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Syl Cheney-Coker addressed African literature and art during his April 7 talk

Photographer: Olivia Wallace

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Syl Cheney-Coker takes questions during his talk to celebrate the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ohio University Press and African Studies

Photographer: Olivia Wallace

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Author Syl Cheney-Coker discusses state of African literature and art

Talk part of African Studies and Ohio University Press 50th anniversary celebrations


The current state of African literature and art was the topic during acclaimed author Syl Cheney-Coker's talk on Monday evening. The event was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the African Studies program and the Ohio University Press.

A native of Sierra Leone, Cheney-Coker shared a few of his heartfelt feelings about the negative portrayals of his native continent and the struggle that some writers experience to be published.

He began his talk by congratulating both African Studies and the Ohio University Press on a successful 50 years. His 2013 fictional book, "Sacred River," was published by Ohio University Press as part of its Modern African Writing Series.

"Fifty years is a long time," Cheney-Coker said. "The past 50 years of the publishing life of the OU Press and African Studies have been nothing but rewarding. When I went back to research the 50 years, I was impressed with the quality of their research and the extraordinary diversity of the books that have been published here."

He also praised both centers for publishing books that may not be best sellers. He called it the morality of quality and told the Baker University Center audience that publishing good books brings us all under a single humanity.

"Over the past 50 years, I'm certain that their accountants have asked 'why are you publishing that writer when no one has read his or her books and they have not sold,'" Cheney-Coker said.

He admitted that, like many writers of his generation, he is a political animal who keeps an eye on what is going on in his native country Sierra Leone and others, including the United States where he lives part of the year. He said many young writers don't share in this behavior.

"This idea that the writer must partake of the discussion of his or her state is something that most young writers have simply forgotten," Cheney-Coker said. "As they rush to get their books published, they seem to bash their state. They undermine the state and denigrate the moral and cultural values of that state. It is a new genre."

He also said there is a disturbing tendency for some writers to put the entire African continent in a time capsule.

"I feel that our much vaunted knowledge of the African continent will be meaningless if we lack creativity, credibility, humanity and beauty," Cheney-Coker said. "It is a presumption by some people to feel they have the right to write about the complex cultural histories, literatures and art of an entire continent as though they were writing about a village."

He said some writers have been to one African country for one month and they go back to their countries and are hailed as experts.

"There are some people who have returned to their home countries and have written books on the social, cultural and political migrations on the African continent as though they were writing about a place that they understand," Cheney-Coker said.

He also said that he doesn't like how many African writers feel that if they are not published in the Western world they are not important, so they tend to write about the great despair in Africa in order to be published. He said their stories have one thing in common – the idea of escaping from Africa.

However, Cheney-Coker said he appreciates the Ohio University Press and African Studies for attempting to correct some of the one-sided and ridiculous imagery of the African continent by publishing good African books.

"I would like to change 'We are all bound to violence' to read 'We are all bound together in the sweeping narrative of our common humanity,'" Cheney-Coker said. "It is a narrative that encompasses our dreams, desires, struggles, redemption, love and the journey to the unknown. To dream of that journey is something so singularly divine and urgent, that we can't afford to cocoon ourselves in our narrow ideas about whose narrative is important. I recognize only one narrative, the one that says literature should bring us all together."

"Syl's speech covered a lot of important topics regarding African literature and art and he also elegantly spoke to both of the 50-year anniversaries being celebrated this year, which meant a lot to all of us," said Jeff Kallet, acting sales and marketing manager at Ohio University Press. "He also was one of the warmest people we've ever hosted as a guest and it was a bonus that he was able to make many meaningful connections on campus with many faculty, staff and students during his three-day visit."
 
After his talk, Cheney-Coker took questions from the audience and signed copies of his book.