Cheney-Coker, Syl 1945–

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Syl Cheney-Coker 1945


At a Glance

Selected writings


Sierra Leonean writer Syl Cheney-Coker, whose name is sometimes spelled Chey-ney-Coker, is the author of a novel that won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize for outstanding English-language fiction. He had also published numerous volumes of verse for some two decades before that. Much of his work paints a brutal portrait of life in Sierra Leone, an African country whose newfound independence was shattered by civil strife during his early adult years. The countrys problems have endured almost as long as Cheney-Cokers career as a writer, and he has spent much of his life in exile. Cheyney-Cokers poems are cries of bitter agony and bright illumination at one and the same time, a Contemporary Poets essayist asserted of his work. 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.

Cheney-Coker was born on June 28, 1945, in Freetown, Sierra Leones capital. He was of Krios or Creole heritage, as is much of the population in this West African nation of 27 million. It was originally the land of the Temne and Mande, who were subdued first by the Portuguesewho called the land Serra Lyoa, or lion mountainsand then by the British. An Atlantic seaboard country, it emerged as a vital trading port for West Africa, and in the 1800s became a colony for freed slaves from America and the Caribbean. Their descendants, as well as the Krios, or mixed-European Sierra Leoneans, eventually made up the countrys middle class. Tensions simmered between this group and the predominantly Muslim Temne for generations, and there were also tensions between the Temne and the once-powerful Mande kingdom, which had been suppressed early in the twentieth century.

In the first years of Cheney-Cokers life, Sierra Leones nationalist movement gained momentum. A Mande, Milton Margai, was elected president in 1951, and the country gained full independence in 1961. But tensions lingered, and a series of military coups ensued after 1967 that ousted a legitimately elected Temne prime minister and instigated years of unrest. Cheney-Coker left the country that year, heading to the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a journalist for a local paper. He also spent time at the University of California at Los Angeles and at the University of Wisconsins Madison campus in the early 1970s, before returning to Freetown, where he found

At a Glance

Born on June 28, 1945, in Freetown, Sierra Leone; son of Samuel B. and Lizzie (a trader; maiden name, Dundas) Coker. Education: Attended University of Oregon, 1967-70; attended University of CaliforniaLos Angeles, 1970; attended University of WisconsinMadison, 1971-72.

Career: Eugene Register Guard, Eugene, OR, journalist, 1963-69; Radio Sierra Leone, Freetown, Sierra Leone, head of cultural affairs, 1972-73; freelance writer and poet, 1973; University of the Philippines, Quezon City, visiting professor of English, 1975-77; University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, lecturer, 1977-79, senior lecturer, 1979.

Awards: Ford Foundation grant, 1970; Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region, for The Last Harmattan of Atusine Dunbar, 1991,

Addresses: Office c/o Heinemann, P. O. Box 6926, Portsmouth, NH 03802-6926.

a post as head of cultural affairs for Radio Sierra Leone. Since 1973 he has worked primarily as a freelance writer.

Cheney-Cokers first book of poetry, Concerto for an Exile: Poems, appeared in 1973, and was a historic first for Sierra Leone: it made Cheney-Coker the first writer from that country to publish a volume of poetry. He had no grand ambitions when he began, as he once told Contemporary Authors. My being a poet was largely dictated by a nagging desire to understand the contradictions of the elements of my people, he explained. Much of his early work was influenced by the Négritude literary movement, which flourished among French-speaking African exiles in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s, among them Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire. The movements literary style was characterized by a disdain for oppressive European attitudes toward African culture.

The verses in Concerto for an Exile contain imagery that is often violent, and its verses express anger and dismay at the actions of his fellow Sierra Leoneans. Yet Cheney-Coker is also highly critical of his own background as well, as part of the privileged minority descended from the freed slave community. The poetry is passionate, almost masochistic, as [Cheney-Coker] poetically figures himself as a Christ-like figure, to be martyred for his community, according to an essay by Mark L. Lilleleht in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. A second volume of Cheney-Cokers verse, The Graveyard Also Has Teeth, quickly followed in 1974, with a revised edition published five years later. In this second collection, Cheney-Cokers anger seems to give way to a yearning for his homeland, and a desire to contribute to its future. I want only to plough your fields / to be the breakfast of the peasants who read, one poem asserts. Lilleleht found a much deeper sense of mission in these new poems together with a recognition of his needs and limitations as a poet.

In the late 1970s Cheney-Coker accepted a teaching position at the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria. New poems were published in his 1990 volume The Blood in the Deserts Eyes, and he also wrote his first novel that same year. The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar took the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Africa Region a year later. The story is a fictionalized history of a fictional Atlantic port city-state called Malagueta. Two hundred years of its traumas are chronicled, concluding with a coup. The harmattan of the title refers to a fierce, dust-carrying seasonal wind from the Sahara Desert that plagues this part of Africa. A prophet, Sulaiman the Nubian, appears and forecasts doom for Malagueta because of human folly, and he returns generations later as Alusine Dunbar. Cheney-Cokers literary style uses elements of the surreal, including distorted physical features and out-landishly outré events. Publishers Weekly reviewer Penny Kaganoff wrote that in the tradition of magical realism, a sense of history and psychological drama make the story believable.

In the 1990s tensions continued in Sierra Leone, and even escalated in the spring of 1997 when a military junta took power. Cheney-Coker was living back in the Freetown area by then, but was once again forced to flee when rebel forces tried to break into his home. For a time he taught in New York, but then settled in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was offered asylum as part of a new program that provided a home for writers who were fleeing political strife around the world. The program was funded in part by a casino and resort owner, Wole Soyinka, himself a writer. Grace Brad-berry of the London Times reported that the idea of bringing a writer to a place notorious for its shallow values and fake sphinxes was hatched over dinner by Wole Soyinka, the esteemed Nigerian novelist and 1985 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, and a professor at the University of Las Vegas. Cheney-Coker arrived in the fall of 2000, and was given an apartment, the use of a car, and an annual stipend of some $30,000 for his living expenses. He began working on Stone Child, a novel about the illicit diamond trade in Sierra Leone, which had served to finance the insurgency for years. I expect Las Vegas to be a place where imagination is allowed to run wild, he said in a Los Angeles Times interview with Tom Gorman. I hope this will be a very fruitful experience.

Selected writings

Concerto for an Exile: Poems, Africana Publishing, 1973.

The Graveyard Also Has Teeth (poems), New Beacon Press, 1974; revised edition, Heinemann, 1979.

The Blood in the Deserts Eyes (poems), Heinemann, 1990.

The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (novel), Heinemann, 1990.



Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James, 1991.

Serafin, Steven R., ed., Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Volume 1: A-D, St. James, 1999, pp. 479-480.


Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2000, p. A1.

Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1990, p. 49; September 27, 1999, p. 100.

Times (London, England), October 23, 2000, p. 13.


Syl Cheney-Coker, Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (December 16, 2003).

Carol Brennan