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An interview with Ama Ata Aidoo : 'I learnt my first feminist lessons in Africa'



This is an interview with Ghanaian writer AMA ATA AIDOO. It took place in Accra (Ghana), on January 1998. After living abroad for more than fourteen years, Aidoo decided to go back to Ghana. When this interview took place, she was still trying to settle down. Since then, she has kept herself intellectually active, and has been invited to lecture to numerous international universities and prestigious institutions all over the world. With the passing of time, she has become still more vocal and critical, and she continues to be widely admired in Africa and abroad. Aidoo is considered an outspoken African writer who tackles feminist issues in her fiction. Brought up in, and respectful with the Akan tradition she comes from, Aidoo openly states that she learnt her first lessons in feminism from African women, and in Africa. In this interview, we focus on feminist theories—and the controversies around African, African-American, and Western Feminisms—and look at some of her most relevant works, to see to what extent her female protagonists deal with the somewhat schizophrenic reality of colonialism, and post-colonialism, at the same time they face African traditional culture and modernity.
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An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa” . . . . . . . 6
Abstract . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
1. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Works Cited . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo: “I Learnt my
First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
(note 1)
University of La Coruña
This is an interview with Ghanaian writer AMA ATA AIDOO. It took
place in Accra (Ghana), on January 1998. After living abroad for more
than fourteen years, Aidoo decided to go back to Ghana. When this
interview took place, she was still trying to settle down. Since then, she
has kept herself intellectually active, and has been invited to lecture
to numerous international universities and prestigious institutions all
over the world. With the passing of time, she has become still more
vocal and critical, and she continues to be widely admired in Africa
and abroad.
(note 2) Aidoo is considered an outspoken African writer
who tackles feminist issues in her fi ction. Brought up in, and respectful
with the Akan tradition she comes from, Aidoo openly states that she
learnt her fi rst lessons in feminism from African women, and in Africa.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
In this interview, we focus on feminist theories—and the controversies
around African, African-American, and Western Feminisms—and look
at some of her most relevant works, to see to what extent her female
protagonists deal with the somewhat schizophrenic reality of colonial-
ism, and post-colonialism, at the same time they face African tradi-
tional culture and modernity.
1. Introduction
hanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo (1940) is an outspo-
ken woman who, in the tradition of some of her
predecessors such as Flora Nwapa (Nigeria) o Efua
Sutherland (Ghana) both resists and subverts traditional lit-
erary boundaries. Pejoratively labelled as belonging to the
“old guard” of African women writers by Femi-Ojo
(note 3),
Aidoo is nevertheless respected by well-established writers
such as Buchi Emecheta
(note 4) -who thinks of herself as
Aidoo’s new sister-or by the still-relatively unknown Ghana-
ian writer Ama Darko-who pays respects to Aidoo as her liter-
ary mother. Aidoo’s long, varied and prolifi c literary career-
she has published poems, plays, short stories, essays, and
novels-has received considerable critical attention and, after
teaching for several years at different institutions in Africa and
the USA, she has gained the respect and recognition of ca-
nonical African American writer Alice Walker, who enthusiasti-
cally asserts from the front cover of Aidoo’s Ghanaian edition
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
of her novel Changes: “Aidoo has reaffi rmed my faith in the
power of the written word to reach, to teach, to empower and
to encourage”.
(note 5)
As with other African women writers, to use Busia’s words
(1989-90: 90), Aidoo challenges, deconstructs, and sub-
verts the traditional “voicelessness of the black women
(note 6) Born into the Akan society-a Ghanaian group
which according to Aidoo openly favors women to the extent
that the mother of four sons still considers herself “infertile”
because she could not have any daughters, and where wom-
en are supposed to have the authority but not the power to
rule-Aidoo’s (for some) progressive portrayal of African wom-
en is simply a refl ection of what she saw: “I got this incred-
ible birds-eye view of what happens in that society and I defi -
nitely knew that being a woman is enormously important in
Akan society” (Wilson-Tagoe, 2002: 48). Accordingly, Aidoo
foregrounds the complex lives of women who behave in con-
tradictory ways-haunted by African tradition, but caught in
the dislocation of post-colonial Africa. In Changes (1991), for
example, the protagonist Esi is a college- educated, career-
oriented, married woman who abandons her monogamous
marriage to voluntarily embrace a polygamous relationship
where she has to cope with the uncomfortable role of sec-
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
ond wife. Changes start with Esi driving her own car, liter-
ally fi ghting taxi-drivers’ verbal aggressions, performing her
secretarial functions-despite her manager-position in statis-
tics-and complaining about what she considers men’s dicta-
torial ways. Esi’s schizophrenia serves as the metaphor for
the contemporary African woman’s need to project a sense of
assertiveness, self-suffi ciency, and fi nancial independence.
However, Aidoo’s Esi is just one of the many female voices
that need to be urgently heard after being silenced for so long.
The irony here lies in the fact that Aidoo also gives voice to
Muslim women like Fusena, also in Changes, who, although
college-educated abroad and clearly intelligent, conforms to
the subservient social and religious role assigned to her by
her culture. In the same thread of thought, take Anowa, the
protagonist of Aidoo’s play Anowa (1970), who rejects the
prescription of an arranged marriage, chooses her own lover,
and leaves her home town. Barren, but actively participating
in her husband’s fi nancial success-both making use of her
“mouth” and her “head”-Anowa exiles herself from the domes-
tic space of the home, and from the conscriptions of mother-
hood, but pays a very high price for her stubborn resistance
and her transgressive attitude. Anowa is a work that has been
recently rediscovered by feminists critics and Africanists as a
disturbing and challenging text. Consequently, among others,
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Davies (1994:59) studies Anowa’s physical and psychological
journey, while at the same time demanding critical attention
for Aidoo and her play Anowa which have long been ignored
due to what she calls “the politics of exclusion”.
(note 7)
Thematically, as with other African women writers, Aidoo’s re-
current topics are, in Stratton’s words (1994: 175), “marriage,
motherhood, emotional and economic depend-ence, wom-
en’s education, their political and economic marginalization,
their resistance to oppression”. With a not-always-conscious
Western feminist agenda in mind-Aidoo insists that she did not
learn her notions of feminism outside Africa, and that her vocal
women simply come from her Akan side-Aidoo resists labels
and compartmentalization, and has problems with the strict
marking of boundaries between African and African American
Feminism. Though venerated in Europe and the USA as the
foremost African feminist-a fact that she somewhat resents-
and long immersed in gender issues-both at a personal, politi-
cal, and literary level-Aidoo still questions artifi cial critical con-
structions. Her women, though, following the principles of the
Akan society she comes from, are strong, hard-working, inde-
pendent, articulate, and smart, thus, deconstructing the stere-
otypical image of the submissive, passive, and battered Afri-
can woman. Aidoo herself takes pains to explain the reasons
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
for portraying these provocative female protagonists: People
say to me: “Your women characters seem to be stronger than
we are used to when thinking about African women”. As far as
I am concerned these are the African women among whom I
was brought up. In terms of women standing on their own feet,
within or outside marriage, mostly from inside marriage, liv-
ing life on their own terms. (Wilson-Tagoe, 200: 248). Raised
in, respectful towards, and proud of her African oral tradition
and the ancient story-telling, Aidoo’s forte is in her dialogues.
