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Armah, Ayi Kwei

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Armah, Ayi Kwei

Post by Hush on Fri Dec 12, 2008 1:31 am

Hello this is an article I have got from the Encyclopedia of African Literature and here I share it with you. I’s an article about Armah since we are concerned with his writings in our curriculum and it might help us in the Master contest exam.

Armah, Ayi Kwei

b. 1939, Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana

Novelist, short story writer and essayist The Ghanaian novelist, short story writer and essayist Ayi Kwei Armah is a pre-eminent prose stylist among his generation of postcolonial writers. A pan-African vision propels themes like self-help and regeneration in his fictional work, while his non-fiction writing is centrally concerned with the politics of interpretation and with the sociopolitical realities that impinge upon, and are in turn reflected in, literary texts.

Armah was born in 1939 at Sekondi-Takoradi. He entered Harvard in 1960 after pre-college education at Achimota and Groton. The Harvard undergraduate years yielded noteworthy developments: first, Armah’s interest in what he would later describe as “the social realities buried under …words, images and symbols” made him change his area of study from literature to the social sciences; and, second, the interest in social studies went hand in hand with the desire to create his own works of art. Armah found himself increasingly rawn to the sociopolitical conditions that shape creativity, and he subsequently abandoned his study at Harvard in his senior year to travel to Africa and work with individuals and movements committed to creating “better social realities” in place of exploitative ones. The months out of school provided Armah with a crash course in disillusionment and hardships. He was seriously ill by the beginning of 1964, and was hospitalized initially in Algiers and later in Boston.

In his essay, “One Writer’s Education,” Armah recalls his hospitalization, impending return to Ghana from the US, and his resolve to “revert to writing, not indeed as the most desired creative option, but as the least parasitic option open to me.” In the next three years, 1964–7, Armah would write The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and begin both Fragments (1970) and Why Are We So Blest? (1972) while in Ghana. In September 1967,he left Ghana to take up a job in Paris with the journal Jeune Afrique for a year, before going to the US to undertake graduate study at Columbia University. By the time Armah was ready to leave the US for Kenya in June 1970, he had completed his study for the Columbia MFA degree, finished writing his second novel, Fragments, and taught briefly at the University of Massachusetts. If the 1960s were years of shifting interests and inevitable decision-making, of idealism and disillusionment, of illness and healing, and of departures from and returns to Africa, they were also years of productivity for the scholar-writer. In addition to his first novel, Armah published several short stories (“Contact,” “Yaw Manu’s Charm,” “An African Fable,” and “The Offal Kind”) and essays (“African Socialism:Utopian or Scientific,” “A Mystification: African Independence Revalued,” and “Fanon: The Awakener”) in prominent journals such as New African, The Atlantic Monthly, Présence Africaine, Harper’s Magazine, Pan-African Journal, and Negro Digest.

In August 1970 Armah moved to Tanzania,where in addition to teaching at the College of National Education he learnt Swahili and completed two novels, Two Thousand Seasons (1973) and The Healers (1978). After leaving Tanzania in 1976 he taught at the universities of Lesotho and Wisconsin, and published essays occasionally in Asemka and Présence fricaine and mainly in West Africa on topics as diverse as the criticism of fiction, Marxsim, translation, Caliban complex, the language question in African literature, the teaching of creative writing, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, and the so-called “Third World.” In 1995 Armah’s sixth novel, Osiris Rising, was published by Per Ankh, an African printing and publishing company based in Popenguine, Senegal, where Armah now lives.

Armah’s reputation ultimately rests on his novels, which have been central in the shaping of the canon of African literature. The opening pages of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born introduce readers to an author who exercises the kind of control over language, imagery, and narrative pace that is breathtakingly impressive. Descriptive passages—as detailed and evocative as the ones focusing on a bus coming to a stop at dawn, the protagonist going to “the downstairs lavatory,” and the escape of a corrupt politician after a coup—complement one’s initial impressions and speak to the novelist’s sustained brilliance; but it is also hard to miss the observation that Armah’s imagery and language, like the graphic intensity of his descriptive passages, belong to a world that is putrid to the core.

The “marvelous” rendering of “rottenness” is inscribed in the scene in which the bus conductor inhales the cedi’s “marvelous rottenness” with “satisfying pleasure.” The author derives little pleasure from using the colonizer’s language to present the postcolonial viewpoint for, no matter how effectively he is using that language, it still remains a rotten choice. Armah’s ambivalence is reflected in the “painful kind of understanding” that makes Teacher, one of the characters in the novel, use “words that mix…beauty with… ugliness, words making the darkness twin with the light.” Mixing up the received connotations of words and the assumed meanings of symbols is Armah’s way of naming, interrogating, and subverting familiar tropes of, and the worldview traditionally sponsored by, the language he is using. Language, then, is a function of the pervading putrescence in Armah’s first novel. The hope is that “a new flowering” will emerge “out of the decay,” and the novel’s title suggests that this “new flowering” will correspond to the birth of the unusually “beautyful,” rather than the conventionally “beautiful,” ones.

