An angry Ayi Kwei Armah seems to be delighting in rubbing in his disdain for the acknowledged father of the African novel, Chinua Achebe, in a new collection of essays titled Remembering the Dismembered Continent .
Best known for his 1968 debut novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Armah reproduces in the collection two sarcastic letters he wrote Achebe in response to Achebe’s critique of Armah in one of the essays in Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day (published in 1975).
In that essay, Africa and her Writers, Achebe praises Armah’s command of language and imagery but describes The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born as “a sick book. Sick, not with the sickness of Ghana but with the sickness of the human condition.”
Achebe feels that the novel is a little too existentialist and modernistic, too full of images of excrement, and that Armah should have named his hero. He suggests that Armah is imitative of western modernist writers, who are obsessed with alienation and fragmentation. The main character, a railway clerk in post-independence Ghana, is nameless, known only as “the man”.
But this is not what Armah is complaining about, although he seems to answer Achebe’s criticism indirectly in a preface to a new edition of the novel. The preface is printed in this collection as well.
Rather, what sets Armah off is a statement by Achebe to the effect that “Armah is quoted somewhere as saying that he was not an African writer but just a writer.”
In the letters, written on December 25, 1975 and February 16, 1976, Armah challenges Achebe to produce his source, insinuating that Achebe is dishonest in dismissing a writer 10 years younger than him. Achebe was born in 1930, Armah in 1939.
The follow-up letter is written because when Armah sent the first missive, Achebe had moved houses. Armah seems intent on getting Achebe to hear what he has to say.
“I wrote you a month and a half ago, but sent the letter to your old address. Perhaps you didn’t get it. I hope this gets to you,” Armah writes in his characteristic sarcastic style.
He suggests that it is Achebe who is western, cavorting with American critics and audiences. “Critics who haven’t pawned their integrity have no difficulty seeing that I am an African and my work is African,” he writes.
The Ghanaian writer accuses Achebe of misinterpreting him because of relying on analyses by western critics, such as Charles Larson (another target of Armah’s vitriol), instead of reading the novel itself, as he is too busy giving lectures about works he doesn’t know much about.
“We all know of pseudo-critics who are too lazy or too busy hustling to read an author’s works and analyze them seriously,” says Armah. “They prefer to base their pretensions to expertise on supposed inside tidbits about the author whose works they have failed to read.”
Armah dismisses Larson as “a racist white Westerner” whose mode of criticism is “idiot-simple” in trying to seize credit for the West every time he recognises talent in an African writer.
“If the idea of my defining myself as a non-African came to you via Larson’s brain, I can only confess I pity you. Don’t use the ‘quote’ again. It’s a lie,” writes Armah. “In case Larson didn’t tell you (how funny that an African writer goes to a white Westerner racist critic when he’s looking for information on a fellow African writer), I have so far written five books.”
An idiosyncratic author, Armah has been dismissive of other African writers. In an 1985 essay titled “Our Language Problem” (also reprinted in Remembering The Dismembered Continent), Armah chides writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o (unnamed) who advocate writing in indigenous languages as trying to drive forward “staring into the rearview mirror [while] the way forward lies through a common language.”
Torn and new
While, like Armah, Ngugi’s Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009) invokes memory and “re-membering” a continent that has been torn apart by colonialism, slavery and neocolonialism, the Kenyan writer sees this process of “re-membering” to lie in the use of indigenous languages.
For his apart, Armah sees indigenous languages, such as Kikuyu, Zulu, and Yoruba as ethnic “micro-languages”. He seems to favour the revival of an ancient “dead language” (Egyptian hieroglyphics), a theme he has been revisiting in his recent essays and later fiction, especially Osiris Rising (1995) and KMT: In TheHouse of Life(2002), in which the heroes learn the hieroglyphics as a primary step in liberating Africa from foreign abusers and their local lackeys.
The new preface to The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born indicates that the name of Wennefer, one of the most idealistically drawn characters in Armah’s oeuvre, derives from the ancient Egyptian language for “the beautiful one.” Wennefer is a reincarnation of Osiris.
Born in Ghana and educated in Harvard and Columbia, Armah has lived in different zones of Africa, including Tanzania, from where he wrote the letters to Achebe. He sought a job Tanzania in the 1970s in order to learn Kiswahili. Some of his characters and fictional places have Kiswahili names, while other names are borrowed from languages across Africa.
Armah does not hold a very high opinion of the West, its institutions, and African intellectuals who seek refuge there. He currently lives in Popenguin, Senegal, where he runs a writing cooperative and a publishing firm, PER ANKH.
Seen even by some African writers as “too difficult to work with,” he has dismissed Heinemann’s African Writers Series as “a neo-colonial writers’ coffle owned by Europeans but slyly misnamed ‘African,” adding that the series “did its best to stunt the growth of African talent.”
Armah was brought up by his mother after his parents separated when he was too young to join his father according to the tradition. His father died in an accident in 1947. When Armah, disillusioned with post-independence bureaucracy on his return from America, resigned as the scripts deputy departmental head at the Ghana Television in the 1960s, his mother had him tied up and taken to a mental asylum in Accra.
He recounts in his memoir The Eloquence of the Scribe (2006) how his friend, Ana Livia Cordero, arranged for his release from the asylum. He briefly stayed in Legon, hosted by fellow writer Ama Ata Aidoo, before leaving for France and then back to America.
Despite his sneering attitude towards his fellow African writers, Armah seems to hold Wole Soyinka, Alice walker, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Sembene Ousmane in high esteem in The Eloquence of the Scribes. He had at one point wanted Soyinka to supervise his PhD dissertation, but the Nigerian novelist declined. Unlike Achebe, Soyinka reads Armah’s works sympathetically.
Remembering the Dismembered Continent contains other equally polemical essays published in small defunct publications. For those who don’t mind to watch big writers tear at each other, the collection is as highly entertaining as Armah’s other merciless pieces.
The writer can be reached through: firstname.lastname@example.org