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Armah, Ayi Kwei

Ayi Kwei Armah

1939

Writer

Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah attained international renown for his fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite his fame Armah maintained an intensely private life and rarely gave interviews and distanced himself from discussions of his craft. Though critics disagreed about the literary merit of his English-language works, his six novels and numerous short stories provide a glimpse of life in Ghana in the tumultuous years following its independence from Britain.

Armah was born in 1938 in Takoradi, a seaport on Ghana's coast. His heritage was Fante, one of the major ethnic groups in the country, and he came from an elite family. At the time of his birth, the West African nation was a colony of Britain, but the first twenty years of his life coincided with Ghana's long battle for independence. On March 6, 1957, Armah's land became the first colonial African country to win the sovereignty struggle. Around this time, Armah was a student at the Achimota College, a secondary school in Accra, Ghana's capital, and in 1959 won a scholarship to the Groton School in Massachusetts, a prestigious boarding school for boys whose alumni include President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as numerous Wall Street titans. From there, Armah went on to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in sociology. His first published short story appeared in a 1964 Harvard Advocate issue.

During this period of his absence, Ghana descended into political chaos. Its socialist, one-party rule was overthrown by an army coup, and years of internal wrangling and instability followed. Keeping his distance from the turmoil for a time, Armah lived in Algeria and worked as a translator for Révolution Africaine magazine in 1963 before coming back to take a job as a scriptwriter for Ghana Television. He also taught English at the Navrongo School in Ghana's city of the same name in 1966 before leaving for Paris to edit Jeune Afrique ("Young Africa"), a French-language weekly news magazine, for a year.

Armah's first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was published in 1968. It begins with a bus ride taken by its anonymous main character through Accra, where he sees this inscription that serves as the title. "By implication it refers back to the Teacher's story of Plato's cave," according to an essay on Armah's work in Contemporary Novelists, "where the one man who escapes from the cave and returns to tell his fellow sufferers of the beautiful world outside is thought to be mad by those in the 'reassuring chains.'" The man in question is a railway clerk, but refuses to take bribes, which keeps his family in poverty and incites their scorn. His old friend Koomson, meanwhile, has become wealthy as a government minister thanks to the endemic corruption. In the end, the man helps Koomson escape certain death when he becomes one of the hunted in crackdown on corrupt officials.

In his next novel, Fragments, Armah once again cast a critical eye on modern Ghanaian society. The protagonist in this 1970 work is Baako, who had been living in America but has returned in order to become a screen-writer in his homeland. His family and friends clamor to see genuine proof that he has gone abroad and prospered, but Baako is disillusioned by their rampant new materialism. His grandmother, Naana, represents traditional village ways, and he worries that the wisdom of the elders will soon vanish in the rush to attain consumer goods. "Traditional ceremonies, such as Baako's baby nephew's outdooring, have lost their spiritual significance and become an opportunity for ostentation and avarice," noted the Contemporary Novelists essay about Fragments, and "the plot suggests that Naana's fears for the baby as the victim of this irreligious display are justified, for he dies in the course of it."

With Ghana still mired in political chaos, Armah kept moving: he taught at the University of Massachusetts and then settled in Tanzania in 1970. For several years he taught African literature and creative writing at the College of National Education in Dar es Salaam, the capital city. After 1976 he taught at the National University of Lesotho, a country located within South Africa. He continued to produce essays for various journals, including Black World and West Africa, on literary and political topics, while working on his third novel, Why Are We So Blest? The work was issued by Doubleday in 1972, and centers on Modin, who has been educated abroad and comes back to Africa eager to take part in its new revolutionary struggle. His involvement with a white woman, however, contributes to his horrific mutilation in the midst of a guerrilla war. Aimée and the other white women in the novel are not sympathetically presented, and instead seem to be depicted as sexual predators.

Critics often group Armah's first three novels together, for their literary style and themes seem to reflect the writer and exile's struggle to understand his homeland. They also contain a dark humor that betrays Armah's less-than-favorable appraisal of what happened in Ghana after independence. "Bereft of any sense of community or direction, the educated élites and the masses are shown as actively engaged in their own betrayal, collaborating in the neo-colonial plunder and impoverishment of their national heritages," summarized S. Nyamfukudza of Armah's early works in a critical essay that appeared in the New Statesman in 1980.

