Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s fourth book, Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Diaspora, is a collection of interviews and a rollcall of prominent Black creatives, thinkers, leaders, and organizers. In conversations with Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison, poet Claudine Rankine, publisher Margaret Busby, historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., filmmaker Xoliswa Sithole, actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, US Senator Cory Booker, parliamentarian Lord Michael Hastings, and civil rights activist Pastor Evan Mawarire, the Nigerian American writer seeks answers for the contemporary cultural and political moment as well as for the role of the artist, activist, and public intellectual in society. She extends these questions in her profiles of former US First Lady Michelle Obama and of her own 102-year-old friend Mrs. Willard Harris. The book comes with an introduction by Bernardine Evaristo.
Between Starshine and Clay, listed among Open Country Mag‘s anticipated titles of 2023, is Manyika’s first book of nonfiction, following her successful novels, the best-selling In Dependence (2009) and the critically acclaimed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016). Her other book is The Weaverbird Collection: New Fiction from Nigeria (2008), which she co-edited. Most recently, her wide-ranging work as a literary facilitator saw her named one of the “The 100 Most Influential Africans” of 2022 by New African Magazine.
The interview below, with Soyinka, is excerpted from the much longer one in the book. Done on the occasion of his third novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, it sees him reflect on a theme in his works: friendships, something he describes as “almost a mystical thing.” And one of his friends makes a cameo: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Wole Soyinka: In Conversation
Sarah Ladipo Manyika:
Your latest novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, is, among other things, a story of lifelong friendships. I found it to be a novel that moves to the beats of Fela Kuti and, in visual terms, it made me think of William Hogarth’s painting of eighteenth century London and of Yinka Shonibare’s more contemporary images. It also had a particular personal resonance because I grew up in Jos, one of the main locations for this novel. The novelist Ben Okri said of this novel: ‘This is a novel written at the end of an artist’s tether. It has gone beyond satire. It is a last dance macabre.’ Professor Soyinka, was this book written at the end of your tether?
Ben Okri, when I see him, I’m going to hammer his head because that particular quotation keeps cropping up and I can understand why. To some extent it is true. I’ve explored this theme, as you remarked, through various genres, including poetry, which in the course of reading I found myself uncharacteristically breaking down. It was as bad as that, when I attempted to read A Humanist Ode for Chibok, Leah I could not complete it. So, this thing has gone beyond mere poetizing, it’s gone beyond fodder for creative transformation, for creative mauling, reconfiguring of realities, even beyond a prospectus for survival. So, Ben is absolutely spot on there. At the same time, however, it is not at the end of one’s tether for the simple reason that there is a challenge implicitly embedded in it. When there’s a challenge, it means you are actually saying that this is not the end of the story; that it’s sufficient to be able to hold up a distorting mirror in an unaccustomed way to a community of which one is a part and from whose existence one takes one’s own definition, has done for decades. And so, that element of challenge, which I hope is apparent there, means that one hasn’t really given up on the nation, on the people, even if one thinks it’s about time one bowed out.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika:
Friendship has always seemed to be something really important to you. We see this in both your fiction and non-fiction, and your latest novel has friendship at its center. The last memoir you wrote, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, was a homage to Femi Johnson, and your latest novel is also dedicated to him, Dele Giwa and Bola Ige. You’ve had so many interesting friendships across the years—from the poet Christopher Okigbo to scholar Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and to your fellow Nobel laureates, Bertrand Russell and Toni Morrison.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Toni Morrison in her home. In her bathroom there are many amazing photographs, one of which was of her with you—a lovely black-and-white photograph. I mentioned this to Toni as we sat down, saying, “Oh, I’ve just seen one of my countrymen”—you see, my Nigerian pride—“I’ve just seen Professor Wole Soyinka in your bathroom.” She said, “Oh yeah, we used to go to Paris and we’d go and have meetings and talk—elegant talk—and solve world problems. And Soyinka always knew how to solve everything.” And then the two of us said in unison, “He still does.” Then she responded, mimicking a deep voice, “Yes, yes! In that voice he has.” So, in that deep voice you have, can you tell us a story about Toni Morrison?
