Discussion of the Role of the Narrator and Theme of Cultural Tradition
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1555
A central concern of Aidoo's fiction is the dilemma of the African woman who has received a Western education and returned to her native village and culture. Aidoo's story ‘‘No Sweetness Here’’ focuses on such a character. The story's narrator, referred to only as Chicha, is a Fanti woman who has been educated by the standards of Western culture, then returns to the Fanti village of Bamso as the area's only schoolteacher. Chicha's story merges with that of Maami Ama, whose son Kwesi is Chicha's favorite pupil. As Chicha learns more about Maami Ama's ill-fated marriage and subsequent divorce, she is confronted with the extent to which she finds that her own Westernized perspective on these events is far different from "the age-old customs of my people of which I had been ignorant.’’ In the following essay, I discuss several elements of Chicha's narration, which emphasize her encounter with these ‘‘age-old customs,’’ and her own place as both a native and a foreigner to her own culture. I focus discussion on the cultural differences she encounters in terms of gender and beauty standards as well as conceptions of time.
Central to the story are Chicha's perceptions of the child Kwesi and of his relationship to his mother. She becomes aware of her place as outsider to her own culture in terms of her ideas about gender and beauty. The importance of Chicha's feeling for Kwesi's physical beauty is indicated by the fact that the story opens with the statement, ‘‘He was beautiful, . . .’’ But Chicha's sense of the inappropriateness of the concept of male beauty is immediately indicated when, in the same sentence, she makes the disclaimer, ‘‘. . .but that was not important.’’ Chicha immediately goes on to explain the traditional Fanti
perspective on male beauty: "Beauty does not play such a vital role in a man's life as it does in a woman's, especially if that man is a Fanti. If a man's beauty is so ill-mannered as to be noticeable, people discreetly ignore its existence.’’ She then indicates her place as outsider to this Fanti perspective, admitting that ‘‘only an immodest girl like me would dare comment on a boy's beauty." While she "immodestly" reminds Maami Ama that her son is "so handsome,’’ Maami Ama maintains the appropriate Fanti response to such a statement: ‘‘You should not say such things. The boy is not very handsome really.’’ However, Chicha detects beneath this surface propriety on the part of Maami Ama the true feeling she has for Kwesi's physical beauty: ‘‘But she knew she was lying. 'Besides, Chicha, who cares whether a boy is handsome or not?' Again she knew that at least she cared, for, after all, ‘‘didn't the boy's wonderful personality throw a warm light on the mother's lively though already waning beauty?’’
Flying in the face of the traditions of her own culture, the narrator paints for the reader a rich, sensuous portrait of Kwesi's beauty: ‘‘He was in Primary Class Four and quite tall for his age. His skin was as smooth as shea-butter and as dark as charcoal. His black hair was as soft as his mother's. His eyes were of the kind that always remind one of a long dream on a hot afternoon.’’ Chicha again follows this description with a disclaimer: ‘‘It is indecent to dwell on a boy's physical appearance, ...’’ However, she rejoins this disclaimer with an ironic mouthing of the traditional perspective on such excessive male beauty: ‘‘. . .but then Kwesi's beauty was indecent.’’
Chicha contrasts this cultural taboo regarding male beauty with the idle afternoon talk of the old men, who casually discuss the physical beauty of a woman:
"I say Kwame, as I was saying this morning, my first wife was a most beautiful woman,’’ old Kofi would say. ‘‘Oh! Yes, yes, she was an unusually beautiful girl. I remember her."
By contrasting the taboo on the very idea of male beauty with the perfectly acceptable mention of female beauty, Aidoo suggests a critique of the traditional gender roles within Fanti culture. The narrator's status as both insider and outsider to this culture provides a perspective on these traditional gender roles, which puts them in question. On this issue, Aidoo implies that Chicha's semi-alienated status within her own culture makes possible a feminist critique of traditional Fanti gender roles.
