Okara, Gabriel 1921–
Gabriel Okara 1921–
Nigerian poet, novelist
Just as black writers in the United States and the Caribbean have faced the problem of how to express themselves in the language of those who enslaved them, black African writers have experimented with different ways of communicating in European languages the experience of colonization and the feel of their traditional cultures. Among the most famous West African writers working in the English language is Gabriel Okara, considered one of the founders of modern African literature. In his novel The Voice he constructed an unusual bridge over the divide between English and African languages: parts of the novel are written in a unique form of English that reproduces the patterns of Okara’s native Ijaw language. Okara’s equally well-known poetry is also poised between European and African modes of expression.
A descendant of a noble family of the Ijaw ethnic group and the son of a businessman, Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara was born on April 24 (or 21), 1921, in Bumoundi in British-occupied Nigeria. His family adhered to the Christian Scientist religion, and Christian imagery would play a part in some of his mature works although they were rarely explicitly religious in theme. After attending local schools, Okara entered Nigeria’s British-administered higher education system when he was 14. He attended Government College in the Nigerian city of Umuahia and later Yaba Higher College, studying art as well as writing. He is said to have been inspired to become a poet when he read the poem “Lines Written in Early Spring” by the British Romantic writer William Wordsworth.
During World War II, Okara attempted to enlist in the British Royal Air Force but did not complete pilot training. Instead he worked for a time for the British Overseas Airway Corporation (later British Airways), taught school and dabbled in business, and traveled to the small British colony called The Gambia on Africa’s west coast. In 1945 Okara found work as a printer and bookbinder for colonial Nigeria’s government-owned publishing company. He remained in that post for nine years, during which he began to write. At first he translated poetry from Ijaw into English and wrote scripts for government radio.
In 1953 Okara’s poem, “The Call of the River Nun,” won a literary prize at Nigeria’s Festival of Arts. Written in 1950, it was later published in 1957 in the influential Ibadan University-based African literature periodical Black Orpheus and has remained one of his most widely read poems. Like many of Okara’s later poems, “The Call of the River Nun” combines a straightforward outer significance—the poem’s narrator expresses nostalgia for the river named in the poem’s title—with a layer of symbolic meanings: Okara used such symbols as rivers and boats to represent individual destiny and the passage of life and time. The poem begins “I hear your call!/I hear it far away I hear it break the circle/Of these crouching hills.”
Okara worked for the Nigerian Ministry of Information in the late 1950s. In 1959 he came to the United
At a Glance…
Bom Gabriel Imomotimt Gbaingbain Okara on April 24 (some sources say April 21), 1921, in Bumoundi, British-controlled Nigeria; son of Samson G. Okara (a businessman) and Martha Olodiama Okara; married and divorced three times; two children. Education: Attended Government College, Umuahia, Nigeria, 1935-41; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, comparative journalism degree, 1960. Religion: Christian Scientist.
Career: Government Press, Nigeria, printer and bookbinder, 1945-54; published first poem, “Call of the River Nu,” 1953; Nigerian Ministry of Information, officer, late 1950s; published novel The Voice, 1964; Eastern Nigerian Government Service, information officer, 1964-70; Rivers State (Nigeria) Newspaper and Television Corps, general manager, 1971-75; published poetry collection The Fisherman’s Invocation, 1978; lectured widely, 1980s; wrote materials for children, 1990s.
Selected awards: “Best All-Around” award, Nigerian Festival of Art, 1953, for “Call of the River Nun” Commonwealth Joint Poetry Award, 1979, for The Fisherman’s Invocation.
Addresses: Home—24 Nembe Road, Port Harcourt, Rivers, Nigeria.
States for further study, and in 1960, the year Nigeria became independent from Great Britain, he earned a degree in comparative journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. While in Illinois he interned at the public information office of an atomic energy research center near Chicago and, upon seeing snow for the first time, wrote “The Snowflakes Sail Gently Down,” a meditative poem in which a snowbound expatriate African dreams of the end of foreign exploitation of Africa. It was one of several works in which the colonial world was symbolized by snow and ice.
Seemingly set, like several other modern African writers, for a career as a government employee, Okara found himself in conflict with some cultural aspects of the new Nigeria. The theme of the intellectual estranged from the world of power politics was one of the strands that made up Okara’s important novel The Voice (1964). “I wrote The Voice because of the inconsistencies of our rulers after the British had left Nigeria,” Okara was quoted as saying in Contemporary Authors. “In the fight for independence our politicians denounced certain measures and attitudes of the colonial government, only to perpetrate the same ones when they took over.”
Richly African in its subject matter, yet using symbolic methods gleaned from Okara’s study of European literature, The Voice stimulated controversy in both the African and the Western press. The novel features a young man named Okolo (which means “the voice” in Ijaw) who falls afoul of the people in his home town when he begins to search for an unnamed “it”—variously interpreted as faith, an inner voice, African destiny, and the meaning of life. “Everybody’s inside is now filled with money, cars and concrete houses and money,” Okolo says.
The most striking feature of the novel is its use of an Ijaw-English hybrid in some sections; Okara wrote them in his native Ijaw and translated the words one by one into English so as to replicate Ijaw syntax. For example, a sentence that meant “He is always speaking of change” came out as “Things changing how always he speaking.” Critical opinion was divided about Okara’s innovation—according to Modern Black Writers. Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka argued that the “self-conscious language [of The Voice] is the device of the narcissist, a subterfuge within which the hero can contemplate his creator’s navel while remaining himself impenetrable in the barrier of contrived language.” But the Nigerian critic Emmanuel Obiechina (also quoted in Modern Black Writers) praised Okara, contending that the Ijaw inflection “gives the action of the story a peculiarly heavy-footed and tortuous movement which again seems to fit the serious moral tone and pessimistic mood of the story.”
Okara gained international attention for The Voice, but the gathering storms of Nigeria’s brutal civil war interrupted his career. Working for the Eastern Region branch of the Nigerian government information office, Okara became aligned with that region of the country when it proclaimed itself the independent nation of Biafra in 1967. He visited the United States once more in 1969 to plead the Biafran cause, but over four years of chaotic fighting many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed.
After the war’s end, Okara headed what was at the time Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) only FM radio station. He served as Nigeria’s commissioner of information and broadcasting in 1975, and then retired from public service. In 1978 his collected poetry was published in a volume called The Fisherman’s Invocation; the title poem of the book won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, which honored the best poem of the year to appear in the entire British Commonwealth association of nations. Another well-known Okara poem was “Piano and Drum,” which evoked the contrasting worlds of the West and Africa through their most characteristic musical instruments but looked to a future fusion of the two worlds in a single composition.
Okara continued to write into advanced old age. He lectured widely on poetry and literature in the 1980s, and in the 1990s he wrote a series of works for children, based on traditional African folktales and mythology. Married and divorced three times, he had two children of his own. At the century’s end he was reported to be at work on a large poem called “The Rise and Fall of the Tortoise,” a common figure in West African storytelling.
The Voice (novel), F. Watts, 1964.
The Fisherman’s Invocation (collected poetry), Heine-mann, 1978.
Various writings appear in periodicals and literary anthologies; also author of various works for children.
Cox, C. Brian, ed., African Writers, Scribner’s, 1997.
Herdeck, Donald E., African Authors, Volume I, Black Orpheus Press, 1973.
Lindfors, Bernth, and Reinhard Sander, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 125: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Second Series, Gale, 1993.
Valade, Roger M., Ill, ed., The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Gale, 1996.
Wordworks, Manitou, ed., Modern Black Writers, 2nd ed., St. James, 2000.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001.
—James M. Manheim
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