Tutuola, Amos 1920–1997
Amos Tutuola 1920–1997
Amos Tutuola was termed “one of the great eccentrics in African literature” in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. Before his death in 1997, the Nigerian writer had enjoyed a somewhat accidental literary career as the author of nine epic novels whose bizarre, comical, and at times grisly events were indebted to his country’s Yoruba folklore. Tutuola possessed only a nominal formal education, but his works, beginning with 1952’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, were well received in European literary circles and hailed as outstanding examples of “primitive” literature in English. In Nigeria, however, the reception was less than enthusiastic; though he was his country’s first internationally recognized writer, his works were derided as ungrammatical and poor examples of Nigerian culture.
Tutuola was born in 1920 in Ipose-Ake, Abeokuta, a Yoruba area of Nigeria that was situated some fifty miles from Lagos. The Yoruba are one of Nigeria’s main ethnic groups, along with the Hausa, Ibo, Fulani, and several others. At the time of Tutuola’s birth, the country was a British protectorate, and it remained so for the following forty years.
As a child, Tutuola heard Yoruba folk tales told by his mother and aunt and soon began to enjoy telling them to others himself. His father was a cocoa farmer, and for a time Tutuola was able to attend a school run by Salvation Army missionaries. When his father could no longer afford the tuition, Tutuola learned how to farm; he later took a job as a houseboy to a local government clerk, who then paid for Tutuola to continue his education. The man was transferred to Lagos, and Tutuola went with him, where he enrolled in high school.
As a young man, Tutuola learned the coppersmith trade and served in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II as a blacksmith. He married Victoria Alake in 1947, with whom he had eight children. An attempt to begin his own blacksmith business failed, and so Tutuola took a job instead as a messenger and storeroom clerk for Nigeria’s Labour Department. To while away the idle hours at his desk, he began jotting down Yoruba tales.
He never intended to publish anything, but one day he contacted an English photography-book firm and inquired as to whether they would be interested in a book about Nigerian bush tales—illustrated with actual photographs of the spirits said to inhabit the forest. An amused editor replied in the affirmative and soon received a 76-page manuscript, in Tutuola’s hand, with photographic negatives that were snapshots taken of artistic renderings of the spirits. That work, The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts, did not appear until 1982, well into Tutuola’s career, but it contained all the hallmarks of his fiction: its hero sets out on an epic journey fraught with peril, witnesses many ghastly events, and survives through his own intelligence or, failing that, through the intervention of a protective spirit.
At a Glance…
Born Amos Tutuola in 1920, in Ipose-Ake, Abeokuta, Nigeria; died June 8, 1997, in Ibadan, Nigeria; son of Charles (a cocoa farmer) and Esther (Aina) Tutuola; married Victoria Alake, 1947; children: four sons, four daughters. Education: Attended schools in Nigeria. Religion: Christian. Military: Royal Air Force, 1943-45.
Career: Worked on father’s farm; trained as a coppersmith; employed by Nigerian Government Labor Department, Lagos, and by Nigerian Broadcasting Corp., Ibadan, Nigeria. Freelance writer. Visiting research fellow, University of Ife, 1979; associate, international writing program at University of lowa, 1983.
Memberships: Modern Language Association of America, Mbari Club (Nigerian authors), founder.
Awards: Named honorary citizen of New Orleans, 1983; The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, second place awards in a contest held in Turin, Italy, 1985; Noble Patron of Arts, Pan African Writers Association, 1992.
In the early 1950s Tutuola came across an advertisement in a Nigerian magazine from the United Society for Christian Literature that listed some titles by African authors. He sent another manuscript to them, and while the editors there passed on publishing it themselves, they believed it imaginative enough to send to professional colleagues elsewhere. London’s Faber and Faber bought The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and upon publication in 1952 it became a minor sensation in Britain. A review by notable Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in the Observer newspaper did much to publicize the book, which went on to American and French editions soon afterward. Thomas termed it a “brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story,” and he concluded that here Tutuola’s “writing is nearly always terse and direct, strong, wry, flat and savoury…. Nothing is too prodigious or too trivial put down in this tall, devilish story.”