Aidoo invests her female characters with the powerful tool of
speech. Her African women make use of words as weapons
to the extent that they can easily and intelligently fustigate
men’s egos and beat them dialectically /metaphorically, at the
same time gaining the respect of the other sisters in the com-
munity. Furthermore, in Allan’s words (1994: 188-89), Aidoo’s
instinctive and innovative use of similes and proverbs is an ef-
fective rhetorical tool which shows women’s verbal dexterity at
the same time as it highlights collective wisdom: Africanisms,
new words coined from the alchemic blending of English and
the African cultural scene, enrich Aidoo’s linguistic repertoire.
Such terms as “fl abberwhelmed”, “negatively eventful”, and
“away matches” violate standard English in order to express
a socio-linguistic identity that is uniquely African.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Aidoo has travelled widely, is not blind to the trauma and pain
of the African diaspora, and has personally experienced the
always confl ictive encounter between African and Western
cultures. Maybe this is the reason why some of her female
protagonists also undergo a physical and emotional journey
that is painful and traumatic, though always instructive and
regenerative. Aidoo deals with the impact of colonialism, post-
colonialism, and neo-colonialism on the bodies and psyches
of her African women characters but, contrary to the “nerv-
ous condition” of Dangarembga’s female protagonist, Aidoo’s
women are much more in control of their bodies and minds
and they can always come back home-though psychologi-
cally injured, physically exhausted, emotionally disillusioned,
and culturally alienated-start a new life, or choose a liberat-
ing but tragic ending. Though confronted with and struggling
against social norms and cultural disintegration as well as
with the traumatic dichotomy of African tradition versus West-
ern modernity, Aidoo’s women-albeit shaken-retain their san-
ity and are able to articulate their anger. Madness-a recur-
rent theme in post-colonial African fi ction Femi-Ojo (1979),
Adepitan (1993/94)-does not hit /affect Aidoo’s heroines.
Only in the case of Anowa did Aidoo contemplate the pos-
sibility of her protagonist ending up insane, but she thought
it too cruel, and handed Anowa the privilege of choosing her
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
own death. Aidoo’s women are peripatetic beings who cross
boundaries-geographical, social, cultural, and emotional-who
dare to step over patriarchal borderlines, who violate tradi-
tional discourses on the cult of marriage and motherhood, at
the same time as they dramatize their vulnerability and their
subjugation to African tradition. As Allan (1994: 178) argues,
by portraying African women’s tensions, frustrations, and con-
tradictions, Aidoo’s works refl ect on the dual theme of “social
stasis”-tradition-versus “change”-modernity. Aidoo herself has
personally experienced the liminal state of living in the West-
ern world, and has chosen to return to Ghana having spent
fourteen years abroad. Her homecoming has been no crystal
stair, though. After a serious car accident, she cannot drive,
she is on crutches, and is accompanied by a young Ghana-
ian driver. She is desperately looking for a permanent home
in Accra, and has not found the necessary peace of mind to
I fi rst met Ama Ata Aidoo in November 1997, on the occasion
of the welcoming party hosted by the British Council in Accra
to honor the visit of writer Fred D’Aguiar. This interview took
place on a suffocating, extremely hot and sticky day on Janu-
ary 1998, at the British Council delegation in Accra. The whole
magnifi cent building was undergoing repairs and, added to
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
the heat and the humidity, the noises of construction were-at
times-unbearable. Aidoo could not remain sitting for a long
period of time due to the injuries sustained in the car accident,
but, despite the many inconveniences, she talked for hours on
the tape-she provides long, elaborate answers, emphatically
underlines words, supplies personal anecdotes, and jumps
to other subject themes to better illustrate her point. We later
decided to move to the restaurant in the garden where we
continued our conversation.
Ama Ata Aidoo is a medium-sized, strongly built, round-faced
woman who wears Ghanaian dresses, and rich, colorful, and
beautiful headwraps tied to her dignifi ed head. Her celebra-
tion of the African story-telling tradition, her critical view of the
Western world, her rebellion against “the colonization of the
African minds”, and her preoccupation with the future of her
country and her Ghanaian people-women in particular-makes
a conversation with Ama Ata Aidoo a learning experience.
Her voice always sounds fresh, critical, outrageous and full
of life.
My fi rst academic encounter with Aidoo’s work took place at a
conference early in 1997. Maya García-Vinuesa, a colleague
of mine at the University of Alcalá de Henares-who had done
some research at the University of Legon in Accra-was pre-
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
senting a paper on Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes. I was seized
by what seemed to me to be the prevalent theme -polygamy
and educated African women- and by these women’s voices.
Although I was busy teaching classes and attending confer-
ences, and there was a lot to read on Afro-American women
writers, I went to the library and picked up one of the two
volumes there. I read Changes between tutorials, at lunch
breaks, at night. These African female voices spoke out loud
about polygamy, divorce, forced marriages, women’s educa-
tion, motherhood, marital violence, desire, and sexuality. Esi,
Opokuya, and Fusena -the three female protagonists- resist
and subvert typical clichés about African women’s passive and
submissive attitudes. I later found out that Ama Ata Aidoo’s
discourse on African women’s issues seriously challenges
previous categories. One only has to read her plays Anowa,
and The Dilema of the Ghost, her book of poems An Angry
Letter in January, her collection of short stories No Sweet-
ness Here, or her novel Changes. She speaks for and about
African women. Ama Ata Aidoo spoke to me, as one woman
to another.
MARÍA FRÍAS: I would like to start with the women in your
family. From what you say, they pushed you and supported
your intellectual and your creative life. In “To Be a Woman”
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
(1985: 259), you quote from your uneducated aunt: “My child,
get as far as you can into this education. Go until you your-
self are tired. As for marriage, it is something a woman picks
up along the way”.
(note 8) Could you comment on these
women? In the African tradition, have you passed on to your
daughter Kinna what your aunt told you long time ago?
AMA ATA AIDOO: I would like to straighten out fi rst that they
did not push me; they encouraged me. I think that I was very
lucky. Even my father was excellent, my aunt too. However, I
understand my grandmother was slightly doubtful; she was a
little uncertain about it all. My mother has always been really
very understanding not only of me and education, but espe-
cially of me and writing, and my life as a writer. She is one
person in this world who is very sensitive to that. And as for
whether I have passed it on to my daughter, the thing is that I
didn’t have to pass consciously anything to my daughter. Ac-
cording to her, she learnt from being around me. Living with
me, meeting my friends, sharing her life with me, she seems
to have acquired her own notions about women and the need
to be independent. In my view, it is not just me and my friends,
and the atmosphere she shared with me. It’s also the world
she has been moving in. Like with other young people, other
young African women of her generation.
