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Friday, April 13, 2007

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Poet shows that scholasticism, art and fiery wrath prove happy companions

Jenny Dean

Issue date: 4/13/07 Section: Arts & Entertainment


Dr. Chinyere Grace Okafor

Media Credit: Bill Whitledge


Dr. Chinyere Grace Okafor


Chinyere Grace Okafor is a formidable human being. She is an accomplished academic and a published author of short fiction and poetry. In addition to these shards of a greater and more impressive resume, she effects a subtly powerful presence, which came strikingly to bear in her lecture and readings on Friday afternoon: "On Love, War, and Place: From the Poet's Diary".

Okafor grew up in Nigeria, specifically within the Ebo nation, but came to make that crazy decision to attend university in Maine. Apparently excelling scholastically, she went on to hold a variety of academic positions before securing her current position as associate professor of Literature and Women's Studies at Wichita State University in Kansas. Anthropological research has taken her back to Nigeria, where she has made extensive studies on the cultural significance of masks. In her fiction, Okafor clearly draws from her hefty volume of academic knowledge, though, happily enough, many of her poems hearken back to her life in Maine. Nevertheless, while the poetry often professes a regard and respect for various aspects of the adopted state, it often simply serves to bear her preoccupation with more potent areas of interest. She records wistfully looking out on the shores of Maine as she contemplated jumping continent and swimming home. She reminisces over the various physical and metaphorical implications of snow. And no matter the subject matter, the poetry is rhythmic, clever, and heart felt.

As a performer, Okafor's powers truly manifest when her topics depart from the frozen North-East to slightly closer a nerve. At such times she becomes rather a vessel of fiery indignation. Particularly when some work of man offends, she expresses ever so eloquently, a deep and personal rage, positively burgeoning from her smart, tweed exterior. Her intimate earnest on these occasions is one of the most striking things about her; when a concept is offensive, it is truly she who is offended, and in turn, when an aspect of the world elates, she is uplifted. Rather than ars gratia artis, she would seem to compose her works for herself and the world, and because of the one within the other. While the latter is no radical departure from the spirit of much modern poetry, it was particularly relevant in Okafor's performance, as presented in the wake of a lecture on her cultural background.

In addition to being generally informative, her talk highlighted the fact that she writes in the context of her deeply internalized cultural mores. Obviously, this sort of influence is a ubiquitous one in human expression, but remains noteworthy if only because Okafor herself would wish it highlighted; undoubtedly, her upbringing in Africa-she would wish noted, not media-Africa-does set her aside from the bulk of western authors. Her culture has instilled within her not only a respect for the abundance and variety in the world, but an inherent understanding of her place within it. She (and everyone) is an extension of the earth, not an invasive, consuming growth upon it. A mutilation of the Earth is not only an act of disrespect and violence toward life's provider-a "rape"; it is a form of perverse and malignant masochism. For me, it is easy to be struck by the fact that in a sort of platonic sense, this is such a good idea. It feels only natural to therefore mark with far more vehement distaste various human machinations which had not formerly seemed so disgusting. Okafor may not be able to fix the world as it is, but she certainly poses a good argument.

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