All achievers

Wole Soyinka

Nobel Prize in Literature

Writing became a therapy. I was reconstructing my own existence. It was also an act of defiance.

Akonwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka was born in Abeokuta in Western Nigeria. At the time, Nigeria was a Dominion of the British Empire. British religious, political and educational institutions co-existed with the traditional civil and religious authorities of the indigenous peoples, including Soyinka’s ethnic group, the Yorùbá people, who predominate in Western Nigeria.

As a child, Soyinka lived in an Anglican Christian enclave known as the Parsonage. Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka, was a devout Anglican; in his memoirs, Wole Soyinka calls his mother “Wild Christian.” His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka, was headmaster of the parsonage primary school, St. Peter’s. Known as “S.A.,” Wole Soyinka calls him “Essay” in his memoirs.

Wole Soyinka as a ten-year-old choir boy in 1946 (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka as a ten-year-old choir boy in 1946.

Although the Soyinka family had deep ties to the Anglican Church, they enjoyed close relations with Muslim neighbors, and through his extended family — particularly his father’s relations — Wole Soyinka gained an early acquaintance with the indigenous spiritual traditions of the Yorùbá people. Even among practicing Christians, belief in ghosts and spirits was common. The young Wole Soyinka enjoyed participating in Anglican services and singing in the church choir, but he also formed an early identification with Ogun, the Yorùbá deity associated with war, iron, roads and poetry.

Soyinka’s mother, a shopkeeper, joined a protest movement, led by her sister Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, against the traditional ruler, the Alake of Abeokuta, who ruled with the support of the British colonial authorities. When the Alake levied oppressive taxes against the shopkeepers, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, Mrs. Soyinka and their followers refused to pay, and the Alake was forced to abdicate.

Thanks to his father, young Wole Soyinka enjoyed access to books, not only the Bible and English literature, but to classical Greek tragedies such as the Medea of Euripides, which had a profound effect on his imagination. A precocious reader, he soon sensed a link between the Yorùbá folklore of his neighbors and the Greek mythology underlying so much of western literature.

He moved quickly from St. Peter’s Primary School to the Abeokuta Grammar School and won a scholarship to the colony’s premier secondary school, the Government College in Ibadan. At this boarding school he continued to distinguish himself in his studies, writing stories and acting in school plays, the beginning of his lifelong preoccupation with the practical aspects of theatrical performance.

After graduation at age 16 from the Government College, Soyinka deferred immediate admission to university life and moved to the colonial capital, Lagos, to work in an uncle’s pharmacy for two years before entering university. During this period of personal independence, he began writing plays for local radio. In 1950 he entered the University at Ibadan. Two years later, won a scholarship to the University of Leeds in England, and left Africa for the first time.

Wole Soyinka, age 18, a college freshman (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka, at age 18, as a college freshman.

In England, he joined a close-knit community of West African students. The petty racism they encountered in Britain seemed less important than the reports they read from South Africa of black Africans being subjected to legally enforced racial discrimination in their own country by the white-led apartheid government. Along with his fellow African students, Soyinka imagined a pan-African movement to liberate South Africa. He went so far as to enlist in the British program of student military education, in hopes that he could use this training in a future campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa. He dropped out of the program during the Suez Crisis, when it appeared that students might be called up to serve in Egypt. As Britain prepared to leave Nigeria, students like Soyinka were excused from further military service.

After graduating from the University of Leeds, Wole Soyinka continued to study for a master’s degree while writing plays drawing on his Yorùbá heritage. His first major works, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel, date from this period. In 1958, The Lion and the Jewel was accepted for production by the Royal Court Theatre in London. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Royal Court was the major venue for serious new drama in Britain. Soyinka interrupted his graduate studies to join the theater’s literary staff. From this post, he was able to watch the rehearsal and development process of new plays at a time when the British theater was entering a period of renewed vitality. His own next major work was The Trials of Brother Jero, expressing his skepticism about the self-styled elite of black Nigerians who were preparing to take power from the British colonial regime.

