Aidoo, (Christina) Ama Ata 1942–

views updated

AIDOO, (Christina) Ama Ata 1942–

Indicates that a listing has been compiled from secondary sources believed to be reliable, but has not been personally verified for this edition by the author sketched.

PERSONAL: Born March 23, 1942, in Abeadzi Kyiakor, Ghana (then the Gold Coast); daughter of Chief Nana Yaw Fama and Maame Abba Abaseme; children: Kinna Likimani. Ethnicity: Fanti. Education: University of Ghana, B.A. (with honors), 1964; attended Harvard International Seminar and Stanford University, 1966.

ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 4930, Harare, Zimbabwe.

CAREER: Writer, educator. University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies fellow, 1964–66; University of Cape Coast, Ghana, lecturer in English, 1970–82; Phelps-Stokes Fund Ethnic Studies Program, Washington, DC, consulting professor, 1974–75; Minister of Education, Ghana, 1982–83; writer-in-residence, University of Richmond, Virginia, 1989; chair, African Regional Panel of the Commonwealth Writers' prize, 1990, 1991; curriculum developer, Zimbabwe Ministry of Education.

MEMBER: Zimbabwe Women Writers Group (chair).

AWARDS, HONORS: Short story prize from Mbari Press competition; prize from Black Orpheus for story, "No Sweetness Here"; research fellowship, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana; Fulbright scholarship, 1988; Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa region, 1992, for Changes.


The Dilemma of a Ghost (play; first produced in Legon, Ghana, at Open Air Theatre, March, 1964; produced in Pittsburgh, PA, 1988), Longmans, Green (London, England), 1965, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1971.

Anowa (play; produced in London, England, 1991), Humanities Press (New York, NY), 1970.

No Sweetness Here (stories), Longmans, Green (London, England), 1970, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.

Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (novel), Longman (London, England), 1977, NOK Publishing (New York, NY), 1979.

Dancing Out Doubts, NOK (Enugu, Nigeria), 1982.

Someone Talking to Sometime (poetry), College Press (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1985.

The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories (for children), Tana Press (Enugu, Nigeria), 1986.

Birds and Other Poems (for children), College Press (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1987.

Changes: A Love Story (novel), Women's Press (London, England), 1991, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 1993.

An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems, Dangaroo Press (Coventry, England), 1992.

The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, Sub-Saharan Publishers (Legon, Ghana), 1997.

Contributor to anthologies, including African Writing Today, Manyland Books, 1969; Political Spider: An Anthology of Stories from 'Black Orpheus,' Africana Publishing (New York, NY), 1969; Contemporary African Plays, edited by Martin Banham and Jane Plastow, Methuen (London, England), 1999; and The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, edited by Lorna Sage, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1999. Contributor of stories and poems to magazines, including Okyeame, Black Orpheus, Presence Africaine, Journal of African Literature, and New African.

SIDELIGHTS: Ama Ata Aidoo is a respected Ghanaian playwright, short-story writer, novelist, and poet whose works explore the far-reaching effects of sexism and colonialism on the African continent. Aidoo clearly stated her concern with women's roles in a Massachusetts Review interview with Anuradha Dingwaney Needham, in which the author claimed: "The decay of Africa's social, political, and economic systems is directly related to the complete marginalization of women from developmental discourses." Despite her critical appraisal of some aspects of African tradition, Aidoo finds the idea of a distinct African identity to be very important, particularly for African women, and this concern is reflected in her work.

Aidoo was born in the south central region of Ghana at a time when that country was under British neocolonial rule. Anti-colonial sentiment ran high in her family, particularly after her grandfather was killed by the neocolonialists. As the daughter of a chief of the Fanti tribe, Aidoo was raised as royalty and was taught the traditions, folklore, and rituals of her tribe. She was also given the advantages of an extensive Western education. Later, she worked as an educator in the United States as well as in her native Ghana, where she also served for a time as minister of education. At the University of Ghana, she became involved with writers workshops and the Ghana Drama Studio, writing two plays and a collection of short stories. All of these early works featured female characters at odds with the expectations of their culture.

