Ama Ata Aidoo Essay - Critical Essays

Aidoo, Ama Ata

Introduction

Ama Ata Aidoo 1942-

(Full name Christina Ama Ata Aidoo) Ghanaian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Aidoo's career through 2002.

Best known for her short stories, novels, and plays, Aidoo embraces the devices of the African oral tradition in all aspects of her writing. Her works reflect a feminist and nationalist consciousness that links Africa's social problems and the decline of its oral tradition to past European colonial rule and Africa's present neocolonial economy. Different aspects of Africa's social history, particularly the legacy of slavery, are often the subject of Aidoo's work, and one of her more controversial recurring motifs is the exploration of the marginalization of educated African women. In such works as Anowa (1970) and Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (1977), Aidoo presents female protagonists who defy the stereotype of the submissive African woman despite strong male opposition and abuse.

Biographical Information

Aidoo was born in 1942 to Chief Yaw Fama of the Fanti town of Abeadzi Kyiakor, Ghana, and his wife, Maame Abba Abasema. This royal environment exposed Aidoo to traditional African lore and literature which would strongly influence her later writing. She attended Western schools, completing her primary education at the Wesley Girls' School in Cape Coast and graduating with honors in English from the University of Ghana at Legon in 1964. She was later appointed as a Junior Research Fellow of the Advanced Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. While attending the University of Ghana, Aidoo participated in the school of drama and several playwriting workshops. The publication of her plays The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965) and Anowa later established Aidoo's reputation as a rising African playwright. After the success of Anowa, Aidoo turned her attention to different genres of writing, publishing novels, essays, poems, reviews, and, most notably, collections of her short stories. Her collection No Sweetness Here (1970) integrates African oral techniques with Western literary conventions and was warmly received by critics in Africa and abroad. Aidoo published her first novel, Our Sister Killjoy, in 1977 and did not release another work for eight years. This was due in part to the oppressive political regime in Ghana at the time, which was characterized by military brutality and the indiscriminate incarceration of Ghana's intelligentsia. Aidoo taught English literature at the University of Ghana, Cape Coast, from 1970 to 1983, and was a consulting professor in the ethnic studies program of the Phelps-Stokes Fund from 1974 to 1975. In 1982 Aidoo was appointed Minister of Education in Ghana under the government of J. J. Rawlings. Due to pressure from the increasingly conservative government, Aidoo was forced to resign the position and subsequently left the country in 1983. She settled in Zimbabwe, later serving as the chair of the Zimbabwe Women Writers Group. Aidoo is also the founder and executive director of Mbaasem, a foundation that supports African American women writers and their work. She received a short story prize in a Mbari Press competition and another from Black Orpheus for the title story in No Sweetness Here. In 1992 she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for African Literature for Changes: A Love Story (1991). She has travelled extensively in Africa, the United States, and Europe, and has presented lectures at universities throughout Africa and North America.

Major Works

Aidoo first attracted critical and popular attention for her dramatic works which examine the gender, racial, and intergenerational conflicts that African men and women are forced to confront in the modern world. The Dilemma of a Ghost focuses on a young Ghanaian, Ato Yawson, who was educated in America. He returns home with his African American wife, Eulalie Rush, whom he has married without forewarning his family. The cultural conflict, conveyed through the design of the family house, images of food, and distinctive levels of language, is exacerbated by the couple's decision not to have children. When Eulalie shows no sign of becoming pregnant, Ato's family assumes that she is barren. The core of the problem, however, lies in Ato's inability to bring about any meaningful reconciliation between his ancestral and adopted cultures. Only the strength and wisdom of Ato's mother helps to assuage a bitter confrontation between Ato's Western individual values and his family's traditionally communal African beliefs. In Anowa, a beautiful, talented young woman named Anowa rejects all the suitors her parents approve and instead marries Kofi Ako, the man of her choice. Anowa and Kofi quickly discover that they have almost nothing in common, and Kofi tries to drive Anowa away. Refusing to be divorced without reason, Anowa repudiates Kofi's insinuations of barrenness—a common accusation leveled against African women in childless marriages—and instead blames Kofi for the failure of their marriage. Completely deflated by this threat to his manhood, Kofi kills himself, and Anowa also commits suicide, overwhelmed by the futility of attempting to find meaning in life. Anowa is set during a significant period in the colonial history of Africa's Gold Coast, and the ethical implications of colonialism and slavery heighten the dramatic action, revealing conflicting attitudes toward such issues as wealth and slavery.

