Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Drawing on the Past, Regenerating the Present: A Comparison of the Works of Ayi Kwei Armah and Nicolás Guillén

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posted on 2021-12-08, 09:47 authored by Setor Novieto

Novelist Ayi Kwei Armah and poet Nicolás Guillén are, respectively, Ghanaian and Cuban writers who embody the efforts of mid-twentieth-century artists to depict the day-to-day socio-political conditions and struggles of societies seeking to move beyond histories of racial and economic oppression. Both engage powerfully and controversially with ongoing debates around damaging colonial histories and disappointing contemporary realities. The achievement of independence did not usher in the new, improved nations sought by way of struggle and suffering in either country. Uncompromisingly, Armah’s and Guillén’s works portray both the irredeemable parts of colonial histories and those that can be put to the benefit of the present, together with the tension that this disparity between expectation and achievement engenders.  Granted the varied nature of the subject matter of the works of the two authors and the seeming lack of relation between them, this study makes use of a selection of theoretical frameworks to find common ground for analysing their work. The analysis of Nicolás Guillén’s poetry is based on concepts fundamental to Latin American social and cultural criticism, notably, the ideology of whitening or blanqueamiento, cultural mixing or mestizaje, and feminist criticism. The study of Ayi Kwei Armah’s first novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) employs socio-cultural theories including traditional Ghanaian concepts such sankofa and the Akan symbol of adinkra, together with Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of the “engaged writer.”  This thesis argues that, in spite of their different national and ethnic backgrounds, both writers draw on traditional aspects of African culture to provide the impetus for social and cultural regeneration in their societies. Critics have read Armah as presenting disillusioned and decadent images of Ghana and promoting limited roles for women in his work. Guillén too has been portrayed by critics as offering an objectified representation of women in his poetry of the 1920s and 1930s and has been accused of ignoring, as a poet of meztizaje or ethnic mixture, the issues of Blacks and Blackness. This thesis contests these limiting critical positions, arguing that the writers’ representations of women, Blacks and Blackness are more positive and progressive than has been allowed. Acknowledging the burden of racist histories, the false promise of postcolonial liberation, the blatant corruption and the unrealised expectations of their times, they nevertheless allow for the possibility of regeneration in the societies they both dissect and, in part, restore.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Gilmour, Nicola; Williams, Mark