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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Ayi Kwei Armah,
Radical Iconoclast

Ode Ogede

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Title: Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast
Author: Ode Ogede
Genre: Literary Criticism
Written: 2000
Length: 170 pages
Availability: Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast - US
Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast - UK
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  • Pitting Imaginary Worlds against the Actual
  • Portions of this book previously appeared in various journals, including Transition, World Literature Today, Modern Fiction Studies, and African Literature Today

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Our Assessment:

B- : unabashedly opinionated, reasonably useful survey of Armah's work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Research in African Literatures . Fall/2003 Fidelis Odun Balogun

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The complete review's Review:

       Ayi Kwei Armah and his works remain fairly popular subjects for those writing about and studying African literature, but Ode Ogede's book is a significant addition to the available literature. Ogede notes (and largely dismisses) three previous book-length studies: Robert Fraser's 1980 work, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (see our review), Derek Wright's Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa (1989), and Neil Lazarus' Resistance in Post-Colonial African Fiction (1990). Specific aspects of Armah's writing have been the subject of numerous shorter academic studies (some of which have also been included in larger collections), but this book by Ogede is a welcome broad survey of Armah and his work.
       Unlike the three earlier books about Armah, Ogede's also includes a discussion of Armah's most recent published novel, Osiris Rising (1995) -- his first to appear in over fifteen years. Ogede also devotes some space to Armah's shorter fiction, and generally provides a broader picture of Armah and his work than any of the previous works. Providing both some biographical information, as well as a fairly detailed consideration of essentially all of Armah's fiction to date, Ogede's book appears to be the most useful introduction to Armah currently available. Nevertheless, it is not an ideal survey of the author and his work, and must be approached somewhat circumspectly.
       There is no question that Ayi Kwei Armah is one of the most significant authors currently active in Africa. He is also a fairly elusive author, not terribly concerned with publicity or making grand (or other) pronouncements regarding his own writing -- leaving that to the critics (and readers), a responsibility that (so Ogede) some have abused and most have gotten wrong.
       Armah's work is notoriously difficult to get hold of (as noted in the piece, Looking for Ayi Kwei Armah, in the complete review Quarterly). Only his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, appears to be in print in the United States at this time, and his short fiction and non-fiction has apparently never been published in book form. One wishes that readers could rely on Armah's texts themselves, but given the difficulty in gaining access to them a book such as Ogede's at least serves a valuable function in making readers aware of the content and significance of those works that they have not been able to read themselves.
       Ogede offers some biographical information about Armah, but it is a selective and limited amount. The record itself is somewhat unclear, as Armah has travelled, studied, and taught widely (while not granting many interviews or writing extensively about his experiences). Still, Ogede offers tantalizing bits and omits others. He maintains that Armah did not complete his undergraduate studies at Harvard "on account of his response to white racism, similar to that experienced by his fictional double, Modin Dofu, at Radcliffe in his third novel, Why Are We So Blest ?" -- an explanation never adequately elaborated on. More surprising is his omission of Armah's studies at Columbia. Fraser (and other biographical sources) maintain that Armah received an M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts), apparently in the Creative Writing programme, at Columbia. The most Ogede has to say about this is:

Between September 1967 and September 1968, he worked in France, and left later for the United States of America, where he remained until June 1970.
       Columbia University is never mentioned by Ogede, and Armah's participation in a creative writing programme never even alluded to. Perhaps Armah did not work towards and receive an M.F.A. (we haven't gone and checked the records at Columbia), in which case Ogede should at least have made mention of the mistake others have made in adding this to Armah's résumé. More likely, however, Armah did receive that M.F.A. -- and Ogede is willfully glossing over this -- to him -- extremely inconvenient fact. It is inconvenient to Ogede, because Ogede harps on Armah as a true African artist -- one whose work is rooted strongly in African traditions (including the oral tradition). The idea that Armah learned all the tricks of his trade at an American academic institution doesn't square well with how Ogede wants to present Armah.
       It is unfortunate that Ogede doesn't address this issue. He is willing to make at least some mention of the fact that Armah was first published in American magazines and by American publishers. Acknowledging Armah's M.F.A. hardly weakens Ogede's arguments: like all M.F.A.s, it can't be taken very seriously. But by so oddly ignoring it Ogede looks to be hiding something, casting a shadow over some of his arguments.
       Among the main arguments is Ogede's claim that the roots of much of Armah's art -- both content and especially technique -- are decidedly "African". In Two Thousand Seasons (see our review), Ogede finds, for example, "that the quest for a return to roots is conducted with a more comprehensive incorporation of the devices of African traditional oral narrative." Ogede speaks quite generally about an African oral tradition (revealed in "its holistic and dynamic existence" by Armah here), but it is surely more than a single tradition -- complex, very varied, differing from locale to locale on that very large continent. (Indeed to speak simply of an African oral tradition seems nearly as empty (or uselessly broad) a label as to speak simply of "Western fiction" -- as Ogede also does.)
       Ogede does offer some specific examples of the tradition(s) as used by Armah, but generally he relies more on explaining this and other issues in the book by contrasting Armah's work with that of other African and Western literature.
       Ogede also takes issue with many previous approaches and specific statements made by critics and scholars regarding Armah's work, from Ama Ata Aidoo's controversial preface to an early American edition of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born to a variety of other critical considerations of Armah and his work. This is actually a fairly useful aspect of the book, giving some sense of the variety of opinions about Armah and his various novels, as well as making Ogede's arguments clearer (in his reactions to these opinions) Unfortunately, however, Ogede's comments are again often too cursory to fully evaluate the different positions.
       The heart of Ogede's study -- the consideration of Armah's fiction -- is quite useful. Ogede provides a fairly close reading of most of Armah's fiction. This is particularly useful regarding the hard to find Osiris Rising, but Ogede's examination of the earlier novels is also of interest.
       Ogede offers a fairly good balance between focussing on what Armah presents in his fiction, previous critical considerations of the texts, and Ogede's own interpretation. He makes his own opinions very clear, pointing out where he believes others have erred in how they have looked at these works. One may not agree with Ogede's point of view, but at least it is clear where he stands, as well as what others have had to say.
       Ogede makes a number of astute observations regarding Armah's works in his close readings. His endorsement of Armah is, however, so wholehearted that it comes to appear to be essentially uncritical. For him Armah can apparently do practically no wrong -- and even when he does, the mistakes are worthy ones.
       Ogede suggests that an understanding of African traditions (specifically literary -- written and oral) is necessary to fully appreciate the qualities of Armah's fiction. In particular with respect to the oral traditions, however, he does not adequately explain these traditions (and their relevance) to those not familiar with them. In the case of Two Thousand Seasons Ogede even sees "a boldness to reject all forms and structures which continue to assist the colonial domination". These bold and broad statements and claims (and the book is littered with them) sound quite impressive, but Ogede offers relatively little support for them.
       Somewhat disturbing is also the shifting of responsibility to the reader of Armah's work: naturally, art must be properly appreciated to realize its full potential, but Ogede places most of this burden on the reader, as if s/he were to blame if Armah's work does not strike the reader as impressive as Ogede insists it is. Ogede writes: "His work, when read closely and diligently, can enrich our consciousness considerably". He writes of a "sensitive reading". He writes of a "scene that becomes unmistakably familiar to the reader who is current with the contemporary African situation."
       Certainly, readers unfamiliar with African literature and history are handicapped, but it is disappointing that Ogede does not suggest that Armah has something to offer them as well (and to suggest how they, given their ignorance, might approach Armah's work). And obviously any work offers more to the reader when read closely, diligently, sensitively, etc. -- but true art should reveal itself even to those only willing or able to make a half-hearted effort. Armah's qualities (good or bad) should be largely self-evident, not -- as Ogede seems to suggest -- hidden away, requiring special effort and knowledge to uncover and comprehend.

       Ogede sees a lot in Armah and his fiction -- "a call for the total liberation of Africa", a significant contribution to "the venture to create a new creation myth for Africa", and much more. It is admirable that Ogede finds so much here, but it also seems like a bit much, spinning Armah's ambitions to their greatest imaginable size. But in a way it is also nice to see someone take literature so seriously and be willing to make so much of it.
       Ogede believes that:
In Africa in particular, where literature is a great weapon for change, Armah's work should have a special relevance, for, more than any other of our writers, Armah perfectly represents the notion of the ideal artist, one who does not merely copy but transforms reality.
       From the unsettling possessive "our" to the wishful "should" to the questionable finding of Armah as artist-ideal, this sentence is fairly typical for much of the book. The idea that literature is a "great weapon for change" is also a nice one, but there seems little evidence that this is the case, especially in Africa, especially now -- and Ogede also offers no explanation for this claim.
       Ogede is an enthusiastic cheerleader for Armah. His lack of restraint is perfectly acceptable, but it is disappointing that there isn't more explanation of and foundation to the strong opinions.
       Ogede does provide a great deal of material -- biographical and analytical -- and covers much of the previous critical response to Armah's work. Ogede's study is not truly comprehensive, but it is usefully broad. As an overview of and introduction to Armah's work -- by a man convinced of the great value of this work -- Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast is certainly a useful study. If it helps introduce readers to Armah, and helps foster debate about him (and perhaps African literature in general), it will have already served a valuable function.

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Ayi Kwei Armah, Radical Iconoclast: Ayi Kwei Armah: Ode Ogede: Books by Ayi Kwei Armah under review: Books about Ayi Kwei Armah under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Nigerian scholar Ode Ogede teaches at North Carolina Central University.

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