Special collections intern Ishana Moores writes about her experience cataloguing the letters of Wole Soyinka.
During my internship, I had the privilege of reading and cataloguing a series of correspondence between Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate playwright and his publisher and friend, Rex Collings. The collection includes letters, memos, postcards, notes and edits of scripts and blurbs dealing with a whole range of issues from business matters to gossip, from the Nigerian Civil War to art festivals like Festac.
Soyinka’s writing has a flair that cuts through the sterility of even the most matter-of-fact business letters, and accentuates the seriousness of the most critical political situations. Letters as a primary source are special in this way: you can really get a feel for the person writing, far beyond an official document or report. Sometimes witty, sometimes urgent, sometimes pensive, and occasionally downright rude, Soyinka’s letters gave me a glimpse not only into the fast-paced life and politics which prefaces his extensive body of work, but also – I like to think – into his personality and humour.
Some of my personal favourites include a grumpy postcard he sent to Collings after receiving his first rejection slip, which he entitled “A Get Lost Card”, and some quite dramatic signatures, including “Allah cover your secrets”, and “the rest is in the laps of the Gods”. Once, unhappy with a sentence that Collings wrote describing him in a blurb, Soyinka asked humorously if his friend wanted to carry on living. If not, Soyinka suggests, he might subject Collings to a Nigerian curse leading to a long drawn out death.
Soyinka’s sharp quips and grumblings break up what otherwise includes serious and often politically-fraught correspondence. I traced Soyinka’s letters to Collings from 1965 to the early 1980s, through his alarm at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War, his imprisonment and release, his retreat into rural southern France, and even a political open letter that “fell into the wrong hands”, resulting in an alleged attempt on his life. Within this turmoil, a solid bond of friendship and camaraderie seemed to be strongly established between Soyinka and Collings. Often continents away, they sent love to each others’ families, arranged their next meetings, joked and bickered, and discussed their thoughts and feelings. After he emerges from prison, Soyinka thanks Collings for his exceptionally hard work in campaigning for his release.
In this sense, the collection provides a glimpse not only into the political and cultural backdrop behind Soyinka’s works, which he refers to throughout the correspondence, but also into more personal aspects: his musings, his temperament, and his relationships.