Armah, Ayi Kwei

views updated May 23 2018

Ayi Kwei Armah

BORN: 1939, Takoradi, Gold Coast (now Ghana)

NATIONALITY: Ghanaian, Senegalese

GENRE: Fiction

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968)
Fragments (1971)
Two Thousand Seasons (1973)


Ayi Kwei Armah is perhaps the most versatile, innovative, and provocative of the younger generation of postwar African novelists, and like all authors who express extreme

views in their books, he has become a controversial figure in both African and Western critical circles. The controversy has centered exclusively on the works and not on the man, about whom extremely little is known.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood Coincided with Ghanaian Independence. Only twice has Armah broken his rule of silence about himself and his work, and it is to these two essays that Western critics owe nearly all of their biographical information about him.

Armah was born in 1939 in the coastal city of Takoradi, a seaport of the then-British colony of the Gold Coast. During World War II, citizens of the Gold Coast participated in the war effort, often under the auspices of the British military. In the postwar period, veterans and others who lived in the Gold Coast realized they had just fought a war against oppression and wanted to gain their own freedom. The colony was able to achieve self-government in 1951, and formal independence in 1957 when it became Ghana.

The first twenty years of Armah's life coincided with the development of his country, through a mixture of political negotiation and violent struggle, into Africa's first independent state. To complete his secondary education, Armah studied at Achimota College in Ghana. He then worked as a Radio Ghana scriptwriter, reporter, and announcer, before winning a scholarship to study in the United States in 1959, two years after Ghanaian independence.

Left Harvard to Trek Across the World Armah spent one year at a preparatory school in Massachusetts before entering Harvard University in 1960, but left college in 1963 before completing his courses and examinations. Influenced by the growing number of African revolutionary movements and perhaps by the American civil rights movement as well, Armah set out on a seven-thousand-mile trip over four continents to pursue a truly “creative existence.” The experience led to a physical and mental breakdown.

First Novel an International Success Returning to the United States, Armah went back to Harvard, completed his BA, and later earned an MFA at Columbia University. He spent 1967 to 1968 in Paris, where he worked as the editor of Jeune Afrique. In 1968, Armah published The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a novel often described as existentialist. It burst upon the international literary scene and quickly became a classic of African fiction. The protagonist, simply known as “the man,” is a railway clerk in Ghana during the regime of Kwame Nkrumah, the African leader who took power when Ghana gained independence from Britain.

American Experiences Informed Next Two Novels After again living in the United States and working

at the University of Massachusetts, Armah returned to Africa in 1970, where he continued to write while holding teaching, scriptwriting, translating, and editing jobs. He first lived in Tanzania, where he taught African literature and creative writing. From 1972 to 1976, he was teaching the same subjects in Lesotho. During this period, he wrote a number of important novels as many independent countries in Africa continued to struggle to define themselves as political entities.

Like “the man,” the protagonists of Armah's next two novels are alienated in their respective societies and, like Armah, they have studied in the United States. Fragments (1971) tells the story of a “been-to,” (someone who has been to the United States) who is hounded into madness by his family because of what he brings back from his stay in America. It is not the instant return of material possessions and prestige that they expect of him, but a moral idealism that interferes with the selfish materialism they have taken over from Western culture.

Why Are We So Blest? (1972) is the story of Modin, an African student studying at Harvard. He leaves school and returns to Africa with his white girlfriend Aimee to participate in a revolutionary struggle. Modin is ultimately destroyed in Armah's complex tale, which explores, among other things, sexual relationships and the hierarchy of race as Modin is subjugated and sped to destruction by Aimee.

Turned to “Historical” Novels In Two Thousand Seasons (1973), however, Armah began to portray entire African communities in a historical context—and in their struggles, these communities would succeed. The novel, which calls for the reclamation of Africa's traditional values, covers one thousand years of African history. The Healers (1978), Armah's next novel, is the story of a young protagonist, Densu, who studies to become a healer at a time when Africa is being ravaged by a virulent plague of non-African origin.

Wrote from Senegal Since the publication of this novel, Armah has advocated the establishment of an African publishing industry and of an African literature in African languages, rather than European languages. Armah returned to the United States to teach at the University of Wisconsin in 1979. He later went back to Africa and made his home in Dakar, Senegal, where he focused primarily on his writing.

In 1995 came the novel Osiris Rising, which was published only in Senegal, as was Kmt: In the House of Life (2002). Armah continues to live and work in Senegal.

