Ayi Kwei Armah Armah, Ayi Kwei (Vol. 136) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

“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” (essay) 1984

“The Caliban Complex” (essay) 1985

“Flood and Famine, Drought and Glut” (essay) 1985

“The Lazy School of Literary Criticism” (essay) 1985

“One Large Problem” (essay) 1985

“One Writer's Education” (essay) 1985

“The Oxygen of Translation” (essay) 1985

“The Teaching of Creative Writing” (essay) 1985

“Africa and the Francophone Dream” (essay) 1986

“Dakar Hieroglyphs” (essay) 1986

“Third World Hoax” (essay) 1986

“Writers as Professionals” (essay) 1986

“Seed Time” (poem) 1988

“Doctor Kamikaze” (short story) 1989

“Speed” (poem) 1989

S. Nyamfukudza (review date 7 March 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kofi Owusu (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. …

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

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...

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Ahmed Saber (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Taban lo Liyong (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Derek Wright (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Edward Sackey (essay date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adewale Maja-Pearce (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Ode S. Ogede (essay date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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B. M. Ibitokun (essay date Spring/Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leif Lorentzon (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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K. Damodar Rao (essay date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Chinyere Nwahunanya (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul R. Petrie (essay date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Samuel A. Dseagu (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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