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Amos Tutuola (1920-1997)


Nigerian writer, who gained world fame with his story The Palm-Wine Drinkard. "I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age," Tutuola started the novel. "I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life." The book was based on Yoruba folktales, but in his own country Tutuola was accused of falsifications and uncivilized language. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has said, that Tutuola's works can also be read as moral tales commenting Western consumerism: "What happens when a man immerses himself in pleasure to the exclusion of all work?"

"But of course, there are two kinds of people on earth.
One The people of the towns are more sensible than tortoises.
Two The wild people of the jungles are as senseless as donkeys."

--(from The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, 1981)

Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, a large town in Western Nigeria. His father, Charles Tutuola, was was a farmer. His first folk stories Tutuola heard at his Yoruba-speaking mother's knee. When he was about 7 years old, one of his father's cousins took him to live as a servant with F.O. Monu, an Ibe man. Instead of paying Tutuola money, he sent the young boy to the Salvation Army primary school. He attended Lagos High School for a year, and worked as a live-in houseboy for a government clerk in order to ensure his tuition at the school. When his father died in December 1938, Tutuola had to end his studies. He tried his luck as a farmer, but his crop failed and he moved to Lagos in 1940.

During World War II Tutuola worked for the Royal Air Forces as a blacksmith, and took a number of odd jobs , including selling bread, and messengering for the Nigerian Department of Labor. This work left him with plenty of free time, which he spent writing stories in English rather than in Yoruba, his mother tongue. His first long narrative, 'The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts', influenced by D.O. Fagunwa's Ogboju ode ninu igbo irunmale, was bought by Focal Press, an English publisher of photography books.

In 1946 Tutuola completed his full-length novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within a few days - "I was a story-teller when I was in the school," he later said. Many of the folk tales and motifs in the work exist in Yoruba oral tradition, such as the magical transformations, animals behaving like humans, and superhuman beings. The novel is a transcription in pidgin English prose of an oral tale of his own intervention. It recounted the mythological tale of a drunken man, who follows his dead tapster into "Deads' Town", a world of magic, ghosts, demons, and supernatural beings.

"All of Tutuola's books present an oddly timeless world where ancient Yoruba folkloric and religious realities simultaneously exist with Western Christian and scientific realities... While no explicit references are given by the author to major events in Africa's colonial and postcolonial history, it is easy to be struck by how the persistently repeated motif of "trial by fire," a passage heroically won by demonstrations of courage, ingenuity, faith, and intensively focused and lengthy labor, speaks to the present political, social and economic realities of postcolonial Africa." (Norman Weinstein in Post-Colonial African Writers, ed. by Pushipa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998)

In 1947 Tutuola married married Victoria Alake; they had eight children. The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published in 1952 in London by a major British publisher, Faber and Faber, and next year in New York by Grove Press. Dylan Thomas wrote in The Observer (6 July, 1952) in his review, "nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story." The work was praised in England and the United States, but Tutuola's most severe critics were his own countrymen, who attacked his imperfect English and presenting a disparaging image of Nigeria. After the storm had calmed, the stage version of the novel was first performed in the Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan, in April 1963, with the Yoruba composer Kola Ogunmola in the leading role.

In spite of the success and critical acclaim of the novel, Tutuola did not think himself as an author. For a long period he did not read or even own books. In the 1950s Tutuola wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), an underworld odyssey, in which an eight-year-old boy, abandoned during a slave raid, flees into the bush, "a place of ghosts and spirits". The next twenty-four years he spends wandering in a spirit world, longing to return to his earthly home. Oumar Doduo Thiam saw in Presénce Africaine that the tale is the "expression of ghosts and of African terror, alive with humanity and humility, and extraordinary world where the mixture of Western influences are united, but one always without the least trace of incoherence." Brian Eno and David Byrne took the title of the book for their 1981 album.

Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), in which the protagonist is a girl, and The Brave African Huntress (1958), about a heroic woman rescuing her four brothers, continued the theme of the quest. It has been said, that if Tutuola had never written a line, he would have been a famous village storyteller. He often told of dreams, the most basic source of archetypal images.

