When Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, turned 70, his native country of Nigeria celebrated his birthday with two solid weeks of festivities. Harvard could not fête the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in quite the same way, but it managed something equally impressive – a feast of words catered by three of the honoree’s fellow Nobel laureates.
“A Season of Laureates: Readings in Honor of the 70th Birthday of Wole Soyinka,” sponsored jointly by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics, took place April 27. The Nobel Prize winners who lent their voices to the affair were Nadine Gordimer (1991), Derek Walcott (1992), and Toni Morrison (1993). Du Bois Institute director Henry Louis Gates Jr., a longtime friend and colleague of Soyinka, hosted the event.
Held in the JFK Jr. Forum, the celebration attracted an overflow crowd, and latecomers had to be satisfied with watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television in an adjoining room. But whether viewed on screen or in person, the sight of four of the world’s most prestigious living writers sitting together on stage seemed to fill the audience with a sense of being present at a very special and festive occasion.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is show time! Give it up once again for the Nobel laureates!” Gates declared, eliciting a second standing ovation. The first had occurred spontaneously when they walked onstage.
Soyinka, currently the Alphonse Fletcher Fellow at the Du Bois Institute, is a playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist, as well as a political activist who has been called “the conscience of Nigeria.” During Nigeria’s civil war, Soyinka appealed in an article for a cease – fire between the opposition groups and the government. As a result, he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the rebels, and held as a political prisoner for 22 months. He has been arrested nine times since then and at one time was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.