In The Dilemma of a Ghost, her first drama, a weak young man returns to Ghana from studying in the United States, accompanied by a strong but ignorant African-American wife. The situation is inherent with conflict, accentuated by the young woman's immaturity and arrogance and the callowness of her husband, who does nothing to prepare his family or his wife for her arrival. Set against the backdrop of Africa's colonial history, which has scattered black people around the world, the play probes "social conventions as they relate to the roles and identities of women," Naana Banyiwa Horne contended in Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Anowa, Aidoo's second play, is a reworking of a folktale in which a woman's insistence on choosing her own husband ultimately leads to tragedy for both. A parallel is drawn in this drama between the keeping of slaves and the keeping of wives. The title character is a strong-willed, beautiful girl who is apparently destined to become a priestess; she, however, rejects everyone's ideas for her future, marries a man of whom nobody approves, and leaves the village. Her new husband, Kofi, makes a substantial living by dealing with the British, but Anowa eventually rejects his material riches. They quarrel, and it is revealed that he thinks she may be a witch. The play ends tragically, with Kofi and Anowa each taking their own lives.

Aidoo's short-story collection, No Sweetness Here, continues the tradition of oral and written traditions combined to produce socially centered art. Horne noted that Aidoo's stories rely on dialogue to do the work of characterization nearly as extensively as do her plays. In her short stories, Aidoo confronts feminist concerns more directly than in her dramas. "This gallery of female portraits offers perceptive images of womanhood, exposing sexism and degradation, and celebrating the physical and intellectual capabilities of women," wrote Horne. Fawzia Afzal-Khan noted in World Literature Today, "Huge themes of personal and political betrayal, modernity versus tradition, changing gender roles and the impact of colonialism on African (Ghanaian) culture, relationships between women and between women and the men in their lives, as well as intergenerational conflicts and resolutions … figure prominently in the eleven stories. Yet, for all their complexity, there is nothing heavy-handed about the stories."

During the 1970s, a repressive climate in Ghana led to the persecution of many intellectuals. Aidoo has stated that she was censored, incarcerated, and even threatened with death. She published very little during that decade, devoting herself instead to teaching and curriculum development.

The late 1970s saw the publication of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Our Sister Killjoy; or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint. In this book, the author uses a mixture of prose, poetry, and fictional letters to give the reader a feeling of great intimacy with the characters, especially the protagonist, Sissie. Discussing Our Sister Killjoy in Black Women's Writing, Sara Chetin commented that Aidoo "both structurally and thematically, resists identification with Western male literary traditions," instead inventing a new language in which to try to escape enslavement. Moreover, "the caustic tone and aggressive mood mirror the critical, committed stance of its well-meaning but enraged and politically conscious writer," observed Horne. Chimalum Nwankwo, writing in Ngambika, observed that "Aidoo's forte is her tremendous feeling and honesty of sentiment in expressing those issues."

Our Sister Killjoy follows Sissie as she travels to Germany and England, where she urges black students, who are "willfully blind to the horror they have bought into: soul-destroying white capitalism," as Jill Franks noted in Contemporary Novelists, to return to Africa before they become isolated ghosts. Aidoo expands her feminist concerns in Our Sister Killjoy, Horne noted, by universalizing them: "Womanhood becomes a metaphor depicting the condition of oppressed and exploited humankind in general."

In 1983, she left Ghana to go into self-imposed political exile in Zimbabwe. There she continued her writing and her work in education. Her second novel, Changes: A Love Story, was well-received by critics and has been referred to as a significant advance over Our Sister Killjoy. In Changes, an ambitious Ghanaian career woman flouts convention: after her husband rapes her, she divorces him and becomes a second wife to a progressive man. Through this woman's struggle for self-respect within a relationship, "Aidoo explores such issues as marital rape and career choices, and their impact on love and marital relationships, highlighting the role of compromise," explained Horne. Changes is "entirely honest in portraying the conflict between the need for love and the need for independence," added Franks. "Aidoo's characters," and presumably Aidoo herself, "are wise about gender differences," Franks concluded; "they do not blame everything on the 'system' but recognize fundamental differences between men and women." Aidoo remains clear, however, that male sexism exists and was learned by the African male from neocolonial influences, since Ghana was strongly matrilineal before colonization. In Changes, Esi searches for personal and sexual self-determination in a culture that is opposed to both for women. Aidoo strives to create portraits of African women drawn from within the culture, rather than from outside or by African men, and to remain honest about the complexities involved.

