Armah, Ayi Kwei (Vol. 136)
Ayi Kwei Armah 1939-
Ghanian novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Armah's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 33.
Ayi Kwei Armah is considered one of Africa's leading prose stylists writing in English. His works typically explore postcolonial Africa and focus on human alienation. Though Armah's vision is one of a unified Africa, he writes vehemently of the psychological effects of colonialism on the people of contemporary Ghana and Africa. His works have met with mixed critical reaction but many reviewers laud his stylistic innovations.
Armah was born in 1939 in Takoradi, Ghana. His father is descended from the royal family of the Ga tribe and his mother was a member of the Fante tribe. Armah graduated from Prince of Wales College and received a scholarship to attend Harvard University from 1959 to 1963. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies, graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1963. Armah then worked briefly as a translator in Algeria. When he returned to Ghana in 1964, he became a scriptwriter for Ghana Television where he worked for three years under the supervision of George Awoonor Williams （later known as Kofi Awoonor）. In 1966 a coup d'état toppled the government of Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanian leader who held power since 1957 when Ghana gained its independence from Britain. After the coup, Armah worked as a teacher at the Navrongo Secondary School in northern Ghana. In 1967 he moved to France where he worked on the staff of Jeune Afrique. The 1966 coup significantly influenced Armah's views about corruption in politics and he harshly criticized Nkrumah's administration in his 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Armah returned to the United States in 1968 and received a graduate degree in fine arts from Columbia University in 1969. Armah subsequently taught at universities in both the United States and Africa while continuing to write.
Armah's first three novels are often grouped together in critical commentary. They each are heavily symbolic representations of life in contemporary Africa. The first, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, tells the story of a simple railway clerk during the regime of Kwame Nkrumah. The protagonist, known only as The Man, acts as a representation of the common man Nkrumah has promised to represent. The novel dramatizes the conflict between hope for change and the betrayal of that hope by the nation's leaders and serves as a stinging indictment of the Nkrumah regime. Fragments （1970） recounts the story of Baako, who returns to Ghana after studying in New York for five years. His family expects him to flaunt his Western education to gain prestige and wealth for the family. Baako, however, rejects what he sees as the corrupt values of the new Africa and only wishes to live a quiet life. In the end, Baako becomes so alienated he undergoes a breakdown and ends up in an asylum. Why Are We So Blest? （1972） tells the story of Modin Dofu, an African student studying in the United States who decides to return to Africa after becoming disillusioned with his experience with Western education. He brings his white lover Aimée Reitch, who acts as a representation of the white race in the novel. The return to Africa proves disastrous when the conflict between his rejection of Western values and his involvement with Aimée eventually destroys him. The novel is complex in structure, abandoning the linear progression of Armah's previous works. The emphasis of Armah's later novels is to clearly focus on the idea of returning to traditional African culture as a model for the future. Two Thousand Seasons （1973） covers one thousand years of African history and approaches epic proportions in its compressed meanings, descriptions of battles, and use of folk mythology. Armah condemns the Arab “predators” and European “destroyers” and calls for the reclamation of Africa's traditional values. The Healers （1978） is a fictionalized account of the fall of the Ashanti empire to the British. The novel dramatizes the struggle for African unity. The colonial invaders attempt to manipulate Africa's divisiveness while the healers in the novel attempt to strengthen Africa through inspiration and unity.
Armah's first three novels are generally praised for their artistry. S. Nyamfukudza calls them “intricate in form and distinguished by a highly wrought prose style using violent imagery.” While lauding Armah for his artistry and innovation, however, critics often label him a pessimist who offers little hope for the future. Greater critical understanding and acceptance of his agenda were realized with the publication of Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, although his detractors continued to fault his fictional portrayals of a new sociopolitical order in Africa as vague and unrealistic. Some reviewers complain of Armah's change in tone in later works, and accuse him of being too idealistic to inspire real change. A few reviewers also note a lack of detail in his vision for Africa's future. Adewale Maja-Pearce said “Armah is a visionary writer in the strict sense. This much at least must be conceded, even if the details of what is effectively promoted as a blueprint for a social and political arrangement are far too vague and simplistic to be convincing at any but the most hopeful level.” Some critics contend that Armah presents racist, simplistic views in his works when he portrays all that is black as good, and all that is white as evil and corrupt. Despite these criticisms, Armah is widely appreciated for the strength of his convictions and his desire to promote the betterment of the African continent.
