“Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.”Defending writers and advocating for free expression both at home and abroad has been a linchpin of PEN American Center since its founding in 1922. PEN American Center members often voiced their concerns in speeches, in diplomatic pressure, or in letters of support for persecuted writers and colleagues facing exile, imprisonment, torture, or execution for exercising their right to free expression. As we celebrate our 90th anniversary, we’ll look back at emblematic free expression cases that trace the evolution and growing importance of our work.—Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian writer whose prolific career includes more than 20 publications of plays, novels, and poetry. In 1986, he was the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Last year, Soyinka delivered PEN’s Sixth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. With this speech, he offered a thoughtful examination of censorship—and a writer’s purpose in a climate of forced silence and intolerance. No stranger to censorship himself, Soyinka helped launch PEN’s innagural World Voices Festival with the event Banned Voices, in which he read from the work of Tahar Djaout, the accomplished Algerian writer who was murdered in 1993.
We continue our 90th anniversary celebration with the details of Wole Soyinka’s inspiring life.
Wole Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 in Nigeria. He studied at University College Ibadan and the University of Leeds in the UK, graduating in 1957 before working for the Royal Court Theatre in London. A year later he wrote The Lion and the Jewell.
In 1960 he was awarded a Rockefeller Research Fellowship and returned to Nigeria where he established an amateur acting company, the Nineteen-Sixty Masks. Wole Soyinka continued to write essays about current affairs and Nigerian politics and his novel The Interpreter was published in 1964.
The following year Soyinka was arrested after taking over a radio station at gunpoint and broadcasting a message denouncing electoral fraud in Western Nigeria. His detention sparked international protests, and the next year he was acquitted on a technicality.
In 1966 there were two military coups and Nigeria appeared to be heading for a civil war after Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu declared south-east Nigeria to be the independent Republic of Biafra. The following year Soyinka attempted to negotiate between the federal government and the Biafra separatists. This resulted in his arrest, accused of siding with the rebels.
In 1969 the civil war ended and Soyinka was released under an amnesty which followed. His experiences as a prisoner were chronicled in his book The Man Died: Prison Notes. After his release he left Nigeria for six years before returning and then in 1983 went into exile again. The following year, The Man Died: Prison Notes was banned in Nigeria.
In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; the first African writer to win the prize. He returned to Nigeria once again and continued to write plays and essays; however, in 1994 yet again he was forced to flee Nigeria and go into exile. In 1997 he was charged in absentia with treason by the regime of General Sani Abacha. These charges were lifted following Abacha’s death in 1998.