Well, first I came to Toni Morrison through her works and I said, “This really is genius writing.” I cannot recall when we first met, probably because when we met eventually it was like I knew her already, like we’d already met. But from the very first-time moment, we bonded. There’s no question at all about that. And I set about trying to bring her to Nigeria right away to meet other writers. And then we’d go out together. And she was responsible for an expression which left such an impression on me. She said, “I’m going to take you out to this restaurant. The cooking there, it’ll knock your socks off.” I’d never heard that expression in my life. I said, ‘What?’ She said, “It will knock your socks off!” Well, maybe because in Africa we wear sandals most of the time, who wears socks? Only the gentry! It’ll knock your socks off, and that image was something that came from her language.
It was her language and it endeared me. And more than that, however, was her sensibility toward the problems of the African continent. She was very much involved. She’d ask questions, sort of how-could-that-be-going-on kind of questions. Genuine concern. And so I saw, as we say in Nigeria, she was another country woman, but a very, very close one. Friendship to me is what saves one’s sanity, friendship is seeking nothing, no advantage from the other person, but always knowing that it is there, that it’s assistance if you need it. And you simultaneously are ready any time. It’s almost a mystical thing. Those who have experienced genuine friendship should appreciate how very lucky they are, because it’s not often, to actually say this is a genuine friend. I have had some very deep friendships with people, like Femi Johnson, who you mentioned.
Speaking of friendship, I’ve brought in [to the zoom conversation as a surprise] one of your brothers, Dr.Henry Louis Gates, Jr.!
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
Thank you so much, Sarah. This has been riveting. You asked Wole questions that I’d never heard him asked before, and the answers were fresh and enlightening. I love the story of the attempt to reappropriate the classic work of art from Brazil. I know that story. I heard it at the time. I’ve heard it twenty times, but I never heard it better than I heard it today. And it’s true. It’s a wonder this man’s not in a Brazilian prison. But Wole, my very serious question is, what was the name of the restaurant where Toni Morrison took you to knock your socks off? And what wine did you drink when your socks were being knocked off?
First thing I have to tell you is that you should be ashamed of yourself. This is pay-back time; friends don’t do that. Because I appeared as a mystery guest on your conversation with Sarah. Now you forced your way into this one. I’ll deal with you later on! Now, the question, Toni Morrison’s idea of sock knocking was . . . The restaurant was a bit of a disappointment. And I told her, number one, they didn’t use peppers. That was the main problem. It was an African restaurant and the food was probably good, academically, yes, but no peppers. Now, Skip, can you imagine somebody knocking my socks off without any peppers?
Toni fell down on that. But at least she left me the expression. So, I’m grateful to her.
On Monday, Wole and I will be having dinner in New York. And, Wole, I want you to pick the restaurant that Toni should have picked. And I want to unveil something, if you can bear with me, Sarah. I’ve never shown this on camera before, but in that cabinet, that brown door is full of nothing but chili sauces introduced to me by my professor at the University of Cambridge, Wole Soyinka. [Gates stands up and walks to the cupboard.] I’m going to unveil it right now. Chilies! [Pulls out a jar and returns.]
I think I know that one. Yes.
Akabanga! From Rwanda. This is nuclear fume!
I know, I get a regular supply now.
You gave it to me! You brought it to me. It’s burning my head. Yes, it’s burning my fingers. Right now, I’m on fire.
It has triggered the alarm in luggage at some airports, in which the person carrying it was detained. That’s true!
Let me tell you, it’s triggered off some alarms in other locales.
I’m in the kitchen of my house, as you can see. And right under me is a wine cellar. It is dedicated to my professor who introduced me to wine. My generation didn’t drink wine. I’m the class of ’73. We got inebriated in more vaporous ways. So, I go off to Cambridge and Soyinka introduced me to wine and chili peppers and Indian food, all at the same time. So my mouth is on fire. I’m getting drunk. I’m trying to understand these chilies and that’s the real education. That’s the real story of our friendship, without a doubt.
Right on! ♦
Excerpt from “4. Wole Soyinka” from Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Diaspora. Copyright © 2023 by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Reprinted with the permission of Footnote Press, www.footnotepress.com.
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Cheery heart and stentorian visage – the oxymoron of it. Always a blessed thing to read of him if not read him. You forgot late JP among the gang.
I left every other thing I was doing to read these beautiful conversations and as I was reading them, I was shamelessly smiling. It’s really rare to see something as interesting as listening to great minds, it’s soul lifting, refreshing and inspiring. “Solante”
There are some friendships that should never, die.