Chicha' s role as a non-traditional, Westernized outsider in her own culture is further emphasized through the repetition of a very different theme: time. At several points in the story, Chicha comments on the differences in her Westernized conception of time and the traditional Fanti conception of time. Chicha first mentions the Western conception of late afternoon by indicating, ‘‘My watch read 4:15 p.m. . .’’ She then contrasts this concrete, mechanized, Western conception of time with that of the Fanti. While the time according to the watch may be indicated in a brief statement, an explanation of the significance of this particular time of day for the Fanti requires a richer, more elaborate explanation:
My watch read 4:15 p.m., that ambiguous time of the day, which the Fantis, despite their great ancient astronomic knowledge, have always failed to identify. For the very young and very old, it is certainly evening, for they've stayed at home all day and they begin to persuade themselves that the day is ending. Bored with their own company, they sprawl in the market-place or by their own walls. The children begin to whimper for their mothers, for they are tired with playing 'house'. Fancying themselves starving, they go back to what was left of their lunch, but really they only pray that mother will come home from the farm soon. The very old certainly do not go back on lunch remains but they do bite back at old conversational topics which were fresh at ten o'clock.
Thus, the Fanti conception of time is described in terms which evoke a particular mood shared by both young and old alike. However, Chicha identifies her own conception of the late afternoon with her regimented, Westernized education:
‘‘But I was a teacher, and I went the white man's way. School was over.’’
Throughout the story, Chicha mentions her watch and makes note of the time of various events and occurrences. As she walks toward Maami Ama's hut after school is out, she mentions, "I had only my little clock in my hand.’’ It is as if the presence of the clock in her hand is a constant reminder to both herself and her reader that she has been so immersed in Western education that she can rarely even let go of Western conceptions of time, even within the community of her own Fanti people.
A clash between Fanti cultural tradition and a Westernized system of education again occurs in the context of the day of the festival of Ahobaada. As the village teacher, Chicha is compelled to comply with a schedule based on Western cultural practice, for, as she explains, ‘‘It had not been laid down anywhere in the Education Ordinance that schoolchildren were to be given holidays during local festivals.’’ As a Fanti herself, however, she is painfully aware of the lack of provision for local cultural events and customs within this standardized system: ‘‘And so no matter how much I sympathized with the kids, I could not give them a holiday, although Ahobaada was such an important occasion for them they naturally felt it a grievance to be forced to go to school while their friends at home were eating too much yam and meat...In the afternoon, after having gone home to taste the festive dishes, they nearly drove me mad.’’ Chicha thus again finds herself caught between the dictates of a Westernized education and the tug of cultural tradition upon the hearts and souls of her children.
Just as Chicha is not able to renounce a mechanized, Western conception of time, the implication here is that African children and parents must choose between the benefits of a Western education and the inevitable loss of cultural tradition attendant on such an endeavor. This loss of cultural ties that results from Western education is a central theme in much of Aidoo's fiction. Aidoo herself left her village of origin in order to receive a Western education, yet she expresses skepticism as to the value of this choice. As in the case of the character and story narrator Chicha, Aidoo questions the value of a choice that ultimately alienates the student from her or his own culture.
As in many of her stories, Aidoo's "No Sweetness Here’’ uses the narrative perspective of a character who is both outsider and insider to her own culture in order to launch a cultural critique on several levels. In this story, Chicha's Westernized perspective allows her to critique traditional Fanti gender roles, particularly regarding standards of beauty. On the other hand, however, Aidoo critiques the influence of Western culture, particularly education, on the African woman, as it ultimately works to alienate her from her own cultural traditions, such as the important festival of Ahobaada.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. Brent is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.
The Defense of Culture in Ama Ata Aidoo's "No Sweetness Here": The Use of Orality as a Textual Strategy
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975
In her book African Novels and the Question of Orality, Eileen Julien bitterly attacks the notion that there is anything particularly African about orality or anything essentially oral about African culture. The "oral form," she contends, "is not the concrete literary simulacrum of African essence but is, rather, a manifestation of social consciousness, vision, and possibility allowed by particular moments and niches in African sociocultural life.’’ Despite her doubts about the wisdom of associating orality with Africa, Julien does acknowledge that the manifestation of oral forms in the work of African writers is common, but rarely discussed. Indeed, her book is, to date, the most detailed discussion of the major oral forms employed by such important African writers as Camara Laye, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, and Sembene Ousmane. It is likely to remain the definitive study in the field for a long time.
