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The Writer and His Critics: A Critical Review of Studies on Ayi Kwei Armah's Fiction.


Many critics have described Ayi Kwei Armah as one of the greatest prose writers to come from Africa. In a screening of African writers as candidates for the Nobel Award, Idang Alibi, a newspasper columnist, says that 'Armah has shown in all his novels that he is a great prose stylist, a brutally frank socially committed African writer, a philosopher and artist par excellence.' (1) Part of the comments on the back of the cover of Why Are We So Blest? Also reads: 'Ayi Kwei Armah is the major prose stylist of the second generation of Anglophone African writers and the most significant Ghanaisan novelist to date.'

However, there are a number of critics of African literature who attack Armah on various issues. Some find his reclusive attitude rather uncomfortable. Others like Chinua Achebe and Charles Nnolim are disturbed by the sordidness of his scatological imagery and pessimism especially in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Some critics with interest in source hunting even claim they detect foreign influence in his works. In this review of criticism, attention will be paid to the following studies among others: Charles Larsen, The Emergence of African Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1978; Robert Fraser. The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, London: Heinemann, 1980: Henry Chakava. "Ayi Kwei Armah and a Commonwealth of Souls," in Chris Wanjala ed., Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology(Nairobi East African Literature Bureau, 1973) pp.197-208; and Kolawole Ogunbesan, "Symbols and meaning in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" in African Literature Today No. 7, 1975, pp. 93-110

Nnolim's discussion on the pages of African Literature Today, No 10 and two separate articles by Ammh will also wme into the review.


Larson begins his appraisal of Armah's novels with a rather controversial note. He claims that on certain occasion, Armah 'has gone to rather great pains to make it clear that he is writing literature first, and that the Africanness of his writing is something of less great importance.' (2) He goes on to say that with few exceptions, "Armah's two novels--and especially the second one--would seem to support this theory, for there are very few "Africanisms" in those works! (3) Larson concludes that Armah's novels fall into the mainstream of current Western tradition, and that his protagonists are not very different from a whole line of Western literary anti-heroes.

Larson's claim of "few Africanisms" in Armah's novels is what he says has been derived from what this novelist says about his works. In "Larsony or Fiction as Criticism," an article which is essentially a rejoinder to Larson's criticism, Armah indicts Larson of using unscholarly methods by not indicating his source of information. Stating that he has never had any contact with Larson, he retorts: Larson does not know me, has never talked to me ...' He stresses further that he has never granted any interview about his person or his work, 'no matter how prestigious the publication asking for it.'

Larson begins a textual analysis of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by comparing it with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. He says that like Ellison's hero, the man in Armah's novel 'goes on a journey through hell, though unlike Ellison's protagonist who only slowly comes to the realization that it is his society that is out of joint. Armah's man knows all along that his society has lost its values and that he is the lone centre of values in a society which has long since traded its soul to the deviL' (6) This analogy is indeed appropriate. The essential isolation and futile endeavours of Ellison's unnamed narrator parallels the isolation and futility of life which surround Armah's man in a society where social and political corruption signal the atrophy of Man.

Furthermore, this critic locates the elements that dictate disintegration, failure and general rotteness in the society. For instance, the bus in which we see the man is almost tom apart, the money the bus conductor handles is old, rotten and horrid in smell. Larson also relates the physical decay that fills the pages of the novel to the moral decay of the society it is set.

The society has elevated materialism as the new religion and money the new god. The conclusion of discussions on The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is somewhat positive. Larson describes the novel as a richly evocative work.' He believes its publication places Armah in the forefront of the new generation of African writers.

Larson's discussion of Fragments raises the controversial issue of foreign influence in the works of African writers. It appears, Western critics of African literature are too eager to detect foreign influences in African works which show some complexity and depth. Larson thinks that Fragments is complex. He also notes that the complexity of the text is hinted at by the title. While he agrees that the content or story is African, he strongly feels that the structure of the novel owes a lot to James Joyce. He offers textual evidence to back up his claim. Narrative techniques such as shifting points of view and extensive passages of introspection in Fragments are what Larson claims are essentially Joycean. Furthermore, the dedication page of the novel provides Larson with additional proof of Armah's indebtedness. The page reads: For AMA ATA & ANA LIVIA. The critic informs that Ana Livia is a character in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. He argues that by dedicating Fragments to this character, Armah shows his indebtedness to Joyce.