Works in Literary Context

Influences and “Un-African” Style Armah's combination of an African background with an American education has made the question of the literary sources of his fiction a difficult one. During the 1970s, many Western critics detected European influences, including that of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Irish postmodernist Samuel Beckett, French “nouveau roman” pioneer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and innovative French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

In the case of Armah's third novel, Why Are We So Blest?, black American literature and polemic were added to the list of influences. The divergence of Armah's visionary, symbolic fictional modes from the realist mainstream of African fiction has provoked charges from African critics, notably Chinua Achebe, that his characterization and style are “un-African” and have more in common with expatriate fiction about Africa written by Europeans than with African writing.

Importance of Ritual and Tradition However, Armah's figurative treatment of the intricacies of ritual process gives his work an unexpected and seldom-noticed common ground with work from which his own art has been thought far removed, such as the tradition-oriented early plays of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer, and with the writing of authors who have adopted a hostile critical stance toward him, such as the Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor.


Armah's famous contemporaries include:

Muammar al-Gaddafi (1942–): Libyan leader and advocate of pan-Africanism and pan-Arabism; widely respected throughout Africa for the stability of his rule, but, until recently, considered by the West to be a sponsor of terrorism.

Mariama Ba (1929–1981): Muslim Senegalese author and feminist; her work exposes the discrimination and imbalance of power that African women experience in daily life.

Breyten Breytenbach (1939–): White South African poet and advocate for minority rights; he has been exiled and imprisoned for his political views.

Frantz Fanon (1925–1961): Writer and scholar from Martinique, West Indies; his works critiquing colonization strongly influenced Armah as well as many anticolonial liberation activists.

Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972): First prime minister (1952–1966) of Ghana after its independence and influential pan-Africanist, promoting African unity and traditional African values; while he was out of the country, his government was overthrown by a coup.

African commentators—notably Solomon O. Iyasere and D. S. Izevbaye—who adhere to more inclusive concepts of traditionalism have drawn attention to the connection of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born both to African fable and to the personifications of the oral tradition, and to Fragments's striking simulation of the

oracular and editing devices of the narrative style of the griots, or traditional oral storytellers.

Reflections of African Society In his first three novels, Armah also wrote about the struggles, alienation, and failures of individuals in contemporary African society. In the Ghana of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, for example, filth and excrement are everywhere, serving in the novel as metaphors for the corruption that permeates society. The man, however, resists this corruption and fights the “gleam” that causes almost all Ghanaians to pursue material wealth and power through bribery and other foul deeds. With Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, Armah turned to more historical African concerns and highlighted the need to return to traditional African culture as a model for the future, something he tried to do in his own influential life and work.

Works in Critical Context

While Armah is considered one of Africa's leading prose stylists writing in English, his works have met with a somewhat mixed critical reaction, though many reviewers have praised his stylistic innovations. The author is usually appreciated for the strength of his convictions and desire to promote the improvement of the African continent and those who live there as well.

Early Works Lauded by Critics Critics generally praised Armah's first three works, especially The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born; many compared Armah's writing ability with that of such celebrated Western writers as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction, describes the book as “a novel which burns with passion and tension, with a fire so strongly kindled that in every word and every sentence one can almost hear and smell the sizzling of the author's own branded flesh.” In the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, James Booth describes it as “the most powerful work of a novelist of genius.” But other critics—notably Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe—accused Armah of portraying Africa in a European manner.

Early critical allegations that there are few “Africanisms” in Armah's first two novels and that the books do not draw upon Ghanaian settings, speech, or history, have not held up under close investigation, however. These books are so imbued with surviving ritual forms, ceremonial motifs, local mythologies, and residual ancestral beliefs that traditional West African culture is always powerfully, if remotely, present, both in its superior ethical imperatives and its inherent deficiencies.

Mixed Reception for “Historical” Novels Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers have had a mixed reception. These two historical novels have been widely hailed by African critics as evolving a major new style for African literature. Some Western critics, notably Gerald Moore and Bernth Lindfors, have expressed reservations about them, however, and there seems to be a consensus in the West that they show signs of reduced inspiration and declining artistic achievement. Robert Fraser, on the other hand, has argued that their apparent radical line of departure is really a curve in an arc of continuous development and achievement from the early novels, and he has fewer reservations about the method and manner by which the beautiful ones are finally “born” in Armah's fiction.