Oral forms hold a special appeal for African writers, and Julien identifies a number of reasons why: ‘‘The art of speaking is highly developed and esteemed in Africa for the very material reasons the voice has been and continues to be the more available medium of expression, that people spend a good deal of time with one another, talking, debating, entertaining. For these very reasons, there is also respect for speech and for writing as communicative social acts.’’ But because Julien would both sniff at the idea of associating the oral with Africa, while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that "there is a continuity in African verbal arts. . . . The artists are creatures of culture, their traditions are in them and inform their works,’’ she engages in too much special pleading, betraying a defensiveness or protectionism toward Africa and the oral which is as objectionable as the Eurocentric prejudices that she attacks. If we are genuinely convinced that the oral is not an insignia of inferiority, we will hardly feel the need to conceal the fact that the African way of life is dominated by its oral culture.
One undeniable truth is that orality still serves as a badge of authenticity in the work of a number of African writers. But this tradition, which was first cogently elaborated in Chinua Achebe's famous words about his primary literary goal being to help his society "regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement,’’ has been radicalized by younger writers, including Ayi Kwei Armah and Ngugi, among others. What these younger writers all have in common is an agenda that goes beyond Achebe's intention to lead his people to a recognition that African societies ‘‘frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity’’ toward using oral forms as instruments for self-interrogation and as catalysts for revolutionary change in society. Ama Ata Aidoo, the only woman fiction writer of substance to come out of Ghana so far, reveals especially in her 1970 book of short stories, No Sweetness Here, that she was contemporaneous with Armah and Ousmane (and many years ahead of Ngugi) in using oral strategies in fiction both to subject her people to self-scrutiny and to suggest the means that could lead them to freedom.
Ironically, this all-important aspect of Aidoo's work has received scant attention. She is, for instance, omitted entirely in Julien's study. And despite the early attention Dapo Adulugba drew to the didactic element in No Sweetness Here—a feature borrowed from oral tradition—by remarking that Aidoo exhibits "the involved, sympathetic eye of a critical patriot,’’ criticism of the oral quality in Aidoo's work has been deflected to her 1979 novel, Our Sister Killjoy, which, in fact, relies less on oral forms than do her short stories. And yet, as Craig Tapping has conceded, ‘‘to hear Aidoo read from this novel [Our Sister Killjoy], her short stories, plays, or poetry is to recognize that . . . Aidoo graphs the voice of an excited storyteller, marking intonations and emphases through the learned technical conventions of open or free verse and its denoted terminals.’’ Nonetheless, the transposed oral form, on the one hand, and an actual oral event, on the other, are, of course, two entirely different activities. Cynthia Ward makes this distinction clear with a fine example: "The value of the oral tale to the oral culture lies not entirely in the tale itself but, perhaps more significantly, in the discussion it generates after it is told, discussion that allows each participant to respond, whether by taking the center, presenting another illustrative fiction, or displaying his or her individual style." The oral performance is a live event that encourages communal participation, with gestures, mimicry, and body movement as its vital aspects. The difficulty in attempting to capture in print the key elements of performance is what makes Cynthia Ward remark, "What is lost in . . . transcription—where spoken words are lifted from their immediate social context and deposited on a page, which tolerates no immediate response—is precisely the oral.’’
But what about the different ways in which people in oral and literate cultures interpret phenomena? Ward opines that while there are differences, the idea popularized by Jack Goody and Ian Watt about the presumed simplicity of cognition in oral culture, relative to literate culture, is a myth. She believes that in writing cultures ‘‘discourse takes on its dictatorial 'discursive universe'’’; so here, unlike what obtains in oral cultures, "words become objects with genealogies, subject to use in the service of establishing power and affirming an oppressive status quo.’’ However, Ward goes on to observe how "even in writing, the oral antiaesthetic makes a space for itself as writers who . . . insist on life outside the text take up the pen only to find that by writing they abrogate their own rights over direct semantic ratification.’’ Although her argument is obviously overstated, due, understandably, to the perennial frustration researchers experience in capturing the oral material in cold print, Ward succeeds in exploring the oral as manifested in the work of the Nigerian woman writer Buchi Emecheta. My paper hopes to accomplish a similar task in the work of Aidoo, Ghana's foremost woman writer.
