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Further Reflections on “Sóró Sóké”: In Conversation with Oyindamola Shoola

Further Reflections on “Sóró Sóké”: In Conversation with Oyindamola Shoola

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As I understand it, two core themes mark the resistance to Soro Soke: first, that by decentring #EndSARS the text mis-narrativises the Sóró Sóké story, and second, that Lorenz is not properly positioned to tell the Sóró Sóké story. 

By Ọláolúwa Òní

“For over a year”, Oyindamola Shoola writes in the foreword to Speak Up: One Year after the Controversy, her essay reflecting on public reactions to Soro Soke: The Young Disruptors of an African Megacity, “I pondered why this series was worth writing.” Shoola then leads us through a labyrinth of grief, surprise, and disappointment to her ultimate persuasion: Nigerians failed to appreciate the “eye-opening gift” that Trish Lorenz had produced. Soro Soke is the result of a US$100,000 grant to the winner of the Nine Dots Prize biennial essay contest. Lorenz, a European journalist, received the prize in 2021 for her essay response to the prompt “What does it mean to be young in an ageing world?” Her book, published the following year, invites its young Nigerian interviewees to reflect on the same prompt.  

In the days following its publication, Soro Soke generated debate among Nigerians on social media, especially X (Twitter). I was immediately suspicious of the text: at first glance, it appeared to fit into a pattern of a roving European gaze over the (painful) experiences of African peoples. Here was Trish Lorenz, a white woman who, as internet sleuths pointed out, had no public association with the #EndSARS anti-police brutality protests, not even a tweet (post), and not even in 2020 when “Sóró Sóké” emerged as a slogan for the protests. Yet, she had not only titled her book Soro Soke, but she also claimed, in a now re-edited interview, to have named young Nigerians the “Soro Soke generation.” 

At the time, I thought that I was being unfair to the book and its author. I was being a bad reader, led by book title and gut feeling to condemn a text that I hadn’t even read. In Speak Up, Shoola notes her impatience with folks who formed their opinion without reading the text: “At some point, when someone else would bring a new argument to me about the book, I would just tell them to go read it from cover to cover before conversing with me; because it is of no point arguing with someone about what they’ve been misinformed.” And for a few hours on the morning of May 28, 2022, I would have deserved such dismissal. However, I soon logged out of X and settled into Soro Soke. I read the book cover to cover. I also read the published excerpts of Lorenz’s prize-winning essay, and tried to find out as much as I could about Lorenz herself.  I was a judge on a mission sorting through available evidence to find a path towards acquittal or even redemption. But by day’s end, I formed the still abiding certainty that Lorenz’s version of Sóró Sóké does injustice to the phrase and the campaign it represents. 

Soro soke Trish Lorenz Afrocritik
Soro Soke by Trish Lorenz | Cambridge University Press

After reading, I thought I would compile the marginalia I had made and organise them in an essay articulating my concerns. But I was haunted by one of the lines of defence I had seen mounted in support of Lorenz on X that morning: the idea that Lorenz’s book was a necessary intervention to remedy the Nigerian failure to properly account for and memorialise the #EndSARS protest. The slate of Nigerian-originated work such as poems, songs, op-eds, and films that had been published — and continue to be published — about the protest were dismissed as inferior to Lorenz’s “proper” book. This argument bothered me, enough that I did not want to write a “proper” essay that could be read as validating that sentiment. So, I wrote a play instead, titled Sóró Sóké: A Tale of Nigerian Triumph. The script was a finalist for the 2022 Beeta Arts Playwright Competition. At the moment of the climax in the play, young Nigerians refuse to give an audience to a visiting writer from Europe:

“When we set our bodies against the path of oppressive bullets, 

they were somewhere in Europe. 

When our fallen comrades became one with asphalt, 

red from crushed skulls seeping unto grey, 

as our roads turned slippery with blood 

the red of crushed grapes from fancy glass cups 

filled their mouths, 

and they said nothing in support of our plight. 