“La mort passe sous les blancs” （essay） 1960
“Contact” （short story） 1965
“Asemka” （short story） 1966
“African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?” （essay） 1967
“Pour les ibo, le régime de la haine silencieuse” （essay） 1967
“An African Fable” （short story） 1968
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born （novel） 1968
“Yaw Manu's Charm” （short story） 1968
“Fanon: The Awakener” （essay） 1969
“A Mystification: African Independence Revalued” （essay） 1969
“The Offal Kind” （short story） 1969
“Aftermath” （poem） 1970
Fragments （novel） 1970
Why Are We So Blest? （novel） 1972
Two Thousand Seasons （novel） 1973
“Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali” （essay） 1974
“Chaka” （essay） 1975
“Larsony, or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction” （essay） 1976
The Healers （novel） 1978
“Halfway to Nirvana” （short story） 1984
“Islam and ‘Ceddo’” （essay） 1984
“Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis”...
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SOURCE: “Drought & Rain” in New Statesman, Vol. 99, No. 2555, March 7, 1980, pp. 362-63.
[In the following review, Nyamfukudza discusses Armah's Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers.]
The first three novels by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, intricate in form and distinguished by a highly wrought prose style using violent imagery, were all vividly emphatic artifacts. With outspoken courage and unrelenting commitment, he grappled seriously with the waste, corruption and inefficiency resulting from the cultural confusion which is the post-colonial inheritance of Black Africa. 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. His protagonists, anguished and fragile beings, are consumed in ineffectual quests for personal （and by implication） national salvation. The presentation of this predicament has been fitfully enlivened by his own brand of somewhat dark humour.
Two Thousand Seasons presents a considerable departure from what he has done before. Indeed, one of the questions likely to preoccupy the reader is whether it is a novel at all. The collective racial memory of the black people is given voice through their pilgrimage of self-assertion in received versions of the long years of...
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SOURCE: “Armah's F-R-A-G-M-E-N-T-S: Madness as Artistic Paradigm,” in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 361-70.
[In the following essay, Owusu analyzes the relationship between madness and artistic creativity as evident in Armah's Fragments.]
… I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft. …
The nature of literary genius has always attracted speculation, and it was, as early as the Greeks, conceived of as related to ‘madness’. … Another early and persistent conception is that of the poet's ‘gift’ as compensatory: the Muse took away the sight of Demodocos's eyes but ‘gave him the lovely gift of song’ …, as the blinded Tiresias is given prophetic vision.
—Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature
The epigraphs from Shakespeare and Wellek and Warren are intended to provide this essay with both an introduction and a point of departure. Hamlet's “The time is out of joint. O curséd spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” sums up the essential features of Baako's predicament in Fragments. Both Hamlet and Baako are sensitive protagonists who are shocked by physical and moral corruption in the nuclear and “extended” families. Either would rather “fardels bear” than “his quietus make / With a bare...
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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah's Myth-making in The Healers,” in Literature of Africa and the African Continuum, edited by Jonathan A. Peters, Mildred P. Mortimer, and Russell V. Linneman, Three Continents Press, 1989, pp. 5-14.
[In the following essay, Saber discusses Armah's creation of a traditional African myth in the novel The Healers.]
The Healers'1 integral structure is based on myth-making through which it attains symbolic proportions. In fact, Armah superimposes on its history of the Asante Empire a mythic level which is crucial to a full understanding of the novel. Since “a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time” and “explains the present and the past as well as the future,”2 the two intentions of myth and history are compatible. The Healers demands mythic interpretation, but it is informed by no classical European myth. In fact, Armah had already used myth, on a limited basis, in his earlier novels.3 In Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, however, he embarked on a full-scale program of myth-making. The Healers makes several references to traditional beliefs and practices, and habits of thoughts or behavior, which derive their origins not from the Greco-Roman myth of course, but from the African background. The novelist's overt purpose in myth-making is to offer a dynamic impetus to the...