Aidoo's No Sweetness Here is, like Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, a defense of both culture and womanhood. It is a defense of culture in that it deals with the acculturation problems of Africans, portraying an idealistic view of the threatened values; feminist in that it deals most sympathetically with the experience—the longings, agonies, frustrations, and pain—of being a woman in a male-dominated society. Furthermore, Aidoo means in her stories to achieve a textual representation that draws on the aesthetics of orality. . . .
I have remarked earlier that the impact of all Aidoo's stories derives from her keen awareness that a story is not made interesting merely by its subject, but more importantly by its style, by how it is narrated. And although Odun Balogun in the essay cited above reasons that even a story with a thin theme can be redeemed by a good mastery of language, Aidoo's pieces like the title story ‘‘No Sweetness Here’’ and ‘‘Two Sisters’’ show that the best results are obtained from an intelligent balance of subject and style.
The theme of ‘‘No Sweetness Here’’ is the hardship African women encounter in polygamous households. This is in itself a subject of substantial interest but Aidoo adds pep to it by her choice of narrator: a teacher in a village school who knows her subject well, is objective, and is sensitive to suffering. She begins by recreating the daily routine of life in a typical village—the cycle of work and rest that typifies the life of ordinary women. Such a figure is Mami Ama, the central character of the story; a woman who has reasons to be happy but is not. Though she and her husband have been physically married for a long time, they have long been spiritually divorced. The object of abuse by her husband and his extended family and of the ridicule of her friends, Mami Ama's story frames the lives of many ordinary women who are victims of male brutality.
In the narrative design of the story, Aidoo is sensitive to the oral tradition of her culture, and the narrator's words capture well the rhythms of Ewe speech. She builds up Mami Ama's character charmingly—always dutiful, cheerful, hardworking; in short, doing all her best to get on in life. Ultimately, Aidoo designs Mami's story as a protest against women's lot. Now an orphan, Mami gives everything to her marriage so as to secure happiness, but she gains nothing. When the divorce takes place, she will be separated from her only son, who will automatically be given to his father for custody. To reflect how the child means everything in her whole life, Mami calls him "my husband, my brother, my father, my all-in-all.’’
Aidoo confirms the crucial interest she takes in her Ewe expressive heritage through the dramatic effect she strives for. In "No Sweetness Here" the sense of performance is heightened. The story builds
up to a very emotionally charged level. An instance is the scene of reunion between Mami and her son, Kwesi. When Kwesi returns from school, we sense the filial bond, the love and affectionate care of a good mother. Even though, as we learn, Kwesi does not help his mother as other children do by bringing home firewood, water, or working on the farm, Mami is uncomplaining. A crucial irony that enhances the dramatic impact of the story is that the divorce happens on a festival day, so on the fated day when Kwesi will be separated for good from his mother, he is happily playing football, innocent of what is happening.
The divorce scene, which presents one of the most unkind and most brutalizing treatments of womanhood in the whole of African fiction, affords Aidoo an opportunity to launch an open attack on some of the injustices embedded in traditional African culture. To the monologue of the narrator—we seem to get most of the information from the narrator's reflections on Mami's plight—Aidoo adds dialogue, capitalizing effectively on its possibilities for both psychological penetration and dramatic representation. The reader witnesses the members of Mami's husband's family gang up with their son to humiliate a woman he once loved. The maltreatment that Mami receives is indeed pathetic; at the moment of separation she is branded foul names, abused, and then asked to refund her husband the dowry he paid on her. All her labors to feed and clothe her son, and to cater for his education without her husband's support, come to nothing—they take him away from her. The breakup involves two families, two communities that once were bonded by love. So hatred and animosity have replaced love and fellow feeling. The untimely death of Kwesi (from a snake bite) might belie a narrative design that reflects the author's desperation—a sort of an extreme and exaggerated reaction of pain to the injustices women suffer when polygamous marriages fail—but, in general, Aidoo's telling of this story embodies one of the attributes of the African writers who borrow from oral tradition: while acknowledging "the power and charm of the African oral tradition [she] will have none of that social stratification that the tales put forward. ...’’