The hero of The Palm-Wine Drinkard admits his fondness for such alcoholic spirits and relates how his father once hired a tapster for him so that he might drink to his heart’s content. The tapster dies, and the narrator sets off in search of him. He indeed finds the Tapster in Deads’ Town, but then he returns home to a village that has been struck by famine. Heaven and Land have fought, and Heaven retaliates by withholding rain; the draught causes starvation, and the hero solves the problems and sets the world right again. Interspersed in this plot are encounters with strange creatures or spirits drawn from familiar Yoruba tales, such as a “beautiful complete gentleman” who lures woman into forest, then dismembers himself to leave only a vibrating skull; he had only rented the limbs from others in order to fool her. There is also a Red Fish, a monster with thirty horns and numerous eyes that close and open “at the same time as if a man was pressing a switch on and off.”
“The Palm-Wine Drinkard was praised by critics outside of Nigeria for its unconventional use of the English language, its adherence to the oral tradition, and its unique, fantastical characters and plot,” noted an essay on Tutuola in Contemporary Authors. “Nigerian critics, on the other hand, described the work as ungrammatical and unoriginal.” In an essay that appeared in Research in African Literatures two years after Tutuola’s death, the critic Steven M. Tobias explained some of the reasons behind the controversy. “Many educated Nigerians were highly incensed to discover that such a ’primitive’ book, written in broken English by a lowly messenger, was being lauded in European intellectual circles as the pinnacle of Nigerian culture,” Tobias noted. “In particular, with Nigerian political independence nearly in sight in the early 1950s, Tutuola’s world of bogey-men was one that most educated Nigerians would have liked to purge forever from global perceptions of their country.”
On the other hand, the chorus of praise for Tutuola and his literary debut included notable short-story writer V. S. Pritchett; others noted similarities with Homer’s Odyssey, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Tutuola later said that he had read Bunyan’s work during his brief years in school.
Tutuola next wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, published by Grove in 1954. The work is less a quest novel than an extended tale of the initiation rite: a seven-year-old boy narrates a story of how his abusive stepmothers turned him out of his home, and he then wanders in the bush during a dangerous tribal war era. Terror leads him into the Bush of Ghosts, and he spends 24 years in this spirit world-a place “replete with towns, kings, civic ceremonies, festivals, law courts, and even his cousin’s Methodist church,” noted Bernth Lindfors in the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “He has experiences both harrowing and happy, and at one point he considers taking up permanent residence in the Tenth Town of Ghosts with his dead cousin, but he cannot bring himself to do it because he keeps longing to return to his earthly home.”
In Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle, which appeared in 1955, Tutuola presented a cosseted but curious little girl who wishes to see how others live. Her family cautions her against such a venture, but she disobeys, and is then “kidnapped, sold into slavery, beaten, starved, almost beheaded, set afloat on a river in a sealed coffin, carried off by an eagle, imprisoned in a tree trunk, half-swallowed by a boa constrictor, attacked by a satyr, shrunk and put in a bottle, bombarded by a stone-carrying phoenix, and petrified into a rock,” listed Lindfors. A clever girl, Simbi sings her way out of trouble, for she can summon the dead for help with her voice. When she makes it back home, she rests but then sets off to warn her playmates about heeding their parents’ wishes.
Tutuola wrote three more novels over the next dozen years, ending with Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty in 1967. In 1979, he became a visiting writer at Nigeria’s University of Ife for a term, and a year later he published his seventh novel, The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town. Its plot centers upon a hunter and his wife who cannot conceive a child; the husband undertakes a journey to find a cure for her, and six years later, after many sojourns and encounters with fantastical characters such as the Abnormal Squatting Man of the Jungle, arrives in Remote Town. He meets the witch-herbalist of the title and departs with a special broth for his wife but, famished from his journey, decides to drink some of it himself. A review from Edward Blishen in the Times Educational Supplement was typical of the praise that Tutuola’s novels generated in the West: “The language is wonderfully stirring and odd: a mixture of straight translation from Yoruba, and everyday modern Nigerian idiom, and grand epical English,” remarked Blishen. “The imagination at work is always astonishing.”
Tutuola published a collection of shorter fiction in 1990 as The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, all of which were drawn from Yoruba folk tales. Here “the same buoyant imagination is in evidence, the same fascination with comically grotesque fantasy worlds,” Lindfors found in his Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “Tutuola, after more than forty years of writing, remains a very resourceful raconteur.” The writer died in Ibadan, Nigeria in June of 1997. He was 77 years old. Robert Elliot Fox, who shared an office with him at the University of Ife in the late 1970s, recalled his memories of Tutuola in an article for Research in African Literatures, and concluded by firmly placing him in the canon of twentieth-century African literary icons.
