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Syl Cheney-Coker Biography | Poet

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Syl Cheney-Coker (also spelled Cheyney-Coker), Sierra Leonean poet and novelist (writing in English), b. 28 June 1945, Freetown. He was born to Christian Creole parents in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Having received his early education in Sierra Leone, at the age of twenty-one he came to the United States to pursue postsecondary education at the Universities of Oregon and Wisconsin and also worked for a time as a journalist. He has taught at universities in the Philippines, Nigeria and the U.S. and served as editor and publisher of a fortnightly newspaper, the Vanguard, in Freetown in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

C.-C.'s earliest uncollected poetry reflects a heavy debt to the ideas of the Négritude movement. The poem "Ghetto Woman" (1970) is modeled after Léopold Sédar Senghor's ode to and objectification of African women, "Femme noire" (1945; "Black Woman," 1964). Although C.-C.'s subsequently collected verse shows less of Négritude's heavily romanticized and "Africanized" imagery, he continued to base much of his early critical evaluative works, through the 1970s, on the tenants of the Négritude ideology.

C.-C.'s first book-length poetry collection, Concerto for an Exile (1973), has as its driving force his wrestling with questions of identity and his personal and poetic place in the world. As a member of the Sierra Leonean Creole community, he is caught between the privilege that this afforded him in his youth and the instability of that identity, rooted as it is in the slave trade and the community of freed and returned slaves that settled in Freetown and came to dominate Sierra Leonean society. The poetry is passionate, almost masochistic, as C.-C. poetically figures himself as a Christ-like figure, to be martyred for his community.

His next collection, The Graveyard Also Has Teeth with Concerto for an Exile (1980) reprints the first volume along with fifty-three new poems, poems "in conversation with" both Sierra Leone and death. These new poems also mark the beginning of C.-C.'s shift away from a focus on the tormented self and a turning of his poetic gaze ever outward. There is a much deeper sense of mission in these new poems together with a recognition of his needs and limitations as a poet. Whereas in the earlier verse the separation from his home is almost crippling, now "I want to return into exile to be your poet!" It is a collection of seeming paradoxes, the halfway point in his poetic development, torn between a sense of duty to his community - "I want only to plough your fields / to be the breakfast of the peasants who read" - and a recognition that this Creole history and consciousness he is so busy constructing necessitates that his poetry and his life is one that crosses "From continent to continent".

This development of C.-C.'s poetic persona is completed in his third volume of poetry, The Blood in the Desert's Eyes (1990). The Christ-like persona of the earlier verses is replaced by the warnings and laments of the biblical prophet. This move away from martyr to trumpeter of injustice is reflected as well in his critical works and interviews starting in the early 1980s where C.-C. begins to view exile as the socially responsible alternative to sacrifice in the context of the repressive and often deadly state. The redemptive death of Concerto for an Exile is here reimagined as a brutal, chilling exercise of power and control.

Read in sequence, these three works illustrate quite clearly C.-C.'s development as an author and thinker. The actual poetic form varies little, however. His seeming aversion to the comma and almost unremitting presentation of often disturbing poetic conceits threatens at times to overwhelm the poetry itself and has triggered a certain wariness among critics of his work who are electrified by the passion and energy of C.-C.'s poetry and yet somewhat put off by the thematic bleakness and structural laxity of his verse.

His novel, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990), won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region and shows the influence of Latin American literary movements and authors, an influence notable from The Graveyard Also Has Teeth onward. It is a sprawling, massive work chronicling the history of Malagueta, an imaginary African country which neatly mirrors the actual - and C.-C.'s own poetically imagined - history of Sierra Leone. Framed by the execution of the contemporary "reformer," General Tamba Masimiara, the narrative traces the development of the community through slavery, resettlement, colonialism and neocolonialism, the one constant being the figure of the prophetlike Alusine Dunbar/Sulaiman the Nubian. The novel and the figure of Alusine/Sulaiman are in many respects the novelistic embodiment of that "Creole consciousness" C.-C. is struggling after in his earliest poetic works.

Long characterized as one of the more exciting and strident voices amongst the younger African poets, C.-C. has put together a body of works that reflect a growing maturity of vision without losing any of its passion or righteous anger. His poetry is not noted for its use of more traditionally recognizably "African" imagery but rather for the ways in which he connects the themes born out of his own personal experience and upbringing to an ever widening poetic world. It is this thematic broadening as well as stylistic experimentation that makes C.-C. a poet of consequence both in Africa and beyond.

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