Visit of African Nobel Prize Winner Wole Soyinka to Mexico and His Recent Book on Corruption

By Carmen Rioja

Wole Soyinka is the first African in history to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. He is a poet and activist respected by the global community, and an iconic representative in the fight for human rights, equality, and democracy. He has been imprisoned twice by the dictatorial government of Nigeria, because they considered his literary production a threat to power. However, he has remained faithful to his writing throughout his life.

He is now 88 years old, and he remains active. He has promoted journalistic training and research centers, along with professorships for students. With his colleague and friend, Indian Nobel Prize winner for literature, Salman Rushdie, and others, he has sought refuge for writers under threat. In Mexico, they established the Citlaltépetl Shelter House.

The prolific author and playwright Wole Soyinka was guest of honor at the Hay Querétaro 2022 Festival this September. After five decades of silence in fiction, he presented his recent publication, “Chronicles from the Country of the Happiest People on Earth” (Ed. Alfaguara, 2022). The title is ironic, something that was revealed during a wonderful interview with Mexican author Diego Rabasa. He addressed pressing questions and issues, such as the role of humor and satire in literature.

In the great Theater of the City of Querétaro, Professor Soyinka responded generously to each question after a pause. He is a master of the art of listening and patience. Diego Rabasa opened the conversation by speaking of the attack, a few weeks ago, on Salman Rushdie, who has lost an eye as a result, and almost lost his life.

D.R: “… literature is not a mass phenomenon; it is rather something that interests a relatively small group but is still very threatening to power… Why are literature and fiction such a threat to power?”

W.S: “… The answer is very simple, because literature is very personal and yet a social event. It arises from the mind and—despite all the collaboration—it usually starts from an individual mind. Most of the people in power like to usurp the spaces of others. Why? Because they want to control those spaces. I have found that when we talk about political power, dictators, fear, and so on, there is also the continuity of what I call the religious textology, where the religious texts say ‘this is the meaning;’ this is just the way it is of meaning. And the secular… I take it from there; this replaces for souls for supreme textologists—and this is my text! There are two things (that the dictator fears). One, it cannot be mastered, and second, it feels incomplete; the moment when there is an alternative text, an alternative perspective, an alternative vision, an alternative perspective, even a slight variation of what has been pronounced to be the only truth, the absolute truth. And they are not only defending their truth but their minuscule selves and continue to expand and eradicate others’ text. It’s a matter of ego, nothing more. Whether we’re talking about it from the theological or secular side, it’s the ego. The imposition of the narrative is one then; it is a question of the exchange of power; it is an imposition of power. The imposition of a certain narrative. And what’s frightening about this is that when he is removed from the throne, or at least a new space has been created, most of the time you can ask where is the possibility that there are other truths? Or they have a lack of spiritual and intellectual development and are unable to handle more than one truth simultaneously. And when they’re in office, when people in power start to be attacked, people in power always know how to lie to people and they know when other narratives exist.”

Towards the end of the conference, everyone wanted to know what he thinks of corruption in Mexico, and if it is possible to find a solution. The seasoned writer laughed along with the audience at the tough question and acknowledged that he doesn’t have an answer. But after a pause, he reminded us that education is the only way out. He also reminded us that literature is a tool against frustration, a form of denunciation, a record of reality and of the injustices that prevail in developing countries, both in Africa and in Latin America. It is a space to rehearse different narratives, but from the personal, to feel complete and not to impose them, that is the difference with power.

The next day a packed press room awaited his presence. The almost obligatory question was asked by a reporter from INFOBAE. Only a few weeks before, there had been an attack with a knife on his friend, Salman Rushdie. “It is a terror. To think that there are those who believe that they can decide if someone lives or dies.” Wole Soyinka calmly recounted the work they have done to protect endangered writers around the world and hopes that these attacks of intolerance will cease to exist.

*“Chronicles from the Country of the Happiest People on Earth” is a satire of power and corruption in a Nigeria close to reality. In a mysterious and funny plot, the author lucidly deals with critical issues, such as organ trafficking and limbs stolen from a hospital. This book has been described as one of the most brilliant analyses of the human condition and the corruption that infects all spheres of power.

Listen to the complete conference of the Hay festival through Radio Ambulante NPR:,