Unlike many an alienated Western-educated African, Aidoo takes a deep interest in her roots. Her achievement in the act of simulated oral performance that I have discussed in this essay confirms that the strategies and morals embedded in traditional oral literature can contribute meaningfully toward the redirection of all the shared patterns of cultural habits that govern contemporary African societies.
Source: Ode Ogede, "The Defense of Culture in Ama Ata Aidoo's 'No Sweetness Here': The Use of Orality as a Textual Strategy," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 & 2, 1994, pp. 76-84.
Ama Ata Aidoo: The Art of the Short Story and Sexual Roles in Africa
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355
In No Sweetness Here the perspective on the rural woman shifts from the largely rural viewpoints, or self-images, of the village to the insights of a Western-educated young woman. The narrator is a school teacher through whose eyes we view Maami Ama, one of the vilage women. Maami is very attached to her son Kwesi who is also one of the narrator's pupils, but loses him, first to her estranged husband in a divorce hearing, and shortly after, to a fatal snake bite. The decidedly non-rural sources of the narrator's Western bearing and style are readily apparent in a mockingly scandalous candour about sex that evokes the notorious image of the sexually "liberated" Western, or Westernized, woman: "He was beautiful, but that was not important. Beauty does not play such a vital role in a man's life as it does in a woman's or so people think. If a man's beauty is so ill-mannered as to be noticeable, people discreetly ignore its existence. Only an immodest girl like me would dare comment on a boy's beauty. 'Kwesi is so handsome,' I was always telling his mother. . . . His eyes were of the kind that always remind one of a long dream on a hot afternoon. It is indecent to dwell on a boy's physical appearance, but then Kwesi's beauty was indecent.’’
On the surface, Aidoo seems to offer a fairly straightforward contrast between a narrator whose education and occupation effect the image of the self-sufficient outsider, and an older woman of traditional background. And this apparent contrast is the more marked when we consider the emphasis on Maami's vulnerability: her intense attachment to her son is as ambiguous as Mami Fanti's maternalism in ‘‘A Gift from Somewhere’’ in that this attachment both assures her claim to womanliness-through-motherhood and compensates for the limitations of her role (‘‘a lonely mother and a lonely son’’) in a society of male prerogatives; and the male's prerogatives are underlined by the fact that the divorce proceedings that are modelled on tribal custom allow her no recourse against her husband's exclusive claims on his son. But looked at more closely, this contrast is less clear-cut. If Maami Ama's intense attachment to Kwesi compensates for her sense of isolation and vulnerability, so does the narrator's. For Kwesi's future education, career, and even sexual exploits have become a vicarious means of fulfilment for a woman whose education and occupation—albeit Western—have brought her a smaller degree of choice or mobility than her liberated rhetoric implies. Significantly, too, this vicarious self-fulfilment excludes the domineering male figure in the story, Kwesi's father, Kodjo Fi: "In my daydreams . . . [Kwesi] would be famous, that was certain. Devastatingly handsome, he would be the idol of women and the envy of every man. He would visit Britain, America and all those countries we have heard so much about.... In all these reveries his father never had a place.’’ On the whole, the narrator's insights into the ambiguous position of the rural woman reflect the ambiguities of her own situation. She too has a sense of personal vulnerability and limitations that she attempts to transcend through Kwesi's male future. Indeed, it is a major, and recurring, irony in Aidoo's work that the "progressive," "liberated," and ‘‘sophisticated" images of the Westernized woman are really masks: underneath there are the familiar vulnerability and a new, self-destructive insecurity in a time of conflicting cultural values. This is clear enough in the "bad" city women of "In the Cutting of a Drink" and in the narrator's uneasy sense of kinship with the isolated and victimized mother of ‘‘No Sweetness Here." Hence the title of the latter work establishes a contextual irony for the narrative as a whole: on the one hand, it does imply a rebuttal of the notion that the situation of the rural woman is all sweetness, a notion that is fostered in the works of a writer like Nigeria's Oprian Ekwensi whose "bad" city women (especially Jagua Nana) usually retreat to unspoilt rural roots to re-discover a lost innocence; but, on the other hand, the title offers an even more personal reference, to the narrator's own individuality and to the lack of real "sweetness" (fulfilment behind her liberated Western image. Similarly, in ‘‘Everything Counts’’ the young university teacher who upholds her racial and sexual integrity by disdaining the national craze for European wigs still suffers from a sense of isolation—particularly since the Ghanaian "brothers" who have encouraged her in her militant African womanliness are still comfortably, and indefinitely, settled in Europe as perpetual students, with European girlfriends.