Wole Soyinka with his daughter Moremi in 1963 (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka, with his daughter Moremi, in 1963.

In 1960, Soyinka received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to research traditional performance practices in Africa. Nigeria was poised to become independent from Britain, and Soyinka’s play A Dance of the Forest, another satire of the colonial elite, was chosen to be performed during the independence festivities. Soyinka joined the English faculty at the University of Ibadan. He also formed a theater company, 1960 Masks, to produce topical plays, employing traditional performance techniques to dramatize the many issues arising from Nigerian independence. His writings, including his 1964 novel, The Interpreters, were bringing him fame outside his own country, but he faced increasing difficulties with censorship inside Nigeria.

Independence from Britain had not brought about the open democratic society Soyinka and others had hoped for. In negotiating the independence of the country, Britain had overestimated the population of the northern region, dominated by Hausa-Fulani people of Muslim faith, and given them greater representation in the national parliament, at the expense of the predominantly Christian peoples of the southern regions: the Yorùbá in the West and the Igbo in the East.

In Western Nigeria, the results of a 1964 regional election were set aside so that a candidate favored by the central government could clam victory. With some friends, Soyinka forced his way into the local radio station and substituted a tape of his own for the recorded message prepared by the fraudulent victor of the election. This escapade caused his arrest and detention for two months, but international publicity led to his acquittal. Following his release, Soyinka was appointed to the English Department of Lagos University, and completed the comedy Kongi’s Harvest, which would be produced throughout the English-speaking world. Soyinka had become one of the best-known writers in Africa, but political developments would soon thrust him into a more difficult role.

Wole Soyinka's mother, "Wild Christian," on her 70th Birthday with her children in 1978. Clockwise from left: Wole, Yeside, Femi, Kayode, Folado and Tinu (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka’s mother, “Wild Christian,” on her 70th birthday with her children in 1978. Clockwise from left: Wole, Yeside, Femi, Kayode, Folado and Tinu. (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)

The discovery of oil in the Southeast in 1965 further heightened ethnic and regional tensions in Nigeria. A 1966 military coup led by Igbo officers was followed by a counter-coup, which installed the young army officer Yakubu Gowon as head of state. Massacres of Igbo living in the North sent more than a million refugees fleeing south, and many Igbo began to call for secession from Nigeria. Hoping to avoid further bloodshed, Soyinka traveled in secret to meet with the secessionist General Ojukwu and urged a peaceful resolution. When Ojukwu and the Eastern forces declared an independent Republic of Biafra, Soyinka contacted General Obasanjo of the Western forces to urge a negotiated settlement of the conflict, but Obasanjo sided with the national government, and a full-scale civil war ensued. Soyinka’s friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, joined the Biafran forces and was killed in action.

Soyinka was accused of collaborating with the Biafrans and went into hiding. Captured by Nigerian federal troops, he was imprisoned for the rest of the war. From his prison cell he wrote a letter asserting his innocence and protesting his unlawful detention. When the letter appeared in the foreign press, he was placed in solitary confinement for 22 months. Despite being denied access to pen and paper, Soyinka managed to improvise writing materials and continued to smuggle his writings to the outside world. A volume of verse, Idanre and Other Poems, composed before the war, was published to international acclaim during his imprisonment.

Wole Soyinka speaks at La Residence, during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa.
Wole Soyinka speaks at La Residence symposium, during the 2009 Achievement Summit in Franschhoek Valley.

By the end of 1969, the war was virtually over. Gowon and the Nigerian federal army had defeated the Biafran insurgency, an amnesty was declared, and Soyinka was released. Unable to return immediately to his old life, he repaired to a friend’s farm in the South of France. While recuperating, he wrote an adaptation of the classical Greek tragedy The Bacchae by Euripides. Across the millennia, the story of a state destroyed by a sudden eruption of senseless violence had acquired a special resonance for Soyinka. Another volume of verse, Poems from Prison, also known as A Shuttle in the Crypt, was published in London.

