Editor’s note: When I queried the great Syl Cheney-Coker about an interview, he told me his initial reaction had been outright refusal because he “had sworn NEVER to grant another interview.” However, he said he’d “make this one exception after reading about The Collidescope.” I’m grateful to Mr. Cheney-Coker for this opportunity and I hope you find our exchange illuminating.
George Salis: Your first novel, The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, came out in 1990. After 23 years, your long-awaited second novel, Sacred River, came out in 2013. What attracted you to the novel form again after all that time and do you think you’d ever write a third one?
Syl Cheney-Coker: The novel form was a better choice because of the imbroglio going on in the west African region at that time. As I had already written a fourth volume of poems, Stone Child and other Poems, in which I had dealt with some of the issues, I needed a bigger canvas for the broader socio-political ideas. Moreover, I was aware that people expected a follow-up to The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar and I wasn’t going to disappoint them. Sacred River was ready for publication years before it finally came out. The fault lay not with me, but with the bloody-mindedness of American publishers, with regard to their perception of what AFRICAN literature was! I had spent eight years writing that novel, and it took my agent another five to finally sell it!
Over the years, there had evolved a mindset amongst American publishers that the African continent (COUNTRY) was a region, unlike others, from which only a SINGLE narrative kind of novel was worth reading in the West! Just look at the majority of books by African writers published in the USA in the last twenty-five years, and my point will be well borne out. Were those books mainly undermining the integrity of the writer’s country’s cultural identity? Yes! Was the theme mainly about miserable people escaping from their godforsaken countries? Yes! Were those characters living in ghettoes, refugee camps, squalor, etc., etc.? Yes! I could go on!
Sacred River was different: no one was fleeing from poverty; no one was bashing their cultural identity. It questioned certain political trends and (a cardinal sin for most Western publishers), it made use of myths and legends that were thousands of years old! African myths, magical ideas, etc. So my agent received gems like these: From Farrar. Straus & Giroux, “American readers would ask why they are reading a novel from Africa that has magic realism in it.”
The implication was clear: Writers from any other part of the globe were allowed the decency of writing about anything, but not African authors! From Houghton and Mifflin came this masterpiece: “I am interested in Africa, but I want something real.” Here was a fellow in Manhattan who definitely did not know what was going on in the four other boroughs of New York, yet knew about what was going on in the African continent (COUNTRY)!!! Moreover, the last time I checked, the definition of the NOVEL came under FICTION!!! However, when it comes to us, American publishers want REALITY! That fixation on their perception of a continent different from the rest of humanity! Lastly, in answer to whether I shall ever write another novel? I am happy to say I have done so, and that its destiny is no longer in my hands!
I should also mention that, after a long delay, Alusine Dunbar is being reissued in London by Black Star Press, which I suspect is owned by Penguin, although I am not 100 percent certain. So, in general, the not-too-old goat is back!
GS: That’s great news about the new novel and the reprint. Congrats! A little while ago, I finally tracked down a signed copy of Alusine Dunbar.
SCC: Splendid! I hope you didn’t have to pay a fortune for that copy! I once had an encounter with a professor, in Morgantown, who realising who I was, as the keynote speaker at an ALA conference, dashed out of the elevator to get her copy, and when she came back, said to me: “You don’t know how much l paid for this copy because I knew you were coming here and wanted you to sign it!”
GS: I got it for less than $20, but it did take a long time to find a copy.
SCC: I’m glad you paid that much. There was a time when some cutthroats were charging $1,200 for a copy! For the sake and patience of so many people, I am glad those days will soon be over.
GS: Gabriel García Márquez didn’t take to the term “magical realism” because to him and his people, the magic was as real as anything else in their world. To be more specific, he said, “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” Is this how you view the magic in your novels and poems? Does surrealism come from the reality of Sierra Leone?
SCC: I am glad you mentioned surrealism, for it was André Breton who, after reading Cahier d’un retour au pays natal by Aime Cesaire, declared that the Caribbean poet was undoubtedly the “greatest Surrealist poet of the 20th Century!” For what Cesaire did in that masterwork was to imagine a time when language was being formed! As he wrote in that great poem, “I want to say storm, I want to say sand dunes; the man who cannot understand me cannot understand the roaring of a tiger!” In essence, for him to complete his Negritude, he had to get back to the origins of his being—the Africa of his ancestors!
