Ayi Kwei Armah is perhaps the most versatile, innovative, and provocative of the younger generation of postwar African novelists
Childhood Coincided with Ghanaian Independence Only twice has Armah broken his rule of silence about himself and his work, and it is to these two
essays that Western critics owe nearly all of their biographical information about him.
Armah was born in 1939 in the coastal city of Takor-adi, a seaport of the then-British colony of the Gold Coast. During World War II, citizens of the Gold Coast participated in the war effort, often under the auspices of the British military. In the postwar period, veterans and others who lived in the Gold Coast realized they had just fought a war against oppression and wanted to gain their own
freedom. The colony was able to achieve self-government in 1951, and formal independence in 1957 when it became Ghana.
The first twenty years of Armah’s life coincided with the development of his country, through a mixture of political negotiation and violent struggle, into Africa’s first independent state. To complete his secondary
education, Armah studied at Achimota College in Ghana. He then worked as a Radio Ghana scriptwriter, reporter, and announcer, before winning a scholarship to study in the United States in 1959, two years after Ghanaian independence.
Left Harvard to Trek Across the World Armah spent one year at a preparatory school in Massachusetts before entering Harvard University in 1960, but left college in 1963 before completing his courses and examinations. Influenced by the growing number of African revolutionary movements and perhaps by the American civil rights movement as well, Armah set out on a seven-thousand-mile trip over four continents to pursue a truly ‘‘creative existence.’’ The experience led to a physical and mental breakdown.
First Novel an International Success Returning to the United States, Armah went back to Harvard, completed his BA, and later earned an MFA at Columbia University. He spent 1967 to 1968 in Paris, where he worked as the editor of Jeune Afrique. In 1968, Armah published The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a novel often described as existentialist. It burst upon the international literary scene and quickly became a classic of African fiction. The protagonist, simply known as ‘‘the man,’’ is a railway clerk in Ghana during the regime of Kwame Nkrumah, the African leader who took power when Ghana gained independence from Britain.
American Experiences Informed Next Two Novels After again living in the United States and working Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972): First prime minister (1952–1966) of Ghana after its independence and influential pan-Africanist, promoting African unity and traditional African values; while he was out of the country, his government was overthrown by a coup.
At the University of Massachusetts, Armah returned to Africa in 1970, where he continued to write while holding teaching, scriptwriting, translating, and editing jobs. He first lived in Tanzania, where he taught African
literature and creative writing. From 1972 to 1976, he was teaching the same subjects in Lesotho. During this period, he wrote a number of important novels as many independent countries in Africa continued to struggle to define themselves as political entities.
Like ‘‘the man,’’ the protagonists of Armah’s next two novels are alienated in their respective societies and, like Armah, they have studied in the United States. Fragments (1971) tells the story of a ‘‘been-to,’’ (someone who has been to the United States) who is hounded into madness by his family because of what he brings back from his stay in America. It is not the instant return of material possessions and prestige that they expect of him, but a moral idealism that interferes with the selfish materialism they have taken over from Western culture.
Why Are We So Blest? (1972) is the story of Modin, an African student studying at Harvard. He leaves school and returns to Africa with his white girlfriend Aimee to participate in a revolutionary struggle. Modin is ultimately destroyed in Armah’s complex tale, which explores, among other things, sexual relationships and the hierarchy of race as Modin is subjugated and sped to destruction by Aimee.
Influences and ‘‘Un-African’’ Style Armah’s combination of an African background with an American education has made the question of the literary sources of his fiction a difficult one. During the 1970s, many Western critics detected European influences, including that of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Irish postmodernist
Samuel Beckett, French ‘‘nouveau roman’’ pioneer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and innovative French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
In the case of Armah’s third novel, Why Are We So Blest?, black
American literature and polemic were added to the list of influences. The divergence of Armah’s visionary, symbolic fictional modes from the realist mainstream of African fiction has provoked charges from African critics, notably Chinua Achebe, that his characterization and style are ‘‘un-African’’ and have more in common with expatriate fiction about Africa written by Europeans than with African writing.
Importance of Ritual and Tradition However, Armah’s figurative treatment of the intricacies of ritual process gives his work an unexpected and seldom-noticed common ground with work from which his own art has been thought far removed, such as the tradition-oriented early plays of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer, and with the writing of authors who have adopted a hostile critical stance toward him, such as the Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor.
African commentators—notably Solomon O. Iyasere and D. S. Izevbaye—who adhere to more inclusive concepts of traditionalism have drawn attention to the connection of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born both to African fable and to the personifications of the oral tradition, and to Fragments’s striking simulation of the oracular and editing devices of the narrative style of the griots, or traditional oral storytellers.
Reflections of African Society In his first three novels, Armah also wrote about the struggles, alienation, and failures of individuals in contemporary African society. In the Ghana of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, for example, filth and excrement are everywhere, serving in the novel as metaphors for the corruption that permeates society. The man, however, resists this corruption and fights the ‘‘gleam’’ that causes almost all Ghanaians to pursue material wealth and power through bribery and other foul deeds. With Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers, Armah turned to more historical African concerns and highlighted the need to return to traditional African culture as a model for the future, something he tried to do in his own influential life and work.
While Armah is considered one of Africa’s leading prose stylists writing in English, his works have met with a somewhat mixed critical reaction, though many reviewers have praised his stylistic innovations. The author is usually appreciated for the strength of his convictions and desire to promote the improvement of the African continent and those who live there as well.
Early Works Lauded by Critics Critics generally praised Armah’s first three works, especially The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born; many compared Armah’s writing ability with that of such celebrated Western writers as
James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction, describes the book as ‘‘a novel which burns with passion and tension, with a fire so strongly kindled that in every word and every sentence one can almost hear and smell the sizzling of the author’s own branded flesh.’’ In the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, James Booth describes it as ‘‘the most powerful work of a novelist of genius.’’ But other critics— notably Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe—accused Armah of portraying Africa in a European manner.
Early critical allegations that there are few ‘‘Africanisms’’ in Armah’s first two novels and that the
books do not draw upon Ghanaian settings, speech, or history, have not held up under close investigation, however. These books are so imbued with surviving ritual forms, ceremonial motifs, local mythologies, and residual ancestral beliefs that traditional West African culture is always powerfully, if remotely, present, both in its superior ethical imperatives and its inherent deficiencies.
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Ayi Kwei Armah is perhaps the most versatile, innovative, and provocative of the younger generation of postwar African novelists Childhood Coincided with Ghanaian Independence Only twice has Armah broken his rule of silence about himself and his work, and it is to these two essays that Western critics owe nearly all of their biographical information about him.
Armah was born in 1939 in the coastal city of Takor-adi, a seaport of the then-British colony of For over four hundred years Africa has been precisely imaged in the European mind The Sahara is extended south to make a continent of sand-dunes and oases and at some point in the eighteenth century tropical rain forests replace the deserts. More recently, tourist promotions and television reports have competed with one another for the authentic image of Africa: luxurious safaris across the game-covered plains are placed alongside the Ghana Sample essay topic, essay writing: Ghana - 454 words
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