Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Ayi Kwei Armah is one of the most acclaimed, yet controversial, West African writers. Born in 1939 to Fante-speaking parents at Sekondi-Takoradi, in the western region of Ghana, Armah received his early education at Achimota College, near Accra. In 1959, Armah traveled to the United States on a scholarship, studying for one year at Groton School in Massachusetts, and later at Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in sociology. Armah returned to Ghana in 1964 and worked briefly as a scriptwriter for Ghana Television. In 1967, he traveled to the United States on a grant from the Fairfield Foundation to participate in the graduate writing program at Columbia University in New York City. Subsequent to his studies at Columbia, Armah went to Paris and worked as an editor-translator for Jeune Afrique. In 1968, he returned to the United States and took a teaching post at the University of Massachusetts. Four years later, he traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he accepted a teaching job. Armah’s works exhibit Western influences, as they show the plight of alienated heroes in search of values in a society seemingly devoid of meaning.
Set in Sekondi-Takoradi, one of Ghana’s major port cities, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born chronicles the life of a railway clerk who routinely must make hard choices between easy money that would enable him to provide more adequately for his family and his own conscience, which disallows his acceptance of bribes as a means of getting ahead. Armah considers corruption and opportunism as responsible for the failure of the nationalist movement, since newly elected leaders, once they have risen to power, become no less predisposed than were their colonialist predecessors to secure their own positions through unethical means or at the expense of the masses they were elected to serve.
The despair that results from dashed hopes also pervades Armah’s second and third novels. In Fragments and Why Are We So Blest? Armah depicts insular individuals, or artist-heroes, whose aspirations are thwarted by a grasping, acquisitive society. The artist-hero Baako Onipa in Fragments suffers from guilt because he falls short of familial expectations that he will enrich the lives of family members by supplying them with modern luxuries from abroad. The guilt related to his perceived failure ultimately leads him to a nervous collapse. Armah’s Why Are We So Blest?, which is set in Algiers, also features an artist-hero, whose spiritual pursuits eventually lead him into self-imposed exile.
Armah’s fourth and fifth novels, Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, represent a departure from his earlier works. Instead of being set in postindependence Africa, they span a number of centuries prior to the colonization of Africa. In fact, the intent of the author is to probe the source of the corruption identified in earlier novels and, in doing so, to provide hope for Africa’s redemption. The two novels are therefore more optimistic than the first three, whose artist-heroes are described as islands of virtue in a wasteland of greed and corruption. In Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, Armah relies upon the collective wisdom of traditional storytellers, or griots, whose solidarity and grounding in communal or traditional values provide an effective antidote to destructive forces.
Osiris Rising, Armah’s sixth novel and his first in seventeen years, tells the story of Ast, a young African American Egyptologist who goes to Africa in search of her roots and a sense of belonging. She is also following Asar, her college lover who has returned to his African homeland to fight the injustices of the postindependence puppet regimes. It is significant that the country to which she travels is never named directly. Armah’s traditional themes are once again in evidence: pan-African unity, historical consciousness, intellectual nonconformity, and disgust with the corrupt African leadership. The Osiris and Isis myth provides an important symbolic background for this otherwise realistic text.
Criticism of Armah’s later novels was predictable, since it corresponded with that of his earlier works—that his characters too often lack human dimension. The characters in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born were criticized for being mere mouthpieces for the author; that is, politicians were made the epitome of corruption. Their negative portrayals, combined with what some consider to be Armah’s obsession with offal, led them to equate the novel with exaggeration and distortion that reflected the author’s own rage at what he considered a betrayal of nationalist hopes. Others have argued that such criticism is unfounded, since it stems not from a consideration of the work as an art form but rather from the work’s unpopular views.
Despite the controversy that was sparked with Armah’s first novel, the writer remains at the forefront of African literature and has been credited with helping to usher in the coming of age of the African novel. Unlike his literary predecessors, whose novels were comparable to anthropological treatises detailing the customs of African society, Armah’s novels are more carefully crafted and stylized. More important, however, Armah’s novels are more introspective. Unlike earlier writers, who were content to dramatize the clash between African and Western cultures, Armah not only delved into the root causes of the conflict but also, in his later novels, succeeded in providing hope for its amelioration.
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