(note 9)
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
MF : Because of the power of your short story “No Sweet-
ness Here”, you were invited to the African Writers Workshop
at the University of Ibadan in 1962 (you were only 22 years
old). Langston Hughes was there. Chinua Achebe was there.
Wole Soyinka was there. How did you feel -African woman
and writer- among those celebrities?
AAA : I’ll be very honest with you. At that time, being a woman
was not even part of my equation. I mean, I was naturally
there, and there were other women who were there too. I re-
member clearly that a very young ‘Molara Ogundipe Leslie
was there, and she was also a student.
(note 10) The woman
bit had not struck me at the time, but I was conscious that it
was a privilege. It was wonderful! However, I didn’t get the
magic of it all, the full impact of it all, until much much later
when I realized about it, though I knew then who they were.
I had become progressively enchanted with the retrospective
thinking: Langston Hughes! And of course, Wole Soyinka! It
is something I have had in my life-some incredible encoun-
ters-and this is one of them. I sometimes wonder did I meet
W.E.B. Dubois? To be quite honest with you, María, I have
been extremely lucky with the people I have encountered,
and the places I have been. For me, nothing of this is taken
for granted.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
MF: Are African male critics or colleagues still greeting you
with the paternalistic “How is our Little Sister doing with Africa
and women on her back?”, as earlier in your career?
AAA: To be quite honest, only one person has ever greeted
me like that. It was Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones-and in-
uential African literary critic. I resented it, but he was an old
man. In African terms, he is an older brother. On this conti-
nent, he could say that to me. Traditionally, I am not allowed
into interrogating him, but I took the liberty of questioning his
paternalistic and condescending greeting in my poem “Rou-
tine Drugs I”. It is not aggressive, though. He knows about
the poem, and he knows I was not abusing him. Other male
critics would not even dream or dare to greet me like that. He
was permitted to call me that. He could do it. Only then. Only
MF: You have taught at different universities in Africa and in
the United States. When teaching African Literature which
women writers and works would you include in your syllabi?
AAA: I will tell you the women I’ve always been teaching.
I’ve defi nitely been teaching Mariama Bâ (So Long a Let-
ter), Bessie Head (A Question of Power), Buchi Emecheta
(Joys of Motherhood)-which is a must-and, although she is
not by nationality an African, I’ve always taught Marise Condé
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
(Segú). (note 11) In drama, I wouldn’t even move one inch
without teaching Efua Sutherland, especially The Marriage of
Anansewa. I always teach Nawal El Saadawi
(note 12) and
there are a whole lot of other women. My reading list is longer
that this, but these are the writers I will always include, and
that I will recommend you to teach-though I see you are al-
ready familiar with them. And, of course, at different Depart-
ments, both in Africa and the States, they have insisted that I
teach my works. I have taught my work too, and it has been a
very interesting arena.
MF: And how have your Western and African students re-
sponded to your work?
AAA: What is interesting is that I’ve learnt a lot about my work
from the comments they made, and the questions they raised.
Students found things I didn’t know I was saying. They always
bring insights into your work. Sometimes other people feel
you should feel angry, but I don’t see why I should feel angry.
If you sit down and you write something, and you assume that
other people should stop whatever they are doing and read
you, either for pleasure or because it is work (as it is in your
case), then the least you can do is to give them some room
for their opinion. They don’t have to like your work. They don’t
have to agree with you either. The only thing that makes me
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
really angry is when people have not read you properly and
then they talk you rubbish. That I just can stand. I am sorry.
MF: Together with other African women writers (Flora Nwapa,
Efua Sutherland, Bessie Head, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Darko)
you basically deal with women’s issues. Since you have been
writing for decades now, have you seen a growing female au-
dience in Africa? Or in Ghana in particular?
AAA: I hope so. The thing is, Maria, I hadn’t lived in Ghana for
nearly fourteen years. It is a very long time in a person’s life
time. This is the reason why when I came back one of the de-
cisions I deliberately took was that I was not going to comment
on issues that I knew about and cared about fi fteen years ago,
until I had time to update my own information. What is actually
going on in the system from primary to the university? I don’t
know. As in other African universities, I have the feeling that
African American Literature is much more part of the sylla-
bus, as well as the works written by African women writers, at
Legon University. Unfortunately, people do not get the books,
even when they are published locally, for some odd reason.
And that is something that has to be seriously addressed. But,
like I said, because I was a Minister of Education
(note 13) -a
controversial one- I have decided I am not going to talk until I
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
know a little bit more about what has been happening over the
last fi fteen, sixteen years.
MF: Do you see more African Women writers coming out?
AAA: But, María, you know the books are not available. It is
a vicious circle! One of the things I cannot even believe is
that I’ve gone to the trouble of getting a Ghanaian edition of
Changes published.
(note 14) Because I wanted to reach the
Ghanaian market, but it is not available! So…
MF: It must be very frustrating.
AAA: Yes, it is very frustrating. People complain that Africans
do not read, but the thing is that the material is not availa-
ble. Ask the Daily Graphic! Ask The Ghanaian Times! Peo-
ple are buying them. Ordinary Ghanaian workers who don’t
have money are buying the local newspapers. But they do
not make the books available to them, and, frankly, for me
this is one of the most frustrating issues in this country, or this
region, or the whole of Africa. Somebody is making sure that
there are no books available. I blame the publishers.
MF: Ama Darko also complains about the struggle to be
published in Ghana, or to have your books distributed here.
Have you read Ama Darko’s Beyond the Horizon? Could
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
you comment on this fi rst novel by a Ghanaian women
(note 15)
AAA: I think it is a marvelous book. Unfortunately, I haven’t
had the chance to teach it. When I fi rst started it, it was a very
absorbing reading for me. I know when I am enjoying a book.
One of the ways in which I know I am enjoying a book, is that
half way through I don’t want to fi nish this book. I didn’t want
to fi nish Darko’s book. I think it is very well written. I think that
her insights are very sharp, and I genuinely think she is won-
derful. Was it her fi rst novel?
MF: Yes, that’s right.
AAA: I haven’t had the chance to read her other work, but
that fi rst one I think it was superb. On the one hand she intro-
duces you into the horrors of her protagonist’s life, Mara; on
the other hand you come away feeling well, fantastic ... Plus
the Ghanaian bits, the whole life in Ghana, Mara’s struggles
in Ghana, her spirit. I like the book very much. I thought it was
MF: Would you agree with Pr. Opoku-Agyeman (1997) from
Cape Coast University that both the older women writers to-
gether with the recent, living and active literary voices -like
yourself- receive very little critical attention in Ghana?
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
AAA [Furious]: I don’t even think we receive any! Not at all! I
mean, who is talking about our work? You are writing about
African women writers, María, but you are not Ghanaian.
