Tchicaya U Tam'si 1931–1988
(Born Gérald Felix Tchicaya; surname also spelled Tchikaya) Congolese poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.
Considered by many as one of the most influential modernist African writers, Tchicaya is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world due to the paucity of translated editions of his work. He chiefly wrote poetry but turned to drama and fiction toward the end of his career. Despite having spent nearly a lifetime abroad in France—a move which marked his early works with an overwhelming sense of loss—Tchicaya reflected on life in newly independent Africa in his poetry, addressing the effects of Christianity, colonialism, and European pedagogy on his native continent through rich imagery, African symbols, and rhythms derived from African oral literature. Critics have observed the influences of French surrealism and négritude, a literary movement that championed blackness, in his writing style, and they have compared his verse to that of French poets Aimé Césaire and Arthur Rimbaud and African poets L. S. Senghor and Diop Birago. Tchicaya's novels and short stories juxtapose Christian and African cultural and religious values, often blending elements of surrealism and fantasy, while his dramas concern modern African struggles for power.
Born August 25, 1931, in what is now the People's Republic of the Congo, Tchicaya was the son of the Congolese first deputy to the French National Assembly in Paris, and he finished his secondary education at Paris's Lycee Janson de Sailly. Afterwards, he remained in France, working at various odd jobs as a laborer, draftsman, and messenger. During the early 1950s, Tchicaya began writing poetry, and in 1955 he published his first verse collection, Le Mauvais sang (Bad Blood), which attracted little critical or popular attention. His succeeding volumes, Feu de brousse (1957; Brush Fire) and A triche-coeur (1958; By Cheating the Heart), however, garnered him recognition as an important new African voice. In the late 1950s he produced more than one hundred radio programs based on adaptations of African legends that he later collected as Légendes africaines (1968). After a brief stint in Leopoldville, Zaire, in 1960 as editor of the newspaper Le Congo, he returned to Paris and worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a permanent official for the rest of his life. Tchicaya solidified his reputation as a leading proponent of négritude with the publication of Epitomé (1962) which earned him the grand prize for poetry at the Festival des Arts Nègres at Dakar in 1966. By 1970 Tchicaya was considered a major African writer following the appearance of L'Arc musical (1970; Bow Harp) and the English-language translation of Selected Poems (1970). During the late 1970s he focused his literary skill on drama, producing the plays Le Zulu (1976), Vwène le fondateur (1977), and Le Destin glorieux du Maréchel Nnikon Nniku, prince qu'on sort (1979; Glorious Destiny of Marshal Nnikon Nniku). In the 1980s, Tchicaya diversified his canon further by writing fiction, including the short story collection La main sèche (1980; Dried Hand) and the novels Les cancrelats (1980; The Cockroaches), Les Méduses, ou les orties de mer (1982; The Madman and the Mermaid), and Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain (1987). Tchicaya died April 21, 1988, at Oise, France.
Bad Blood concerns the poet's emotional response to his awareness about the human condition and the black man's status as a victim. Using images of children and birds, the collection's passive, despairing lone alternates with one of aggressive revolt. Tchicaya characteristically uses irony to temper intensity. Brush Fire explores the consequences of European colonialism, articulating the ways foreign systems of education and religion have alienated Africans from their culture and undermined native spiritual traditions. By Cheating the Heart emphasizes the poet's search for a purpose in life and addresses the suffering in Africa caused by slavery and colonialism. The fable-poem "Exquinoxiale," for instance, portrays Africa as a mother who has lost her child, yet prepares her body for the birth of another. Epitomé, widely regarded as Tchicaya's masterpiece, "reads like a poetic diary" of the Congolese uprising in 1960 and 1961, according to Gerald Moore. Christological imagery and language are vital in the collection, as the poet identifies himself with Christ and draws parallels between the exploitation of the Congo with the crucifixion. In Le Ventre (1964; The Belly), the Congo experience again dominates, with the author contemplating the life and death of his country. This collection contains some of Tchicaya's most difficult poetry due to its concentrated language, grammatical structure, and limited use of punctuation. Bow Harp and La Vests d'Intérieur suivi de Notes de Veille (1977) contain few references to public events but plenty of religious imagery. The more lyrical Bow Harp attempts to define the poet's faith, and La Veste d'Intérieur explores the isolation of the artist who lives in exile in a foreign culture. His novels are more political in nature. The Cockroaches details the lives of a French colonial and his African servants, and The Madman and the Mermaid investigates the mysterious deaths of two Congolese villagers. The stories of Dried Hand feature a surreal style, a mixture of French and African storytelling conventions, and a proverbial tone. Ces fruits si doux de l'arbre à pain focuses on family relationships, African mysticism, and Congolese politics.
Tchicaya's literary work—no matter what the genre—has met with nearly universal critical acclaim, despite little attention from critics of African literature and general readers. Thomas R. Knipp called Tchicaya "the most prolific and gifted of the second generation of francophone poets," adding that "he is also the most difficult … an old-fashioned poet—even bookish and academic." The difficult nature of Tchicaya's poetry is a recurring theme in criticism of his work, however, Tchicaya's "mastery of his medium precludes his being dismissed as obscure or unintelligible," remarked Betty O'Grady. Many commentators have viewed Tchicaya as the most successful poet of négritude, although his verse as a whole has had little impact on the black world for reasons "more closely related to the political evolution of Africa than to literary merit," according to Clive Wake. Others have sensed a difference in Tchicaya's style of négritude, because it is more focused on the changing present rather than the traditional past. Chaibou Elhadji Oumarou suggested that Tchicaya's verse attempts "to build a cultural identity from within, that is, an identity geared toward the future. Such an identity has to be informed not by literary patterns imposed from without, but by pages of African history." Generally, critics have commended Tchicaya for the authenticity and universality of his work. Because of the religious nature of many of his poems, commentators have often attempted to reconcile the Christian and African elements to determine each poem's or collection's primary influence. Susan Erica Rein suggested that his poetry conveys a transcendent religiosity constituting nothing less than a unique "Tamsien religion," which combines features of African spiritual traditions and Catholicism. Tchicaya's fiction also has garnered praise similar to his poetry. Eric Sellin found that the novel The Cockroaches "significantly enriches the corpus of Francophone African literature," and that his stories "deserve the most careful intellectual scrutiny.