Let me share this experience with you. Three days ago, a friend of mine in Sierra Leone told me this classic! For several years, he and a distant cousin had been feuding over a building, and the matter, as usual, was dragging its way through our perennially slow courts! Fate then decided to take a hand in the matter, and my friend’s cousin died!! He had been suffering from cancer.
The sun was brilliant on the morning of the funeral, the poinsettias, oleanders, and eucalyptus in bloom; the mourners were ready to do the dead man proud, as they ushered his coffin inside the cathedral. But as the cortege was leaving the building after the funeral, Mother Nature had a change of heart! The sun disappeared, and the heavens opened up with what my friend said was a tremendously heavy downpour!!! Throughout all this, he had been sitting on his verandah, from where he had a vantage of the cathedral. As the rain came down, he said he suddenly started receiving calls from members of the funeral party who had his cell number! They said the atmospheric change was due to the legerdemain he had worked on the dead man! Moreover, they said they had seen two LARGE BIRDS perched on his shoulders as the funeral cortege was entering the cathedral! He had to let the dead man go, they pleaded!
Who needs MAGIC REALISM when you come from such a surreal world!!!!!
GS: In the late 90s, you were invited to become the first writer of the City of Asylum program in Las Vegas, Nevada. You mentioned in the past that LA ended up subverting your expectations. Can you reflect on your time living in LA and how those experiences informed your writing? I read that fellow writer Wole Soyinka, who was also exiled from his homeland at the time, welcomed you to the city.
SCC: The invitation was really in 2000 and, sadly, now that there has been an attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life, it is worth reminding readers that the Cities of Asylum idea was born after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against the writer. I am glad Rushdie is still with us. In 2000, Wole Soyinka was the president of The International Parliament of Writers, in charge of the project. I needed a place in exile, and it was he who suggested my name to the parliament; after which I went to Las Vegas. The experience was a surreal one: It was a most un-literary place at that time, but it afforded me the peace, comfort, and quiet to write.
GS: If you could have only one of your poems translated into all languages, which would you choose and why?
SCC: “Letter to a Tormented Playwright”! It is perhaps my most humanist poem!
[The poem in question begins: “Amadu I live alone inside four walls of books / some I have read others will grow cobwebs / or maybe like some old friends and lovers / will fade away with their undisclosed logic…”]
GS: What is a novel or poetry collection you’ve read and think deserves more readers?
SCC: Poemas humanos by the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo.
GS: In an email, you mentioned that you’ve “just recovered from a long illness that almost cost me my life and left me partially blind in my left eye!” I was wondering if the illness has caused you to have a new perspective on life, art, etc.
SCC: About my long (three-year) illness, I had never been so ill before in my life, except for the occasional bouts of malaria, before l turned 73! Then, like a bad, vicious ogre, I was struck by neuropathy, diabetes, and my vision was going bad! I was ready to call it quits, but the man upstairs said I was too troublesome and there was no room for me in the INN!
So, with his guidance, my doctors patched me up! I am back to normal and was able to completely rewrite my third novel!
GS: Throughout your life, what has been the most consistent and powerful motivation for writing? What are you working on now?
SCC: I am working on anything and everything! My motivation is to hopefully make it possible for the individual to look forward to the next day with some hope!
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Poet and novelist Syl Cheney-Coker was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Oregon. Both his poetry and fiction explore his identity as a Creole, the history of Sierra Leone, community, and exile. Cheney-Coker’s poetry collections include Stone Child and Other Poems (2008), a collection in which he explores the plight of children in Sierra Leone, The Blood in the Desert’s Eyes (1990), The Graveyard Also Has Teeth with Concerto for an Exile (1980), and Concerto for an Exile (1973). His novel The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar (1990) won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region. He has also received the Fonlon-Nichols Award from the African Literature Association. Cheney-Coker has taught at universities in the Philippines, Nigeria, and Las Vegas, Nevada, and was a fellow at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In the late 1980s, he edited the Vanguard, a newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone. After a 1997 military coup, he left Sierra Leone; he has since returned and divides his time between the United States and Sierra Leone.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.