“Whatever else may be said about his work, it undeniably is part of the foundation of African writing—that part which is sunk most deeply in the substratum and psyche of African culture and imagination,” asserted Fox. “However high and wide the African literary edifice grows, we’ll keep coming back to Tutuola, not just as an historically important entity, but as a necessary counterpoint to other developments.”
The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, Faber, 1952, Grove, 1953.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove, 1954, reprinted, Faber, 1978.
Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle, Faber, 1955.
The Brave African Huntress, illustrated by Ben En-wonwu, Grove,
The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Faber, 1962.
Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty, Faber, 1967.
The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, Faber, 1981.
The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts (facsimile of manuscript), edited with an introduction and a postscript by Bernth Lindfors, Three Continents Press, 1982, 2nd edition, 1989.
Pauper, Brawler, and Slanderer, Faber, 1987.
The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories, Faber, 1990.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard [and] My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove Press, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 125: Twentieth-Century
Caribbean and Black African Writers, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1993, pp. 332-346.
Observer, July 6, 1952.
Research in African Literatures, fall 1998, p. 203; summer 1999, p. 66.
Telegraph (U.K.), June 21, 1997.
Time, June 30, 1997, p. 23. Times Educational Supplement, February 26, 1982.
Additional material was obtained from Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001.
"Tutuola, Amos 1920–1997." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 13, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tutuola-amos-1920-1997
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The Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola (born 1920) is famous for his fantastic tales which, in their content, depend heavily on the folklore of his ancestral Yoruba people.
Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta (Yorubaland). His father's death in 1939 prevented him from pursuing his studies. During World War II he joined the Royal Air Force as a blacksmith, and when the war was over, he became a messenger in the labor department in Lagos.
As he enjoyed some reputation as a storyteller among his friends, Tutuola devoted the ample leisure afforded by his unexacting functions to penning in his own idiosyncratic brand of Nigerian English some of the bizarre tales which abound in Yoruba oral lore and which D. O. Fagunwa had recorded in his vernacular storybooks. The result was The Palmwine Drinkard and His Dead Palmwine Tapster in the Dead's Town (1952). The book was an immediate success.
While English and American reviewers were bewitched by Tutuola's exuberant imagination and his unconventional speech, Nigerian intellectuals were at first extremely hostile: they felt that his superstitious, "uncivilized" stories and his—in their view—uncouth, nonstandard English were likely to tarnish the image of Nigeria in the eyes of the outside world. Their criticism and contempt, however, did not detract Tutuola from quietly bringing forth other similar romances: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1956), The Brave African Huntress (1958), The Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), The Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town (1980), The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts (1982) and Pauper, Brawler, Slanderer (1987).
Tutuola's recipe is of the simplest: the plucky hero or heroine embarks on an often perfunctorily motivated quest that leads him or her to the jungle forest and provides a framework for what really matters, an inexhaustible variety of adventures among gods and ghosts, ogres and pygmies, satyrs and magicians, and sundry other uncanny, Bosch-like monsters, such as the Smelling-Ghost, the Reverend Devil, the Television-handed Goddess, the Hairy Giant and a few "ghostesses, " all of whom experience no difficulty whatsoever in transforming themselves into almost any kind of mineral, vegetable, animal or even human shapes.
A comparison with collections of traditional tales shows that many of these episodes are part and parcel of Yoruba folklore, which is characterized by its familiarity with the supernatural, its prodigious inventive power, and its very peculiar sense of horror as a source of humor. But to the ancestral fund, Tutuola adds his own inimitable touch: he introduces elements of Christian and Western civilization which appear strangely exotic in this mythical world of African fantasy; above all, he solves to his own and his readers' satisfaction the linguistic problem of the African writer, coining new words, translating vernacular idioms, and generally distorting English vocabulary, syntax, and even spelling with impervious assurance and disarming efficiency.
In 1963 Tutuola had his revenge over his Nigerian highbrow critics when the popular actor-director-producer E. K. Ogunmola adapted The Palmwine Drinkard into a vernacular folk-opera, which was performed with tremendous success all over the country.
In addition to his writing, Tutuola has worked as a visiting research fellow to the University of Ife (1979) and as an associate to the international writing program at the University of Iowa (1983). His honors included being named an honorary citizen of New Orleans in 1983 and receiving second-place awards in Turin, Italy, in 1985 for The Palmwine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Harold Reeves Collins, Amos Tutuola (1969), reviews Tutuola's work, traces its influence, and carefully assesses the author's place in Nigerian literature. □
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Amos Tutuola, 1920–97, Nigerian novelist, noted for his idiosyncratic use of Yoruba legend and fantasy in tales written in vernacular African English. His first novel, The Palm-Wine Drunkard (1952), is probably his best known.
