He was born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in western Nigeria in 1934 to parents who were devoutly Christian. His grandfather introduced him to the Yoruba spirit world when he was a teen-ager. While he attended university to please his parents, Soyinka was initiated by his grandfather in a scarification ceremony to Ogun, the ancient saint of metals.
He published a collection of poetry, "Black Orpheus," during this period and received a scholarship to Leeds University in 1954. After graduating, he moved to London and wrote plays before moving home to write and form a theater company. He advocated a Nigerian culture that bridged the country's ancient teachings and modern times.
In 1965, his first novel, "The Interpreters," was published to wide acclaim. It was the first of many books that touched on the theme of freedom vs. sacrifices demanded by progress. The same year he was appointed senior lecturer at the University of Lagos but soon after was arrested and charged with theft after he protested the election of a local tribal chief. The literary establishment successfully lobbied for his acquittal. In 1967 he came to the United States but returned home when the political situation in Nigeria worsened that year. He was arrested and imprisoned without trial. War soon broke out in Nigeria. He continued to write in prison and smuggle fragments of his journal and poetry out.
He was released in 1969. He went on to publish much of what he wrote in prison, and continued to write about his prison experience. His work since his release has won several awards, including the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for literature and the Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience Award.
Pub Date: 4/20/97