I have been here for two years and nobody Ghanaian has
asked me about my work as a writer-except you. I have been
asked to comment on gender issues, it’s true, but nobody has
interrogated me about my work. So I personally think Opoku-
Agyeman is right, African women writers do not receive any
critical attention here.
MF: You feel bad about it, don’t you?
AAA: Yes, but not so much at a personal level. I feel bad in re-
lation to what it tells me about what is happening in academ-
ics in Ghana, and about the atmosphere that does not nurture
creative work. If we had to wait for the critics to pay attention
to our work in Ghana before we wrote, we would never write
because either there are no critics or if there are then they do
not talk about our work.
MF: In view of the intellectual panorama, would you like to
teach African women writers at Legon University, and spread
the word?
AAA: Well, I am not teaching because I haven’t asked them
for a job to teach, and they haven’t asked me to go and teach.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
For the two years I have been here it hasn’t even easy getting
a place to rent, so I have been moving around the city in this
whole atmosphere. I have to settle down fi rst.
MF: You are the author of an often-quoted-article “To Be an
African Woman Writer” (1988). What is it to be an African
Woman writer nowadays? I am asking this because you have
been witness to the literary atmosphere in colonial, post-colo-
nial, and independent Ghana.
(note 16) Is it different now to
be an African woman writer?
AAA I actually wrote “To Be an African Woman Writer” in 1975.
I had been asked for this piece, as well as many other women
around the world, to help the UN put together a position paper
for women, for the Conference at Copenhagen. I don’t think it
is much different now. I think there is more awareness, but by
and large the position of the woman is about the same. There
are more African women writers, but this is a very interesting
country, María. I did that paper, but I also know now that the
Ghanaian society is one of the most liberal societies in this
world when it comes to the position of the woman in society. It
has always been like that. But it does not change. What I was
actually trying to do in the article was to point out that instead
of what people think -they say, what do you Ghanaian wom-
en worry about, if you are all over the place?- which is true.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
You go out into the world, and you hear about bride burning,
and stuff like that, and that does not happen where you come
from. But I think it is very important that you look into your own
society and fi nd out what can be improved. Now, if looked at
from that stand point, what can be improved is still what can
be improved. Nothing has changed. The improvement hasn’t
come, but Ghanaian women are very vocal. It fascinates me,
coming back after fourteen years, how many women are into
the legal fi eld, in organizations, in international companies. It
is very nice. And the statements women make… Oh, my dear!
So in a way, I fi nd that living in Ghana is kind of restful for me,
not because we don’t have burning issues, but because you
have the feeling that other people are doing something about
it too. I don’t think that anything has fundamentally changed.
People still have the same attitudes about women and about
men-including women’s attitudes about women-but you still
have the feeling that is changing, and other people are talking
and dealing with it. Yes, that is what I feel. I would defi nitely
say that the position of the African woman writer is bad. One,
because the position of the writer is bad in general: men writ-
ers are not receiving any more support, either. What you know
as far as a woman writer, though, is that if there are two books
of the same quality, even a woman reader still would make a
bee line, unconsciously, for the man’s book.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
MF: Do you think so?
AAA: Oh, yes, of course!
MF: I would have gone for the woman’s…
AAA: Oh, yes, but that is you! It comes with consciousness
raising. It comes with race awareness, but I certainly think
there is still a vestige of that. Because it is something that has
been taught to us. We have been conditioned to look out for
men. By the time you automatically select anything feminine
then it is something you have taught yourself to do.
MF: It is self-taught…
AAA: It is self-taught. It is a growing awareness. But it is cer-
tainly not an impulse that has been inbred into you. And the
African society speaks a lot about that educational contradic-
MF: In the same article you refuse to be told that you have
learned your feminism abroad-out of Africa. How did you learn
then to give voice to the silenced African woman?
AAA: First of all, María, you have lived in Ghana, and you know
these women are not silent at all. Maybe it is because you do
not speak the local languages, but I can assure you that these
are the most vocal, the most articulate African women I know.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
And they are not silent at all. It is true they are not marching,
but if we talk about silence in terms of people who do not
talk, it is not here. These women are talking all the time-you
already know the story about my aunt. I am not so sure these
women are silent at all, and in that article I was only writing
about women that I knew-my mother who teaches me political
lessons, or the two illiterate women who sell peanuts and co-
conuts at the hospital and I caught having a serious theologi-
cal argument on Muslim and Christian religion. I was writing
about women who protest at least at a personal level, about
injustice, about misrepresentation. But, believe me, María, if
the women in my stories are articulate, it is because that is the
only type of women I grew up among. And I learnt those fi rst
feminist lessons in Africa from African women.
MF: In an article entitled “The House Divided: Feminism in Af-
rican Literature”, Charles Nmolin-a professor at the University
of Port Harcourt-states that the African feminist literary scene
is not whole (there are, what he calls feminist, womanists, ac-
comodationists, reactionaries, gynandrists, etc.,). Would you
agree on that fragmentation?
AAA: I haven’t even thought about it. I also suspect that when
people do not want to deal with an issue, they look for lack of
coherence in the issue itself. This is what in American English
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
is called “nit-picking”-the fundamental issue is, are we going
to develop our own feminist consciousness? It does not mat-
ter if some of us are womanists. Are we feminist? My point is
that with all ideological thoughts there are bound to be disa-
greements, different shapes. If he thinks that that is what he
sees, fi ne, but I do not think it is the most important, essential
commentary anybody can make on the state of the feminist
debate in Africa.
MF: How would you approach it then?
AAA: Like I said, there are womanists, and feminists, but the
most important thing is: what are we all trying to get at? If we
are all trying to get at the development of society’s awareness
about the position of women in this world-and what to do about
it, how to get women to develop-that’s the important issue. If
this is what we are about then, frankly, it is not relevant at all
whether we are feminists, or womanists, or fundamentalists.
Who cares? That’s where I come from. I am not going to stop
talking to somebody because she is a womanist. I will argue
with the person about the view points. I will discuss them, like
I have done with Alice [Walker], I will discuss the validity of
the term. But that does not mean that I will negate the validity
of that term. I will want to point out the diffi culties it raises for
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
us, African women, in terms of clarity. But I will never say, the
womanists are so different I cannot talk to them.
MF: In the same article, Nmolin mentions you as one of the
many African women who systematically write about wom-
en’s issues but “deny involvement in the feminist move-
ment in their public utterances”. He quotes from one of your
(note 17)
AAA: But that is so ridiculous! Here is Nmolin saying that I
deny in public my feminism when they are marketing me in
Europe as the foremost African feminist. What I also resent,
because I am not the foremost African feminist. What does a
term like that mean? We are talking about outrageous wom-
en, and I have told you stories about women who did not even
go to school. My aunt, for instance, isn’t she a foremost Afri-
can feminist? [I nod in agreement]. I would think so too. And
Nmolin says I do not want to say I am a feminist at all! That’s
ridiculous! If he is using that article to back a statement, then
he has completely misread me.
