In Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80, Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochwuku Promise have co-edited an anthology that contains highly stimulating essays by some of Africa’s stellar writers in honour of the 80th birthday of Professor Wole Soyinka, the first writer of black African descent to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is reviewed for New African by Drs A.B. Assensoh and Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh.*
Many factors distinguish this 350-page collection from similar publications honouring literary giants and others, not least the weighty contributors, coupled to the fact that two prestigious publishers are producing this book. Nigeria’s Bookcraft publishes the collection under Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80, complimenting it with over forty mostly exclusive photos of Soyinka’s activities and encounters with global leaders in the last half-century, and the UK-based Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd is publishing its own version. In addition to the co-editors, award-winning writers have not only mastered Soyinka’s work but work with him in other capacities.
Divided into six sections and 30 chapters, it offers an excellent foreword by former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, as well as useful introductory and biographical sections by the co-editors Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochukwu Promise.
Section one of the book, “Salutory Musings for the Master’s Taste”, commences with an essay by Kenyan-born Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “The Conscience of Africa”. His contention that Soyinka’s actions, over the years, have made him the conscience of Africa will be taken seriously by readers as it comes from an academic and fellow highly regarded novelist and playwright, who was invited in 2004 to help launch the Wole Soyinka Chair in Drama at Leeds University in the UK.
Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s “For Art and Life” addresses the essence of her friendship with Soyinka and their common distaste against one man’s domination over another, whether in the form of apartheid or post-colonial military dictatorships in Africa. Chapter Three, “Hallo Sefi”, was contributed by Sefi Atta, the Nigerian novelist living in the US whose Everything Good Will Come received the first Wole Soyinka Prize in Literature for Africa from The Lumina Foundation (which administers the bi-annual prize of $20,000) and who went on to win the PEN and NOMA awards.
Chapter Four is “Fragments from a Chest of Memories”, written by Margaret Busby, contributor to the early literary careers of several African writers through her long-standing experience at the publishing company Allison and Busby. Her essay details some of the diplomatic happenings that involved Professor Soyinka, including how he was persuaded to accept the New Statesman’s prestigious Jock Campbell Award.
With “A Man of Sheer Narrative Power”, in Chapter Six, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison of Princeton University expresses her concerns about the tribulations and woes of fellow human beings. Born and raised in circumstances similar to those described by Soyinka in Ake and Isara, Morrison is also the first African-American woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Literature and tells us that Soyinka makes the world intelligible.
Section Two has a broad-frame title, “The Canvas is Universal: Philosophy, Literature and the Politics of Redemption”, and offers much in three chapters in which Soyinka’s topical play, Death and the King’s Horseman is thoroughly discussed by Ama Ata Aidoo, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ato Quayson. They expertly dissect several aspects of the play, including the usefulness of proverbs. Audiences for the play capture what these reviewers have individually hinted at: colonialism. However, Soyinka, in an author’s note to Death and the King’s Horseman, has explained that allusion to colonial factors was a mere catalytic incident.
Section Three, “Harvest of Past Seasons: Memoirs, Conversations and Palavers”, contains eight chapters featuring conversations on Soyinka with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ali Mazrui and Yemi Ogunbiyi, among other well-known writers. In sum, as Agyeman-Duah writes in his Introduction to this collection, the essays are derived from “direct conversations with Soyinka, and about him”. Readers will stumble on new insights from the chapters. In one, “A Master of His Trade”, for instance, the views of Princeton University philosophy professor Appiah – who recently moved to New York University – cover varied subjects, including slavery, Afro-centricism, jazz, and Soyinka’s generation of writers.
Another public subject discussed centres on the famous disagreement between Professor Soyinka and the Kenyan-born political scientist Ali A. Mazrui of State University, New York at Binghamton.