Volume II, Issue 3 -- August, 2001
Looking for Ayi Kwei Armah
Introduction: Ayi who ?
I. Finding Armah
II. Two Thousand Seasons
III. Looking for Armah
IV. Why bother ?
Introduction: Ayi who ?Ayi Kwei Armah was born at Sekondi-Takoradi, in what is now Ghana, in 1939. He attended secondary school at Achimota College and Groton, went to Harvard (getting a degree in sociology), and Columbia (getting an M.F.A. in creative writing). He has worked as a translator and a teacher (including at Amherst and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, as well as at several African institutions). Armah was also editor of Jeune Afrique (1967-68).
His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was published in 1968. It is still in print, and is considered a modern African classic. He has written numerous novels since then.
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I. Finding ArmahI haven't been looking that hard for Ayi Kwei Armah.
I read his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, ages ago, in high school. It made an impression. A few years later I came across another of his novels, Fragments, and I read that as well.
I kept an eye out for his work after that, but I keep my eye out for a lot of books. He is one of a couple of hundred authors whose books, if I stumbled across them (and if the price were reasonable), I would buy. As it happened, I didn't stumble across any of Armah's books for years. I would see copies of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, but that was it.
Several of Armah's novels -- five in all -- were published in Heinemann's African Writers Series, the famous imprint whose founding editor was Chinua Achebe. The distinctive orange-white cover and spine makes them readily recognizable, even though the shades of orange and the exact design (and the size and feel of the books) have varied over the years. With it Heinemann was, and possibly still is, the leading publisher of sub-Saharan literature. Like Penguin Classics, the old Everyman's Library volumes, bfi Classics, or Northwestern University Press's "Writings from an Unbound Europe", the uniform design and fairly dependable quality of these AWS-titles appeals to me. If I see the tell-tale cover in a bookstore, I'll take a look at the book; I've probably collected and read twenty or thirty in the series.
The African Writers Series books are now slightly larger in format, the covers glossy. And you don't see them that much any more. They used to number the volumes; by 1978 they were up to at least 207. Almost all the leading African authorial names were represented, often by multiple titles. They stopped numbering the volumes a while back, and there don't seem to be as many of them any more. There are still over a hundred in print, but few stores stock more than a handful of them. Certainly none of the superstores (or independents) in my neighborhood.
It is still a fine series. They continue to publish new titles. But some of the lustre has faded. The backlist -- including most of the works by Ngugi, Ousmane, and Bessie Head, as well as individual titles by many of the continent's major writers -- remains an impressive one. But the series has become more limited in scope. Armah's novels, for example, -- except for his first -- are no longer in print.
I've found most of my copies from the African Writers Series at used bookstores. As I've said: they stand out, so one does tend to notice them, even in piles of paperbacks. A few titles pop up particularly frequently, but I've accumulated a decent selection over the years.
Recently I came across a book I had not seen before. A book by Ayi Kwei Armah. Two Thousand Seasons. A bit battered, it didn't have the sheen of the newer editions in the series. It had the matte cover and cheap paper of the volumes printed in Nigeria (most of the ones one finds are printed in Great Britain). I didn't mind. It's content that counts. At three dollars it was certainly worth having a look at.
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II. Two Thousand SeasonsTwo Thousand Seasons was first published in 1973 by another venerable African publisher, East African Publishing House. It was added to Heinemann's African Writers Series in 1979, as volume 218 (one of the last volumes assigned a number, apparently; they seem to have stopped counting soon afterwards). American publisher Third World Press also brought the novel out, in 1980.
It is apparently a somewhat controversial book. Chinua Achebe described it as "a lump of concrete sitting in place" (in an interview with J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, published in the Massachusetts Review in 1987) -- but it is well known that Achebe and Armah don't see eye to eye. At books and writers I can read that: "Two Thousand Seasons has been labelled dull and verbose, although Wole Soyinka considered its vision secular and humane."
It wasn't widely reviewed, certainly not in the Western media.
There is some scholarly work on it that one can dig up. Ode Ogede's recent book, Ayi Kwei Armah - Radical Iconoclast (see the review at the complete review), considers it. Robert Fraser devotes a chapter to it in his study of The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (see the review at the complete review).
Mention is occasionally made of it in pieces hidden away in obscure journals. Sometimes more. Garry Gillard discusses Narrative situation and ideology in five novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (including in Two Thousand Seasons) in SPAN. In his essay Ayi Kwei Armah's epic we-narrator (in Critique, Spring 1997), Lief Lorentzon examines the book, arguing that it is a "a novel that takes such liberties with the narrative voice that I believe it is quite unique in literature from anywhere in the world".
Two Thousand Seasons is out of print, but some people seem to manage to get their hands on it: there are even a number (a surprising number, given that the book is out of print) of glowing customer reviews posted at Amazon.com. There is some Internet information and opinion about it too, at the Ethiops Ear and elsewhere.
But books are best judged by being read. It is the only thing to do with them, really. So it is what I did.