MF: Efua Sutherland also mentions that African women writ-
ers like you, who write about women’s issues, regret being
called feminist.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
AAA: That’s equally ridiculous! I’ve always said I am a femi-
nist! People are making a fundamental mistake. We are wom-
en. A woman writer writes about women naturally. I cannot
understand why people think that if you write about women
you should be a feminist. Now that I have been called the
foremost African feminist, it is a bit awkward for me when Af-
rican critics who do not want to take that I am a feminist write
such things about me because, really, that is wishful thinking.
They don’t want to say I’m a feminist, and I suspect that is be-
cause people have not clarifi ed the whole issue of lesbianism,
and where it impinges on feminism. And I genuinely think that
when they say I am not a feminist, they are saying: Oh, she
cannot be because feminists are lesbians. It is there, unspo-
ken. Because how more loudly should I declare my feminism?
But I always make it clear that feminism is an ideological view
point. Lesbianism is a sexual orientation, and the two should
not be mixed at all. But people do not want to deal with the di-
chotomy, the difference. In Africa people just cringe, but femi-
nism has nothing to do with lesbianism.
MF: So you think that it is African critics who put feminism and
lesbianism in the same bag?
AAA: They don’t openly put together feminism and lesbian-
ism. Nobody writes about lesbianism in Africa. What I am say-
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
ing is that when they say: “Oh, Ama Ata Aidoo writes about
women’s issues, but she is not a feminist”, they themselves
are willing not to be feminist because people are not really
clear as to what feminism means and what it does not mean,
do you see?
MF: As some feminists critics point out (hooks, Hill-Collins,
Butler, etc.) do you see a different agenda for Afro-American
feminists and African feminists?
AAA: Frankly, this is something I have not dealt with at all. I
know that what we have been engaged in is the dichotomy
between black women and feminism, and white women and
feminism. But I haven’t really dealt with the difference. I have
commented on Alice Walker and the issue of womanism, you
know, but I have not dealt with the feminism of African Ameri-
can women as a coherent whole as opposed to the feminism
of African women.
MF: But you would not put them in different bags.
AAA: I don’t even know how, María. My feeling is that those
differences are so frail. When you take the women of any two
countries, the women of two different environment, like Spain,
like England, we are going to fi nd certain local details, but I
am not so sure I want to make it the subject of an academic
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
study yet because there are -and here I go again- so many
other issues crying to be dealt with in Africa.
MF: In “Black Feminism: The African Diaspora”, Maggie
Humm (1994) signifi cantly divides her article into Afro-Ameri-
can Feminist Criticism, and African Feminist Criticism, and she
argues that “African writing tends to represent collective and
community concerns in opposition to a white Western faith in
individualistic psychology”. Anowa, Sissie, and Esi, to name
some of your female characters, seem to me individualistic.
Could you comment on that rather broad statement?
AAA You know, María, I don’t even know if they are so individ-
ualistic. Every human being is an individual. The thing is that
there are areas of ourselves, of our psyches, that deal with
our personal conscience, but I also think that there are areas
of ourselves that deal with the collective. But I surely refuse
Humm’s division. I fi nd it unfortunate that we are so bent on
dividing African societies into collectivistic, and Western so-
cieties into individualistic. I fi nd that division a bit uncomfort-
able because, in the long run, we are born alone, and we die
alone, and that’s all there is to that, and someway along the
line people struggle on their own. On the other hand, I think
there are more palpable areas of ourselves, of our societies,
where we react collectively-as you have probably noticed af-
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
ter spending months in Ghana-as there are areas in the West-
ern World where the individual is very much on the forefront of
the people’s consent. But I also suspect that even in the West
such obsessions with individualism is a relatively new devel-
opment. It came with Capitalism; it is not that Western socie-
ties have always been like that, no. It is new, and I suspect
that as we Africans move into the market forces we are going
to be also very individual, but I refuse to deal on such a level.
I am not thinking of such things when I am writing. It didn’t oc-
cur to me to make Sissie individualistic. After all, people who
resist, who oppose resistance to society, begin as individuals.
Once they become a movement, of course they move as a
collective. There is no way I could present Anowa as a mem-
ber of some kind of collective. And, as for Sissie, I saw her as
an African student who explores Europe on her own. But, of
course, all these women-especially Sissie-speak with a col-
lective voice. Sissie is much of the time whining about the
political situation, what is going to happen to us ... She moves
collectively. Even Esi, in her own way, when she says: “What
were my people thinking about when they sent me, a little girl,
to this boarding school?” What she is interrogating is the fas-
cination this African society has for boarding schools, to the
extent that characters are capable of going out of themselves,
moving away from their personal courses. And the same you
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
can say of Western novels. It is a division I do not agree with,
and certainly not in relation to my work.
MF: I would like to start with your works. Anowa drowns her-
self, the victim of forced marriage and barrenness. Does
Anowa’s suicide work as the metaphor for an African tradition
that buries women in life because they cannot have children
or become rebellious?
AAA: You see, María, I haven’t thought about it that way.
When I was writing this play the only thing I could think of
was that Anowa was resisting society. Mind you, at that time,
I was not an articulate feminist. I was about 25. All I could see
was: What was the most probable if you get a woman fl ying in
the face of society? What is most likely to happen? It was not
something I was dealing with on a critical or ideological level. I
could see Anowa. I could see how articulate she was, but in a
way I was also young, and I was interrogating me. I was never
scared of society’s capacity to punish you.
MF: But African women in general, and Anowa, in particular
pays a very high price for that resisting attitude. Would you
agree on that?
AAA: Exactly, that is the price you pay. Today everybody has
attacked me, and I am very humble about it because I say: At
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
that time this is what I could see. Of course, today, if I were
writing Anowa I would not let her die. If Anowa was not meant
to die, I would have written and constructed the play right from
the beginning with the agency of her salvation or redemption
blew into the play, into the fabric of the story. You just don’t
get to the end and rescue her. That is not good. I heard that
somebody put Anowa on in Nigeria, and they were so unwill-
ing to have this fantastic woman dead, that they made her
pregnant, because the Head of State was coming to see it.
Nigerians could not have the Head of State confronting this
terrifying ending. So they make Anowa pregnant and every-
body lived happily ever after.
MF: But you were not in favor of a fairy-tale-ending for
AAA: Exactly. But because of the way the play was construct-
ed, and because of Anowa’s integrity, he could not return
home. Today I would not let Anowa die. I would make sure
that she lived, and that she lived in terms of the dynamics of
all her life, not just to save her at the end. The play has two
endings. In the fi rst one Anowa went crazy; in the second one
she killed herself, and it is obviously more radical. I changed
the ending because, again, I thought that it was not fair to let
Anowa live as a madwoman. That was not fair.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
MF: You didn’t think Anowa deserved that ending.