Soyinka returned to Nigeria to head the Department of Theater Arts at the University of Ibadan. The 1970s were a productive decade for Wole Soyinka. He oversaw stage and film productions of his play Kongi’s Harvest and wrote one of his most compelling satirical plays, Madmen and Specialists. His prison memoir, The Man Died, was published in 1972, followed by a novel, The Season of Anomy. He traveled to France and the United States for productions of his plays. When political tensions resurfaced, unresolved by the civil war, Soyinka resigned his university post and went to live in Europe, lecturing at Cambridge and other universities. Oxford University Press published his Collected Plays in 1974. One of his greatest works appeared the following year, the poetic tragedy Death and the King’s Horseman. After a number of years in Europe, Soyinka settled for a time in Accra, Ghana, where he edited the literary journal Transition. His column in the magazine became a forum for his continued commentary on African politics, in particular for his denunciation of dictatorships such as that of Idi Amin in Uganda.

In 1975, General Gowon was deposed, and Soyinka felt confident enough to return to Nigeria, where he became Professor of Comparative Literature and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife. He published a new poetry collection, Ogun Abibiman, and a collection of essays, Myth, Literature and the African World, a comparative study of the roles of mythology and spirituality in the literary cultures of Africa and Europe. His continuing interest in international drama was reflected in a new work, inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Soyinka called his musical allegory of crime and political corruption Opera Wonyosi. He created a new theatrical troupe, the Guerilla Unit, to perform improvised plays on topical themes.

In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka tells the story of his early years in luminous, magical prose.
In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka tells the story of his early years in luminous, magical prose.

At the turn of the decade, Wole Soyinka’s creativity was expanding in all directions. In 1981, he published the first of several volumes of autobiography, Aké: The Years of Childhood. In the early 1980s he wrote two of his best-known plays, Requiem for a Futurologist and A Play of Giants, satirizing the new dictators of Africa. In 1984, he also directed the film Blues for a Prodigal. For years, Soyinka had written songs. In the 1980s, Nigerian music, including that of Soyinka’s cousin, the flamboyant bandleader Fela Ransome-Kuti, was capturing the attention of listeners around the world. In 1984, Soyinka released an album of his own music entitled I Love My Country, with an assembly of musicians he called The Unlimited Liability Company.

Soyinka also played a prominent role in Nigerian civil society. As a faculty member at the University of Ife, he led a campaign for road safety, organizing a civilian traffic authority to reduce the shocking rate of traffic fatalities on the public highways. His program became a model of traffic safety for other states in Nigeria, but events soon brought him into conflict with the national authorities. The elected government of President Shehu Shagari, which Soyinka and others regarded as corrupt and incompetent, was overthrown by the military, and General Muhammadu Buhari became Head of State. In an ominous sign, Soyinka’s prison memoir, A Man Died, was banned from publication.

Two recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, and Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, at the 2009 International Achievement Summit. (© Academy of Achievement)
Two recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, at the 2009 Achievement Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. They both received the Academy’s Golden Plate Award.

Despite troubles at home, Soyinka’s reputation in the outside world had never been greater. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African author to be so honored. The Swedish Academy cited the “sparkling vitality” and “moral stature” of his work and praised him as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.” When Soyinka received his award from the King of Sweden in the ceremony in Stockholm, he took the opportunity to focus the world’s attention on the continuing injustice of white rule in South Africa. Rather than dwelling on his own work, or the difficulties of his own country, he dedicated his prize to the imprisoned South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. His next book of verse was called Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems. He followed this with two more plays, From Zia with Love and The Beatification of Area Boy, along with a second collection of essays, Art, Dialogue and Outrage. He continued his autobiography with Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, centering on his memories of his father S.A. “Essay” Soyinka, and Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years.