Amah responds to Larson's claim by saying that the language of indebtedness and borrowing is usually a none too subtle way Western commentators have of saying Africa lacks original creativity. He informs us that the organizing idea of Fragments grew out of a conversation with his elder brother concerning the quality of life at home. Armah stresses that he has never read even a fragment of the works of Joyce. He argues that for Larson to have saddled him with a debt of Joyce, he has 'leapt beyond the bounds of moral racist thinking and into pure, undisguised superstition. (7) For the rest of the reactions, Armah lashes out at Larson, holding him up as the best example of the Western critic who constantly assaults the intelligence of the African writer. While one must point out that the tone of Armah's response speaks of over reaction, at the same time it is odd and unscholarly for a critic to rely on the type of dedication found in Fragments to prove influence or indebtedness. It is especially so when the dedication is not to James Joyce himself.

In spite of the unpleasant comment which Larson makes in relation to the source of the complexity of Fragments, his chapter analysis is somewhat interesting. He explores the major characters like Baako, Naana and Juana, bringing out the relationship between the characters. Baako's futile search for employment, his frustration after he has secured the job at Ghana vision and his mental collapse are recalled with details. The society we presented in Fragments, Larson makes clear, is as corrupt as that of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

Baako continues to be sane in a society that is enmeshed in an ocean of madness. Everywhere he goes, he comes in full contact with corruption. In the words of Larson, Baako becomes aware that "he is just another part of a gigantic system designed to make the big shots richer and the poor people poorer.' (8)

In his discussion of Why Are We So Blest? Fraser points out that the Book is even more complex in structure than Fragments. Each of the three main characters, according to him, is given a chance to explain his predicament unedited. He stresses that the characters are self styled revolutionaries who are in Algeria because the place accommodates people like them. Fraser locates Modin's tragedy as two-fold. First, Modin is "saddled with Aimee, from whose ravenous clutches he is loath to extract himself ..." (9) Secondly, his elite course of liberal education has left him ill-equipped to engage in a proletarian struggle. The mounting tension between Modin and Aimee degenerates into total separation at the end of the novel.

The OAS terrorists castrate Modin and leave him to die in the desert. Aimee is sexually assaulted and she returns to tell her bitter tale to Solo.

Illuminating as Fraser's criticism seems, one finds it hard to believe the Kenyan setting which he stamps on Why Are We So Blest? He claims that Aimee has devoted one academic year to teaching and research in an East African country which strongly resembles Kenya. His textual evidence for the Kenyan setting is the expression, Moya Moya, which he thinks is Mau Mau. Moya Moya is indeed closer to Maji Maji, a political uprising intended to win political independence for Tanzania.. The Maji Maji uprising informs Hussein's Kinjeketile just as most works of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o are informed by Mau Mau. Fraser's suggestion of a Kenyan setting for a part of this novel is rather spurious.

In "Ayi Kwei Armah and a Commonwealth of Souls", Henry Chakava observes that Amah is sensitive to all kinds of filth, from the indecency of speech to that filth which is the natural result of decay, use and age. He maintains that Armah's hero is an anonymous, alienated and, messianic figure who has been reduced to a soul while trying to raise himself above corruption. Chakava further says that the whole of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born:
   represents a process of self-examination with Armah as the
   enigmatic equivocator. The soul, or psyche in him is that
   philosophical and messianic quality which seeks nothing less
   than the pure (or beautiful) while the body is the interior or
   less national part which welcomes immediacy and mundane
   pleasure. (10)

Using the experience of the man as a reference point, Chakava feels that Armah seems to imply that everlasting hope is not in this world and any striving for it is bound to fail. This observation creates the impression that Armah is a pessimistic writer. Charles Nnolim underscores this when he notes that Armah is a pessimist who 'extends the frontiers of his pessimism beyond Ghana.' (11) Chakava, who has earlier on mentioned the bleak picture of things in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, contradicts himself when he says that Armah is not a pessimist but 'a revolutionary ... wondering why the world cannot be changed.' (12)


In his article, "Symbol and Meaning in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" Ogungbesan examines the symbols that serve to extend the meaning of the novel. He urges that in order to understand fully the power of Armah's imagination, 'we need to have more than scattered insignts into his use of symbols, or mere impressions of his novel's symbolic structure.' (13) He argues that
   criticism ought to try to describe as succinctly as possible
   the total pattern of the symbolism which
   derives from the central conflict of the work and
   extends to every detail, enriching as well as determining
   the meaning of every word ... Pattern in
   the repetition of a dominant image may be seen in
   The Beautyful Ones Are not yet Born. (14)

He mentions the symbol of mad journey whch recurs throughout the novel as one which lends unity to the novel. Ogungbesan also sees the confused movements of characters as symbolic of people running away from their society. He locates the Atlantic Coprice as a place where the gleam of life is concretised. Since all roads lead to the hotel, it becomes a symbol of 'a possibiity to which all may aspire, but which only a few can attain--and those inevitably by corrupt means--because their immoral society permits no alternatives. (15)

