Odia Ofeimun, a poet, was first published by Soyinka. In this interview with Ademola Adegbamigbe and Richard Elesho, he speaks about his experiences with the Nobel Laureate. Excerpts:
We understand Prof. Wole Soyinka was the first person to publish your poems. How did it all begin?
It was months later after my poems were published, that I got to know there was a debate about who first published me. Up till today, there are debates among literary critics about who first published me. The first reputable magazine to publish me was the Nigerian Magazine. They first published me before Okike magazine which was then edited by the founder Chinua Achebe. When Soyinka was released from detention in 1970, I wanted to see him. I was working as a factory labourer in Lagos and I took the poems I had written then to see him. He was coming out of his house in Ibadan. Then he used to ride this car and I waved and he stoped. I told him I just wanted to show him some of my poems. He just took the poems from me and started reading them. He looked at me the second time and asked, "are you sure you wrote this poems?" I am sure I wasn't looking like somebody who would have written those poems. Honestly, I was really looking like one factory labourer. I was roughly dressed. I had this way of tying my shirt and I was wearing a bathroom slippers. It simply did not relate to the poem he was reading. From the moment he asked that question, I knew I had arrived as a poet.
The poems were not published until I was in my second year in the university and he did not know I had managed to get myself into the university. I got my A'Level while I was a factory labourer in West African Trade Company at Apapa. So, when I got admission he was in exile and did not know what had happened to me. The very first edition of that book Poems of Black Africa does not have a biography for me, although there are biography notes for others. This shows Soyinka did not know that I had managed to enter a university. You could say that was the first proper publishing I got. Actually before I was published into "Poems of Black Africa" some of the poems were published in a foreign magazine. I can remember the name was Banana and I was paid 30 pounds for three of the poems used. I can tell you, for an indigent student, that was quiet some good money, you will be correct to say that Poems of Black Africa was the first proper publishing I got.
You are believed to have a close relationship with Soyinka. What type of person is he?
If you are looking at the kind of close relationship many people expect, it is very difficult to have a very close relationship with the Nobel Laureate. But since I knew him, there have been certain consistent way, which we relate. We don't have to meet to share the same beliefs. I don't have to read Soyinka, it is almost an instinctive thing, when Soyinka keeps a position it also turns out that is a position I keep in ideological terms. I find that when I express an opinion on the pages of the newspaper and in some other places unrelated to the area or environment I made my statement, Soyinka has also said something quite similar. When you have this kind of turn of mind that is atuned in the same direction with somebody else, we tend generally to behave on the same wavelength.
Talking about very personal relationship, Soyinka is a kind of person who, if he was travelling and you say 'Prof. buy me a book,' he could just ask you 'which book?' You will think he will forget.
Soyinka will not forget, Soyinka will buy it. If you write a letter to Soyinka, he will write you a reply even if it is just a line. It applies to everybody not me alone. He is concernd enough to consistently relate to you. Even when you become a pest, Soyinka still manages to relate to you.
I know some people who literally drive him insane. He says they literally drive him crazy because they will not stop pestering him with letters of one kind or the other. Now, if Soyinka hears you have one problem or the other, he always tries to help. I remember then when I was sacked as chief Awolowo's private secretary. He was one of those who took pain to find out who committed a crime for which I was sacked. He took pain to find out and he had his own method. When he says "don't worry, we will find out" just believe him. He made quite a good effort. The result he found were not too different from the result I found.
The documents for which I was sacked, I never saw it with my eyes. I am saying up till today I never saw them with my naked eyes, documents I was supposed to have leaked to the press.
Did he make efforts to have you reinstated?
No. I would not have accepted to be reinstated because I insisted Chief Awolowo must appologise to me.
Talking about my relationship with Soyinka, when my grandmother died I was passing through Ife on my way to Ishan. I had just got a job after about two and half years of unemployment. It was not too long I got that job my grandmother died. I was passing through Ife and I went to see Kole Omotoso. I was talking to Kole and I said "Kole look I don't have a dime." Then Kole said "you will have to collect kobo kobo because non of us has a dime." Soyinka heard the conversation and I did not know how he heard us. He just walked into the room and slipped a cheque into my hand and walked away.
Even when he himself was broke, Soyinka always managed to support his friends.