Meanwhile, Soyinka continued his criticism of the military dictatorship in Nigeria. In 1994, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Wole Soyinka a Goodwill Ambassador for the promotion of African culture, human rights and freedom of expression. Less than a month later, a new military dictator, General Sani Abacha, suspended nearly all civil liberties. Soyinka escaped through Benin and fled to the United States. Soyinka judged Abacha to be the worst of the dictators who had imposed themselves on Nigeria since independence. He was particularly outraged at Abacha’s execution of the author Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 after a trial condemned by the outside world. In 1996, Soyinka published The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Memoir of the Nigerian Crisis. Predictably, the work was banned in Nigeria, and in 1997, the Abacha government formally charged Wole Soyinka with treason. General Abacha died the following year, and the treason charges were dropped by his successors.

In his autobiography, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, Wole Soyinka recounts his life, from his student days, through his imprisonment, to his international renown as playwright, author and political activist.
In his autobiography You Must Set Forth at Dawn, Wole Soyinka recounts his life, from his student days, through his imprisonment, to his international renown as playwright, author and political activist.

Since 1994, Wole Soyinka has resided primarily in the United States. He has taught at a number of American universities, including Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Since moving to the United States, he has written another play, King Baabu, a volume of verse, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, and his latest book of memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006). Although Wole Soyinka has always been reticent about discussing his family life, in this volume he makes a particularly touching dedication to his “stoically resigned” children, and to his wife Adefolake, for enduring many years of hardship and dislocation.

Although presidential elections were held in Nigeria in 2007, Soyinka denounced them as illegitimate due to ballot fraud and widespread violence on election day. Wole Soyinka continues to write, and remains an uncompromising critic of corruption and oppression wherever he finds them.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2009

The poet and playwright Wole Soyinka is a towering figure in world literature. He has won international acclaim for his verse, as well as for novels such as The Interpreters. His work in the theater ranges from the early comedy The Lion and the Jewel to the poetic tragedy Death and the King’s Horseman.

Born in Nigeria, he returned from graduate studies in England just as his country attained its independence from Britain. Many of his plays, including Kongi’s Harvest and Madmen and Specialists, are bitter satires on the dictatorships of post-colonial Africa. In the late ’60s, his opposition to a repressive regime in his own country led to his imprisonment in solitary confinement for nearly two years, an experience he reflects on in the memoir The Man Died and the verse collection A Shuttle in the Crypt.

His works in all genres deploy a rich poetic language, steeped in European mythology and the Yorùbá spiritual traditions of West Africa, interests he fused in his masterful study Myth, Literature and the African World. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Apart from your literary career, you have played a very active political role in Nigeria, beginning many years ago. During the Western regional crisis of 1965, you took to the airwaves to denounce the falsification of election results. Could you tell us how that came about?

Keys to success — Courage

Wole Soyinka: Those elections were very violent and the people resisted. This was the Western Region at the time. I was then teaching at the University of Ibadan. Violent, and the incumbent government used its power of incumbency in the region, in alliance with the power of the center. It was a federal structure. In spite of that, they could not rig the election successfully. And so what they did was just start altering the results. And even that proved exceedingly difficult for them. Finally the premier of the region decided to just forget the whole thing and announce his victory on radio. And I happened, you know, by very fortunate coincidence, I learned that this was going to become a fait accompli. And since he had the support of the federal government, something drastic had to be done. And so with some assistance, some of my usual collaborators, I managed to stop the broadcast, substitute my — I pre-recorded my own statement. So I went to the studio and I took the premier’s tape off and substituted my own and went away. And so I was tried — very, very nasty charge. I was charged with armed robbery, because apparently this event was supposed to have taken place with the aid of a gun, and so — very cunning people, coming to frame a charge of armed robbery, for a tape! Costs under a pound or whatever, and I substituted one, anyway — so it wasn’t — and I left that one. So where was the robbery?

