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Tchicaya U Tam'si 1931–1988

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section contains 1180 words.)

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Principal Works