Baako, the artist-protagonist in Fragments (1970: Boston), knows he does not want to “do the usual kind of writing,” but deciding what “kind of writing” to commit himself to is anything but easy. The kind of writing Armah explores in his second novel owes its genesis to what he describes in his essay “Larsony” (Asemka, 1976) as “a conversation with my elder brother concerning the quality of life at home.” The novel that comes out of this conversation is meticulously structured; its storyline is made to fold back on itself to reflect the inevitability of a return after departure, and narrative framing augments that important theme. The novel begins and ends with “Naana,” an affectionate Akan word for an old woman, and the intervening chapters also bear Akan headings. Knowledgeable readers canalso discern the cadence of the Akan mother tongue in the Naana sections, particularly in the nuanced rhetoric that accompanies the pouring of libation. It is significant to note that while the main narrative suggests that “the quality of life at home” continues to deteriorate, its frame subscribes to a different philosophy (“the larger meaning which lent sense to every small thing… years and years ago”) and points to a different way of looking at the world (“the circular way” which allows for the return of departed ones and guarantees an unbroken circle of life). Those who have lost their way because of the “great haste to consume things [they] have taken no care nor trouble to produce,” face a dead end; for others, like Naana, who have not lost their way, “the whole world and the whole of life” are open to them.

Armah takes up the dead-end issue in a different but related context in Why Are We So Blest? and turns his full attention to the way—lost and found— in the next three novels. The phrase “why are we so blest?” is taken from an essay commemorating Thanksgiving in the USA read aloud by Mike, one of the characters in the novel, who observes that the author of the piece “didn’t set out to write about the underprivileged… It’s the story as told from our point of view” (1972: New York). Stories about the underprivileged told from their point of view need to be written, but neither Modin nor Solo, the other characters in the novel, are in a position to do so. Solo’s words are “impotent,” and Modin finds himself in a situation that leads him to a dead end; both participate in a ritual predicated on self-annihilation. We only need to recall the Lusophone, Francophone, Anglophone and Euro-American strands in this novel to place “dead end” in its broader context. Solo has been trained in Lisbon and speaks Portuguese, among other languages; the America-educated Modin also speaks other languages, but English is his forte; and the latter’s companion, Aimée, is a European-American. The three meet in nominally French-speaking Laccryville, where freedom fighters from the Portuguese colony of Congheria have opened a bureau. The meeting and its aftermath yield nothing constructive because the setting (for the meeting and for the novel) is barren, Aimée is a parasite, and Solo, like Modin, has “become a ghost” even “before [his] death.” The unenviable fate of Solo and Modin couldbe read as replicating that of an increasing number of Africans in “great haste to consume things [they] have taken no care nor trouble to produce,” but it is clearer in this case than before that production and consumption are not divorceable from arts and letters: the dead end Solo and Modin have been led to seems to have implications for “African” literatures that participate in the ritualized celebration of European traditions in European languages.

Armah invites readers of his fourth novel, Two Thousand Seasons, to imagine a continent with people of great promise reduced to giving up their natural, human, and intellectual resources for the enrichment of others season after season after season. He then presents an alternative vision: what if, over the seasons, a few people initially, and more people eventually, decide to take a different path toward self-recovery, toward harnessing those natural, human, and intellectual resources for the common good? In its fictional context, the question “what if?” like the invitation to imagine, calls for suspension of disbelief and opens doors to potentially limitless possibilities in the novel’s reconstruction of thepast. The scope of the reconstructed past that stretches back to “origins” is epical; the language that serves the purpose of epic reconstruction ebbs and flows like the “unending stream of…remembrance” it lets loose. In Two Thousand Seasons, and later in Osiris Rising, Armah sketches on his own narrative canvas the import of Langston Hughes’ pregnant declarations: “I have known rivers ancient as the world …/I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.”

Classical Akan storytelling tradition provides the template for Armah’s account of the fall of Kumasi to British forces led by Garnet Wolseley in The Healers. In consonance with the template, the Akan other tongue that appears briefly in Fragments is reformulated and pulled to the narrative core of the historical novel as the “tongue of the storyteller, descendant of masters in the arts of eloquence.” Significantly, the motif of departures and returns that has been central to Armah’s work since the second novel is echoed at the end of The Healers when the healer-woman observes that the whites who “wish to drive us apart” are in fact “bring[ing] our people together again.” Ast’s return to her ancestral home in Osiris Rising continues and revises this trend. In preparing herself adequately for her journey, Ast gets much more active support from her grandmother Nwt than Naana could offer Baako in Fragments. Ast still has to deal with formidable obstacles in her journey, but it turns out to be a propitious journey that bridges old and new ways in the never-ending quest to create lifeaffirming worlds and realities. By drawing both thematic material and narrative structure from the Isis-Osiris myth for his sixth novel, Armah adds depth as well as contemporary resonance to the word “old” in “old and new ways.” In the process he challenges his readers to re-examine terms like “exile,” “home,” “influence,” the “oral” and the “written” in the context of old and new African literatures; he insists that the “language problem” demands immediate and continuing attention from writers, translators, and policy-makers; and he believes that African writers and their work deserve informed criticism of lasting value. His novels, short stories, and essays make him as important a writer as any to the past, present, and future of African literatures.

Select bibliography

Armah, A.K. (1970) Fragments, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
——(1972) Why Are We So Blest?, New York: Doubleday.
——(1976) “Larsony or Fiction as Criticism of Fiction,” Asemka: A Bilingual Literary
Journal of the University of the Cape Coast, 4:1–14.
——(1995) Osiris Rising, Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh.

KOFI OWUSU
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Hush

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Age : 32
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Registration date : 2008-09-17

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