Wole Soyinka matriculating at the University College, Ibadan in the 50s. (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka matriculating at the University College, Ibadan in the 50s. (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)

Anyway, I was tried and acquitted, thank goodness. Then some years passed. Of course the seeds of what came later were already being laid and planted, from that rigging of the elections in the West, and in the rest of the country, as a matter of fact. So a military coup took place in 1966, in January. There were massacres, especially against the Igbos, because the first coup, the leaders were mostly Igbo, and so reprisal claims took place and the drums of war began to sound very, very loud. The East Igbos, who felt they had been really violated — because they were hunted down all over the place, not just in the North — they decided to secede.

My friend Christopher Okigbo was Igbo, of course. I knew him from the writers and artists community in Ibadan. He was a founding member of the Mbari writers and artists club. When I was detained for that “un-robbery” episode, he used to come and visit me in my place of detention. I was not actually formally detained. I was just not granted bail, that’s all. So he used to come to visit me at the police station where I was held and we’d read his poetry together. Or more accurately, he would read his poetry. He loved reading his own poems. He wanted you to hear exactly how it sounded, because it was a very aural, musical kind of poetry. He was a musician also, by the way, so that wasn’t surprising. So we became quite close.

Keys to success — Courage

When I realized that war really was going to happen, I tried to — and he  (Christopher Okigbo) had left, like the other Igbo that fled to the East, where they were more secure. Chinua Achebe was in the East. We had other writers like Gabriel Okara in the East, and I felt maybe by linking up and resurrecting that tight community we might be able to do something to prevent that war, and so I traveled. By then the firing had started, the early skirmishes had begun. And I traveled by road  to the East. I was promptly arrested as a suspected enemy by the Biafrans whom I had come to see, but of course, some time after, the police realized who I was and I was released. And who had come into my police station? He didn’t know I was there. It was Christopher Okigbo, coming from the war front, coming for more equipment.  And so we were reunited for the last time. He went back to the front. So the leader of the secessionist enclave, Ojukwu, we spoke, and then when I came back I was detained for having traveled to the East. I was accused of all kinds of things, including trying to buy jet fighters for the — I don’t know why people like to cook, you know, fantasies, around one’s individual existence.

Why did you take on this role of intermediary between the Biafrans and the West?

Keys to success — Integrity

Wole Soyinka: I belong to the West, the Yorùbá part of the federation. And in a war, when a war is being fought, it is being fought on behalf of people. And this war committed me, as a Nigerian, it committed me, and I felt that war was wrong and I refused to accept that, to be committed in that way. The Biafrans had been violated. They had been massacred. It was more than one massacre, it was like a wave of massacres. And they were being hunted everywhere. In other words, the conduct of the federal side, at least that portion to which I belong, indicated — said, in plain language, even though it was not articulated as such, “You, the Igbo, are no longer part of the federation.” There was no way, nothing was done to make them feel secure, at least not enough was done to make them feel secure in the rest of the nation. And then, after they had seceded, which I considered, by the way, a tactical mistake — not a political crime, not a moral crime, no, no, no, no, no. It was a tactical error. But then, to go after them, to declare war against them on this banal basis of unity above anything else! Unity of what? I mean, who committed the act of disuniting the nation in the first place? Those who made the Igbo feel they were not part of the full entity. So for me it was an unjust war of which I could not be a part. And if I’d not gone to the East, I would have gone into exile, because I would refuse to be part of that entity which waged war against a people who had been so dehumanized. So in effect, it was for my own peace of mind, to try and do everything possible to make sure the war did not take place.

When you returned to the West, you were detained, but never officially charged. Was this because of an open letter you had published in the Daily Times of Nigeria? What was your intent in writing that letter?

Wole Soyinka: First of all, the letter was published before I went to the East.

There was supposed to be a delegation going from the federal side, a delegation of citizens, you know, high-placed citizens, traditional rulers and so on. I wanted to make sure that when they went over to the East, they didn’t go mouthing pious, meaningless sentiment. They should understand that they were going to visit a wronged people, and that they should take the kind of message there that would make them come back. Well, as I expected, it was a futile visitation. The Igbo by that stage didn’t trust anyone, and in any case they could not, they had nothing concrete to take over to the other side. And so I followed up my letter by visiting there, and trying to get Chinua, Christopher,  the group I knew, and also talk to Ojukwu, whom I’ve known — the head of the Biafran enclave — whom I’ve known. We were both students around the same time, even though he was somewhat older than myself. And when I came back, I brought back certain messages and delivered those messages on return.

