PARIS — Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright, novelist and poet who searches for universal truths in his native Yoruba culture, won the Nobel Prize in literature Thursday and promptly described it as "a recognition for creativity that goes back centuries" in black Africa.
The Swedish Academy of Letters, which selects the winner of the most prestigious literary prize in the world every year, had never before chosen an African or anyone of African descent in the 85-year history of the Nobel prizes.
Joking about this, Soyinka, who is in Paris for a meeting of the International Theatre Institute, which he heads, told reporters, "We should institute a similar prize in Africa and then make sure we hold it for 85 years before giving it to a European."
In a more serious vein, the 52-year-old writer said that he could not view the prize as a personal one but as a prize to "a community of writers." He said it amounts to recognition, at last, of the rich black African culture, including literature, that has been ignored by many outsiders.
Soyinka, who like most educated Nigerians writes in English and not in the native language of his Yoruba people, has written two novels--"The Interpreters," in 1965, and "Season of Agony," in 1973--more than a dozen plays and a highly acclaimed 1981 book about his childhood titled "Ake."
Although usually not regarded as a political figure, Soyinka was arrested in 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War for his sympathies for the Biafran secessionists. He was imprisoned for 22 months, mostly in solitary confinement.
For many years it had been assumed in Europe that the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature would be Leopold Senghor, the former president of Senegal who is a poet and a member of the French Academy, the highest honor that France can bestow on a writer in the French language.
In recent years, however, there have been more and more signs that the Swedish Academy was turning its attention to Soyinka. The Nigerian, in fact, was regarded as a strong candidate for the 1985 prize, which went to French novelist Claude Simon.
As an African writer, Soyinka is far different from Senghor. He once mocked the Senegalese president and several other French-speaking African poets for their obsession with what they called "negritude," a spiritual sense of blackness possessed by all Africans.
Soyinka, always down to earth and suspicious of African pretensions, dismissed the group by saying, "I have never heard of a tiger walking around boasting about his tigritude."
Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy cited Soyinka as a writer "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence." The academy said that Soyinka "possesses a prolific store of words and expressions which he exploits to the full in witty dialogue, in satire and grotesquery, in quiet poetry and essays of sparkling vitality."
In Ithaca, N.Y., Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of English and African studies at Cornell University, rejected the notion that Soyinka was selected because of his race or for political considerations.
"The fact that he is African or black is incidental," said Gates, a former student of Soyinka who nominated his one-time professor for the Nobel. "He is a master of the English language, he is a master poet, he is a master playwright. Long after the issues of African today are footnotes in history, people will be studying the works of Wole Soyinka."
Soyinka said he considers himself "first and foremost a dramatist--a poetic dramatist" who explores metaphysics by "diving into the mythology of my people."
The academy singled out two plays, "A Dance of the Forests" and "Death and the King's Horseman," as evidence that Soyinka is "one of the finest poetical playwrights that have written in English."
The first play, which leans heavily on Yoruba mythology, was written when Soyinka was in his 20s and was performed in Lagos in 1960 as part of the Nigerian independence celebrations. The second play will be produced at Lincoln Center in New York early next year, and Soyinka recently visited New York to supervise auditions for the production.
The new Nobel laureate was born in 1934 in the village of Ake, near Abeokuta in the heartland of the Yoruba people in western Nigeria, and spoke Yoruba as his native language. The son of a school principal, he was schooled in English in Nigeria and studied at Leeds University in Britain and the University College of Ibadan in Nigeria.
After his university studies, he worked as a teacher and scriptwriter in London, then returned to Nigeria after independence, founding a theater group there. Aside from writing plays, he acted and directed for the group.
During the civil war, most Nigerian writers identified with their own tribe, but Soyinka, despite the allegiance of his Yoruba people to the federal government, demonstrated sympathy for the Ibo people and their breakaway state of Biafra.