Colonialism is never far from the surface in Armah's novels. Here are some other works that examine colonialism and its effects.

Colonialism and Neo-colonialism (1964), by Jean-Paul Sartre. This classic collection of writings by the French philosopher examines his country's colonization of Algeria, a microcosm of the West's colonization of developing countries.

The Glass Palace (2000), by Amitav Ghosh. This epic novel sweeps from Burma and Malaya from 1885 to the present, tracing the history of colonialism across those countries.

The Harbor Boys (2006), by Hugo Hamilton. This coming-of-age memoir tells of the author's struggle to define himself in 1960s Dublin, Ireland, as the son of a German mother and a vehemently anti-English Irish father.

In My Father's House (1993), by Kwame Anthony Appiah. This book of essays by the Ghanaian philosopher examines modern African identity, cultural assumptions, and postcolonial African culture.

The Open Sore of a Continent (1997), by Wole Soyinka. This nonfiction book by the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer examines the crisis in Nigeria brought on by its governing dictatorship.

Responses to Literature

  1. Armah is known to keep fairly quiet about his personal life and work. Many of his novels, however, draw heavily from his own life experiences as a Ghanaian and as an Ivy League student in the United States. Compare Armah's novel Fragments with the known details of the author's life. What elements are taken directly from his own experiences? Which appear to be largely fictional? Why do you think he chose to create a fictional work instead of an autobiography?
  2. Armah's recent novels have only been published in Senegal. Do you think that a writer should always aim to reach as many readers as possible? What are some reasons why a writer might choose to target a smaller audience?
  3. Read the excerpt from Armah's essay “One Writer's Education.” What does he mean when he calls writing “the least parasitic option open to me.”?
  4. Armah advocates using a common African language as the main language in Africa instead of European languages. Using the Internet and your library's resources, research Chinua Achebe and Breyten Breytenbach, two African writers who have chosen to write in “hostile” languages in order to reclaim them. Write an essay analyzing their view and contrasting it with Armah's view. Explain whose view you agree with more, using specific reasons to back up your argument.



Anyidoho, Kofi. “The Example of Ayi Kwei Armah” In Literature and African Identity. Bayreuth African Studies Series 6. Matieland, South Africa: University of Stellenbosch, 1986.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “African Fragment” In Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside, 1972.

Fraser, Robert. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur. The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Jackson, Tommie Lee. The Existential fiction of Ayi Kwei Armah, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996.

Larson, Charles R. The Emergence of African Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Oforiwaa, Yaa, and Addae Akili. The Wisdom of the Ages: Themes and Essences of Truth, Love, Struggle, and High-Culture in the Works of Ayi Kwei Armah and Kiarri T-H. Cheatwood. Richmond, Va.: Native Sun, 1995.

Yankson, Kofi E. Ayi Kwei Armah's Novels. Accra, Ghana: 1994.


Amuta, Chidi. “Ayi Kwei Armah and the Mythopoesis of Mental Decolonisation.” Ufahamu 10 (Spring 1981): 44–56.

Anyidoho, Kofi. “The Contemporary African Artist in Armah's Novels.” World Literature Written in English 21 (Autumn 1982): 67–76.

Bishop, Rand. “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born: Armah's Five Novels.” World Literature Written in English 21 (Autumn 1982): 531–37.

Lindfors, Bernth. “Armah's Histories” African Literature Today 11 (1980): 85–96.

Oluoch-Olunya, Garnette. “A Confiscated History.” EastAfrican (February 28, 2005).

Armah, Ayi Kwei

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ayi Kwei Armah



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.



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.


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

Carol Brennan

Armah, Ayi Kwei

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.



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.


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

Armah, Ayi Kwei

views updated May 18 2018

ARMAH, Ayi Kwei

ARMAH, Ayi Kwei. Ghanaian, b. 1939. Genres: Novels. Career: Former Trans., Revolution Africaine mag., Algiers. Scriptwriter for Ghana Television, and English Teacher, Navrongo School, Ghana, 1966; Ed., Jeune Afrique mag., Paris, 1967-68. Publications: The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, 1968; Fragments, 1970; Why Are We So Blest?, 1972; The Two Thousand Seasons, 1973; The Healers, 1978; Osiris Rising: A Novel of Africa Past, Present and Future, 1995. Contributor of poetry to anthologies and short stories to magazines. Address: c/o Per Ankh Publishers, B.P.2, Popenguine, Senegal.