He always managed to do it in ways that inspire. So that when you want to do something for a man, you know it is not just Soyinka you owe, but that spirit of generosity that he has created around himself. It is a spirit of generosity common in literary circles where we all manage to support one another to put structure in place to help other people to become good writers and things of that nature. It is a spirit that has been consistently whittled down and damaged by the kind of culture that Nigeria politics has. It has affected literature in a most unbelievable way. So that people who are not genuinely interested in literature, people want to use them, in ways that demean creativity.
You have spoken about Soyinka that you know. Maybe there are other things about him you want to speak about as a humanist?
A lot of people acquire stature in the society and use it to oppress people. But the stature Soyinka has acquired as a result of his literary activities and his general activism as a man in the public arena he has used for the betterment of all. True he is not a politician. But he has managed to become a voice in a way that in my view only two people have attained. They are Awolowo and Aminu Kano.
These are people who could follow a course they are convinced about. In the case of Awolowo and Aminu Kano, they were politicians and you could say they were looking for power. In the case of Wole Soyinka you could never say that about him. We know he was not doing it for any material or political aim. So there was a sense in which he mattered more in terms of believability than a politician could. When I wrote in my poem The Poet Lied, it certainly was not about people like Wole Soyinka. It was about the kind of people the politicians are. It is important that we support writers who speak for others and for themselves.
You said when he published your first poem Soyinka did not know you had gained admission to the university. When he later knew what was his response?
When he later found out and we met for the first time, I was dressed properly like a student, with high-heeled shoes. He couldn't relate the student to the factory worker he once knew. What he did not know was the dressing that he met me with as a student, was actually the cheapest I could have. He couldn't have known how I got my shoes. It was difficult for him to marry the two. Even now, I sometimes think he has not quite survived the shocks of the distance between the two persons.
Did he not ask you how you gained admission?
Soyinka is a man of the world. He must know that even a factory labourer who reads can pass exams without going to school. I didn't have to attend an evening class. By the time I got to the university, I had read most of the literature books they were reading in the university.
What does Soyinka mean to you as a writer?
When you talk about pioneers, there is a sense in which Soyinka is a path maker. His commitment to Ogun who is a maker of paths is very much like the role he himself has played in African literature. In a recent essay, I was trying to explain how growing up with my maternal grand parents, I could not relate to my paternal family where Ogun worship was normal. I was always made to feel guilty, anytime I moved from one part of the family to the other, going from the Christian end to the heathen end. It took me quite a while to understand that my father's Ogun worship was not evil as Christians paint it. Soyinka helped me in coming to terms not only with traditional religion, but traditional knowledge.
Through the bravery or courage of a Soyinka, with which he has consistently pursued his commitments to a course, he has provided a tool with which the succeeding generation can access the past. We attempt to know more than Soyinka knew if we are serious. If you have read some of Soyinka's writings and take time to study them, you probably would take a more radical position than the one he has taken. But all those who used to provide those knowledge, the scientists around us, the social scientists around us, have gone the way of all flesh. Those who have not been destroyed by the university system or had not gone to politics and allow corruption to ruin them, or gone into exile have been claimed by Christianity and Islam. Read Soyinka and you will see that our fathers knew these things in language that the white-man did not know.
Thank God, Soyinka did not allow himself to be blackmailed into using the English Language in a wrong way. It is wrong for you to want to be a writer and write in a language you are not in love with. It is one of the great things in the lecture delivered by Biodun Jeyifo, that by the manner in which Soyinka used the English Language, he has also advanced the course of the Yoruba Language. I think all of us need to ask the question "how are we developing indigenous languages?" Our languages are dying. The Yoruba Language is dying. All the writers projecting the language have virtually given up. But for people like Soyinka , Akinwunmi Ishola and few others what would Yoruba literature be worth?
Have you ever disagreed with Soyinka?
Oh yes. And when I do that, I don't hide my feelings for him. When he was having the romance with Babangida, a crafty fellow in most devious way, I thought he had abandoned his constituency in pursuit of a man who was out to deceive. I asked him to let us know what he knew about Babangida that the rest of us did not know? Soyinka never fights over arguments. He never turns academic or ideological quarrels into personal issues. Otherwise he won't be talking to Biodun Jeyifo who has criticised him many times over. But they are the best of friends and relate on very personal levels. But Soyinka was in the government because he was interested in saving lives. When he pulled out, he did so completely.