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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah in Two Moods,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Liyong takes exception with Armah's politics and what he terms Armah's “fascination with revolutions, revolutionaries, overturners, [and] coup-makers. …”]
Since Ayi Kwei Armah is fond of scaring readers off by opening with philosophical premises, I would also like to kick off by offering a philosophical truism of my own.
Works of art are ideologically based. Especially the serious ones wrought by a society's leading thinkers and artists. Even when they look so innocent as children's stories, popular proverbs, or pop-songs, they still elaborate, and popularise a people's philosophy of life.
So, explicitly some of the time, and implicitly most of the time a society's artists reinforce the group's outlook towards itself and towards other peoples. The creators drive the young, the new, towards acculturization. The critics perform the shepherd's task of leading the stray sheep back to the fold.
Rome created the Western world. Christianity strengthened it. Calvinistic election to sainthood through wealth, gave the Western world capitalism. What is called the Western world is therefore what the Roman world got from the Greeks （who had got it from others） which were then wielded together by the Catholic...
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SOURCE: “Safety in Numbers: A Note on Numerology in African Writing,” in Literary Criterion, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, 1991, pp. 31-7.
[In the following essay, Wright traces the use and ritual significance of numbers in several of Armah's works.]
Numbers have a customary importance in the proverbs, folk-myths, modes of divination, and seasonal ritual observances of traditional African societies, so the numerological neatness of much West African writing comes as no surprise. The days of the week, months of the year, or years in a given period may acquire magical significances and correspondences in drama and fiction in the light of numerological traditions.
For example, in Soyinka's early tradition-oriented play The Strong Breed （1963）, the hero Eman is guilty of twelve-year dereliction of his ancestral duty as hereditary carrier of the village community's sins, and this is made to correspond to another village's sins of twelve months, which it becomes his fated task to remove and to which events lead him inescapably back. Thus the annulment of the time of a single year—and, it may be, of many years of ritual malpractice in the corrupt society of the play—simultaneously effaces his own twelve-year apostasy. Numbers have the same fatalistic propensities in the parallel circular return to a lost self and a forsaken obligation by the protagonist Amamu in the more modern setting...
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SOURCE: “Oral Tradition and the African Novel,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 389-407.
[In the following essay, Sackey analyzes the innovative use of traditional African oral poetics in the structure, theme, and style of novels by Armah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Kofi Awoonor.]
In the growth and development of modern African literature, African traditional oral poetics is playing a very significant role. This is seen in modern African poetry, modern African drama, and the modern African novel. Indeed, it is at the center of the on-going experiments and innovations in modern African literature. The African writer has found in the sources of the African oral heritage a new enrichment, a new revitalization of contemporary African writing. Now African oral literature invites communal participation so that I do not see anything intriguing about its incorporation into African drama and African poetry. This is because their consumption is also communal. Like African oral literature, modern African drama and modern African poetry can be socialized, democratized. This is not meant for a particular class of people. The same cannot be said of the African novel because its consumption and creation are basically individualistic. Thus, the incorporation of African oral poetics into the novel forms a basically written and individualistic form and seems to be rather...
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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah and the Harbingers of Death,” in Essays on African Writing, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 13-23.
[In the following essay, Maja-Pearce discusses the political ideology which infuses Armah's fiction, especially in Why Are We So Blest?]
To be a writer at a time like this, coming from such a people, such deep destruction, the most criminal. Only one issue is worth our time: how to end the oppression of the African, to kill the European beasts of prey, to remake ourselves, the elected servants of Europe and America. Outside that, all is useless; and I am outside.