We named ourselves the sòrò sókè generation. 

We wrote songs and chanted poems. 

We buried our dead and consoled ourselves refusing to back down 

because we are the sòrò sókè generation. 

But when they received money enough to get them to drop their wine glass, 

they came to us.

They told us our poems were not good enough, 

our methods were weak. 

They alone had the correct way to do history. 

And now they will help us do our history. 

They will become our historians, 

and lay claim to names and words 

they cannot even pronounce.” 

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Writing the play soothed my angst about the debacle. I felt like I had written back without capitulating to the notion of a proper scholarly form that sits atop a hierarchy of appropriate ways to do history. Now, I want to enter into a different type of conversation. Over Lorenz’s work, yes, but with a fellow Nigerian. And because I am in conversation with kin, I do not feel pressure to be political about form. The essay format will do. 

As I understand it, two core themes mark the resistance to Soro Soke: first, that by decentring #EndSARS the text mis-narrativises the Sóró Sóké story, and second, that Lorenz is not properly positioned to tell the Sóró Sóké story. 

On the first theme, Shoola notes, “Unlike others who claimed that Soro Soke by Trish Lorenz never acknowledged the events that made the phrase Soro Soke famous, Chapter 8, titled ‘The Hashtag Generation,’ does”.  But pointing to one chapter towards the end of the book does not satisfy the charge that an entire project misrepresents a people’s experiences. Lorenz’s Soro Soke is not about the protest or experiences that made the phrase famous. Soro Soke is primarily written to “[capture] the stories of young disruptors of an African megacity.” The book tells the story of young people across various fields — fashion, arts, culinary arts, entertainment, tech, politics. The experience of police brutality intersects some of these stories, but it is not the central theme of the text. In other words, Lorenz set out to tell a tale in which the #EndSARS experience was not the focal point, yet used the slogan of the protests as the label for this different story. One simply cannot take on the slogan of a movement as the title of their book, and then make the movement itself a side quest in the narrative. Slogans and hashtags emerge to both capture and curate related stories in (digital) organising. We use them to bear witness, to make seen and make known. 

Shoola makes the point that “the #EndSARS campaign captured a lot of issues beyond police brutality that we wanted to change”. Perhaps. But if we are going to adopt this expansive understanding of the protest and the phrase — to include the varied spheres of entrepreneurial, social, and political activities, then such expansion must be Nigerian-originated. It should not come from a European interpretation of the Nigerian experience. In conversations with friends following the Twitter controversy on Lorenz’s book, I used a #MeToo analogy to illustrate this point.  Imagine, for a moment, I said, that a cis man wrote up stories of women rightfully taking up space in various spheres of public and private life in the United States. Imagine that this man then titled his book “Me Too: The Female Disruptors of American Spaces”. Would we understand the outrage that would predictably follow such a text? And would your answer be different if the text was an account of interviews with women based in New York and DC, some of whom had unfortunately experienced sexual violence? Would it change your mind if the author explained to you that his project was allowing women the voice that they have historically been denied? Or would you find such a project unduly meddlesome? Would you find it paternalistic?

Another way that Lorenz’s text mishandles the Sóró Sóké slogan is that, like many (Western-centric) texts before, it presents the voices of its subjects who live in Lagos and Abuja — the Nigerian hubs most visible to the West — as representative of the Nigerian experience. To be sure, it is important work to chronicle the experiences of young Nigerians living in Lagos and Abuja, and some of the interviewees discuss their experience of running for political office outside these two spaces. However, by titling this project Soro Soke, the book suggests a scope that it simply fails to achieve. The #EndSARS movement was a uniquely nationwide protest. Sóró Sóké was a rallying call by, from, and for all Nigerians — drawn from the far-flung corners of the country. To limit its geographic spread fundamentally changes the character of the movement. Maybe it is unfair to criticise Lorenz for not fully recognising the contours of the campaign – it takes a level of cultural appreciation, and perhaps of living the experience to grasp the power of #EndSARS. But a call for leniency in this regard brings to the fore the question of who gets to tell the Sóró Sóké story.  