Two Thousand Seasons is not a great novel. It has some flaws. The writing is inconsistent (though energetic). The ideology behind it is suspect -- but then all ideology is suspect. The history problematic.
But for all that, and for more, it is still a worthwhile book. Not a must-read, but convincingly a should-read.
It got passed around at the complete review, and a review was dutifully posted. A bit more information made available about it.
It would be preferable if the book itself were back in print and available.
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III. Looking for ArmahAs I said: I haven't been looking that hard for Ayi Kwei Armah. Had I been, I would probably have been mightily frustrated. Turns out that he is largely out of print. The early glory, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, hangs tenaciously on. As a schools text, likely. The others ... gone.
Robert Fraser suggests that Armah had a difficult time getting Two Thousand Seasons published. But EAHP published it in 1973, Heinemann published it in 1979, and Third World Press brought it out in the US in 1980 -- so, even if it took a while, it found its way into print several times over. My Heinemann edition is a 1987 reprint, so there must have even been some continued demand for the title.
The novel that followed, The Healers, was published by EAHP in 1978 and Heinemann in 1979. For a while the first five novels were all in print, all available in the African Writers Series
Still: Armah's publishing career traces an odd arc. He became a writer in America. Houghton Mifflin was the first publisher of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and Fragments (1970), while Doubleday then took on Why are We So Blest ? (1972). He published stories in The Atlantic Monthly (May, 1968) and Harper's (January, 1969). Maybe the MFA connections helped, maybe the times were right.
The constellation didn't hold. Fraser believes Armah had trouble finding a publisher for Two Thousand Seasons -- and it did only appear in the US in 1980, published by the small Third World Press, seven years after the first EAHP edition.
The Healers (1978) never even made it that far. At least Heinemann took it on, just as it had the four previous novels. Not so with Armah's most recent work, Osiris Rising, published in 1995 by Per Ankh (Popenguine, Senegal).
I don't like my odds of ever getting my hands on Osiris Rising. The booksellers I deal with don't even know where Senegal is. (Be honest: can you place it on a map ?) It's too bad: I would be interested in the work.
It's not even just Osiris Rising that I can't find. I've never seen a copy of The Healers. Or even of Why are We So Blest ?, despite the fact that there must be discarded copies of the old Doubleday edition floating around.
So I have been looking for Ayi Kwei Armah.
The Internet offers some tantalizing leads. The 15 May 2001 issue of The Dallas Morning News has a short piece, with the heading: Ghanaian author Armah to pay visit to bookstore. There they announce:Ayi Kwei Armah, a Ghanaian novelist and poet, will sign copies of his republished books Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Black Images Book Bazaar, 230 Wynnewood Village. Mr. Armah also will have copies of current and upcoming work available.But I only learnt that long after the fact. The suggestions -- republished ! -- are promising. But the evidence scant.
Amazon.com offers one book by Armah (the ubiquitous The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) and four titles about Armah:
I used to laugh at the grousing by the editors at the complete review about what isn't in print (and what it is), but I am starting to get their point. What kind of bizarre world has available four studies of the work of an author, but only a single one of the author's actual works ?
- Critical Perspective on Ayi Kwei Armah edited by Derek Wright
- The Wisdom of the Ages: Themes & Essences of Truth, Love, Struggle, and High-Culture in the Works of Ayi Kwei Armah and Kiarri T-H. Cheatwood by Yaa Oforiwaa and Akili Addae
- The Existential Fiction of Ayi Kwei Armah, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre by Tommie Lee Jackson
- Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast: Pitting Imaginary Worlds Against the Actual by Ode Ogede
Looking elsewhere: Barnesandnoble.com also has the same one Armah novel available, and three of the previously mentioned studies.
Amazon.co.uk promises four Armah novels (!) -- all except Why are We So Blest ?:
What of the used bookstores ?
Bibliofind offered seven Armah volumes:
The Advanced Book Exchange (Abebooks) had an even greater selection:
- 4 x The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
- 2 x Fragments (at 30 and 50 dollars, respectively)
- 1 x The Healers
I seem to have done well getting my hands on Two Thousand Seasons when I did. As to Why are We So Blest ?, it seems to have been erased from memory. Not a trace of either the Doubleday or Heinemann edition. Did it ever even exist ?
- 22 x The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (plus 1 German edition)
- 9 x Fragments
- 2 x The Healers
I do find even Osiris Rising listed in some academic library catalogues, just slightly beyond my reach. This at least is reassuring, that it -- and the other Armah titles (even Why are We So Blest ?) -- are archived, stored, and in some form available, for the truly desperate and eager. (I have far too many books that are closer calling out to be read, preventing me from going through the hardships of perusing these volumes cached behind ivy-covered walls.) I would prefer it if they were available at my local bookstore, or at least at one of the nearby branches of the far more accessible public library system. But at least they can, with some effort, be found and read.
(All the copies of all of Armah's books in all the university-affiliated library catalogues I consulted were, sadly, shelved and waiting. Not a single one was checked out. Students have better things to do and other books to read, but I would have been pleased if there had been evidence of even just the smallest bit of interest, a single title unavailable because someone had discovered this wonderful hoard and been curious enough and interested enough to take a look.)
