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

By Bodunde, Charles Agboola | Kola, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Bodunde, Charles Agboola, Kola


Introduction

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.

CHARLES LARSON ON ARMAH'S WORKS

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.

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