Awoonor, Kofi 1935–
Kofi Awoonor 1935–
Poet, novelist, and government official
One of modern West Africa’s best–known writers, the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor has integrated ancient African forms of expression with the techniques of modern poetry. The resulting body of work formed a unique poetic chronicle of West African life in the late twentieth century, encompassing both the effects of European colonialism and the influence Africa exerted on other cultures around the world. Closely aligned with the preeminent leader of modern Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, Awoonor suffered imprisonment for his political beliefs but emerged as an important political figure himself in later life.
The son of a tailor and the grandson of a woman who was a traditional singer of dirges, or songs of lament, in the Ewe culture, Kofi Awoonor was born in his grandfather’s house in Wheta, Ghana, on March 13, 1935. He was baptized in the Presbyterian faith and given the name George Awoonor–Williams, but he was raised in his mother’s large extended family and was exposed more often to traditional Ewe culture than to Western religion. Most important were Ewe songs and folktales which influenced Awoonor’s early poetry. In an essay published in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Awoonor stated that his early work represented “very much an effort to move the oral poetry from which I learnt so much into perhaps a higher literary plane, even if it lost much in the process.”
Awoonor’s family was poor, but when he was nine years old he was sent away from his family to attend school; he earned a place to live by working as a servant for a wealthy family. Financing his whole education in the same way, Awoonor was able to attend the University of Ghana in the country’s capital of Accra. He graduated in 1960 and continued to teach at the university and to write. His first book of poetry, Rediscovery and Other Poems, was published in Nigeria in 1964. Critic Derek Wright, quoted on the University of Florida’s Africana Studies website, noted that Awoonor’s work “both drew on a personal family heirloom and opened up a channel into a broader African heritage.”
During this period Awoonor became allied with the charismatic Nkrumah, a symbol of the aspirations of West Africa’s newly independent countries and of African cultural pride in general. That led in 1964 to a job in Accra with Ghana’s Ministry of Information, but after Nkrumah’s government was overturned in a coup d’état Awoonor left the country. He landed for a year at the University of London, and in 1968 he came to the United States and enrolled at the State University of Stony Brook, on New York state’s Long Island.
Earning an M.A. and later (in 1973) a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stony Brook, Awoonor both deepened his poetry and began to gain wider recognition for it. His first book of poetry was reissued, with added material, by Doubleday publishing house as Night of My Blood in 1971. He also wrote plays and an experimental novel called This Earth, My Brother.
At a Glance…
Born George Awoonor–Williams on March 13, 1935, in Wheta, Ghana; son of Atsu E. (a tailor) and Kosiwo (Nyidevu) Awoonor; married; four children. Education: University College of Ghana, BA., 1960; University College, London, England, M.A., 1970; State University of New York at Stony Brook, Ph.D., 1972. Religion: Traditional ancestralist.
Career: University of Ghana, Accra, lecturer and researcher, 1960–64; Ghana Ministry of Information, director of films, 1964–67; State University of New York at Stony Brook, assistant professor of English, 1968–75; imprisoned by Ghanaian government upon return to Ghana, 1975–76; University of Cape Coast, Ghana, state professor, 1976; served as Ghanaian ambassador to Brazil and other South American countries, 1983–88; Ghanaian ambassador to Cuba, 1988–90; Ghanaian ambassador to the United Nations, New York, 1990–94; continued to serve in Ghanaian government.
Awards: Longmans fellow, University of London, 1967–68; National Book Council award, 1979.
Addresses: Home—P.O. Box C 536, Accra, Ghana; Agent—Harold Ober Associates, 40 E. 49th St., New York, NY 10017.
Awoonor’s poetry often dealt with themes of loss and exile; it had the flavor of traditional songs of lament while making reference to Ghana’s history and the uprooting effects of English colonialism. This Earth, My Brother mirrored Awoonor’s own African upbringing and transplantation to the West; it mixed realistic narrative with poetic elements.
Awoonor’s 1973 volume Ride Me, Memory incorporated African–American culture and music into a stylistic mix that also included traditional African oral styles of ritual insult and abuse; it also earned Awoonor a reputation as one of the key writers, along with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and others, who could interpret the African world for English–speaking Western audiences. One of his most widely known poems, “The Weaver Bird” originally appeared in Rediscovery and Other Poems and was widely reprinted. It used a common African form—a poem about an animal—to comment on the effects of European domination of Africa; the weaver bird is a creature that destroys the tree in which it takes up residence.
The collection of poems Awoonor had submitted as his Ph.D. dissertation was published as The Breast of the Earth in 1975. By that time Awoonor had become professor and chair of the department of comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook. That year, the poet took a one–year sabbatical leave to return home to Ghana, intending to teach at the country’s Cape Coast University. But the trip had disastrous results—he was thrown in prison on charges of harboring a subversive on December 31, 1975, amid rumors of a possible coup. Despite heavy international pressure organized largely by Awoonor’s U.S. colleagues, he was held for a year with little contact with the outside world.
Awoonor continued to write while in Ghana’s Ussher Fort prison, and his work of this period was published in 1978 as The House By the Sea. These poems marked a new and more political direction in Awoonor’s work. Unsurprisingly his life after his release from prison in 1976 became more and more entwined with the politics and government of his homeland. Awoonor taught at Cape Coast University from 1977 to 1982, but then embarked upon a period of service to the Ghanaian government in various capacities. He became Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil in 1984 and was named ambassador to Cuba in 1988. From 1990 to 1994 Awoonor was the Ghanaian ambassador to the United Nations in New York.
Noted for his advocacy of African causes at the U.N., Awoonor penned a variety of nonfiction works during this period, including two full–length books on Ghanaian history and a general study, Africa: The Marginalised Continent (1995). He returned to poetry, however, with the Latin American and Caribbean Notebook (1992), a work drawn from Awoonor’s residence in those regions. That work and his 1992 novel Comes the Voyager at Last found less critical favor than Awoonor’s earlier books.
In the later 1990s Awoonor, entering his seventh decade, plunged once again into the rough–and–tumble world of Ghanaian domestic politics. He served in the administration of Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings as an aide and economic planner, drawing criticism at one point for an offhand remark that praised Accra’s notorious traffic jams as a sign of economic resilience. In this latter stage of his career, Awoonor joined a procession of modern African writers, including Senegalese president Leopold Senghor and Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié, who turned to civic affairs later in life. He was honored with several literary prizes and is generally considered Ghana’s most important writer.
Rediscovery and Other Poems, 1964.
Night of My Blood, poetry, 1971.
This Earth, My Brother, novel, 1971.
The Breast of the Earth, poetry, 1975.
The House by the Sea, poetry, 1978.
Comes the Voyager at Last, novel, 1992.
Latin American and Caribbean Notebook, poetry, 1992.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 13, Gale, 1991.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Africa News, August 24, 1999; May 13, 2000; April 11, 2002.
New York Times, February 4, 1976, p. 8; February 22, 1976, p. 48; November 18, 1976, p. 8.
Straits Times (Malaysia), September 11, 1993, Life-4.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
University of Florida Library Africana, http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/cm/africana/awoonor.htm
—James M. Manheim
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