Armah's fourth book, Two Thousand Seasons, published in 1973, featured a new style of prose that borrowed more heavily from folk tales than of Western literary constructs. Its time is hard to place, but its setting is Africa, and the plot centers around a group of people who are fleeing some Arab invaders. The Africans head south, only to meet European slave traders making raids. Some of the group are taken, but later escape from the slave ship. The story seems to grapple with the idea of Africa and its destiny as shaped by outside people's forces. Armah's next work, The Healers, also deals with the past: in this case, the fall of the once-mighty Ashanti empire in Ghana, as does Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future. Though written in English, it was not published in the West after its 1995 issue by a Senegalese house. Armah lives in the capital of Senegal, Dakar.

Selected writings

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Fragments, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Why Are We So Blest?, Doubleday, 1972.

Two Thousand Seasons, East African Publishing House, 1973.

The Healers, East African Publishing House, 1978.

Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future, Per Ankh, 1995.

At a Glance

Born on October 28, 1939, in Takoradi, Ghana. Education: Harvard University, AB, Sociology; Columbia University, New York, MFA, Creative Writing, 1970.

Career: Révolution Africaine magazine, Algiers, Algeria, translator; Ghana Television, scriptwriter; Navrongo School, Ghana, English teacher, 1966; Jeune Afrique magazine, Paris, editor, 1967-68; Teacher's College, Dar es Salaam, and universities of Massachusetts, Amherst, Lesotho, and Wisconsin, teacher.

Addresses: Office Heinemann Educational, Ighodaro Road, Jericho PMB 5205, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. Home Dakar, Senegal.

Sources

Books

African Writers, vol. 1, Scribner's, 1997.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, eds., Gale, 1992.

Fraser, Robert, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, 1980.

Ogede, Ode, Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast, Ohio University Press, 2004.

Periodicals

New Statesman, March 7, 1980, pp. 362-363.

Carol Brennan

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Armah, Ayi Kwei

ARMAH, Ayi Kwei

Nationality: Ghanaian. Born: Takoradi in 1938. Education: Achimota College, Accra; Groton School, Massachusetts; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. in social studies; Columbia University, New York. Career: Translator, Révolution Africaine magazine, Algiers; scriptwriter for Ghana Television; English teacher, Navrongo School, Ghana, 1966; editor, Jeune Afrique magazine, Paris, 1967-68; teacher at Teacher's College, Dar es Salaam, and universities of Massachusetts, Amherst, Lesotho, and Wisconsin, Madison. Address: c/o Heinemann Educational, Ighodaro Road, Jericho PMB 5205, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.

Publications

Novels

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968; London, Heinemann, 1969.

Fragments. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970; London, Heinemann, 1975.

Why Are We So Blest? New York, Doubleday, 1972; London, Heinemann, 1975.

Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi, East African Publishing House, 1973; London, Heinemann, 1979; Chicago, Third World Press, 1980.

The Healers. Nairobi, East African Publishing House, 1978; London, Heinemann, 1979.

Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present, and Future. Pogenguine, Senegal, Per Ankh, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"A Short Story," in New African (London), December 1965.

"Yaw Manu's Charm," in Atlantic (Boston), May 1968.

"The Offal Kind," in Harper's (New York), January 1969.

"Doctor Kamikaze," in Mother Jones (San Francisco), October1989.

Other

Contributor, The South Wind and the Sun: Stories from Africa, edited by Kate Turkington. Johannesburg, South Africa, Thorold's Africana Books, 1996.

Translator, Zaire, What Destiny?, edited by Kankwenda Mbaya. Oxford, England, ABC, 1993.

Translator, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade by BoubacarBarry. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

*

Critical Studies:

The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction by Robert Fraser, London, Heinemann, 1980; Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of His Fiction by Derek Wright, London, Zell, 1989; Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction by Neil Lazarus, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990; Critical Perspectives on Ayi Kwei Armah edited by Derek Wright, Washington D.C., Three Continents, 1992; The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah by K. Damodar Rao, New Delhi, Prestige, 1993; Form and Technique in the African Novel by Olawale Awosik, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1997; Ayi Kwei Armah: The Telling of the Way by Olawale Awosika, Benin City, Nigeria, Ambik Press, 1997; The Existential Fiction of Ayi Kwei Armah, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre by Tommie L. Jackson, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1997; Post-Colonial African Fiction: The Crisis of Consciousness by Mala Pandurang, Delhi, Pencraft International, 1997; Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast: Pitting Imaginary Worlds Against the Actual by Ode S. Ogede, Westport, Connecticut, Heinemann, 1999.

