Students of literature and those with an affinity for African literature, in particular, would no doubt have at some read the works of Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. His Palm-Wine Drinkard has been a staple at the University of the West Indies Campuses for decades and a source of immense literary pleasure.
Born in 1920 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Tutuola is renowned for his richly inventive fantasies. He is best known for the novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (1952), which was the first Nigerian book to achieve international fame.
Tutuola left his parents’ home when he was seven to work as a servant to one F.O. Monu. At the age of 14 he started his schooling, paid for by Mr Monu. Two years at Salvation Army School in Abeokuta were followed by a year at Lagos High School and then two more back in Abeokuta. With the death of his father in 1939 his formal education came to an end.
He learned to be a blacksmith and worked as such with the RAF from 1942. After the Second World War, in 1946, he became a messenger in the Department of Labour in Lagos. “I was still in this hardship and poverty, when one night, it came to my mind to write my first book The Palm-Wine Drinkard and I wrote it in a few days successfully because I was a story-teller when I was in the school.”
He married Victoria Tutuola in 1947 and had four sons and four daughters.
Tutuola wrote completely outside the mainstream of Nigerian literature. He was influenced by D.O. Fagunwa, a Nigerian author who wrote similar folk fantasies earlier in Yoruba. Tutuola was also familiar with The Thousand and One Nights, Pilgrim’s Progress, and other episodic stories that had been used as textbooks at the Salvation Army primary school that he attended.
Tutuola wrote his works in English. In The Palm-Wine Drunkard and his subsequent novels, Tutuola incorporated Yoruba myths and legends into loosely constructed prose epics that improvise on traditional themes found in Yoruba folktales. The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a classic quest tale that has been translated into 11 languages.
Tutuola followed up his first book with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), which reiterates the quest motif through the experiences of a boy who, in trying to escape from slave traders, finds himself in the Bush of Ghosts. Another quest is found in Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), a more compact tale focusing upon a beautiful and rich young girl who leaves her home and experiences poverty and starvation. In this and the books that followed-The Brave African Huntress (1958), The Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty (1967), and The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981) -Tutuola’s rich vision imposes unity upon a series of relatively random events. His later works include Yoruba Folktales (1986), Pauper, Brawler, and Slanderer (1987), and The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories (1990).
Tutuola’s vivid presentation of the world of Yoruba mythology and religion and his grasp of literary form made him a success among a wide British, African, and American audience. The theatrical and operatic versions of The Palm-Wine Drinkard made by others have also proven popular.
Tutuola was not the first African novelist in the English language – according to how one defines a novel, that honour probably belongs to Gold Coast writer R.E. Obeng for Eighteenpence (1941) – but he was certainly the first to attract international attention.
Indeed, he could hardly have had more distinguished literary godparents, because it was T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber who recommended that his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, should be published in 1952 and it was Dylan Thomas who gave it its first prominent review, when he praised this “brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching . . . tall, devilish story”.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard has become a classic of modern African literature, widely taught and successfully adapted as a folk opera in Nigeria. In it Tutuola retells many of the stories he first heard as a child in Abeokuta, a Yoruba-speaking town in western Nigeria. This tale of a man so besotted with palm-wine that he ventures into the next world to find his deceased tapster brings together many of the strange and supernatural stories upon which Yoruba culture is partly founded. There is, for example, the spectre of the Complete Gentlemen whom a lady follows into the bush.
“I could not blame the lady for following the Skull as a complete gentleman to his house at all. Because if I were a lady, no doubt I would follow him to wherever he would go, and still as I was a man I would jealous him more than that, because if this gentleman went to the battle field, surely, enemy would not kill him or capture him and if bombers saw him in a town which was to be bombed, they would not throw bombs on his presence, and if they did throw it, the bomb itself would not explode until this gentleman would leave that town, because of his beauty,” reads an excerpt.
This idiosyncratic English came naturally to Tutuola, though there were those who thought it an affected naïveté, particularly as it stayed with him throughout his writing life. Others felt that he was a bad model for younger readers. In fact, there could hardly have been a better one. Tutuola was a born storyteller, taking the traditional oral material and re-imagining it inimitably. In his way, he was though very different in method and craft, the Grimm or Perrault of Nigerian story-telling, refashioning old tales in a unique way which made them speak across cultures.
Tutuola was a shy man who did not travel much. On 13 December 1983, he appeared at the Africa Centre in London and effortlessly charmed an audience which realised that it was not only hearing legends retold, but was in the presence of a legend.
He was an Honorary Citizen of New Orleans and occasionally participated in writing programmes outside Nigeria, but he was not at ease away from his homeland. In International Who’s Who his entry follows Desmond Tutu’s. There is no doubt that Amos Tutuola has made as great a contribution to the story of modern Africa.
He died at age 77 on June 8, 1997 from hypertension and diabetes. Many of his papers, letters and holographic manuscripts have been collected at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. (Adapted)