Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”