AAA: Exactly! She didn’t deserve that! The other possible al-
ternative was to let herself make the decision. She wasn’t go-
ing to live, and she wasn’t going back to her parents’ village.
As far as I am concerned, the real metaphor, and you don’t
have to agree with me, is what happens when an individual
struggles in isolation, because she had nobody. Anowa was a
lonely woman, and she was struggling with all her intelligence,
and all her energy against a whole society. It was very diffi cult
for her to live. The only way you could make her live -and if I
had lived that long, and had the time, I might have attempted
to live like that- it is to let her move closer to the slaves, even
closer, so that they struggle together, for instance, against in-
ternal slavery, because she can become a leader. That way
she will survive.
MF: You said you heard this story from your mother, but the
ending was your own. How was your mother’s ending?
AAA: To tell you the truth, María, I just recently checked with
my mother on the story. I wrote Anowa so long ago ... It was
just last Christmas when I was wounded after the car acci-
dent, and we were talking. I asked my mother to tell me the
story again-the story that inspired the play-and the real end-
ing was even more horrifi c than Anowa’s end in fi ction!
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
MF: Which was the real ending?
AAA: The woman died, but she died out of shame and dis-
grace. Humiliation, public humiliation. The real history is
even worse. I wanted to refresh my memory, and look what I
MF: In your play The Dilema of a Ghost, Eulalie, the African
American woman who marries African Ato in the United States
and travels to meet his family in Africa, is portrayed in the neg-
ative: she rejects food (snails); rites (washing her stomach);
tribalism (family meetings), etc. Are you sending the message
that the embrace between African American women and Afri-
can women is not possible?
AAA: At that time I was not consciously sending any messag-
es. I wrote this play when I was twenty years old. I returned
from the Conference in Lagos you mentioned, to live on Cam-
pus and to write this play. In retrospect, all I can say is that if I
were a critic dealing with this play I would say that both parties
are sending and getting messages. It was not only Eulalie, as
an African American girl, who was rejecting African society.
Africans had already rejected her, her smoking, her drinking.
What I am trying to say is that if you want to bring two forces
together without any preparation there is meant to be a clash.
You bring an African American girl without telling her honestly
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
what you see about your own African society, and then you
don’t tell your people what to expect from an African American
person. You just throw them together. What could they do but
hate one another’s guts? I mean, you could do the experi-
ment, and the same could happen with two Ghanaians com-
ing from two different ethnic groups.
MF: In your short story “Our Sister Killjoy” you deal in passing
with lesbianism when you write: “Marija’s [German married
woman] cold fi ngers on her [Sissie’s] breast” (65). Could you
elaborate on a rather taboo theme in African society? Aren’t
you perpetuating the stereotype of black women perceived as
the desire object of white -whether men or women-?
AAA: All I have to say is that I have not dealt with lesbianism at
all on a conscious level though I know it is in the story. I know
that in certain girls’ schools there is something there, but in
the Ghanaian society everybody comes out of the boarding
schools and he or she is a properly heterosexual being. Girls
have had that experience, but they are not later affected by
it. In these boarding schools they are there from the ages of
twelve to twenty-a time when girls and boys are very much
alive to themselves as sexual beings. It is in these boarding
schools, where there are no boys around, that girls use other
girls to explore their sexuality. In the African society, they do
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
not bring lesbianism back with them. It is something you ex-
perience and leave in boarding schools. Everybody comes
out and is a very respectful heterosexual being: we marry,
we have children, we carry on with our lives. Nobody talks
about it. When I was a child, growing up in my father’s house,
I never came across two grown up women in any position that
made me think they were making love to one another. Never.
Consequently, I also grew up with the notion that we don’t
have lesbianism in African society. Of course, you know that
is not true any more because you hear about this and that.
But how new is it? How old is lesbianism in our society? I
don’t know. Now, María, when I was writing Our Sister Killjoy,
I was not thinking about lesbianism. In retrospect, I was sub-
consciously dealing with a situation parallel to the one we fi nd
in African boarding schools. Imagine the scene. There are two
women caught in a room together. The atmosphere is very
intimate. Marija, the German, moves impulsively, and kisses
Sissie. For the life of me! I cannot say either Marija or Sissie is
a lesbian! Maybe I am some kind of a repressed lesbian, and I
haven’t dealt with it! I don’t know! What I know is that I am not
a lesbian, but the issue came, and I decided that I wasn’t go-
ing to cut it out because that was going to be self censorship,
and I wasn’t going to do that to my own writing. On the other
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
hand, Maria, I haven’t dealt with lesbianism suffi ciently-as an
idea, as an orientation to exploit-so I just left it there.
MF: And the fact that one woman, Sissie, is black, and the
other, Marija, is white. Wasn’t that done on purpose?
AAA: No. That answers your question of black being an object
of desire. Now, Maria, I am saying this on the tape: if black
people are objects of white desire, you white folks have a very
funny way to show it … [long pause].
MF: Because?
AAA: Because? Look at all the racism in the world! If we are
the objects of your desire, why do you treat us like … [another
long pause].
MF: Shit?
AAA: You said it.
(note 18)
MF: In Our Sister Killjoy, the protagonist, Sissie does not por-
tray a glamorous picture of a “been to”.
(note 19) Are you tell-
ing African women to stay in Africa? Have you personally felt
in exile when abroad?
AAA I have always felt uncomfortable living abroad: racism,
the cold, the weather, the food, the people ... I had also felt
some kind of patriotic sense of guilt. Something like: Oh, my
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
dear! Look at all the problems we have at home. What am I
doing here? That’s personal. But I don’t think, again, I was
consciously sending any messages. I wanted to see what Sis-
sie was making of Europe. To an extent this story was overtly
more political. You are right, I was maybe sending messages,
but I was not sending them on purpose. You are writing, and
the things come. For me, even in Killjoy where my engage-
ment, my commitment to the sociopolitical debate in Africa
is so obvious, I didn’t say: let me send this message. It just
comes. It is amazing how it comes. The issue of emigration
really bothers me, and then it came.
MF: Referring to Changes,
(note 20) Esi Sutherland claims
that you “studiously avoid telling success stories in gender
relations”. It is the word studiously that struck me. Would you
agree with her?
(note 21)
AAA: No, I would disagree completely with Esi. I don’t studi-
ously avoid success stories in gender relations. It is just that
I don’t happen to write about it. It is not something I avoid at
all. In fact, I think, for Changes if there is anything that was
conscious is the fact that I wanted to make Ali a very attractive
MF: Which he is!
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
AAA: Well, of course, Ali is an attractive fi gure, but the gender
relationship is not a success story. I agree with her on that,
but it wasn’t anything I was studious about it. Again, it is like
portraying strong or articulate women. It is a question of what
you know. I mean, María, how many success stories can you
nd in real life?
MF: Very few!