The second theme of the critique against Soro Soke invites a closer eye on Lorenz’s connection to the subject of her text. To explain the importance of her book, Lorenz invokes Achebe’s charge in his interview with the Paris Review: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Editors in the global north, she says, hold a set (negative) view of Africans, and her desire to offer a different story to this narrative is a driving motivation for her work.  In this context, Lorenz is the interlocutor of Nigerian (and African) stories, a self-described “megaphone that projects their voices to an audience in the Global North”. But this idea that the Nigerian and African experience needs a European-wielded pen to be audible in the global North and to Europeans is curious. Nigerian and African writers have done, and continue to do, good and plentiful work to tell their own stories, including in the global north, including in Europe. 

Granted, it would be reductive gatekeeping to insist that only those who have experienced can write about an experience, and I do not make that argument here. I know that there are journalists who have produced good work on issues they have not personally experienced. To keep with the #MeToo analogy above, Ronan Farrow wrote a powerful investigative article about Harvey Weinstein’s victims, published in the New Yorker.  Farrow’s article is now widely regarded as an important moment in the #MeToo campaign. The difference between Farrow’s investigations and Lorenz’s book is that the former shows due deference to in-group effort around an existing campaign. Farrow does not position himself as a necessary interlocutor without whom the #MeToo story would be invisible, and his article is true to the heart of the campaign. Farrow does not co-opt the slogan of the campaign for other purposes. In fact, the slogan #MeToo does not feature in the title of the article — From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories — and only appears in the keyword tags at the end of the article.  With Soro Soke however, Lorenz positions herself as a much-needed bridge between Nigerians and the global north, and in this position takes undue license with the Nigerian experience. 

Now, I turn to the Nine Dots Prize because as the (anonymised) process by which Lorenz emerged as the European interlocutor for the Nigerian experience, it deserves some attention. Lorenz’s winning essay opens in the 10th-floor window of a building in which an omniscient narrator is looking down at a Lagos streetscape. Our narrator sees, “small yellow buses and bright yellow tuk-tuks weaving among cars…” Tuk-tuks? In Lagos? Later, the narrator describes the people: “tall and regal – entrepreneurs, artists, office workers, flyboys and proud women – with the bearing of queens and princes. Some wear traditional robes, others sleek modern interpretations.” These descriptions bear echoes of exoticism, a common trope of Western othering of non-European people, and it is unsurprising that they should come from a European writing authoritatively about the landscape and affect of a place she had never even visited. “I’ve travelled quite extensively across Africa”, Lorenz says to Shoola, “but I hadn’t been to Lagos or Nigeria before winning the Nine Dots Prize. Lagos was very much on my list of places to visit…”  It is, again, unsurprising, that Lorenz, a white woman writing about people — queens and princes in traditional robes — with whom she has no connection would emerge as the winner in an anonymised process. 

In Speak Up, Shoola notes that it is unfair to impute bad intentions towards Lorenz and the book, and this critique is legitimate. The problem — and here I am going to commit the cardinal literary sin of whipping out a cliché — is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Several missionaries on the civilising colonial voyages tucked the best of intentions into their suit jackets. But we know now how easily “good intentions” can curdle and corrode. So, even if one were to accept that Lorenz had good intentions, what obligations does she have now that the people she proposed to help are telling her that her actions have fed into a larger pattern of global extractivism from global south to global north? What obligations does she now have when folks point out how dangerous her claim to have “named them the soro soke generation”?

 

Ọláolúwa is a PhD candidate researching the intersections between Law, Literature, and History. Her debut novel, The yNBA is available in bookstores across Nigeria.  

 

Cover Photo by Ayanfe Olarinde on Unsplash

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