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New Novel by Syl Cheney-Coker

By  | 5 July 2014 at 16:33 | 1421 views

Sierra Leone’s leading and best-known writer, Syl Cheney-Coker (photo) has written a second novel called Sacred River. His first novel was the award-winning Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar.

Cheney-Coker’s writing is complex and can be enormously difficult and easily misunderstood by the less careful reader. I would say there is a similarity of style between him and Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in their use of language and constant attention to their countries of origin, although some of the themes they tackle can be described as universalist. Both have spent most of their lives in exile and have thus imbibed many international influences which can be discerned in their work.

Another book, this time a number of critical essays on Cheney-Coker’s work edited by the famous Professor Eustace Palmer (fondly known as Doc P) and Professor Ernest Cole (his former student), has also been published. It’s called Emerging Perspectives on Syl Cheney-Coker. . Knowing Professor Palmer as I do (he was my English Professor and Head of Department at the University of Sierra Leone in the late 70s) this is the kind of book every one should purchase for their personal libraries.

Cheney-Coker was born in Freetown in 1945, just after the Second World War. That was a Freetown far different from what it is today. It was a clean Freetown with a smaller population and a British Governor. Sierra Leonean soldiers were returning home by boat after serving in the war as British subjects while calls for independence from the British Empire from the country’s political elites were beginning to take shape.

Syl left the country to study in the United States in 1966 and later returned home in the 70s. He had to leave again, first to teach at a university in the Philippines and then to the University of Maiduguru in Nigeria and then back to the States.

When I returned to Sierra Leone in 1990 from my own little exile, Syl, who is also a trained journalist, was in Freetown, publishing a newspaper called the Vanguard which stood out among the country’s many sub-standard (in terms of design and contents) newspapers. It was always a pleasure to read Syl’s Vanguard but it however did not live long. I will one day ask him what happened to his newspaper although it was easy to see it made the political and economic elites at the time very uneasy with its trenchant commentaries, analyses and investigative stories.

As one of the editors of the now defunct New Breed newspaper I used to cover events where Syl would speak on national issues with a unique insight and perspective. In fact stories on public statements and speeches by Syl and others helped to make the New Breed one of the best, if not the best, newspapers in the country at the time (early and mid-90s). A cultural attaché at the American embassy at the time, a lady whose name I have forgotten, said publicly that the New Breed was the best Sierra Leonean newspaper she had seen. Other diplomats, in fact most of the diplomats based in Freetown in those days, had enormous respect and love for the New Breed and its staff. It was selling like hot cakes in the streets of Freetown. A few years later it was banned by the NPRC military junta and its editors and proprietors incarcerated for one month at Pademba Road Maximum Security Prison after it exposed a diamond deal with some Europeans involving then military head of state Captain (Rtd) Valentine Strasser and other members of his junta.

So in addition to being a poet, novelist, journalist and essayist with local and international stature, Syl is also a committed public intellectual who however loves his privacy and personal space.

Please read reviews on the two books by and on Syl Cheny-Coker through the links provided above and click on the video clip below to listen to Syl Cheyney-Coker reading one of his poems, Of Our Lady of Diamonds, in Medellin, Colombia in 2007.

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