Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka Visits NYU Shanghai

Dec 5 2023

Nigerian writer, poet, playwright, and 1986 Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka visited NYU Shanghai on December 1. Soyinka, who is currently Arts Professor of Theater at NYU Abu Dhabi, had a conversation with students about his life experiences, creative process, and the role of literature and storytelling. The auditorium was packed with NYU Shanghai faculty, students, and staff in attendance, as well as enthusiastic fans who specially traveled from around China to hear him speak.

In her introduction, Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen noted Soyinka’s prolific body of work and remarkable facility with language and wit, which has made him a distinguished writer in our time. “Soyinka brilliantly brings together the local and the global, the timely and the timeless, by tackling the most profound and pressing issues that face us, including the temptations of power, the perils of simplifying the multidimensional, and the push and pull between progress and tradition, between the present and the past,” she said.


Professor Soyinka answering the questions from NYU Shanghai students

Professor Soyinka shared his views on various topics, showcasing his vivid and detailed storytelling style and penchant for humorous expression. Students raised questions on how to embark on the path of literary creation, the value of storytelling for human society and collective consciousness, the art of writing in different literary genres, how to maintain hope in adversity, challenges faced by contemporary writers and artists, and the role of social trauma in shaping human identity.

Soyinka spoke most eloquently on the integral role of storytelling, describing it as an act of retrieving your own reality. “As long as there is struggle between human beings and human communities,” he told the students, “storytelling is going to continue to play a critical part, almost at the level of warfare by other means…Reformulating your own identity on your own terms. It's an obligation of dignity, self assertion, recognition." 

He said he believes that the concept of humanity as a whole is an ongoing work, and the process of writing it down and attempting to understand it is itself a consolation. "I never seek writing topics. I wait for the topics to find me. It is my way of constantly reconciling with the humanity of others around me," Soyinka said. 

With each completed work, he said, he feels that "it is done, and everything that needs to be said has been said," but soon realizes that there are "always more words to say." That is the driving force behind his consistent and unwavering creative work for over half a century, with more than 40 published plays, essay collections, poetry collections, memoirs, novels, and translations.


As the first African Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka is regarded as a "beacon" figure in African modern literature and enjoys the reputation of "Africa's Shakespeare" among his readers.

Born in 1934 to a Christian family in Abeokuta, western Nigeria, he entered the University of Ibadan at the age of 18 and later studied in the United Kingdom, where he began writing plays and poetry. His major works include the plays "The Swamp Dwellers," "The Lion and the Jewel," "A Dance of the Forests," the poetry collection "Idanre and Other Poems," and the novel "The Interpreters."

In 1986, Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was described at the time as one "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence." Soyinka was in China to accept the "Golden Magnolia Poetry Prize” at the eighth Shanghai International Poetry Festival.

Wole Soyinka is the third world-renowned figure to visit NYU Shanghai this semester for face-to-face interactions with faculty and students. Previously, the campus welcomed theoretical computer scientist, educator, and Turing Award recipient John Hopcroft, as well as Economics Nobel laureate Robert Engle, director of NYU Shanghai’s Volatility Institute (VINS) and recipient of the 2023 Shanghai "White Magnolia Memorial Award."