With reference to "The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born," how can Ayi Kwei Armah be termed a political novelist?
Political novelists usually focus on critiquing the societal institutions of their time, and Ayi Kwei Armah is no exception. In his book, Armah lays bare the corruption of post-colonial government in Ghana. Armah's book is graphically disturbing, and it is not for the faint of heart. Outhouses, trash, and dilapidated buildings are described in stark language; various bodily effluvia (sexual and waste discharges) are flaunted without apology. The pervasive decay of the human condition in every chapter reinforces the theme of corruption in Armah's novel.
With his controversial narrative, Armah criticizes the opportunistic and avaricious African elites who turn their backs on their own countrymen and who enrich themselves at local expense. Essentially, Armah's work is a Ghanaian take on Orwell's Animal Farm, where native elites oppress the citizenry in a post-colonial haze of decadence and corruption.
Life has not changed. Only some people have been growing, becoming different, that is all. After a youth spent fighting the white man, why should not the president discover as he grows older that his real desire has been to be like the white governor himself, to live above all the blackness in the big old slave castle?
The story takes place between 1965 (during the last few months of Kwame Nkrumah's corrupt reign) and 1966 (just after he was relieved of his power). Interestingly, the protagonist in the novel is unnamed, signifying his universal connection to all who reject the new post-colonial paradigm. The hero lives with his wife, Oyo, but experiences little joy in his marriage. Life is difficult, and bribery dominates every societal transaction in post-colonial Ghana. As a matter of practice, the hero shies away from participating in this corrupt web of materialistic duplicity. Because of his personal ethics, his family stays poor. Oyo's resentment towards her husband is visceral and enduring.
Ayi Kwei Armah juxtaposes the hero's exemplary character against that of the corrupt Joseph Koomson (a government minister). For his part, Koomson represents the new, powerful Ghanaian elite:
“These were the socialists of Africa, fat, perfumed, soft with the ancestral softness of chiefs who had sold their people and are celestially happy with the fruits of the trade..."
Ministers like Koomson are oblivious to the suffering of the locals. Their only purpose in life is to enjoy lives of sexual debauchery and to increase both wealth and power at the expense of the masses. Armah makes the point that these ruling elites are no different from the previous colonial overlords. He documents the suffering of those who resist the new paradigm: the hero must endure contempt from his own wife and neighbors because he refuses to engage in unethical practices.
“Everyone said there was something miserable, something unspeakably dishonest about a man who refused to take and to give what everyone around was busy taking and giving”
As a political novelist, Armah successfully documents the widespread corruption in Ghana during the post-colonial years. Although much of the narrative is disturbing in its preoccupation with bodily effluvia, Armah's book effectively draws our attention to the problems faced by former colonies as they march towards self-determinism.
After being educated at Harvard and working at jobs as varied as TV scriptwriter and college instructor and acquiring an advanced degree in writing from Columbia University, Ayi Kwei Armah turned his hand to novel writing. Some of his recurrent themes are greed and corruption; early pan-African solidarity and unity; historical relevance to present conditions; and intellectual liberation and independence, as in the motto to have one's own mind. He is considered a political novelist because he consistently takes on political realities, shaming present-day corruption and looking to history for the root causes of conflict and corruption, while offering olive branches of hope for emendation of existing political difficulties. In The Beautiful Ones Are not Yet Born, his most prevalent ideas and his political writing are evidenced in the theme of corruption versus self-aggrandizement.