So: I went looking for Ayi Kwei Armah, but I didn't find much.
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IV. Why bother ?Why even bother looking for Armah's works ? There are so many books to be read. He had his moment, and maybe the moment has passed. The world has moved on, and maybe I should move along with it.
But I can't leave him behind quite so fast. Armah is still an active author, though largely invisible, inaudible, and illegible hereabouts. His voice isn't one to be dismissed. He may be wrong -- I can't agree with the ideology presented in Two Thousand Seasons, and I suspect I would have some issues with his latest novel of "Africa Past, Present, and Future", Osiris Rising -- but his work is literature of some significance. I haven't been sorry for the time spent reading any of his books that I have managed to get my hands on.
Robert Fraser wrote, in the preface to The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (see our review):From his first emergence in 1968 as the author of the justly acclaimed The Beautyful are Not Yet Born, Ayi Kwei Armah has been seen as a startling writer, a fearless and unpredictable enfant terrible at drastic odds with the literary establishment.Fraser perhaps lets himself get a bit carried away. Enfant terriblism sells, and Armah certainly wasn't at odds, drastic or otherwise, with the literary (or at least the publishing) establishment: he was first published by some large American establishment houses (Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday). For a while, at least, he fit an image that would sell.
But something happened since then. Even the early books -- except the first -- have faded out of reach.
Armah is a writer worth reading. His fiction was also once tremendously influential, and it deserves to be considered -- to be read -- for that reason alone. Fiction should always be influential, but instead it finds itself marginalized. And Armah, whether through his own doing or through the efforts of others, is almost beyond the margin.
The saddest sign is perhaps what has been made of him. There are a handful of monographs and critical evaluations, offering a whole gamut of opinion. Fraser's 1980 work (also published by Heinemann) isn't available any longer, but quite a few others are. Armah has become a writer who is studied, not read. There are few sadder fates that can befall an author.
I don't care that much for writing "from Africa". Or from anywhere. Literature is what counts, and it can be found most everywhere. To focus on regions, races, religions, sex ... -- to focus on any limiting categorization (and all categorizations are by definition limiting) is to look too narrowly. There is a world out there, and literature is one way of getting to know it. Certainly, it is the best way of getting to know the worlds that were out there, the pasts, recent and distant, that the present has displaced.
All places and all literatures are worthy of attention. Africa demands a bit more patience, a greater willingness to dig a little deeper and look a little farther, because of the difficulty literary culture has had in establishing itself and flourishing there. The "West", unfortunately, is still the measure of most things. A number of African authors have been embraced in the West -- even Armah was, for a while -- and get published, reviewed, occasionally even read there. But it remains difficult to sustain the necessary vibrant literary culture in Africa itself. As everywhere, it is a small circle that fosters this culture, and in Africa the hurdles are greater than in most places. There are few publishers, few bookstores, few libraries. There are important voices, new talents (and, as in Armah's case, old talents) -- but it remains difficult for them to find and keep an audience and spread the word. I would like to be part of that audience, but, as my search for the works of even such a leading author as Ayi Kwei Armah suggests, it's not easy.
Ultimately, Armah is just one of the many authors in limbo out there, a name familiar and loved by a few (see the customer reviews posted at Amazon.com for an out of print title like Two Thousand Seasons) but otherwise generally only known to some specialist scholars. I'm looking for a few hundred other authors beside Armah, every day. African and European, Asian and American. There are probably tens of thousands more that I would look for too, if I only knew about them.
The bookstores, the libraries, the publishers I have access to: they are of little help. Literature is of some concern, but not much, it would seem. A low priority. It is particularly frustrating that "foreign" literature is so readily and almost completely ignored in the United States and Great Britain. Africa -- much of it Francophone and English-speaking -- , like India, doesn't even fare that badly in some respects, largely avoiding the almost insurmountable hurdle of translation in finding a Western publisher (and thus at least a potential audience). But there is still too little that is available. Too little of everything available. Regardless where I turn.
Finding at least Two Thousand Seasons was a small triumph. Looking around I see that I was exceptionally lucky to stumble across it. It seems unbelievable that the work by a writer of Armah's stature and renown is so difficult (and, in the case of a few titles, practically impossible) to obtain, but that is the cold, hard reality. And one could say the same about the works of so many, many other authors.
All I can do is to keep on looking.
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Links:Ayi Kwei Armah:
Books by and about Ayi Kwei Armah under review at the complete review:
- Biography at books and writers
- Biography at NewAfrica.com
- Narrative situation and ideology in five novels of Ayi Kwei Armah by Garry Gillard, in SPAN
- 2000 Seasons: Memory and Resistance at the Ethiops Ear
- Introduction to Two Thousand Seasons
- Two Thousand Seasons
- Robert Fraser's The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah
- Ode Ogede's Ayi Kwei Armah: Radical Iconoclast
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