Campus & Community

Renowned authority on African drama comes to FAS

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Literary critic Biodun Jeyifo comes to Harvard from Cornell

Literary critic Biodun Jeyifo, an authority on African drama widely viewed as the world’s leading interpreter of works by Nigerian writer and playwright Wole Soyinka, has been appointed professor of African and African-American studies in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1.

Jeyifo, 60, comes to Harvard from Cornell University, where he has been a professor of English since 1988.

“Professor Jeyifo is a leading literary critic and cultural theorist who has attained great prominence in African intellectual circles for his analysis of modernity and its attendant social and cultural crises,” says William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “His body of work is marked by acute interpretive skills and great theoretical sophistication. Equally comfortable as a teacher and as a scholar, he will be a great resource for our students.”

Editor of the authoritative anthology “Modern African Drama” (Norton Critical Editions, 2002), Jeyifo’s work has long framed scholarship in African drama and theater. His 1984 study of the Yoruba Popular Traveling Theatre is viewed by many as seminal in the study of African drama. He is currently working on an ambitious history of Anglophone African dramatic literature.

Jeyifo’s early essays single-handedly shaped critical discourse on dramatic works by Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature and a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Jeyifo’s three subsequent books extending the scope of these essays have established him as a top interpreter of Soyinka. His most recent book, “Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism” (Cambridge University Press, 2004), weighing Soyinka’s vast and complex body of work, is arguably the most sophisticated analysis of any single author in African literature.

Jeyifo has also turned his attention to Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, writing a series of essays in the early 1990s that placed Achebe’s work, including “Things Fall Apart,” in an ideological and theoretical perspective not previously considered by other critics.

Jeyifo received a B.A. in English from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1970, followed by an M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University in 1973 and 1975, respectively. Before joining Cornell in 1988, he taught at Queens College in New York from 1974 to 1975, Ibadan from 1975 to 1977, the University of Ife in Nigeria from 1977 to 1986, and Oberlin College from 1987 to 1988. He has also served as a visiting fellow or professor at Harvard, from 1998 to 2000, as well as at Indiana University and the University of Bayreuth in Germany.