* * *

Ayi Kwei Armah's masterly control over language forces his reader to suspend his disbelief, however reluctant he may be to do so. The comic or horrific distortion of what is nearly recognizable reality in the first three novels has extraordinary imaginative power.

The title of the first novel refers to an inscription which the central character, known only as "the man," sees on a bus. By implication it refers back to the Teacher's story of Plato's cave, where the one man who escapes from the cave and returns to tell his fellow sufferers of the beautiful world outside is thought to be mad by those in the "reassuring chains." The man is anonymous because he is regarded as mad in his society, modern Accra. His family suffers from his refusal to take bribes in his position as a railway clerk, and his honesty is incomprehensible to "the loved ones." His former friend, Koomson, has become a Minister through corruption, and, though the regime of which he is a part falls, an equally corrupt one takes its place. The fusion of styles in The Beautyful Ones can be seen in the first few pages, which give a realistic account of a bus journey but also introduce the controlling symbol in the novel, that of money as decay, or excrement. The bus conductor smells a cedi note and finds it has "a very old smell, very strong, and so very rotten that the stench itself of it came with a curious, satisfying pleasure." This anticipates the comic and horrible way in which Koomson has to escape the new regime, by wriggling through a latrine. The depravity of the society is suggested by the manner in which a young man confesses he has made money in a lottery "in the embarrassed way of a young girl confessing love;" if he escaped from his society the man would only mirror his broken pencil sharpener, whose handle "sped round and round with the futile freedom of a thing connected to nothing else."

Armah's ability to invest apparently insignificant objects or scenes with meanings is clear in Fragments. Early in the novel there is a detailed account of the destruction of a mad dog by a man with a gross sexual deformity, while the little boy who loves the dog looks on helplessly. It is so vivid that it prepares the reader for the destruction of the central character, Baako, who returns to Ghana from New York wanting to write film scripts because "Film gets to everyone." He finds that his society wants material evidence of his "been-to" status. The new element in this novel is represented by Naana, Baako's blind grandmother, who is the voice of the traditional culture. Traditional ceremonies, such as Baako's baby nephew's outdooring, have lost their spiritual significance and become an opportunity for ostentation and avarice; the plot suggests that Naana's fears for the baby as the victim of this irreligious display are justified, for he dies in the course of it. The fragments of the title seem to be the members of the new society, placed within the opening and closing sections of the novel which express Naana's sense of meaningful community. The only other hopeful element is the growing love between Baako and the sensitive Puerto Rican, Juana.

Why Are We So Blest? is a more fragmented novel than Fragments, jumping between three narrators with no obvious narrative line, though we eventually discover that Solo, a failed revolutionary, is using the notebooks of Aimée, a white American, and Modin, a Ghanaian, intercut with his own text. The savage irony of the title is sustained throughout the novel, which lacks the cynical comedy of the two previous works and is much more overt in its distortion of reality. All the white women in the novel prey on the black men: Modin, a student who drops out of Harvard to go to Laccryville in North Africa as a would-be revolutionary, is used primarily by Aimée, who epitomizes the sexual sickness of all the white women. She is frigid when she meets Modin, and uses him as an object to stimulate her sexual fantasies of intercourse with a black servant. Modin's attempt to liberate her into a fuller sensitivity destroys him. The horrific scene, in which Aimée is raped and Modin castrated by white men, fully enacts Aimée's fantasy. She is sexually aroused and kisses Modin's bleeding penis, asking him to say that he loves her. Solo sees Modin as an African who does not know "how deep the destruction has eaten into himself, hoping to achieve a healing juncture with his destroyed people."

Armah's most recent novels are historical. Two Thousand Seasons is written in a new style, in its repetitiveness and long leisurely sentences suggesting that it is folk myth: "With what shall the utterers' tongue stricken with goodness, riven silent with the quiet force of beauty, with which mention shall the tongue of the utterers begin a song of praise whose perfect singers have yet to come?" Its narrator is not identified, though he participates in the action. The violation of his people's way of life by Arab and then European invaders is depicted powerfully but the ideal of "the way, our way" remains nebulous. The Healers is stylistically much more vigorous, and is set at a precise time in the past, during the Second Asante War. The idea of "inspiration" is gradually defined in the course of the novel as being a healing and creative force which can only work slowly, and Armah perhaps sees himself as one of those prophesied by Damfo in the novel, "healers wherever our people are scattered, able to bring us together again."

Angela Smith

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