Tutuola's language is uncorrupted by Western literary gimmicks, words are short and simple, but the impact is fresh and poetic. "It was not yet eight o'clock in the night before everybody slept in this town and again when it was ten o'clock a heavy rain came and beat me till the morning, and also the mosquitoes which were as big as flies did not let me rest once till the morning, but I had no hands to be driving them away from my body, although it is only in this "Bush of Ghosts" such big mosquitoes could be found, and I was in the rain throughout the night I was feeling the cold so that I was shaking together with my voice, but he had no fire to warm my body."

The first full-length study of Amos Tutuola, written by Harold Collins, came out in 1969. After The Palm-Wine Drinkard Tutuola never had quite the same success. Reviewers complained that "Tutuola's idiom has lost its charm and spontaneity" and "there is none of the nightmare fascination of the earlier books". He continued to explore Yoruba traditions and its folkloric sources, and published such works as The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981) and The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories (1990), in which ghosts, sorcerers, and magic continue their existence in the modern world of clocks, televisions, and telephones. "Having related her story and said that if I am licking the sore it would be healed as the sorcerers said, so I replied - "I want you to go back to your sorcerers and tell them I refuse to lick the sore." After I told her like this she said again - "It is not a matter of going back to the sorcerers, but if you can do it look at my palm or hand." But when she told me to look at her palm and opened it nearly to touch my face, it was exactly as a television, I saw my town, mother, brother and all my playmates, then she was asking me frequently - "do you agree to be licking the sore with your tongue, tell me, now, yes or no?" (from 'Television-handed Ghostess' in My life in the Bush of Ghosts, 1954)

Throughout many of his most productive years Tutuola worked as a storekeeper for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company. In 1957 he was transferred to Ibadan, Western Nigeria, where he started to adapt the work into the stage. Tutuola became also one of the founders of Mbari Club, the writers' and publishers' organization in Ibadan. He was a research fellow at the University of Ife in 1979 and then an associate of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In the late 1980s Tutola moved to back Ibadan. He died on June 8, 1997.

For further reading: Seven African Writers by Gerald Moore (1962); Amos Tutuola by Harold R. Collins (1969); Language and Theme by Emmanuel R. Obiechina (1970); Mother is Gold by Adrian A. Roscoe (1971); Perspectives on African Literature, ed. Christopher Hewywood (11971); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. John Wakeman (1975); Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola, ed. Bernth Lindfors (1975); Culture and the Nigerian Novel by Oladele Taiwo (1976); European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Vol. 2, by Albert S. Gérard (1986); Hope and Impediments by Chinua Achebe (1988); Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing: Orality and History in the Work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri by Ato Quayson (1997) ; Post-Colonial African Writers, ed. Pushipa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Amos Tutuola Revisited by Oyekan Owomoyela (1999); Three Great African Novelists: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka & Amos Tutuola by Anjali Gera (2001);  Amos Tutuola: Factotum as a Pioneer  by Jare Ajayi (2003); Early West African Writers: Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi and Ayi Kwei Armah by Bernth Lindfors (2010) - See also: Wole Soyinka, who was born in Yoruba people, and Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot whose support was required to secure the publication The Palm-Wine Drinkard in Britain.

Selected works:

  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead's Town, 1952
    - Palmuviinijuoppo ja hänen kuollut palmuviininlaskijansa kuolleiden kylässä (suom. Reijo Tuomi, 1963)
  • My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, 1954 (with a foreword by Geoffrey Parrinder, 1978)
  • Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle, 1955
  • The Brave African Huntress, 1958 (illustrated by Ben Enwonwu)
  • Feather Woman of the Jungle 1962
  • Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty, 1967
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard: Opera by Kola Ogunmola, 1968 (transcribed and translated by R G Armstrong, Robert L Awujoola and Val Olayemi)
  • The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, 1981
  • The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts, 1982
  • Yoruba Folktales, 1986
  • Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer, 1987
  • The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, 1990

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