I should add that when I went there, we had formed what we called the “Third Force.” Since the cause of the federal side, in our view, was not just, and since the Igbo had committed a tactical error in deciding on secession, we thought there should be a third force, a neutral force, which would put on the table various concrete proposals, in effect neutralizing the positions of both sides. We could present these proposals to both sides, and to the international community, which might finally succeed in bringing them to some kind of agreement.

You’ve made a distinction between your first arrest, in the mid-’60s, and your second arrest. If corruption, a rigged election, was the issue in the first case, what was really the issue when you were imprisoned the second time?

Wole Soyinka, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)
Wole Soyinka, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Courtesy of Wole Soyinka)

Wole Soyinka: Power is involved in this, you know. The tendency for sections of any community to dominate the rest seems to be part and parcel of society, historically. Nothing extraordinary, in my view, happened about what went on in Nigeria. It wasn’t really corruption that led to the first coup, even though this was one of the allegations. It had to do with a sense of injustice, of a political lie which had been implanted by the British before they departed. So it was the contest for power, as much as for control of resources. Because power is an element in itself which one should never underestimate. To dominate others seems to be kind of an animal part of the human make-up which we haven’t quite evolved out of. So corruption, yes, was involved, but it wasn’t really the central issue in those early days.

Days after your incarceration, your friend Christopher Okigbo was killed in the civil war. Did you hear of his death while you were in prison? Were you able to get news?

Wole Soyinka: I was in solitary confinement for quite a while, but after a while, even prison has its chinks which one is able to study and explore. So occasionally, after the really hermetic isolation of a couple of months, I was able to start formulating links with the outside world.

You smuggled a letter out of prison in 1967. How did it change your treatment in prison?

Wole Soyinka: First of all, I was held in a maximum security prison in Lagos. After I smuggled out that statement, the government panicked and decided to move me to Kaduna and place me in complete solitary confinement.  I was shocked. It was one of the most bitter moments, bitterest moments of my incarceration, to find the Minister of Information calling an international press conference and reading what was supposed to be my confession. It’s one of the most horrible things that can happen to anybody in prison, that you feel, “What else? What is going to come next? What are they going to say next? What are they speaking in my name?” Reading —not to be accusing me, I mean, that’s okay — but actually saying, “I have here his confessional statement,” and every bit of it — except the trip to Biafra — a complete fabrication. But after I got to Kaduna, I stayed completely quiet for some time. Didn’t even attempt to reach the outside world. Just made sure they thought I was a complete model prisoner, totally resigned to being in isolation. And I began to probe the chinks and managed to start getting things outside. Even sent some poems for publication to my publisher outside, which was scribbled on toilet paper with ink I’d manufactured and so on.

You wrote about your prison experience in a memoir, The Man Died. Did you actually begin work on that book while you were in prison?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Wole Soyinka: I began writing, scribbling notes, you know, in prison. But it wasn’t actually published until after I’d come out. Writing became a therapy. First of all, it meant I was reconstructing my own existence. It was also an act of defiance. I wasn’t supposed to write. I wasn’t supposed to have paper, pen, anything, any reading material whatsoever. So this became an exercise in self-preservation, keeping up my spirits. It also, you had to occupy very long hours of the day, you know, not speaking to anyone. And I even — it wasn’t just writing. I evolved all kinds of mental exercises, even went back to those subjects which I said I hated in school, in particular mathematics. I started to try and recover my mathematical formulae by trial and error, and created problems for myself which I solved. You know, anything to keep the mind alive. As I said, it’s an exercise in self-preservation. Writing was just part of it.