A Nobel Calling

OpenStage's Splitting Infinity, which I review in the January 11 issue, made me think about the one Nobel laureate I have had the privilege of meeting: Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, a forceful critic of colonialism and winner of the prize for literature in 1986.

Soyinka was attending a conference on the novel at CU, and he was an impressive presence at lectures and on panels, tall and dignified, deliberate in his speech, tautly intelligent. Somehow I got invited to a dinner at the Flagstaff House with the conference organizer, an American novelist and Soyinka. The organizer left the table to deal with a phone call, and finding myself alone with the two others, I was literally tongue-tied; anything I could think of to say seemed juvenile and idiotic.

The novelist was less overawed. She talked happily about how she'd always found the work of African writers exotic, but perhaps her own work, set in the hardscrabble Appalachians, might seem equally exotic to them. Soyinka agreed that it would. There was a silence, and I tried to think of something -- anything -- to fill it. And then somehow London came up, and Soyinka said he'd lived there as a student and had acted in plays around town because he loved the theater and couldn't afford tickets. (Soyinka's Nobel Lecture begins with an incident at the Royal Court Theatre where he was supposed to appear in a play about British repression in Kenya.) I grew up in London, and we realized we had seen some of the same productions -- I wish I could remember now what they were.

But we stood on the patio of the Flagstaff House for several precious and extraordinary minutes, laughing and remembering long-ago performances together. It's a moment I've treasured ever since. -- Juliet Wittman