"Tutuola, Amos." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 13, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tutuola-amos
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BORN: 1920, Abeokuta, Nigeria
DIED: 1997, Ibadan, Nigeria
The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952)
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954)
Yoruba Folktales (1986)
Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian writer to achieve international recognition. He spun adventure fantasies based on traditional Yoruba folktales, writing in an idiosyncratic, deliberately flawed pidgin English. His works are crudely constructed and restricted in narrative range, yet are highly imaginative. Tutuola is one of the most successful stylists in twentieth-century African literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Writing on the Job Tutuola was born in the western Nigerian town of Abeokuta in 1920, when Nigeria was ruled by the British as a part of the British Empire. Tutuola completed six years in missionary schools. When
his father, a cacao farmer, died in 1939, he left school to learn a trade. Tutuola worked as a coppersmith in the Royal Air Force during World War II, but he lost his position in postwar demobilization. (In the postwar period, Nigeria demanded self-government from the British, resulting in a series of short-lived constitutions through the early 1950s.) He found employment as a messenger for the Department of Labor in Lagos. The job left him ample free time, and he took to writing English versions of stories he had heard old people tell in Yoruba.
In the late 1940s, he wrote to Focal Press, an English publisher, asking if they would consider a manuscript about spirits in the Nigerian bush. Several months later, The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts arrived, wrapped in brown paper and bound with twine. The mythological adventure story, clearly the work of a novice, would not be published until 1982. Had it been published earlier, it would not have generated the same excitement among readers overseas as did Tutuola's next narrative, a bizarre yarn with the improbable title The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952).
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a voyage of the imagination into a never-never land of magic and marvels. The prodigious drinker of palm wine appears at first to be an unpromising hero, but he cleverly circumvents numerous monsters and misadventures and settles the cosmic dispute between Heaven and Land, ending a catastrophic drought.
A Colonial Throwback? Tutuola was lucky to get this second story published and luckier still that it gained commercial success. The book might have sunk into obscurity had it not been enthusiastically reviewed by well-known poet Dylan Thomas. Within a year, an American edition won similar acclaim. It was eventually translated into fifteen languages.
In Nigeria, however, Tutuola's writing received an unfriendly reception. Educated Nigerians were shocked that a book written in substandard English by a lowly Lagos messenger was being lionized abroad. Tutuola's first Books appeared at the close of the colonial era, when Africans were trying to prove to the outside world that they were ready to manage their own political affairs. For educated Africans, acutely conscious of their image abroad, the naive fantasies of Tutuola projected a primitive impression.
Despite the criticism from his countrymen, Tutuola pressed on, producing more adventure stories cut from the same cloth. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), opens as its hero, a boy of seven, abandoned by his stepmothers, is left to wander in the bush during a tribal war. He spends twenty-four years wandering in an African spirit world, until a “television-handed goddess” helps the young man escape. Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), in which a pampered only child defies her parents and undertakes a solitary journey, displays for the first time signs of formal literary influence. It is Tutuola's first book to be divided into numbered chapters, and it is written from the third-person point of view. Tutuola was becoming conscious of himself as an author and reading more widely. He continued to work as a messenger, writing in his spare time.
Imagination and Grotesque Fantasy As Tutuola continued his work as both a writer and a messenger, Nigeria was continuing to undergo political change. In the mid- to late 1950s, the country moved further into self-government and became a fully independent member of the British Commonwealth in 1960. In 1963, Nigeria became a republic, with Nnamdi Azikiwe serving as its first president. Internal unrest soon became a hallmark of Nigeria, with two military coups taking place in 1966 alone.
While Nigeria was going through these changes, Tutuola published such works as Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962). This book is Tutuola's most stylized work. The narrative frame is structured somewhat like the Arabian Nights: an elderly chief entertains villagers for ten nights with accounts of his past adventures. As with Tutuola's other works, the technique recalls devices from oral storytelling. Tutuola published nothing between Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty (1967) and The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981), but the hiatus had no discernible impact on his chosen methods. In The Witch-Herbalist, a hunter goes on a quest to find a cure for his wife's barrenness. He survives bizarre and sometimes frightening encounters over six years, eventually reaching the Remote Town. He gets the medicine from the herbalist, sips some on his return to stave off hunger, and gives the rest to his wife, who promptly becomes pregnant. However, so does he, and he must undergo further trials and torments before being cured.
