By Adewale Maja-Pearce
I was recently the recipient of what one writer called ‘a devastating public verbal
assault’ by Wole Soyinka. The occasion was an interview with Sahara Reporters, in
the course of which I was tagged as a ‘sterile literary upstart’, ‘an inept hustler’, ‘an
ignoble character’, and ‘an empty, notoriety-hungry hanger-on and upstart
searching for relevance’. My original sin was my review of his latest memoir, You
Must Set Forth at Dawn, which appeared in the London Review of Books. It seems I
then compounded matters by what he deemed unflattering references to himself in
A Peculiar Tragedy, my ‘ghetto tract’ on JP Clark, which he considered a
‘compendium of outright impudent lies, fish market gossip, unanchored attributions,
trendy drivel and name dropping’. Quite a list. I almost feel rebuked by the
headmaster at morning assembly.
It may be that I am all the things Soyinka says I am, and that my book is as he
describes it. Since I am an interested party I must remain silent regarding my many
character flaws. As for the book in question, the reader must judge for themselves.
I deplore the temptation to respond to criticism however justified one might feel
oneself to be. The job of the writer is to write the book. If it is praise you are looking
for then show the MS to your mother before putting it safely away in a drawer.
That said, the correspondence below might be of interest in establishing certain
facts behind all this bile, especially since Soyinka has – ominously – promised more
to come ‘in another place.’
From: Adewale Maja-Pearce
To: Wole Soyinka
Sent: Mon, 21 Apr 2008 9:20 am
Subject: biography of J.P. Clark
My greetings to you. It’s been a long time. I trust you are well.
I’ve just embarked on a critical biography of J.P. Clark and am intrigued by your
differences over the claim you made in The Man Died concerning his role during
your incarceration. I have heard his full side of the story and seen the
correspondence with his lawyers. I would very much like to get your side of the
story in order that I do not misrepresent either party. J.P. Clark claims that he was
never in Abidjan at the time and that the professor who told you what he was
supposed to have said was never named; that, indeed, you claimed, as you wrote
in your book, that the unnamed professor merely said it as an aside over a drink in
a bar. He also said that you and Rex Collings had shown him the galleys of the
book before it went to press and he denied it but that you and your publisher went
ahead and published anyway.
I very much look forward to hearing from you.
With all best wishes
To: Adewale Maja-Pearce
Subject: Re: biography of J.P. Clark
Date: Mon, 21 Apr 2008 19:16:35 -0400
From: Wole Soyinka
Pity these things have to be raked up. However, JP was right regarding venue. It
was not Solely on account of that single error in location, the fault of my
recollection, not the professor friend, I deleted all reference to the incident in the
next edition. You may check.Repeat, the venue was wrong, but not the story.
The galleys were indeed shown to JP, on my instructions.The offer to JP was as
follows: This is what you are alleged to have said.. Anything you wish to state in
connection with it will be published in the book side by side with this story, which I
absolutely believe. His response was: “Since you’ve gone this fa and you obviously
believe the story, go ahead and publish”,. Rex Collings and I discusse it, and we
decided to go ahead. JP NEVER denied the story.
Years later, JP’s lawyers wrote, and threatened to sue. I told them to go ahead. My
informant, who is still alive said, “Are you telling me he wants to deny it?” He was
more than ready to testify in court.. I expect he still is, having even become a Born-
again and a preacher.
You may also wish to ask JP to tell you what he had to say about WS during his
incarceration that nearly resulted in Chinua Achebe and he coming to physical
blows. Or maybe talk to Chinua Achebe.
All in all, my recommendartion is that this affair of WS/JP should be laid to rest. Myt
instinct was that he wanted very much to do this when he sought me out in
Abeokuta to join him and Chinua on the Vatsa mission. I think it would be wiser of
him to refuse any further commentary on that unfortunately chapter, Some things
are best left alone to die with the passage of time.
I’m rather glad you made contact because there was something I’d been saving for
whenever I next ran into you. I learnt that you applied for one of the Schaeffer
Writer fellowships at UNLV. You should know that I found myself compelled to
recuse myself from participating in the selection, and refused any assessment of
your candiudature. This was because, from so many directions, I learnt of your
review of my YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN, and always with the question:
“What’s with you and Adewala Pearce.’ Or ‘Have you read such-and-such review?
Anyone you know?’ ‘Is there a history between you and the writer of that review?’
and variations thereof..Solely concerning your review, no one else’s. I found that
curious. I haven’t read the review and do not intend to. Just want to advise you to
be sure to have resolved your real motives in embarking of JP’s biography.
From: Adewale Maja-Pearce
To: Wole Soyinka
Sent: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 3:05:35 PM
Subject: Re: biography of J.P. Clark
Many thanks for your response. As a trained historian, my own belief is that matters
of public record should not be left to die with the passage of time – how can they,
given that they are a matter of public record? – but should be vigorously debated.
My concern, as I said, was to be fair to all parties, which was precisely why I sought
your own side of the story. It would be curious if a critical biography of JP omitted
any reference to what, after all, became a huge issue in literary circles, tied as it
was to the civil war, itself a defining event in Nigerian history.
Regarding my review of your latest book, it’s a pity that you have not read it and, as
you say, do not intend to read it. It seems to me that if one is going to form an
opinion about a piece of writing then it is incumbent on the person to actually read
what was written before doing so and not simply rely on the opinions of others. That
said, I disliked the book intensely and said so, as was my fundamental human right.
I’m not, and never have been, a cheerleader for anyone, WS and JP included. The
related idea that I might be embarking on the JP book in order to attack WS, which
you seem to imply, is not merely absurd but, I might say, insulting, although
perhaps you did not mean it to be so. At any rate, my time at INDEX taught me that
censorship takes many forms, and that any attempt to stifle vigorous intellectual
debate, especially by those who insist on it for themselves, is in many ways worse
than the overt variation practiced by the likes of Stalin and the apartheid state – to
say nothing of Abacha.
As for you declining to participate in the selection for my application to UNLV, I can
only wonder why you bothered to tell me. If the reason was that you do not think me
a good enough writer, then I must thank you for not standing in my way; if it was
because somebody said that I wrote a negative review of your book, which I do not
want to believe is the case, then I must remain silent, a la Wittgenstein: What
cannot be spoken about must be passed over in silence – or something to that
effect. However, I am no philospoher, just a writer, or trying to be one.
To end on a more positive note. I was the one who edited a book of essays on WS
for his 60th birthday because of my regard for your achievement as a writer. The
record is there for all to see. I stand by what I wrote then in the preface because I
believed it then and I believe it now, just as I stand by my review of your latest book
because I believe that, too.