No Sweetness Here, Aidoo's first published work of prose, collects eleven short stories that emphasize Aidoo's concern with feminist issues. The stories focus on a range of diverse and often tragic topics such as sexism, degradation, feminine adolescence, and humanist values. “Everything Counts” and “For Whom Things Did Not Change” are primarily centered around the impact of modernization on both rural and urban women, while “The Late Bud” explores budding girlhood and the identity crisis emanating from growing up female in a sexist environment. Aidoo's novel Our Sister Killjoy blends traditional prose with poetry and passages written in the epistolary form. Consisting of a prologue and three chapters, the novel records the impressions of an African girl named Sissie during a visit to present-day Germany and England, noting the colonial histories of both countries and their governments' role as oppressor to African peoples. Sissie is the Ghanaian representative of an international group of young volunteer workers and, as she witnesses the economic exploitation of and racism against African immigrants in Europe, she loudly encourages her countrymen to return to Africa. In 1985 the College Press of Zimbabwe published Someone Talking to Sometime, the first collection of Aidoo's poetry, which contains forty-four original poems. Aidoo employs a conversational style in the poems to lend humor to the essentially tragic nature of existence, particularly in such poems as “From the Only Speech that Was Not Delivered at the Rally” and “Of Love and Commitment.” Her second volume of poetry, An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems (1992), examines similar thematic material, while also presenting a series of existential questions regarding self-identity, exile, place, and belonging. In Changes: A Love Story, Aidoo explores the limited options retained by modern African women in regard to love and marriage. The female protagonist, Esi, an ambitious Ghanian careerwoman, flouts convention by divorcing her husband and becoming the second wife of a more progressive man. Through Esi's struggle for self-respect within a relationship, Aidoo examines such issues as career choices, marital rape, monogamy, polygamy, and the toll of compromise in marriage. Her second short story collection, The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1997), is written from a child's perspective, featuring young female protagonists who struggle to define themselves within patriarchal African society. In stories like “She-Who-Would-Be-King” and “Male-ing Names in the Sun,” Aidoo subverts the traditional portrayal of adolescent African females, creating characters who question and challenge the role of the African woman in the twenty-first century. Aidoo has also written several children's works, including The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories (1986) and Birds and Other Poems (1987), a book of poetry for children.

Critical Reception

Aidoo's work has garnered generally positive reviews throughout her career. The Dilemma of a Ghost has attracted high praise from critics, despite some negative comments about the play's structural weaknesses and Aidoo's attempts at blending the African oral tradition with Western literary elements. Several reviewers have lauded the stories in No Sweetness Here, noting Aidoo's skill at creating sympathetic characters as well as the social relevance of her prose. Fawzia Afzal-Khan has commented that, in No Sweetness Here, “Aidoo uses her dramatist's skills to create an immediacy of environment and experience into which the reader is drawn, almost as participant rather than observer.” While many scholars have agreed on Aidoo's prominence as a social critic, some commentators have expressed uneasiness over what they describe as Aidoo's pointed attacks against the Western world in Our Sister Killjoy. However, other critics have rejected this assessment, favorably comparing the novel to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time and Jean Toomer's Cane. Gay Wilentz has argued that Our Sister Killjoy deserves considerable praise for presenting “a rarely heard viewpoint in literature in English—that of the African woman exile.”

Principal Works

Dilemma of a Ghost (play) 1965

Anowa (play) 1970

No Sweetness Here (short stories) 1970

Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint (novel) 1977

Someone Talking to Sometime (poetry) 1985

The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories [illustrations by Paul Wade] (juvenilia) 1986

Birds and Other Poems (juvenilia and poetry) 1987

Changes: A Love Story (novel) 1991

An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems (poetry) 1992

The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (short stories) 1997

Criticism

Ebele Eko (essay date October 1986)

SOURCE: Eko, Ebele. “Beyond the Myth of Confrontation: A Comparative Study of African and African-American Female Protagonists.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 17, no. 4 (October 1986): 139-52.

[In the following essay, Eko examines how Aidoo subverts the traditional role of the African female protagonist in Anowa, comparing the play to several works from African and African American authors.]

Times have changed since the sixties, and a new breed of black women writers in Africa and America are giving creative birth to a new breed of female protagonists. One of their deep concerns, a point which Hoyt Fuller has stressed,1 is to...

(The entire section is 5103 words.)

