In the evening of December 9, 2006, a little boy had run an errand for me. The courier of my love note, he had been held up longer than necessary in my neighbour’s room, at 7, Esado Street, Olodi-Apapa, Lagos. The recipient was one haunting distraction. (Aware of her incurable lust for secrecy, let me call her by her initial – D) A Jambite just like me, D was a dangerous enticement ensconced within the tireless surveillance of a strict father obsessed with warding off perceived male predation around his daughter. Never in the world had a more aggressive policing been instituted around a lady, one whose disarming beauty and intelligence somehow excused the seething paternalism.
D and I often exchanged knowing glances, smiles. I had found persuasion in her silent expressions of endearment, but her father’s endless capacity for ambush would not permit even the briefest communication. It was so annoying! A love note became my only means of conducting the transaction. So it was only natural that I feared that my courier and his exhibit had been confiscated, given his delay in that room.
He later emerged from the room, clutching something that looked too large for a feedback. From afar, I watched his motion, interpreted the giddiness of his steps. I inhaled, I exhaled. It was a coverless book, within whose pages D’s reply had been inserted. The tops of the two pages thrown open by that important answer sheet clarified the book’s identity: ‘The Man Died. Wole Soyinka.’
First seduction was the title – such brief yet engaging mystery. The Man Died. Then I read a few lines on a page and the sheer pottery of words ensured captivation. That was my first reading of Wole Soyinka – my first consumption of incredible intellect laid out in exuberant language. Earlier familiarity with his name had given no detail, other than the fact that he was a writer.
A young man bursting with youthful intellectual idealism, The Man Died was my initiation into political activism, leading to a latter involvement in political movements on campus. Kongi was the pathfinder that pointed the way forward for me, the illumination that erased the opacity that clung around many aspects of my studies and quests for meaning. He was a timely assurance that my natural disposition of being rationally averse to convention was valid.
In the years that followed, I acquired and read over thirty Wole Soyinka books, embracing much of his lofty ideologies, like Humanism, Art and Philosophy. My interest in classical literature was ignited by his references to some authorities of that era, wherein I encountered a richer intellectual breeding. I enjoyed the privilege of belonging in that arrogant oligarchy of Kongi readers, boasting a sweatless capacity to unravel complexity, if not an assumed cult of exclusive learning. It was difficult not to be addicted to such a rich, mortal divinity, a universal spirit of justice, truth, and erudition.
Soyinka is my ideal humanist, and by that, I mean he is human enough to live above ethnicity, nationality, religion, and all such little demarcations. Himself an eternal presence, whether in photographs, artworks, or letters, his immortality is assured by a global reputation anchored on a robust legacy. He is a citizen of the world, probably Nigeria’s most popular human brand and export. It is hard to read him without encountering some new grace and beauty, some novel refreshment: as a writer, he is a factory of fantastic constructions; as a political commentator, an opinion leader.
His is a life being lived to the full: one that has been so busy, from infancy through the university, to old age. From start, his mind has been ingrained in grand curiosities – drama, poetry, prose, music, politics, diplomacy, religion, etc. Barring age and likely geriatric health challenges, he continues to apply himself to the world’s work, incurring huge expenditures in personal deprivations, intent on leaving society better than he met it – and that is what it means to live.
I recollect moments when depression was nipped by a simple Google search yielding some old Soyinkan article. In such low moments, it is often amazing how I find life, once again, in his humour; how I enjoy a strange but healthy intoxication with his phrases, startling neighbours with lonesome, explosive laughter. Alas, I seem to have exhausted all his essays on the Internet, for which reason I have decided to economise my current read of Isara.
The talisman responsible for my Soyinka fixation is nothing other than his classical writing style and humour – that exuberance of language. For me, language is an art, indeed the primary art, one eligible for the decorations we accord painting, sculpture, movies, etc. I believe that language, or rather words, being the writer’s most important asset, should offer entertainment even as they instruct, or tell a story. When we nod at the symmetry of poetry, or at the rhyme of rap lyrics – or even at the wittiness of fine expressions – we do nothing but render recognition to the power of words, or of language, to produce mental miracles. Whether in religious impartation, political or legal rhetoric; in romantic coveting or in bargaining the price of tomatoes in the market, words remain man’s most successful agency of bewitchment. Soyinka was punctual in this realisation – right from the youth of his literary pursuit – such that his success was funded by his blend of humour, deep learning, and wordsmithing.
Meanwhile, D’s reply came, a blessing, both in its yield of an exciting romance and in the catalysing of a defining moment for my intellectual life. Later interactions revealed that her father, a retired school teacher, had been a Soyinka addict, which explained the mission of the coverless book in their home. I had to find ways to generate Wole Soyinka discussions with her father, and it worked. Solidarity! Shared interest approved a friendship between me and him, giving me the convenience to execute my romance, carefully though, without inhibitions. I came to understand that truly everyone has a price, and that money is not the highest currency of bribery.
Immanuel James won the 2014 ANA National Prize for Prose with his debut novel, Under Bridge. He is a Writer, Entrepreneur and Freelance Journalist.