Galleries Assistant Manager Laura reflects on an impactful collection encounter in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery.  

When I first walked into the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, shortly after I moved to Leeds, I was taken aback by (for want of a better phrase) the treasure trove on display. However, it was a small unassuming exhibit from a University of Leeds Alumnus which captured my attention due to the incredible story of activism, determination and strife.

Written on scraps of paper, Wole Soyinka’s ‘Prisonettes’ manuscripts (1969) are a glimpse into a “two-year experiment on how to break down the human mind”.[1]

Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, known as Wole, born in Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria in 1934, is a world-renowned writer, with numerous plays, poems and novels to his name.

But how did Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, end up spending almost two years in solitary confinement in Nigeria?

The simple answer – by using his voice to speak out against injustice. Soyinka actively opposed the federal government during the Nigerian Civil War, with a public call for a cease-fire. In this footage taken just after his release, in 1969, Soyinka stated: ‘Of course I got myself involved in what was happening. I don’t know whether you would call it politics or not. I don’t consider war politics. I believe war is a human problem, and I am a human being.’

These manuscripts of prison poems, which we have in our collection, were almost never written. Soyinka was denied writing implements during his imprisonment, so resorted to memorising the short verses until he eventually found scraps of paper to commit the poems down – another example of his tenacious fight to use his voice.

One of the poems, ‘Live Burial’, gives a visceral insight into the harrowing experience of solitary confinement:

“Sixteen paces/By twenty-three. They hold/Siege against humanity/And Truth/Employing time to drill through to his sanity.”[2]

Soyinka has continued to be a political activist throughout his life, using his platform and his voice to speak out against the injustice in the world.

The small scraps of paper I saw on display in the Treasures Gallery back in 2016 are a clear symbol of Soyinka’s passionate fight to use his words.

This passion is exemplified through his 1986 Nobel Prize Speech ‘This Past Must Address Its Present’, where he used his platform to openly criticise the evils of Apartheid and the structural racism it fostered.

His closing words in the speech are ones that not only applied to the time but resonate today:

‘That calendar, we know, is not universal, but time is, and so are the imperatives of time. And of those imperatives that challenge our being, our presence, and humane definition at this time, none can be considered more pervasive than the end of racism, the eradication of human inequality, and the dismantling of all their structures. The Prize is the consequent enthronement of its complement: universal suffrage, and peace.’

The ‘Prisonettes’ manuscripts are part of the Soyinka Archive in Special Collections. The collection covers 1950s – 70s, including manuscripts and letters sent to Rex Collings, Soyinka’s early publisher.

[1] Dedication, SOYINKA, W. (c1969). Poems from Prison. London, Rex Collings.

[2] SOYINKA, W. (c1969). Poems from Prison. London, Rex Collings.