Kofi Awoonor (formerly George Awoonor-Williams) was born in Wheta, Ghana to Ewe parents. His grandmother was a dirge-singer, and much of his early work is modeled on this type of Ewe oral poetry. According to critic Derek Wright, the poetry "both drew on a personal family heirloom and opened up a channel into a broader African heritage." In Rediscovery (1964) and Petals of Blood (1971), Awoonor uses the common dirge motif of the "thwarted or painful return" to describe the experience of the Western-educated African looking back at his indigenous culture. His most famous poem from the first collection is "the Weaverbird." In it he uses the weaverbird, a notorious colonizer who destroys its host tree, as a metaphor for Western imperialism in Africa. He describes the bird's droppings as defiling the sacred places and homesteads. He also blames the Africans for indulging the creature.
Awoonor has written two novels. The first, This Earth, My Brother... (1971) is an experimental novel which he describes as a "prose poem." In it, Awoonor tells a story on two levels, each representing a distinct reality. The first level is a standard narrative which details a day in the life an attorney named Amamu. On another level, it is a symbol-laden mystical journey filled with biblical and literary allusions. These portions of the text deal with the new nation of Ghana, which is represented by a baby on a dunghill. The dunghill is a source of both rot and renewal, and in this way represents the foundations upon which Ghana was built, according to Awoonor.
Awoonor was closely tied to the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Shortly after Nkrumah was driven out by a coup in 1966, Awoonor went into exile. During the time he was abroad, he completed graduate and doctoral studies, receiving a Ph.D. in literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1972. His dissertation was later published as The Breast of the Earth (1975). He returned to Ghana in 1975. Soon thereafter, he was detained for his alleged involvement with an Ewe coup plot. The House by the Sea (1978), a book of poetry, recounts his jail time.
Awoonor has not written much lately, instead spending his time engaged in Ghanaian political activities. Unfortunately, this emphasis seems to have diminished the quality in addition to the quantity of his literary output. His more recent work has been compared unfavorably to his early material. Derek Wright calls his most recent novel, Comes the Voyager at Last (1992), about an African-American's journey to Ghana, "flat and tired."
Rediscovery and Other Poems. Ibadan, Nigeria: Mbari, 1964.