At the very least, however, the narrators of "No Sweetnees Here’’ and ‘‘Everything Counts’’ command respect because they are acutely aware of the irony of their situation as supposedly ‘‘liberated’’ and "independent" Western women. The double-dealing of her "brothers" overseas and its implication for her own isolation are not lost on the protagonist of ‘‘Everything Counts.’’ And the narrator's conscious identification with Maami and Kwesi in ‘‘No Sweetness Here’’ attests to her awareness that her own situation is no less vulnerable than Maami's, and that conversely, her advantages as an "educated" woman are not necessarily superior to that resiliency of spirit that Aidoo invariably attributes to her rural women. There is no such awareness in the more intensely satiric "Two Sisters’’ where Aidoo ironically dons the style of the woman's magazine format in order to take a close survey of the urban middle-class woman. Her findings are not reassuring. On the one hand, there is Connie, unhappily married to a compulsive philanderer, and on the other hand, there is her sister Mercy whose notions of "liberated" womanhood take the form of successive affairs with married politicians, their large cars, and with their healthy bank accounts. Aidoo's plot is pointedly hackneyed, for the ultimate irony of the sisters' lives is the essentially deja vu quality of their borrowed middle-class aspirations. As Aidoo's personified Gulf of Guinea muses, people are "worms" whose lives are both contradictory things and "repetitions of old patterns." Their tragedy as women, and the tragedy of their social milieu as a whole, consists of the fact that they are all living stereotypes whose experiences are a succession of second-hand clichés—Mercy's neo-Hollywood obsession with "sexy" clothes, uniformed chauffers, and vulgarly large American cars; Connie's desperate determination to be respectably, even happily, married, and her hackneyed conviction that the new baby will, somehow, restore the marriage.
With her usual fastidious attention to the thematic function of her short-story techniques, Aidoo embellishes this description of a Westernized middle-class with all the popular banalities of Western women's magazines. Unlike the acutely self-conscious narrators of ‘‘No Sweetness Here’’ and ‘‘Everything Counts,’’ the vapidly Westernized Mercy thinks in unconscious clichés:
As she shakes out the typewriter cloak and covers the machine with it, the thought of the bus she has to hurry to catch goes through her like pain. It is her luck, she thinks. Everything is just her luck. Why, if she had one of those graduates for a boy-friend wouldn't he come and take her home every evening? And she knows that a girl does not herself have to be a graduate to get one of those boys. Certainly, Joe is dying to do exactly that—with his taxi. And he is as handsome as anything, and a good man, but you know. . . .
Aidoo offers no easy solutions. Connie's baby effects a "magical" restoration of her failing marriage, a reconciliation that is suspect precisely because it is so sudden, so unfounded, and so obviously a mocking confirmation of Connie's wish-fulfilment. As for Mercy, having barely survived one "heart-breaking" liaison she is all set to embark on another at the story's end—and her prospects are no more favorable than before. Like the ironic techniques of the narrative itself, their lives have settled into a ‘‘repetition of old patterns.’’ Once again, Aidoo has fused her narrative art with the perspectives and roles of her African women.
Source: Lloyd W. Brown, "Ama Ata Aidoo: The Art of the Short Story and Sexual Roles in Africa," in World Literature Written in English, November, 1974, p. 179.