AAA: Exactly! Very few. So you struggle to present a suc-
cess story and it doesn’t work. When Esi says I studiously
avoid to tell a success story, I would say: How many books,
novels, short stories, that she knows which are not fairy tales,
tell successful gender stories? She is making me responsible
for the failure of gender artistic imagination when it comes
to write gender success stories. Ask Shakespeare, for Christ
sake! Ask Soyinka! Ask García Márquez’ One Hundred Years
of Solitude! Are those success stories? There aren’t any. I am
not the only one. I am going to fi ght her. Studiously! That is
not fair. Look at Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, look
at Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, look at Mariaba Ba’s So Long a Let-
ter! And we are only in Africa -we haven’t even gone outside.
What is she talking about?
MF: In Changes you look at polygamy -which is embedded in
African culture- from the point of view of two educated African
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
women. In choosing articulate, educated, and professional
women, were you trying to present polygamy in a controver-
sial way?
AAA: I wasn’t trying to say nothing to anybody. It was what I
observe around. Changes tries to make the point that it is not
polygamy what is being interrogated, but matrimony because
Esi was defi nitely willing to try and work for her second mar-
riage. Now, what messed her up was not so much that she
was the second wife of a Muslim polygamous husband, but
the fact that after the marriage-after all the rituals of the sec-
ond marriage had been concluded-Ali wasn’t working for the
relation; he was treating her like any wife, whether she was
the only wife or the second wife.
MF: Both Esi and Fusena are not only educated but they work
outside the domestic sphere. Both women have unfulfi lled
emotional relations. Even Opokuya, a more down-to-earth
character, complains to Esi: “Well, see, how ragged I have
become in the process of having ‘a full life”. You are obvi-
ously given voice to this new generation of African married
women with children who are also professionals. Are you say-
ing that women’s independence -full life- might interfere with
their emotional life?
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
AAA: Don’t you think it will? Don’t you think, Maria, that your
profession interferes with your emotional life? It is not just for
African women. I mean, this is the end of the twentieth cen-
tury, and Virginia Wolf tried to deal with it at the beginning of
this century. I genuinely think that, going back all the way to
Egypt, women had always seen that having a full life some-
how interferes into your emotional sphere. Because society
does not give you an inch, women have to struggle for it. It
hasn’t been resolved in the West at all either. In a way, I fi nd
that there is a certain uneasiness about the feminine debate
in the Western World because women are giving up without
struggle. I fi nd it frightening sometimes.
MF: When you say they are giving up, you mean?
AAA: What I say is that people like Paglia
(note 22), who
are in the forefront of the feminine debate, are talking like ...
Gosh!. Young women, I think, take for granted just the few
gains that have been made, and they think it is enough. And I
genuinely think we haven’t even began. Some women come
from Scotland to London to protest against all that feminist
talk. They make a pilgrimage on the BBC and the media…
They are so scared, they want to walk quickly back, and there
isn’t enough force coming from convinced feminists against
this backlash. A bit scary.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
MF: Ama Ata Aidoo, I want to thank you for this interview. I
know you must be tired, and we have to fi nish now, but we
can relax and talk more over lunch.
AAA: Thanks to you, María, for reading my work and writing
about it. You are not letting me die as a writer [Laughs].
(note 23)
And, yes, let’s now have some Ghanaian chicken and rice
outside in the cool.
Works Cited
Adepitan, Titi (1993/94): “Madness in African Fiction: Bessie Head’s A
Question of Power”. Oye: Ogun Journal of Arts 41: 47-56.
Aidoo, Ama Ata (1992): An Angry Letter in January and Other Poems.
Coventry: Dangaroo P.
— (1970): Anowa. Harlow: Longman.
(1985): “To Be a Woman”. In Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Glo-
bal. New York: Anchor, 258-65.
— (1988): “To Be an African Woman Writer: An Overview and a De-
tail”. In Kirsten Holst Petersen, ed., Criticism and Ideology. Upsala,
Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 155-72.
— (1987): Birds and Other Poems. Harare: College P.
— (1965): The Dilemma of a Ghost. Harlow: Longman.
— (1986): The Eagle and the Chickens and Other Stories. Enugu:
Tana P.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
— (1991): Changes. London: Women’s P.
— (1970): No Sweetness Here. Harlow: Longman.
— (1977): Our Sister Killjoy or Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint.
Harlow: Longman.
— (1985): Someone Talking to Sometime. Harare: College P.
(1982): “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative Slaves: the Woman as a
Writer in Modern Africa”. Ifa: Journal of Creative Writing, 40-41.
Allan, Tuzyline Jita (1994): “Afterword”. Changes [1991]. Ama Ata
Aidoo. Accra, Ghana: Subsaharan Publishers, 165-95.
Azodo, Ada Uzoamaka and Gay Wilentz (eds.) (1999): Emerging Per-
spectives on Ama Ata Aidoo. Trenton: African P.
Busia, Abena (1989-90): “Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Dis-
course and the Unvoiced Female”. Cultural Critique 14: 81-103.
Condé, Maryse (1972): “Three Female Writers in Modern Africa: Flora
Nwapa, Ama Ata Aidoo and Grace Ogot”. Présence Africaine 82
(2): 132-43.
Dangarembga, Titsi (1988): Nervous Condition. London: The Wom-
en’s P.
Davies, Carole Boyce (1994): “Deconstructing African Female Sub-
jectivities: Anowa’s Borderlands”. In Carole Boyce Davies, Black
Women, Writing and Identity. Migrations of the Subject. London:
Routledge. 57-79.
Darko, Amma (1994): Beyond the Horizon. London: Heinemman.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
Femi-Ojo, Ade (1979): “Madness in the African Novel: Awoonor’s This
Earth, My Brother”. African Literature Today 10: 134-52.
— (1982) “Still a Victim? Mariama Bâ’s Une si longue letter”. African
Literature Today 12: 71.87.
Garcia-Viunesa, Maya (1999): “Comunal Voices and Irony in Ama Ataa
Aidoo’s Changes”. In Fernando Galván and Mercedes Bengoechea,
eds., On Writing (and) Race in Contemporary Britain. Alcalá: Publi-
caciones Universidad de Alcalá.
Humm, Maggie (1994): A Readers Guide to Contemporary Feminist
Literary Criticism. New York: Harvester.
Korang, Kwaku Larbi (1992): “Ama Ata Aidoo’s Voyage Out: Mapping
the Coordinates of Modernity and African Selfhood in Our Sister
Killjoy”. Kunapipi 14 (3): 50-66.
Nmolin, Charles (1994): “The House Divided: Feminism in African Lit-
erature”. In Helen Chukwuma, ed., Feminism in African Literature.
Enugu: New Generation Books, [n.p.].
Odamtten, Vincent (1994): The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo. Polylectics and
Reading Against Neocolonialism. Gainesville: U of Florida P.
Opoku-Agyemang, Naana Jane (1997): “Recent Literary Voices from
Ghana”. In Kropp Dakubu, ed., English in Ghana. Accra: Ghana
English Association. 225-47.