Evolved Late Works Yoruba Folktales (1986) is Tutuola's first effort at preserving, rather than retelling, the stories that are the communal literary property of his people. Tutuola remains faithful to tradition but occasionally adds some zaniness to spice up characterization and plot. The grammatical blunders and stylistic inventions found in Tutuola's earlier works are absent from Yoruba Folktales. The reason is not mysterious: The book was targeted at primary school classrooms, and one cannot address Nigerian schoolchildren in a fractured foreign tongue.
Tutuola's final publication, The Village Witch Doctor, and Other Stories (1990), contains eighteen stories based on traditional Yoruba fables. Like most of Tutuola's previous work, the stories deal with greed, betrayal, and tricksterism. After more than forty years, the same buoyant imagination and fascination with comically grotesque fantasy worlds were evident.
Tutuola resided in Ibadan and Ago-Odo, Nigeria, for most of his life. For several years, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He also traveled around Africa, Europe, and the United States, serving stints as a visiting fellow at the University of Ife, Nigeria (1979), and the University of Iowa (1983). He died in Ibadan in June 1997 from hypertension and diabetes.
Works in Literary Context
When The Palm-Wine Drinkard gained public attention abroad, some Nigerians were contemptuous of Tutuola's efforts because he had borrowed heavily from the well-known Yoruba novelist D. O. Fagunwa. Some Yoruba readers accused him of plagiarism. Indeed, the narrative devices, and much of the content of Tutuola's early writings, echo the work of Fagunwa rather precisely. Tutuola admitted as much in interviews and letters and never pretended that his stories were original creations. Rather, he was following in the norm of indigenous oral tradition. In oral art, what matters most is not uniqueness of invention but the adroitness of performance. A storyteller's contribution is to tell old, well-known tales in an entertaining manner. Thus, he was creatively exploiting, not pilfering, his cultural heritage.
Fagunwa was not Tutuola's only teacher. He had also read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and the Arabian Nights (c. 800–900), both classic adventure stories fabricated out of a chain of old tales loosely linked together. Events in Bunyan's narrative, such as Christian's visits to Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, and the Celestial City, may have served as models for some of Tutuola's romantic adventures. However, unlike Pilgrim's Progress—and Fagunwa's novels—Tutuola's narratives are not religious allegories. It is Yoruba oral tradition, not the Christian Bible, that influences Tutuola's works. Tutuola may have learned from Bunyan how to put an extended quest tale together, but in substance and spirit he was a thoroughly African storyteller.
The Heroic Quest Tutuola's storytelling method did not change much over the years. His stories typically concern a naive or morally weak character who is inspired or forced to embark on a spiritual journey. He or she encounters danger, confronts a tremendous variety of shape-shifting spirits from the underworld, and displays the heroic traits of the most popular folktale protagonists: hunter, magician, trickster, superman. Tutuola varies the quest pattern slightly from book to book, but never abandons it entirely. Because of their spiritual themes, allegorical characters, and symbolic plots, Tutuola's works have been called mythologies or epics rather than novels.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tutuola's famous contemporaries include:
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian novelist and essayist whose novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is the most widely read work of African literature.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938–1997): This Nigerian musician and political activist sang in cunningly broken English. His albums include Zombie (1976).
Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986): This Senegalese anthropologist and historian studied ancient Africa and the origins of humanity. His Books include The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? (1974).
James Baldwin (1924–1987): This African American novelist and essayist wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): This Colombian novelist wrote the Latin American epic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).
Italo Calvino (1923–1985): This Italian author of short stories and novels wrote modern fables, such as the Our Ancestors trilogy (1952–1959).
Ancestral, Yet Contemporary Tutuola employs many techniques associated with oral traditions in his novels and stories. The supernatural, fantastical, and grotesque are commonplace in Yoruba folklore. However, he embellishes ancestral tales with modern and Western elements, such as the “television-handed goddess” in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which, in context, appear both exotic and in keeping with contemporary Nigerian changing culture. The result is a collage of borrowed materials put together in an eclectic manner by a resourceful raconteur working well within oral conventions.
