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Cheyney-Coker, Syl

CHEYNEY-COKER, Syl


Nationality: Sierra Leonean. Born: Freetown, 28 June 1945. Education: University of Oregon, Eugene, 1967–70; University of California, 1970; University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1971–72. Career: Worked as a drummer; factory and dock worker; journalist, Eugene Register Guard, Oregon, 1968–69; teaching assistant, University of Wisconsin, 1971; head of cultural affairs, Radio Sierra Leone, 1972–73; freelance writer, 1973–75; visiting professor of English, University of the Philippines, Quezon City, 1975–77. Lecturer, 1977–79, and since 1979 senior lecturer, University of Maiduguri, Nigeria. Awards: Food Foundation grant, 1970. Address: Department of English, University of Maiduguri, P.M.B. 1069, Maiduguri, Nigeria.

Publications

Poetry

Concerto for an Exile. New York, Africana, 1972; London, Heinemann, 1973.

The Graveyard Also Has Teeth. London, New Beacon, 1974.

The Blood in the Desert's Eyes: Poems. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1990.

Novel

The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar. Oxford and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1990.

*

Critical Study: "Syl Cheyney-Coker, Concerto for an Exile" by M.J. Salt, in African Literature Today (Freetown, Sierra Leone), 7, 1975.

Syl Cheyney-Coker comments:

(1974) I hold the terrible distinction of being the only poet from my country who has published a sizable volume of poems. I say "terrible" not in the pejorative sense but from a feeling of painful awareness that before my appearance my country was a ghetto of silence.

A popular awareness of self and the creation of different modes of expression of our social and cultural needs seem to me to be the immediate task of the Sierra Leonean writer. We are a strange people; our history, language, and culture are not to be confused with those of other English-speaking Africans.

The admixture of English philanthropy and African exotica that has produced and shaped the Sierra Leonean creole is for me the makeup of any genuine Sierra Leonean literature.

My Afro-Saxon heritage has meant a lot for me as I summarize my passion, and I hope it will convey something of the strangeness of my people to the reader.

*  *  *

The question of ancestry is a central concern in the writing of many third world poets. In the poems of Syl Cheyney-Coker, especially those collected in his 1972 book Concerto for an Exile, this concern becomes a fixation. He writes of his

   … Creole ancestry
   which gave me my negralised head
   all my polluted streams

providing the impulse for poems that, in the extravagance and precise violence of their imagery, match some of the best writing of Vallejo and U'Tamsi, two poets whom Cheyney-Coker acknowledges as influences.

There are also definite echoes of the negritude school and the poems of David Diop. The "Africa, My Africa" of Diop's poems has, however, been narrowed down to a specific nation, Sierra Leone, the land of freed slaves where a patois language and a Western-influenced capital, Freetown, are ironic heritages of the colonial era:

   In my country the Creoles drink only
   Black and White with long sorrows
   hanging from their colonial faces …

Cheyney-Coker's poems are cries of bitter agony and bright illumination at one and the same time. They present the picture of a nation and a poet tortured by a culture and a religion imposed upon them, but a nation and a poet who may find salvation through defiance. This can be seen, for example, in "Agony of the Dark Child" or in "Misery of the Convert":

   I was a king before they nailed you on the cross
   converted I read ten lies in your silly commandments
   to honour you my Christ
   when you have deprived me of my race …

"Painful" is a word that can readily be applied to much of Cheyney-Coker's writing, just as another word—"truthful"—can also be applied to the same poems. Through a wrenching examination of personal and national histories, he attempts to create a new vision, a more honest world. In his poem "Guinea," written on the unsuccessful invasion of that nation by Portuguese mercenaries, he defines his role:

   I am not the renegade
   who has forsaken your shores
   I am not the vampire
   gnawing at your heart
   to feed capitalist banks
   I am your poet
   writing No to the world.

Joseph Bruchac

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