Chimalum Nwankwo (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Nwankwo, Chimalum. “The Feminist Impulse and Social Realism in Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.” In Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves, pp. 151-59. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc., 1986.

[In the following essay, Nwankwo explores how the reality of African feminism is portrayed in No Sweetness Here and Our Sister Killjoy.]

Feminism challenges, with justification, the secondary status of women in all societies. Some such challenges in African literature are suspiciously autobiographical and irredeemably subjective. Many are successful in...

(The entire section is 3493 words.)

Kofi Owusu (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Owusu, Kofi. “Canons under Siege: Blackness, Femaleness, and Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.Callaloo 13, no. 2 (spring 1990): 341-63.

[In the following essay, Owusu considers the impact of racial and gender issues on Our Sister Killjoy, commenting that the novel “seems to defy easy categorization, and one soon gets the impression that it defines itself by this very fact.”]

[T]here is a Eurocentric view that the movement for women's liberation is not indigenous to Asia or Africa, but has been a purely West European and North American phenomenon, and that where movements for women's emancipation … have arisen in...

(The entire section is 10240 words.)

Gay Wilentz (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Wilentz, Gay. “The Politics of Exile: Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 15, no. 1 (winter 1991): 159-74.

[In the following essay, Wilentz asserts that Our Sister Killjoy deconstructs traditional “prescribed theories of exile” and presents an original narrative from the perspective of a female African expatriate.]

The term “politics of exile” calls to mind those sufferers who must leave their homeland for political reasons. But there is another aspect of the politics associated with exile—that of the so-called third world colonial who seeks the benefits and opportunities in a European...

(The entire section is 5522 words.)

Gay Wilentz (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Wilentz, Gay. “Ama Ata Aidoo: The Dilemma of a Ghost.” In Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora, pp. 38-57. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Wilentz evaluates the “dilemma” of traditional African versus Western values that Aidoo constructs in The Dilemma of a Ghost.]

If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.1

Kwegyir Aggrey

Ama Ata Aidoo, like her sister Ghanian Efua Sutherland, has been extremely active in promoting her culture's traditions through her...

(The entire section is 8234 words.)

Ama Ata Aidoo, Rosemary Marangoly George, and Helen Scott (interview date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Aidoo, Ama Ata, Rosemary Marangoly George, and Helen Scott. “A New Tail to an Old Tale: An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 26, no. 3 (spring 1993): 297-308.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in Fall 1991, Aidoo discusses her role as an African writer, African immigration to the West, and elements of feminism in her work.]

INTRODUCTION

Ama Ata Aidoo is an internationally recognized and acclaimed literary and intellectual figure. She has published many plays, novels, collections of short stories and poems since her first play The Dilemma of a Ghost in 19651. She was born in...

(The entire section is 5823 words.)

Ama Ata Aidoo and Anuradha Dingwaney Needham (interview date 29 January 1992)

SOURCE: Aidoo, Ama Ata, and Anuradha Dingwaney Needham. “An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 1 (spring 1995): 123-33.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on January 29, 1992, Aidoo discusses her feminist perspective, African nationalism, and the portrayal of African immigrants in her work.]

Ama Ata Aidoo has occupied, and continues to occupy, many roles: former Minister of Education for Ghana, University Teacher, Critic, Writer of poetry, plays, novels and short stories. The brutal legacy of European colonialism in Africa, a gender politics that marginalizes women and locks them into unacceptable traditional roles, the...

(The entire section is 4480 words.)

Susan Gardner (review date November 1994)

SOURCE: Gardner, Susan. “Culture Clashes.” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 2 (November 1994): 22-3.

[In the following review, Gardner compares and contrasts Changes: A Love Story with Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta's Kehinde.]

Ama Ata Aidoo and Buchi Emecheta, despite their different nationalities (Aidoo is from Ghana, Emecheta from Nigeria) have much in common. Emecheta, born in 1946, divorced, has four living children; Aidoo, a few years older, widowed with one daughter. Both are among the first African women writers to publish in English and gain a worldwide audience. Each lives in exile—Emecheta in London and Aidoo in Zimbabwe. Emecheta's exile is...

(The entire section is 2360 words.)

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: MacKenzie, Clayton G. “The Discourse of Sweetness in Ama Ata Aidoo's No Sweetness Here.Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 161-70.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie examines Aidoo's generally optimistic portrayal of postcolonial African culture in No Sweetness Here, arguing that the collection employs “a narrative technique of closely juxtaposed binary oppositions that attest to glimmers of benignity in the midst of social decay.”]

