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Soyinka addresses need to see beyond U.S. borders

Living in a country whose Founding Fathers adopted a constitutional amendment that gave citizens the freedom of speech, 1986 Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka should be a happy resident. But as he told a packed Minor Hall Auditorium yesterday, he is disappointed that Americans fail to realize the world beyond their borders.

"Most school children can identify each state in the United States, but the geography of the United States is not the geography of the world," Soyinka said.

"For many people, the landmarks in the Bible and Koran are from episodes of Star Trek," he said. "Many people couldn't point out landmarks like the Red Sea on a map."

Soyinka's outlook on diversity and free speech helped land him in trouble with his oppressive native government in Nigeria.

The boisterous writer who advocates Nigerian democracy has been speaking and writing novels, poems and essays denouncing Nigerian tyranny and coup military regimes since 1967, when he published an appeal for a cease-fire during the Nigerian civil war.

Because of this written appeal, Soyinka was imprisoned for 22 months by the Nigerian government, spent mostly in solitary confinement. The government kept him under constant surveillance for his writings thereafter. In 1994, Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in Nigeria in 1996, took Soyinka's passport. Knowing that his arrest was imminent, Soyinka fled from the country a few days later.

"From an American perspective, it's hard to understand how someone can get into so much trouble for expressing themselves," first-year College graduate student Sara Coffman said. "But I do understand that he is very radical and that his society sees him as a threat."

After fleeing his homeland, Soyinka made his way to the United States where he now tours, lecturing and warning audiences about the oppression of authoritarianism and how closed minds stagger creativity.

"Certain canons -- call them smoking canons -- are found in authoritarianism," he told the audience in Minor Hall yesterday. "Authoritarianism takes over creativity and forces writers and other artists into timid conformity."

But as University President John T. Casteen III said when he introduced the African writer: "If there is a Renaissance man, it is he."

Casteen said Soyinka is a "master of artistic expression," who not only champions forums for free expression and governments that allow these forums to occur, but who also believes the humanities foster awareness that alleviates xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

"The canon of exclusion is directed [by one culture] at some cultures to expose the weaknesses of the cultures," Soyinka said. "It is difficult for a culture to reject their own canons."

If most Americans have little knowledge about the geography of the world outside their nation, they know even less about the people who live in those foreign nations, he said. And they often are unwilling to acknowledge the opinions and traditions of foreign peoples.

"Debates are often restricted to European opinions," he added. "The next time we check into a motel and we look in the dresser drawer, we should not see a Bible. We should see works from classical literature or even an atlas of the world for this country."

Some foreign University students in particular related to Soyinka's sentiments about America's ethnocentrism.

"I like the fact that he was so universalistic in his approach. His words rang true for me," said Nawreen Settar, a second-year College student who is originally from Bangladesh. "When I first came here, it was the first time I had ever lived with Americans. I was surprised at how little they knew about the world."

Soyinka said Americans can learn more about the world through the humanities, especially by reading literature.

"Geography is effortlessly breached by literature. Reading is like entering and discovering an exotic world," he said, before explaining what Americans could learn from other nations' laughter at President Clinton's sex scandals.

"By reading, we might begin to understand other civilized values," he added. "We can seek other societies with more dignified mechanisms for dealing with power and sexual feelings."

While Soyinka appeared to advocate a humanities education that presents a wide array of cultures along with teaching geography, the writer said he believes conspicuous emphasis on multiculturalism is unnecessary in schools.

"It's enough for references to be made in literature," Soyinka said. "No one should be forced to learn all the canons of the world, as long as the learners are aware that there are different worlds. They shouldn't think other places and cultures are bizarre vistas from outer space."

Soyinka's speech was the first lecture in a three-part Page-Barbour Lecture Series. The last two parts of the series, "The Muse At War: African Expression and the Seige of Censors," are free and open to the public tonight and tomorrow night at 4 p.m. in Minor Hall. Tonight's lecture is on "The Colonial Burden and the New Imperators." Thursday's lecture is on "Voices of Memory and the Terminal Censor"