Use of Language Perhaps the most unique aspect of Tutuola's novels is his unconventional use of the English language: skewed syntax, sometimes broken English, and idiosyncratic diction. For example, Tutuola wrote in The Palm-Wine Drinkard: “[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.” His usage of “jealous” as a verb reflects Yoruban grammatical constructs, in which adjectives and verbs are often interchangeable. Tutuola coins new words, incorporates Nigerian idiom and patois, and even spells with startling and charming inventiveness. In a unique way, he resolves the dilemma of the African writer representing his heritage authentically while working in the language of the colonizer.
Influence Most critics agree that Tutuola's literary style and method are highly personal and have had little influence on subsequent writers in Nigeria. However, his contribution—refashioning traditional Yoruba myths and folktales and fusing them with modern life—is increasingly appreciated. Tutuola retains a wide international reader-ship, and his works are commonly read in Nigerian schools. Students of African literature in Europe and the United States were also influenced by Tutuola and his writings.
Works in Critical Context
Audiences were sharply divided over Tutuola's work when it first began to appear in the 1950s. At first, Anglo-American commentators praised the style and content of Tutuola's fiction for its originality and imagination. Tutuola's later offerings were not as enthusiastically received in England and America as his first two. As new African voices reached the Western public, reviewers complained that Tutuola's writing seemed repetitive and rudimentary. His novelty had worn off, and the pendulum of critical opinion had begun to reverse direction. Later it would return to a more neutral position.
Early Nigerian critics expressed doubt about Tutuola's writing ability, but have since reclaimed him as a unique and innovative storyteller. In Nigeria, the pendulum started to swing in a more positive direction shortly after the nation achieved independence in 1960. The consensus of opinion today is that he is far too important a phenomenon to be overlooked.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard The appearance of The Palm-Wine Drinkard was greeted with hostility by Nigerian intellectuals. Some maintained that Tutuola's work was an unprincipled act of piracy, especially since he was writing in English for a foreign audience rather than in Yoruba for his own people, and that his obvious lack of proficiency in English would give readers overseas a poor opinion of Africans, thereby reinforcing their prejudices.
However, European and American readers found Tutuola an exotic delight. Dylan Thomas called the novel “bewitching.” British critic V. S. Pritchett wrote in the New Statesman and Nation that “Tutuola's voice is like the beginning of man on earth.” Perhaps Tutuola's Nigerian critics were right after all. To native speakers of English, his splintered style was an amusing novelty; to educated Nigerians who had spent years polishing their English, it was an abomination.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The novels of Amos Tutuola represent a modern effort to preserve and revive folklore traditions. The following works of modern literature also invoke, update, or invent folktales:
The Robber Bride (1993), a novel by Margaret Atwood. This novel is loosely based on a fairy tale in the Grimm Brothers' collection, peppered with allusions to fairy tales and folklore.
Ceremony (1977), a novel by Leslie Marmon Silko. In this contemporary novel, a Native American returning from World War II delves into the ancient stories of his people to overcome despair.
Mules and Men (1935), a travelogue by Zora Neale Hurston. This unique anthropological travelogue documents the hoodoo practices of southern blacks, with many folktales thrown in.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a children's novel by L. Frank Baum. This celebrated fantasy book for children, the first of a long series, is a conscious attempt to create a modern American fairy tale, or “wonder tale.”
The Jungle Book (1894), a story collection by Rudyard Kipling. This book of fables uses animals in an anthropomorphic manner to give moral lessons.
Responses to Literature
- In a paper, identify some of the particular patterns of error or peculiarity in how Tutuola renders the English language. Assuming that these aberrations are purposeful, what purposes do they serve? Are they effective, and do they achieve what they are intended to?
- Tutuola incorporates the phenomena of modern life into the fantasy worlds of his stories, yet he also seems to mourn the loss of ancient African traditions. How would you describe his attitude toward African modernity? Put your answer in the form of an essay.
- What challenges did Tutuola confront in transmitting oral traditions into print? Would you think that these are challenges common to any writer facing this same task within any culture, or is this exclusive to Tutuola's culture? Create a presentation with your findings.
- As Nigeria struggled to overthrow colonialism, many of Tutuola's countrymen condemned him for disseminating a poor image of his people. Do you agree? Was his work a worthy representation of Nigerian culture? Write an essay that addresses these questions.
Asein, Samuel O., and Albert O. Ashaolu, eds. Studies in the African Novel. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1986.
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"Tutuola, Amos." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 13, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tutuola-amos
"Tutuola, Amos." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved September 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tutuola-amos