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Road of Jamaica

Road of Jamaica

About the book

In The Road to Jamaica, which was announced over forty years ago, but suppressed, Cheney- Coker looks at a particular period of African history; the tragic, outward voyages of people and other social variants that have been part of what he calls his Afro-Saxon narrative. Crucially, the volume is divided into two sections: the first being a look at the shock of displacement, but also the remembrance of identifiable modes in the formation of a new cultural perspective.Looking back at remembered landscape, languages and cultural comforts, the poet has attempted to recreate as chapter of history that changed his and other people's idea of identity. The long poems that usher in Part 2 of the volume are, in a sense, reflections on that evolving template about our small world: the happenstances of regeneration, while at the same time an attempt to come to terms with the realities that societies, the world over, are bound to the inevitability of change. Given the smallness of that world, the oneness of our humanity, and the quiet personal awareness of ageing, Cheney-Coker has, as usual, focused his lenses on them.

 

Author's Note

 

In 1973 when I published Concerto for an Exile, I
announced to the world that I was the author of
another volume entitled The Road to Jamaica. It
was a true statement, except that for reasons I
shall soon state, I never had it published. I had
written those poems during my undergraduate
years, when I was away from the familiar
landscape and rhythms of heritage, and dealing
with the twin demons of identity and loneliness:
a condition not helped by the fact that I had
begun to question much of what passed for our
identity in the Freetown of my youth, and even
before: that all too pervasive sense of identifying
with an idea, if not with an history, in terms of a
persona. It was a period of great nationalist and
cultural fervour all over West Africa; one which
saw the emergence of a Nigerian literary school,
and a renewal of dance and music, inspired by
the vestiges of empires, that was to inspire the
creation of the Ballet Africaine and such musical
icons like the Bembaya Jazz Orchestra in Guinea
next door.

As I was later to write in Concerto for an Exile, I
felt Sierra Leone was outside of that African
cultural mainstream and that it was suffering
from an identity crisis. Our existing cultural
template was not so much a polarity of two
beings it completely lacked a strong
identification with or an expression of an African
ethos. We (the so-called enlightened few) were
happy to be cultural mulattoes, without any
reference to primal knowledge of what had
preceded the colonial\cultural conquest
Some of the poems in The Road to Jamaica had
appeared in various US college magazines and I
had an agreement with a small US publisher to
issue it; but I turned down the offer after a good
deal of reflection. Deeply aware of my dual
identity, I felt that the poems, as a whole, were
immature, too Senghorian; but without his
splendid beauty. Two of the poems were
absorbed into Concerto for an Exile, after which
I tore up the rest of the volume.
History has a way of catching up with us. Thirtyseven
years after I tore up that volume, I received
a large envelop from a college girlfriend I had not
seen in fifteen years.

In it were the following: a copy of the small
volume of The Road to Jamaica, with a note in
which she had written ?I think you might enjoy
reading these poems after all these years?. I was
already established as a poet, so it was like an
incredible sense of destiny catching up with me! I
did not even remember that I had given her the
volume to read and edit! But there they were: my
first poems had come back to me! I thought
about those poems for three years then put them
away.

Now, four years after they resurfaced, I have
finally decided to publish the volume. With the
benefit of wisdom and the eyes of a much more
mature poet, I have completely revised nearly all
of the poems. There were twenty poems in the
original volume. After reading them with a new
outlook, I have tossed eight out and kept the rest.
But I have kept the titles, themes, ideas and
meditations on that nascent literary period:
poems about what those Sierra Leonean
voyagers, who were to die on the Middle
Passage, must have felt about the terror of being
taken away from what I have referred to as the
verdurous hills of their music.

There are also poems about first love, epic heroes
and heroines, the African dilemma, as I saw it in
the sixties, my secondary school, and so on.
I believe my poems have always been linked by
three basic themes: the awakening of my
identity; the pain of exile, and a basic concern for
those whose humanity is sometimes threatened
by others. In the past two years (2012-13), I have
written poems covering these ideas, but without
the consuming passion and anguish of a man no
longer questioning the raison d?etre for his being,
and about so much that have bedevilled his
world.

Moreover, these new poems have a connecting
thread to the poems of that early period, when, in
Neruda?s words, ?I was gnawing at the alphabet.?
At twenty-five, I started a journey as a poet
looking at my identity. Now in my sixties, I
believe the new poems have completed that
journey. If the first part of The Road to Jamaica
is an outward journey into the crucible of loss
heritage and sacrifice, part two is half rebirth,
half regeneration.

When I started writing in the late sixties; there
were no publishing opportunities in Sierra Leone
for writers. Even more telling, there was no
literary society to speak of: no literary journals;
no magazines devoted to the arts!
All we had, and it might seem we still do, was
religion as a culture! Not much has changed: we
are still a nation whose capital city does not have
a single respectable bookshop! But some writers
are trying to change that state of philistinism!
Now that there is a writer?s guild, I feel that this
book belongs to the country. More than forty
years after it was first announced I am very
happy to have The Road to Jamaica published in
Sierra Leone, albeit, in a radically different form,
and with some new poems. I hope readers will
find a few of the poems refreshing.

 

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