BookBrowse Reviews You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka

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You Must Set Forth at Dawn

A Memoir

by Wole Soyinka

You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka X
You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2006, 528 pages
    Mar 2007, 528 pages

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About this Book



An intimate chronicle of a thrilling public life, a meditation on justice and tyranny, and a mesmerizing testament to a ravaged yet hopeful land

From the book jacket: The first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a political activist of prodigious energies, Wole Soyinka now follows his modern classic Ake: The Years of Childhood with an equally important chronicle of his turbulent life as an adult in (and in exile from) his beloved, beleaguered homeland.

In the tough, humane, and lyrical language that has typified his plays and novels, Soyinka captures the indomitable spirit of Nigeria itself by bringing to life the friends and family who bolstered and inspired him, and by describing the pioneering theater works that defied censure and tradition. Soyinka not only recounts his exile and the terrible reign of General Sani Abacha, but shares vivid memories and playful anecdotes–including his improbable friendship with a prominent Nigerian businessman and the time he smuggled a frozen wildcat into America so that his students could experience a proper Nigerian barbecue.

Comment: While studying in England in 1956, Nigerian-born Soyinka was tempted to travel to Hungary to join in the uprising against the Soviet Union, but his father advised that instead he, "Kindly return home and make this your battlefield". Soyinka listened to his father's request and returned home to Nigeria in 1960 with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater; from there he went on to become one of Africa's most famous writers (especially so after he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) and a vocal political activist. You Must Set Forth At Dawn focuses on Soyinka's adult life as a playwright and author who has turned his mind and pen to political activism, speaking out against multiple Nigerian dictatorships (there have been nine military dictatorships since 1962, separated by brief periods of civilian rule).

The book opens in 1998 when, following the death of Sani Abacha (de facto President of Nigeria from 1993 - 1998), Soyinka returns to Nigeria after five years in exile. From this opening point his memoir jumps back and forth in time, so readers who are not intimately familiar with the history of post-colonial Nigeria will probably want to keep a bookmark in the chronology of key dates that is helpfully provided.

Soyinka, who describes himself as a "closet glutton for tranquility", has lived a life that is intricately linked with the history of Nigeria and therefore has been anything but tranquil. As such You Must Set Forth At Dawn is first and foremost a political memoir that also serves as a political history of contemporary Nigeria. Very little space is given over to describing his personal life, but we know of his childhood from his 1981 memoir, Aké: Memoirs of a Nigerian Childhood, and from other sources we know that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. There is also little detail about the two years he spent in solitary confinement, which was chronicled in The Man Died (1972).

So many professional reviewers have pitched in with views about this book that there is really very little new that we can add to what has already been said:

"With the passionate close-up view of the past and the valuable insights, many of them highly critical, about today's leaders, this is a must for anyone concerned with human rights and the global web of oil, poverty, and corruption." - Booklist.

"A brilliant imagist who uses poetry and drama to convey his inquisitiveness, frustration, and sense of wonder." - Newsweek.

"By turns panoramic and intimate, ruminative and politically resolute, Soyinka's memoir is a dense but intriguing conversation between a writer and his times." - Publishers Weekly.

"Humane, sensible and impeccably written; a fitting summation of a life interestingly lived, and one hopes with more reflections to come." - Kirkus.

This review is from the April 5, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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