In addition to her dramas and novels, Aidoo has also published poetry throughout her career, and it is as strongly marked by her feminist concerns as are her other works. One of her most highly praised volumes of poetry is Someone Talking to Sometime, which was published in 1985. According to an essayist for Contemporary Women Poets, in this collection "Aidoo's profound love for her country, a staunch sense of cultural allegiance, and an abiding respect for the richness of the African continent are evident." Artistic commentary about the negative impact of neocolonialism and war is interwoven with more personal comments about the importance of family and friends. Her 1992 publication An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems is described by the Contemporary Women Poets essayist as "a powerful poetic testament to Aidoo's anger at the neo-colonial world order," as well as a commentary on "the social ramifications of Africa's political storms and the overwhelming sense of alienation felt by those who are forced into exile."

Aidoo's "greatest strength," according to Franks in Contemporary Novelists, "is her ability to mix humor and hope with the serious issues of gender and social conflict." She is also frequently lauded for her innovative blending of African oral with Western literary traditions: for instance, she intersperses prose with poetry, songs, letters, and conversational one-liners, employing unusual typographies to give an oral quality to the work. "I pride myself on the fact that my stories are written to be heard, primarily," Aidoo is quoted as saying in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. She has explained that her ideal form of theater would be "a complete environment in which the usual amenities of eating and drinking would be combined with storytelling, poetry-reading, and plays," creating an "art [that] is social in the most literal sense," according to Lloyd W. Brown in Women Writers in Black Africa. These storytelling and dramatic techniques are carried over into her written prose and poetry.

Aidoo is a writer whose concerns with the status of women in her society permeate her works of drama, poetry, and fiction. Although her early works were sometimes faulted for the author's unabashedly critical stance toward the pattern of sexism and colonialism in Ghanaian society, others claimed that her portraits of African women depict the universal condition of womanhood. Her later writings, such as the novel Changes, have been praised for their more mature rendering of theme, including the recognition that while women may choose to reject many aspects of their traditional roles, they still need and desire loving relationships. Her attention to the ravages of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere continues to permeate her work.

In her interview with Needham, she said, "To solve our problems you need all of us. And I genuinely think that's how I see my work. If somebody says you have put your finger on the problem I feel so good because that, I think, is part of the responsibility of being writers and artists—that we point out some of these things." Clayton G. MacKenzie, writing in Studies in Short Fiction, likened Aidoo to Ayi Kwei Armah in that she recognizes that "the present means to remedy present circumstances simply do not exist. The conundrum of hopelessness in the present but hopefulness in the future … is one shared by both writers."

Aidoo remains concerned that her work is mainly published in the West and is inaccessible to the people with whom she grew up, due to censorship of women writers in Ghana, and elsewhere in Africa. In 1994, she was a cofounder of the Women's World Organization for Rights Development and Literature, an organization created to campaign on behalf of women's rights by means of publishing and other resources. Aidoo was quoted by the InterPress Service English News Wire as saying: "For African women, the struggle begins with the right to be born as a girl child … to have a whole body … to go to school; the right to be heard."



Adebayo, Aduke, editor, Feminism and Black Women's Creative Writing: Theory, Practice, and Criticism, AMD (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1996.

Azodo, Ada Uzoamaka, and Gay Wilentz, editors, Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1999.

Boyce Davies, Carole, Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject, Routledge (New York, NY), 1994.

Boyce Davies, Carole, and Anne Adams Greaves, editors, Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1986.

Brown, Lloyd W., Women Writers in Black Africa, Greenwood (Westport, CT), 1981.