AYI KWEI ARMAH: Why Are We So Blest?1
Why Are We So Blest? tells the story of Modin, an African student in the United States, who becomes disillusioned with academia, returns to Africa with his white American lover, Aimée, and stumbles into the desert of mortification and reward in search of the revolution which is certainly not to be found on the campus of a western university:
The educated Africans, the westernised African successes are contemptible worms … Happy to get degrees, then go home and relax on the shoulders of our sold people. The end of a western education is not work but self-indulgence. An education for worms and slugs.
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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Revolution in Armah's The Healers: Form as Experience,” in African Studies Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, April, 1993, pp. 43-58.
[In the following essay, Ogede asserts that Armah's The Healers signals a change in the novelist's portrayal of revolution and that the novel contains a previously unseen element of optimism.]
The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah's most recent novel （1978）, has received less critical attention than it deserves given the importance of its theme—the sociopolitical liberation of Africa—and the compelling textual strategies it deploys towards that end.1 What scanty criticism it has attracted has concentrated only on the novelist's social vision, with the debates centering on the degree of faithfulness to the historical materials on which he bases his novel. Nevertheless, without due attention paid to the rhetoric, the peculiar idea of revolution that Armah advocates cannot be grasped fully. By rhetoric is meant the linguistic strategies employed by the writer to put his ideas forward—his style, the use of aesthetic means for achieving desired effects on the reader. This essay attempts to redress the picture and demonstrate the aesthetic elements that give Armah's novel its special stridency.
While it is true, as many critics have pointed out （Lindfors 1980, 91; Fraser 1980, 83–86; Wright 1989,...
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SOURCE: “Visual Iconology in Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” in Commonwealth Novel in English, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring/Fall, 1993, pp. 13-29.
[In the following essay, Ibitokun explores visual communication in Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.]
Visual experiences play an important role in our gradual apprehension of the universe. They are not restricted to the realm of the physical, they also have to do with the mental. In fact, the interaction of the physical and the mental is something of a reflex. In the child, physical sight is more emphasized than mental sight in the sense that the child takes in through the eyes pleasure experiences and events of the world around it. Through visual experiences and correspondences, the personality of the child is forged and shaped in a certain social matrix. As time goes on, the child becomes more and more reflective and the quality of its visual experiences deepens. The physical eye is, at this juncture no longer a mere receptacle of external impressions, scenes and events. It becomes the transmitter of external impressions to the soul and the reflector of the soul to the outside outside world or of the soul to the soul. Once internalized, the object brought forward is subjected to scrutiny. It is in this respect that we can talk metaphorically of “to see”; in the sense of “to understand”. We cannot understand with...
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SOURCE: “Story and Narrative in the Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Critical Theory of African Literature Today, Vol. 19, 1994, pp. 53-63.
[In the following essay, Lorentzon discusses the differences between narrative structures in Armah's novels.]
Readers of Ayi Kwei Armah's five novels invariably agree they are novels of great diversity. It is particularly between the first three and the last two where the change is most noticeable. One critic even goes so far as to talk about the early and the late Armah.1 When other critics more acutely instead stress the homogeneity between the five novels, it is predominantly theme and imagery that is considered. Yet most readers would insist that the novels are remarkably dissimilar for a single author's works. I believe this largely has to do with a change of narrative strategy.
Narratology is the discipline with which we can study this change of narrative posture. With its roots in Russian formalism early this century, it was further developed and introduced to a larger audience during the seventies in France. Today, American universities are perhaps most productive on the subject. It is in other words a decidedly Western theoretical approach. This should not of course stop students of African literature from making full use of these theories. As in any science, the scholar of literature must under no circumstances discard theories...
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SOURCE: “Fictional Strategies of Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. 35, No. 2, July, 1994, pp. 104-21.
[In the following essay, Rao traces the fictional strategies in Armah's five novels and notes a change of tone in the author's latter two novels.]
Ayi Kwei Armah has emerged as a major writer on the African literary scene. The brilliant Ghanaian novelist is an articulate spokesman of African history and identity. Through a process of diagnosis/analysis of contemporary reality and reclamation/reconstruction of African history Armah, in his fictional medium, embarks on a course of restoration which at the same time serves as “an aggressive response to the colonialist theory of pre-colonial barbarism.”1 Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist-revolutionary, while analysing the role of the native intellectual in the post-colonial context, formulates that the African creative writer in the process of evolutionary growth creates “a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature and a national literature” transforming himself into “an awakener of his people.”2 Armah's incisive probing into the matrix of Africa's past and present in an attempt to celebrate the principles of reciprocity and positive change points to such a fighting and national literature. His fictional creation is the summation of his sustained efforts to approach and dismantle colonial and...
