intellectual development in the same heady milieu of decolonization, independence, and the postcolonial aftermath of alienation. In other words, we find in Jeyifo no ordinary commentator on the work of Soyinka. He has insights of a situated cultural kind difficult to match.

In a sense, these remarks are pertinent also as a way of framing the preface and the introduction, the first of which establishes Jeyifo's personal credentials (and not merely scholarly ones) for the task of situating the work of Soyinka; the introduction, on the other hand, defines the parameters of Soyinka's intricate relationships to various intellectual circuits in Africa and elsewhere. The preface seems almost redundant if one does not understand its discursive purpose. The only regret that one finds with these sections is that Jeyifo seems to adopt two voices, the first being that of an intimate compatriot and cultural interlocutor and the other being that of the distantiated objective scholar, but then proceeds to retreat from the first [End Page 139] exclusively into the second. What this retreat means, ultimately, is that intellectual history in the terms I suggested earlier makes way for what is clearly recognized as literary criticism (scholarship). It is almost as if Jeyifo the passionate political and cultural activist and very sharp and critical interlocutor steps out onto the stage, then feels uncannily out of place and retreats for another, more abstract scholarly persona to step forward instead. We get a superb work of literary criticism and literary history centering on Soyinka, but the opportunity for an intellectual history of African letters routed through the dramatist is passed up.

I open my review in this way to register the only regret that I have with what I think is a book of superlative quality, and also, perhaps in a forlorn hope, to suggest that despite the immense coverage of the dramatist's work provided by this book, there is still a segment that remains to be explored. For let us pause to consider: Jeyifo and Soyinka are of the generation that produced some of the most brilliant minds in African letters: Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark, Cyprian Ewkensi, Dan Izevbaye, Abiola Irele, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ayi Kwei Armah, Bernard Dadié, Sembene Ousmane. The list is formidable. What were their circuits and concerns, their fears and vague ideas, their loves, disagreements, and the contradictions between their public pronouncements...


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