Contemporary Dramatists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Elder, Arlene, and Elder D. Jones, editors, Women in African Literature Today, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 1987.

Etherton, Michael, The Development of African Drama, Hutchinson University Library for Africa (London, England), 1982.

Grant, Jane W., Ama Ata Aidoo: The Dilemma of a Ghost (study guide), Longman (London, England), 1980.

James, Adeola, In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk, Heinemann (London, England), 1990.

Jump, Harriet Devine, editor, Diverse Voices: Essays on Twentieth-Century Women Writers in English, Harvester Wheatsheaf (London, England), 1991.

Larson, Charles R., Under African Skies, Nonday Press, 1997.

Nasta, Susheila, Motherlands: Black Women's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1992.

Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney, Using the Master's Tools, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2000.

Odamtten, Vincent O., The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading against Neocolonialism, University of Florida Press (Gainesville, FL), 1994.

Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne, editors, Postcolonial African Writers, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.

Pieterse, Cosmo, and Dennis Duerdon, editors, African Writers Talking, Africana Publishing (New York, NY), 1972.

Priebe, Richard K., Ghanaian Literatures, Greenwood Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Willey, Elizabeth, Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women's Literature and Film, Garland (New York, NY), 1997.

Wisker, Gina, Black Women's Writing, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.


African Forum, summer, 1965, p. 112.

African Literature Today, 1976.

Belles Lettres, fall, 1993, Mary McKay, interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.

Black Scholar, winter, 1995.

Bloomsbury Review, May-June, 1989.

Bulletin of the Association of African Literature in English, 1965, p. 33.

Callaloo, spring, 1990, Kofi Owuso, "Canons under Siege: Blackness, Femaleness and Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy," p. 341.

Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1982, p. I14.

CLA Journal, March, 1982, p. 331.

Essence, February, 1994.

Fantasy Review, April, 1985.

Guardian, April 2, 1991; July 23, 1992, p. 33.

Illustrated London News, September, 1982.

InterPress Service English News Wire, August 17, 1999.

Journal of Modern African Studies, March, 1996.

Kenyon Review, spring, 1994.

Listener, December 18 and 25, 1980.

Literary Review, summer, 1991, p. 464.

London Times, June 18, 1987.

London Times Literary Supplement, September 24, 1982.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1985.

Massachusetts Review, spring, 1995, Anuradha Dingwaney Needham, interview with Ama Ata Aidoo, p. 123.

Mosaic (Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada), December, 2001, Assimina Karavanta, "Rethinking the Specter: Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa," p. 107.

Ms., January, 1991, p. 96; July, 1993, p. 52.

Newsweek, April 13, 1998.

New York Amsterdam News, October 30, 1997, Jeanette Toomer, interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.

New York Times, April 9, 1998.

New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1981; March 13, 1989; November 1, 1992.

Novel: A Forum on Fiction, spring, 1993, Rosemary Marangoly George and Helen Scott, interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.

People, May 20, 1992, p. 79.

Presence Africaine, 1982, p. 195.

Publishers Weekly, January 14, 1983, p. 47; February 1, 1991, p. 62; October 25, 1993.

Quarterly Black Review of Books, February 28, 1994.

Research in African Literatures, fall, 1989, p. 431; July 15, 1999, Nada Elia, "'To Be an African Working Woman': Levels of Feminist Consciousness in Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes," p. 136; summer, 2002, Maria Olaussen, review of Changes: A Love Story, pp. 61, 171.

Signs, autumn, 1985, Chikwenye O. Ogunyemi, "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English."

Studies in Black Literature, summer, 1973, Donald Bayer Burness, review of The Dilemma of a Ghost, pp. 21, 23.

Studies in Short Fiction, spring, 1995, p. 161.

Studies in the Novel, fall, 1997, p. 396.

Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, winter, 1991, p. 159.

Washington Post Book Review, November 23, 1984, p. C1.

West Africa, January 30-February 5, 1971, p. 133; April 1-7, 1991, p. 474.

World Literature Today, winter, 1997, Fawzia Afzal-Khan, review of No Sweetness Here, p. 71.