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SOURCE: “The Writer as Physician: The Therapeutic Vision in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers,” in Neohelicon, Vol. XXII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 141-54.
[In the following essay, Nwahunanya terms Armah's The Healers, “a fictional discourse on the nature and control of political power.”]
In my conclusion to a recent essay on Two Thousand Seasons, I posited that Ayi Kwei Armah “situates the African tragedy within the context of the loss of ‘the way’ as a guiding ethos and suggests a return to this moral anchor and revitalising essence as a sine qua non in the process of charting a new course for the ideal Africa of the future”. I suggested also that in The Healers, Armah extends the frontiers of his proposition in his suggestion that the work for the future, the assignment for the healers, is the cultivation of the awareness that can ensure a complete return to the ethos of “the way”, connectedness and reciprocity. For the fall of the Ashanti empire in The Healers is shown to be a consequence of both the colonial enterprise and the role of divisive manipulators like Ababio. With the projected exit of such people in the wake of a return to ‘the way’, therefore, it is hoped that the society would be healed once again of its most serious ailment, disunity, which is one major consequence of the colonial experience （Nwahunanya, 1991: 559）.
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SOURCE: “The Politics of Inspiration in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers,” in Critique, Vol. 38, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 279-88.
[In the following essay, Petrie argues that Armah's intent in writing The Healers “is not to provide practical instruction in revolution, but to promote a body of ideals to inspire and guide meaningful and lasting change that includes, but goes well beyond, the realm of the political.”]
Critics of Ayi Kwei Armah's most recent novel are unanimous in recognizing the central opposition between inspiration and manipulation that both structures the novel and constitutes its philosophy,1 and in identifying the essential idealism of the novel's scheme. Most critics, however, consider The Healers seriously flawed and find the source of its deficiencies in the very fact of its idealism. The novel's weakness, the arguments go, is that the utopian ideals of the healers are incapable of enactment in the temporal, historical world. Although the root assertion of such arguments is nearly undeniable, the judgment that that fact spells the novel's failure depends upon a misreading of Armah's goals. The novel does indeed assert the healers' ideals as the only true basis for African sociopolitical regeneration, but it simultaneously questions the degree to which those principles can successfully be translated into real sociopolitical action. The novel is...
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SOURCE: “Ayi Kwei Armah,” in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 45-51.
[In the following essay, Dseagu provides an overview of Armah's career and major works.]
Ayi Kwei Armah was born in 1939 in Takoradi, then the only deep-sea harbor on the Gold Coast. He is descended on his father's side from a royal family in the Ga tribe inhabiting the environs of the present capital of Ghana. During the nineteenth century there arose a conflict within the royal family over succession to the royal stool as a result of which the ancestral family withdrew into exile to settle in Dahomey.
When the Takoradi harbor was built and the town became the hub of international trade on the Gold Coast, many people, including the father and relatives of Ayi Kwei Armah, moved there in search of a job. The father must have been prosperous, because he married into the Fante tribe inhabiting the western section of the country where Takoradi is located. Aspects of the family life are presented in the semibiographical Fragments.
Ayi Kwei Armah had his secondary education from 1953 to 1958 at the Prince of Wale's College, now better known as Achimota School, the most prestigious secondary school in Ghana, established by the colonial...
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Boafo, Y. S. “The Nature of Healing in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Healers.” Komparatistische-Hefte 13 (1986): 95-104.
Discusses the role of healing in ending political divisions among Africans as presented in The Healers.
Review of Two Thousand Seasons. Ebony 35, (January 1980): 24.
Fair review of Two Thousand Seasons.
Additional coverage of Armah's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol 1; Black Writers, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Poets; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.
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