In “For Whom Things Did Not Change,” the second story in Ama Ata Aidoo's collection No Sweetness Here, a young man recounts the tale of a bad yam. In it he tells how Nanaa cuts a...

(The entire section is 4475 words.)

Ranu Samantrai (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Samantrai, Ranu. “Caught at the Confluence of History: Ama Ata Aidoo's Necessary Nationalism.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 2 (summer 1995): 140-57.

[In the following essay, Samantrai asserts that African nationalism is a major recurring motif in Aidoo's oeuvre, noting that works such as Our Sister Killjoy function as “example[s] of how a non-racialist, non-foundational African identity might lead to Pan-African solidarity.”]

WHY NATIONALISM?

Is it possible to generate Pan-Africanist nationalism from a non-racialist impulse? This is the strategy for Pan-African solidarity advocated by Anthony...

(The entire section is 9154 words.)

C. L. Innes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Innes, C. L. “Conspicuous Consumption: Corruption and the Body Politic in the Writing of Ayi Kewi Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo.” In Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, pp. 1-18. Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995.

[In the following essay, Innes discusses how political and cultural corruption relates to and influences the work of Aidoo and Ghanaian author Ayi Kewi Armah.]

At the close of A Man of the People, Chinua Achebe's novel depicting the rise and fall of a corrupt Nigerian politician, the narrator, Odili, declares:

For I do honestly believe that in the fat-dripping, gummy,...

(The entire section is 7372 words.)

Fawzia Afzal-Khan (review date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Review of No Sweetness Here and Other Stories, by Ama Ata Aidoo. World Literature Today 71, no. 1 (winter 1997): 205-06.

[In the following review, Afzal-Khan comments on No Sweetness Here on the occasion of its reprinting over twenty-five years after its original publication.]

The republishing of this 1970 collection of short stories by one of Africa's leading ladies of letters is indeed a welcome event for all readers of African fiction, but especially for teachers eager to include works by African women in a variety of courses. As Ketu Katrak points out in a readable and informative afterword, “One key manifestation of...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Pamela J. Olubunmi Smith (review date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Smith, Pamela J. Olubunmi. Review of The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, by Ama Ata Aidoo. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 342.

[In the following review, Smith praises the stories in The Girl Who Can and Other Stories, complimenting Aidoo's examination of gender disparity in postcolonial Africa.]

Writing in several genres—drama, the novel, poetry, the short story—Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana's leading female writer, has secured a place for herself in the Ghanaian literary canon. Here is a voice to be reckoned with, not only as a modern African creative writer but also as an African female/feminist writer. Indeed, her voice, like that...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Assimina Karavanta (essay date December 2001)

SOURCE: Karavanta, Assimina. “Rethinking the Specter: Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa.Mosaic 34, no. 4 (December 2001): 107-22.

[In the following essay, Karavanta discusses Anowa from a global perspective, commenting that the play's most significant attribute is “the multiple voices that it engages in addressing the problematic of colonialism and the beginning of the flow of white capital in the region of the Gold Coast.”]

Il faut parler du fantôme, voire au fantôme et avec lui, des lors qu'aucune éthique, aucune politique, revolutionnaire ou non, ne paraît possible et pensable et juste, qui ne reconnaisse à son principe le...

(The entire section is 6836 words.)

Maria Olaussen (essay date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Olaussen, Maria. “‘About Lovers in Accra’—Urban Intimacy in Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes: A Love Story.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 61-80.

[In the following essay, Olaussen argues that Changes: A Love Story presents an “utopian” vision of the deconstruction of traditional sexual roles in postcolonial Africa.]

“What does a woman want?” If Sigmund Freud did not have an answer to that question, that is not the case with the mothers in Ama Ata Aidoo's novel Changes: A Love Story. The fact that their daughter is an educated woman in a lucrative job with great prospects for her future has a profound...

(The entire section is 10469 words.)

Modupe Olaogun (essay date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Olaogun, Modupe. “Slavery and Etiological Discourse in the Writing of Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Buchi Emecheta.” Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 172-93.

[In the following essay, Olaogun explores the recurring theme of slavery in Anowa, Bessie Head's Maru, and Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl, asserting that the slavery motif “suggests a deeper structural analysis of historical time than a focus on the immediate independence period as a privileged moment through which the postindependence morass in Africa could be understood.”]

Slavery—human bondage for labor exploitation in domestic or market...

(The entire section is 11014 words.)