Syl Cheney-Coker is one of Sierra Leone’s most renowned poets, novelist, and journalist who has a global sense of literary history. Educated at the Universities of Oregon and Wisconsin, and a former visiting writer at the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa, he has through his write ups, introduced styles and techniques from French and Latin American literature to Sierra Leone.
He was one of the writers who criticized the one-party government of then President Siaka Stevens, an action that forced him to exile. He spent most of his life away from his native country and through those eyes he has written extensively (in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) about the condition of exile and the view of Africa from an African abroad.
Syl Cheney-Coker was one of the international writers that graced the Ake Art and Book Festival held recently at Abeokuta. In this interview, the author of Concerto for Exile, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, The Graveyard also has Teeth, said that African leaders make life uncomfortable for writers. Excerpts:
FROM your profile, one can observe that you spent much of your time in exile, why?
I spent much time in Sierra
Leone than in exile. While, things happen in everybody’s life and the time frame to preserve your sanity, to be able to do your best contributions, however small to society, you must leave and in my own case I have a responsibility, my daughter was overseas, I wanted to be close to her, my wife was overseas then, I wanted to be close to her. And as the politics in Sierra Leone became intolerable in 1997, I left, intending to spend only one year but that one year became 14 years, as they kept on extending invitations to me and I stayed. That was how it happened.
In most of your works, you raised the issue of the conditions of people in exile and views of African abroad, why?
I don’t think I wrote more about the conditions of Africans in exile. I’ve written about conditions of people from all the five centres of the world, I’ve written about what is going on in the middle east, in the Carribean, in Latin America, but my primary focus is the African continent of course because that is what I know best and a writer should write about what he or she knows. Don’t try to go where you don’t know anything because it becomes terrible.
What is your view about what writers of your generation wrote and what the present writers are writing?
I think we were interested
more in politics, we were concerned about tomorrow, about where we are going to be tomorrow, we were concerned about a sense of responsibility, not just on our part but on the part of everybody on the African continent.
I am not quite sure that the writers of today have the same concern. I doubt, may be they are concerned about something different. May be because they were born in the age of technology, the age of urgency, they travel more etc. But generations are different, the present generation have different concerns, we can’t express the same.
In your paper, you said that you are opposed to the issue of the West telling writers what to write to get published, so how would you think that will be possible in this generation?
I don’t oppose the Americans or whites telling us what to write. I am opposed to anybody telling a writer what to write in order to get published. I think writers should be free, independent.
If writing means anything it means the freedom not only to express oneself, but the freedom to say what one wants to say . It is not a matter of Americans telling us what to write, let me say it clear, it is a matter of whether you are an African government, American publisher or Spainish journalists, or you for that matter as a journalist telling a writer what to say.
You talked about your new book, what is the title and what is it all about?
The title is Sacred River, but what it is all about, you have to buy the book and read it.
It is like many African writers seem to get it right when they are outside Africa or in exile, why?
May be our leaders don’t
make our life comfortable, they make it impossible for us to be comfortable, not financially but just health wise. And the time frame to be removed from everything gives you broader perspectives, you are removed from the immediate environment, so when you are away, you can see things more clearly and write about it.
Writers are known to intervene, raise questions and proffer solutions, have they been doing that?
We are not philosophers, we are not kings, we are not Obas, we are not politicians, we don’t offer solutions, we raise questions, we ask questions perhaps others refuse to ask. Yes that is what we do
But have they been playing that role they are supposed to play?
Some of us, I hope. Others decide to intervene in politics. Is an individual choice, some writers say yes, others say I don’t want to be part of it. So it is up to the writer.