Stratton, Florence (1994): Contemporary African Literature and the
Politics of Gender. London: Routledge.
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
Sutherland, Esi (1996): “Orthodox Feminism and the African Woman
Writer: A Reappraisal”. Legon Journal of the Humanities IX: 81-98.
Umeh, Davidson and Marie Umeh (1985): “An Interview with Buchi
Emecheta”. Ba Shiru 12 (2): 19-25.
Wilson-Tagoe, Nana (2002): “Ama Ata Aidoo in Conversation”. Wasa-
firi 37 (Winter): 47-49.
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
1. Sponsored by the university of Alcalá (Madrid), I traveled to Accra
(Ghana) where I stayed from September 1997 to February 1998, as
a Visiting Scholar at the University of Ghana in Legon, Accra, as part
of an exchange program existing between the two universities. I thank
the British Council delegation in Accra for helping me to arrange this
interview which took place at their premises.
2. A recent interview with Aidoo has been published in Wasafi ri. See
Wilson-Tagoe (2002).
3. In his openly hostile and critical article, Femi-Ojo (1982) rejects
feminism as an “occidental phenomenon” that has nothing to offer to
African women. In his dual division of African women writers, Femi-Ojo
places Aidoo in the less ideologically aggressive group or “old guard”,
together with Flora Nwapa or Efua Sutherland.
4. As with African American writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison,
Paule Marshall, or Gloria Naylor who venerate Zora Neale Hurston
as their literary mother, African women writers also read each other’s
works and celebrate their literary ancestors.
5. Aidoo is the author of plays The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965), and
Anowa (1970); short stories No Sweetness Here (1979), and The
Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1999); novels Our Sister Killjoy or
Refl ections from a Black-Eyed Squint (1977), and Changes (1991);
collections of poems Someone Talking to Sometime (1985), and An
Angry Letter in January and Other Poems; children’s books The Eagle
and Chickens and Other Stories (1986), and Birds and Other Poems
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
6. Focusing on canonical texts such as Heart of Darkness or The
Tempest, Busia argues that African women have historically remained
silent in colonial literature. Although we fi nd oppressed women in
Aidoo’s fi ction, most of her female characters transgress that passive
role by voicing and resenting injustice. See Abena Busia, “Silencing
Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female”
7. Though Carole Boyce Davies is right to complain about the margin-
ality and effacement of African women writers, and to point to the need
for critical attention, that same year Aidoo was favored with an indepth
and groundbreaking study of her literary career. See Vicent Odamt-
ten’s The Art of Ama Ata Aiddo. Polylectics and Reading Against Neo-
colonialism (1994). A more recent publication is Ada Uzoamaka Azodo
and Gay Wilentz’s Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (1999).
8. This is an emblematic article, written by Ama Ata Aidoo, which has
been included in different publications. See Ama Ata Aidoo, “To Be a
Woman” (1985).
9. Aidoo’s daughter, Kinna (1969), has chosen to stay in the United
States. She graduated from Smith College where she majored in
10. ‘Molara Ogundipe-Leslie is a prolifi c and respected Nigerian poet,
former Professor at the University of Ibadan, and lecturer at major
universities in Africa, Europe, and the United States. She has been
instrumental in founding several women’s organizations in Africa such
as WIN (Women in Nigeria), and AAWORD (Association of African
Women in Research and Development). Among her works, see, for
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
example, Sew the Old Days and Other Poems (1985), and Re-Creat-
ing Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations (1994).
11. Maryse Condé and Ama Ata Aidoo’s admiration for each other’s
works is reciprocal. While Aidoo systematically teaches, and enthu-
siastically recommends Condé’s books, in turn, Condé writes about
Aidoo’s infl uential presence in African women’s literature. See Condé
12. An outspoken and critical voice against the Muslim religion, Egyp-
tian writer Nawal al Saadawi (1931) has recently been awarded the
Premi International Catalunya in Spain.
13. Aidoo was the Minister of Education under the government of Pres-
ident Jerry Rawlings in 1982. She gave up her post a year later when
she realized she could not put into practice her projected plan for free
education accessible to all Ghanaian citizens.
14. The Ghanaian edition of Aidoo’s Changes (1994), includes an Af-
terword by Tuzyline Jita Allan-author of Feminist and Womanist Aes-
thetics (1993)-and its front cover is decorated with bright kente colors
and the geometric patterns of the adrinkas (each design is illustrative
of a Ghanaian proverb). On the back cover, Nikki Giovanni and Man-
thia Diawara praise the novel.
15. Amma Darko’s fi rst novel Beyond the Horizon was published in
Germany in 1991, after Heinemman rejected it. In view of her success,
Heinemman included it in their African Series, together with Darko’s
second novel The Housemaid (1999). Neither Darko’s novels nor
Aidoo’s could be found at the University of Legon’s bookshop or at
Revista Estudios Ingleses 16 (2003)
the best bookshop in town. Only Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of
Motherhood, or Bessie Head’s A Question of Power were available.
16. Ghana was the fi rst African country to obtain her independence on
March 6, 1957. Ghana’s fi rst president was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
17. Nmolin refers to Aidoo’s article “Unwelcome Pals and Decorative
Slaves: The Woman as Writer in Modern Africa” (1982).
18. According to Korang (1992: 57), Sissie “the exemplary Africanist,
irreverently rediscovers Europe as the heartland, not of humanism, but
of racialism and imperialism”.
19. A “been to” is a term used to refer to any African/Ghanaian person
who has been abroad, and has come back to Ghana. From “I have
been to England”.
20. First written as a play for Radio Zimbabwe where Aidoo was living
in 1988, Changes was the winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Prize for
Literature in Africa.
21. Esi Sutherland is a Professor and Scholar at the Department of Af-
rican Studies in the University of Ghana at Legon. I took a course with
her (“Written African Literature”), and she brought this article to class.
Esi Sutherland is the daughter of Efua Sutherland-the pioneer Ghana-
ian drama writer, and one of Aidoo’s literary mothers.
22. A provocative and outspoken archaeologist and Popular Culture
critic, Camille Paglia became famous in the nineties with her irreverent
and provoking Sexual Personae (1990), and Sex, Art, and American
Culture (1992).
An Interview with Ama Ata Aidoo:
“I Learnt my First Feminist Lessons in Africa”
María Frías
23. In her essay “To Be a Woman” (1984: 259), Aidoo furiously claims:
“When a critic refuses to talk about your work, that is violence; he is
willing you to die as a creative person”.
... The gendered inequalities of young girls' access to education continues to be a concern across the continent. Ama Ata Aidoo (1990) reclaims African feminists' activism in terms of the broader political and social challenges of the African context (Frías Rudolphi, 2003). The articulations of affective states, and the material contexts that shape them, are vividly portrayed in Aidoo and Dangarembga's works. ...
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