Most of the main characters are symbolic in one way or the other. For instance, the Ghanian who has taken the foreign names of Rama Krishna is seen by Ogungbesan as 'a symbol of his soul's painful longing to escape from his immediate surroundings for everything around him showed him the horrible threat of corruption.' (16) Having examined the various symbols and their contribution to the development of the work, Ogungbesan makes it clear that:
   There is no certainty that the beautiful ones will
   be born; yet the novel keeps the option open,
   for they may be born. Suffice that we know that
   even in such a depressing situation, it is not impossible
   for an honest man to keep his morality
   intact. Yet, there is no note of victory: the man
   does not feel elated for himself or for having at
   last won the approval of his wife for his style of
   living. (17)

No doubt, Ogungbesan's symbolic interpretation provides useful interpretation of the text. The approach also offers an inroad into Armah's creative imagination, his projection of ideas through deliberate integration of symbols, structure and language.


Armah's metacriticism in "The Lazy School of Literary Criticism" displays useful hits on the business of criticism. The writer is certainly displeased with critics who suspect foreign hands at work in his books and even go on to ask them to confirm their sources. He stresses that if a person discovers Faulkner's hand in his work, 'he doesn't have to ask me to supply him with proof in the form of a cheap handout. (18) The person who suspects a foreign influence, he argues, should 'get down to serious work on Faulkner's text and mine, analyzing them, comparing them, then drawing rational conclusions from intellectual work well done.' (19) Criticism, Armah further argues, should be seen as a demanding vocation. It requires an analytical approach to a creative process which depends on the ability to break down complex wholes into component parts, coupled with a precise understanding of the nature and function of each part. (20)

This idea on criticism sounds illuminating enough. An honest criticism should incorporate the idea of scholarship. This demands the task of digging up facts with a high level of precision, objectivity and impersonality. Armah goes further to establish qualifications into the business of criticism. He lashes out at 'the brothers and sisters posturing as expert critics of poetry, drama and fiction without themselves ever having produced these forms of art.' To him these people 'are merely doing the Zombie strut, jiving on the campus scene for the entertainment of the mystified." (21) The credential for criticism, Armah seems to suggest, is not only the knowledge of the rules or the principles that govern the art form but the knowledge of the art itself. This is rather an extreme perception of criticism. A critic who is himself a writer has a practical insight into the creative process but this does not necessarily make him a better critic than one who has not produced a line of poetry. In the same vein, a writer is not necessarily the best judge of his own art.


The different shades of critical standpoints on Armah's works point to the very nature of criticism itself. The critic attempts to reach the literary truth through the organization of the resources of the literary work (which is often irrational) into a meaningful and rational whole. (22) Where the facts are not readily available or where the critic does not really aspire to reach them, he invents extra-literary means of getting them across. The only reward he could expect from the artist, who in any case, does not trust him, are structures.


(1.) Idang Alibi. "African Writers and the Nobel Prize", in Daily Times-(Nigeria), March 16, 1985, p. 5.

(2.) Charles Larson, The Emergence of African Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1978) p. 258.

(3.) Ibid, p. 258.

(4.) Ibid,. p. 258.

(5.) Ayi Kwei Armah, "Larsony or Fiction as Criticism of in Positive Review No. 1 (19781 p.11.

(6.) Charles Larson, op. cit., p. 259.

(7.) Ayi Kwei Armah, op.cit., p. 12.

(8.) Charles Larson, p. 273

(9.) Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (London: Heinemann, 1980) p. 50.

(10.) Henry Chakava, "Ayi Kwei Armah and a Commonwealth of Souls", in Chris L. Wanjala (ed), Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1973)

(11.) Charles Nnolim, "Dialectic as Form Plagiarism in the Novels of Amah", African Literature Today, No. 10, 1979, p. 222.

(12.) Henry Chakava, op.cit, p. 197.

(13.) Kolawole Ogungbesan, "Symbolism and Meaning in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born". African Literature Today No. 7, 1975, p. 93

(14.) Ibid., 93.

(15.) Ibid., p.96.

(16.) Ibid., p.97.

(17.) Ibid., p. 109.

(18.) Ayi Kwei Armah, "The Lazy School of Literary Criticism", in West Africa, Feb., 25, (1985) p. 156.

(19.) Ibid., p. 156.

(20.) Ibid., p. 355.

(21.) Ibid., p. 356.

(22.) Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982) p.15.
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Author:Bodunde, Charles Agboola
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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