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Ghanaian poet and writer Kojo Laing dies, aged 70

R.I.P: Kojo Laing

KOJO LAING, an acclaimed Ghanaian novelist and poet, who was born in Kumasi in the Ashanti region of Ghana, has died aged 70 .

He was the eldest son of the first African rector of the Anglican Theological College in Kumasi. He was one of six children and was baptised Bernard Ebenezer, later dropping his Christian name in favour of his African identity.

Although his family belonged to the educated middle class, they were by no means rich. He spent the first five years of his early education in Accra and was later sent to Scotland in 1957, where he had his secondary education.

In 1968, he graduated from Glasgow University with a master’s degree, then returned to Ghana to join the civil service with his Scottish wife Josephine and 3 children. He left the service in 1979 to work as an administrative secretary of the Institute of African Studies for five years and then headed Saint Anthony’s School in Accra in 1984, established by his mother.

Laing wrote poetry throughout much of the 1970's but received significant awareness with the appearance his first novel, Search Sweet Country, which was published in 1986 to critical acclaim, and he went on to win prizes including the Valco Award and the Ghana Book Award.

Search Sweet Country was reissued by McSweeney's in 2012, with an Introduction by Binyavanga Wainaina. Reviewing it Uzodinma Iweala writes: "Reading Search Sweet Country is like reading a dream, and indeed at times it feels like the magical landscapes of writers like the Nigerian Ben Okri or the Mozambican Mia Couto. Each page delivers an intense blast of vivid imagery, a world in which landscapes come to life when inanimate objects receive human characterization.

Laing is a master stylist, and Search Sweet Country delivers an absorbing, if demanding, world for both its characters and the reader." Publishers Weekly called it an "intricate, beautifully rambling novel ... a compelling and rewarding read", while the reviewer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette observed: "'Search Sweet Country' can be read over and over, continually surprising with a fresh turn of phrase or nuance in character, always engaging, always beautiful. The search is worthwhile."

His father’s religious devotion and early death, his own journeys and failed relationships are whispered in his writings. His poem “Funeral in Accra” commemorated his father’s death and etched his rite of passage from youth to adulthood. This poem was published in 1968 together with two other poems, “African Storm” and “Jaw.” These poems contain the metaphors of his psychological struggle between alienation and dislocation.


REMEMBERED

Laing's second novel, Woman of the Aeroplanes, was published in 1988, and has drawn comparison with the work of Ayi Kwei-Armah. He published two further novels: Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), which also won a Valco Award in 1993, and Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006).

His poetry collection, Godhorse was published in 1989. He has also written short stories, one of which – "Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ" – was included in The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Stories (1992).

One of Laing's best-loved pastimes was hunting and his love of nature is clearly reflected in his writing, which provides him with a source of imagery. In Woman of the Aeroplanes, for example, he uses images that symbolise the natural, surreal, and human worlds. In one instance he personifies a lake which becomes extremely jealous of the ducks that swim in its waters and refuses to ripple.

His linguistically innovative poetry has appeared in anthologies such as, Border Lines and Uncommon Wealth, and in a collection, Godhorse, which appeared in 1989. He wrote a trilogy of long poems: Jaw, Resurrection and Christcrowd which deal mostly with the feeling of alienation resulting from the culture shock which many young Africans feel at many levels in Europe.

Laing approached language inventively. He pushed English to its limits and beyond by fusing Oxbridge with West African Pidgin, elements from African languages, and his own coinings, aiming at creating one gigantic living and truly cosmopolitan language.

He has left us a true treasure of imagery and contemplations which are just as amusing, relevant and thought provoking as when they were first written - among them, “The workers stole me right and left, and it wasn’t right that they left me so stolen.”

Kojo Laing is survived by his first wife and nine children and his second wife and three children.

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