Gabriel Okara

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Gabriel Okara
Born Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara
(1921-04-24) 24 April 1921 (age 96)
Bomoundi, Niger Delta, Nigeria
Nationality Nigerian
Occupation Novelist, poet
Notable work The Voice

Gabriel Imomotimi Okara (born 24 April 1921) is a Nigerian poet[1] and novelist who was born in Bumoundi in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. The first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa, he is best known for his early experimental novel, The Voice (1964), and his award-winning poetry, published in The Fisherman's Invocation (1978) and The Dreamer, His Vision (2005). In both his poems and his prose, Okara draws on African thought, religion, folklore and imagery,[2] and he has been called "the Nigerian Negritudist".[3] According to Brenda Marie Osbey, editor of his Collected Poems, "It is with publication of Gabriel Okara's first poem that Nigerian literature in English and modern African poetry in this language can be said truly to have begun."[4]


Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara, the son of an Ijọ chief,[5] was born in Bomoundi in the Niger Delta in 1921. He was educated at Government College Umuahia, and later at Yaba Higher College. During World War II, he attempted to enlist in the British Royal Air Force but did not complete pilot training, instead he worked for a time for the British Overseas Airway Corporation (later British Airways).[6]

In 1945 Okara found work as a printer and bookbinder for colonial Nigeria’s government-owned publishing company. He remained in that post for nine years, during which he began to write. At first he translated poetry from Ijaw into English and wrote scripts for government radio. He studied journalism at Northwestern University in 1949, and before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70) worked as Information Officer for the Eastern Nigerian Government Service.[5] Together with Chinua Achebe, Okara was roving ambassador for Biafra's cause during part of 1969.[7] From 1972 to 1980 he was director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt.[2]


After leaving school Okara wrote plays and features for radio, and in 1953 his poem "The Call of the River Nun" won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. Some of his poetry was published in the literary magazine Black Orpheus, and by 1960 he had won recognition as an accomplished literary craftsman, his poetry being translated into several languages.[2] One of his most famous poems is "Piano and Drums". Another popular poem, "You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed", is a frequent feature of anthologies. Okara is very concerned with what happens when the ancient culture of Africa is faced with modern Western culture, as in his poem "Once Upon a Time".[8]

He pursues that theme in his first novel The Voice (1964, ) Its protagonist Okolo, like countless post-colonial Africans, is hunted by society and haunted by his own ideals. Experimenting linguistically in The Voice, Okara "translated directly from the Ijo (Ijaw) language, imposing Ijo syntax onto English in order to give literal expression to African ideas and imagery. The novel creates a symbolic landscape in which the forces of traditional African culture and Western materialism contend.... Okara’s skilled portrayal of the inner tensions of his hero distinguished him from many other Nigerian novelists."[2]

In addition to his poetry and fiction, Okara has also written plays and features for broadcasting.[5]

Many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War.[6]

In April 2017, the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival was held at the University of Port Harcourt in his honour.[9][10]

Awards and honours[edit]

  • 1953: Best All-Round Entry In Poetry at the Nigerian Festival of Arts, for "The Call of the River Nun"
  • 1979: Commonwealth Poetry Prize, for The Fisherman's Invocation
  • 2005: NLNG Prize, for The Dreamer, His Vision
  • 2009: Pan African Writers' Association Honorary Membership Award[11][12]
  • 2017: Gabriel Okara Literary Festival

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • 1964: The Voice (novel), London: Deutsch, first edition; Heinemann African Writers Series (No. 68), 1970. Africana Publishing, ISBN 0-8419-0015-9.
  • 1978: The Fisherman's Invocation (poems)
  • 1981: Little Snake and Little Frog (for children)
  • 1992: An Adventure to Juju Island (for children)
  • 2005: The Dreamer, His Vision (poems)
  • 2006: As I See It (poems)
  • 2016: Collected Poems (edited and with an introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey), University of Nebraska Press, African Poetry Book Series, ISBN 978-0-8032-8687-0.


  1. ^ Laurence, Margaret; Stovel, Nora Foster (2001). Long Drums & Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966. University of Alberta. pp. 171–. ISBN 978-0-88864-332-2. Retrieved 8 May 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Gabriel Okara", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  3. ^ Sumaila Umaisha, "Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara: The Poet of the Nun River — interview", African Writing, No. 6.
  4. ^ Brenda Marie Osbey, Introduction, Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems, University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "Gabriel Okara," in Hans M. Zell, Carol Bundy, Virginia Coulon, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983; pp. 445–447.
  6. ^ a b James M. Manheim, "Okara, Gabriel 1921–", Contemporary Black Biography .
  7. ^ "Gabriel Okara (Gabriel Inomotimi Gbaingbain Okara) Biography",
  8. ^ Gabriel Okara, "Once Upon a Time", in Collected Poems, University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
  9. ^ Ozolua Uhakheme,"A bouquet for poet Okara", The Nation, 8 March 2017.
  10. ^ Anote Ajeluorou, "‘Gabriel Okara has written in all genres, yet not much attention has been given to his work’", The Guardian (Nigeria), 19 March 2017.
  11. ^ "Chronology", Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems (2016).
  12. ^ Evelyn Osagie, "Echoes of Achebe’s works at writers’ show", The Nation (Nigeria), 25 November 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Echeruo, Michael J.C. "Gabriel Okara: a Poet and His Seasons." World Literature Today, 1992: 454–456
  • Mark Willhardt, Who's Who in 20th Century World Poetry, Routledge (2001, ISBN 0-415-16355-2), p. 237.
  • Eldred Ibibiem Green, Gabriel Okara: The Man and His Art. Port Harcourt, Nigeria: Onyoma Research Publications, 2007.

External links[edit]