Amos Tutuola’s Unwonted Predicament A Writer's Many Controversies

Who really was Amos Tutuola? An amazing but naïve primitivist? An ethnographic curiosity? A quasi-plagiarist of the fantastical creations of D.O. Fagunwa? The most likely answer: he was all of these but also more.

Alternative American rock group, Talking Heads’ quirky album title, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ comes from the most unexpected of sources. Who would have thought an ultracool New York city punk rock combo would be remotely aware of the work of a relatively obscure Nigerian novelist? The novelist, of course, is Amos Tutuola, and the unexpected source, the title of one of his novels.

Due to his uneasy relationship with literature or, more specifically, colonial-era literature, one always hopes to read something on Tutuola that would further unsettle that already problematic relationship with unanticipated results. Indeed, there was a certain ambivalence in Tutuola’s affair with literature and how he was largely received by professional literary critics. Additionally, in understanding the significance of Tutuola, one naturally expects to encounter criticism that plumbs the conditions and positionalities of the African intellectual within a neoliberal ideological context. Such a project is particularly pertinent in, for instance, the sociocultural conditions of  present-day South Africa, which is grappling with ongoing tensions and angst pertaining to decolonization and the recovery of autochthonous intellectual agency.

Another approach to Tutuola could be to discover a way of re-reading him, to return him to Literature with a capital L where he originally belongs; to de-anthropologize him in a manner unforeseen by anthropological discourses so that we can attempt to experience his jagged poetry afresh. In Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd: How Amos Tutuola Can Change our Minds, Francis B. Nyamnjoh has not adopted these suggested approaches. Instead, he often employs Tutuola as the arrowhead of the perennial existential struggle between peripheral beings and knowledges and dominant ones. Of course, one always craves to read Tutuola as a novelist rather than as object of the anthropological gaze. In addition, Nyamnjoh’s work on Tutuola revisits many of the controversies surrounding the novelist and makes a powerful argument for his rehabilitation. Also, in more general terms, Nyamnjoh compels a deeper reflection on the fate of the typical colonial-era artist.

Although Nyamnjoh’s book provides the inspiration for this essay, it is meant to read more as a reflection on the conceptual issues facing a colonial-era literary artist raised in the book. Arguably, Tutuola has not received adequate critical scrutiny perhaps largely due to the often unwarranted prejudices of a conceited academic establishment. Nyamnjoh’s book squarely addresses this lapse while I in turn seek to reflect and highlight it.

Wittingly or otherwise, from the very beginning, Tutuola made himself the butt of (post)colonial anthropology just as he made himself a joke of the English language. Now, is it possible to free him from this all-too-familiar predicament? In several instances, Nyamnjoh seems to think so as the whole point of Drinking from the Cosmic Gourdis to demonstrate that Tutuola is eminently worthy of rigorous academic study. Additionally, Nyamnjoh himself is an accomplished novelist and one of Africa’s leading cultural anthropologist; he is able to deconstruct anthropology’s continual othering of colonized subjects.

Or is Tutuola himself to be blamed for his own prickly shortcomings, that is, not being able to fully depict his African world in a foreign language? Can this be regarded as a severe and unforgivable lapse of artistic judgement? Perhaps Tutola would have been better served writing in his native language, Yoruba, just as the great D.O. Fagunwa did. Arguably, Tutuola was waylaid by language, but couldn’t he have avoided it by choosing another path?

So, in order to return Tutuola fully to literature, is it possible for him to be rescued from the strictures of race, anthropology and colonialism? What would such an operation entail? Is it even possible to imagine a future or a world where Tutuola is embraced by literature solely for his artistic vision? What are the strengths of this vision? Is it possible to continue parameters of this debate wholly confined to the literary field?

It is clear that the form of the novel proved to be quite challenging for Tutuola. Writing itself—in consciously literary style—seemed problematic for him. However, in spite of these obvious difficulties is it possible to return Tutuola to the realm of art?

Born in Abeokuta, Western Nigeria in 1920 to cocoa farmers, Tutuola only had six years on formal schooling. His parents were also Christians, a background that went on to account for the Christians myths, symbols and fables that colour his extravagant fiction. Along with these early influences and recurrent themes, his works also featured rich Yoruba folklore filtered through a diet of nativist and, as many critics argue, fashionably discordant prose.

In Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd, Nyamnjoh has elected not to anthropologize Tutuola. Instead, he has chosen to indict anthropology’s treatment of him for the ways all colonial anthropologies have been largely inhumane to (post)colonial subjects. We, today’s readers, constantly need to remind ourselves that colonial epistemologies are the very foundations of modern civilization and that when we peer into the mirror, literally and metaphorically, our image is invariably distorted by their violence, which only a few of us are even equipped or astute enough to see.

Nyamnjoh, rather than minimize the impact of Tutuola’s anthropological sequestration, often highlights it thus affirming a destiny that might prove to be irrevocable for Tutuola. Viewed as an exotic somewhat amusing cultural curiosity by Western readers and considered an anachronistic embarrassment by the African literary establishment, Tutuola has maintained an anomalous position between literature and anthropology in which both disciplines often colluded in discrediting him. Had he followed in the footsteps of Fagunwa, his more accomplished compatriot, he might have enjoyed a kinder fate.

I find Talking Heads’ adoption of Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghostsmore intriguing than Dylan Thomas’s famous (and generally complimentary) 1952 review of Tutola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Considered a pivotal figure in British post World War II poetry, Thomas had embraced poetry in such an elemental and whole-hearted way. Talking Heads, on the other hand, seemed ambivalent about their music and their status as musicians, which is eerily similar to Tutuola’s unsureness as a literary artist: a sort of passive-aggressive tendency that downplays the significance of machismo.

To be sure, Tutuola’s handling of the English language ultimately had the effect of a cracked mirror. In pursuing his art through the [for him] suspect medium of English, he was endlessly caricatured by canon-builders and literary tastemakers. Since Tutuola had very little formal education, Yoruba, rather than English, would have formed a more natural literary voice for him. Nothing illustrates the potency of language more than Tutuola’s fate as a somewhat obscure literary artist. Language is filled with agency, distortion and Frankensteinian properties that ineluctably escape their master. And for an, arguably, inept master such as Tutuola, the consequences were severe.

Indeed, Tutuola’s shortcoming on the language issue can be profoundly alienating. He had chosen to play the language game according to the colonizer’s rules and, one could argue, failed abysmally. This is, perhaps, his greatest infraction. Had Tutuola written in pidgin, the dialect of (post)colonial linguistic subversion and also re-invention, he could have been a veritable pioneer just as the far-sighted postcolonial experimentalists of pidgin. This way, he might perhaps have acquired a restricted but loyal local following. He might also have belonged to a formidable linguistic community. But, instead, he tackled an idiom that basically floored him. From an artistic point of view, this is simply unforgivable. It is also disconcerting that there isn’t an adequate conceptual niche in which to place him.

Tutuola’s editors at Faber and Faber did him a great disservice in retaining obviously awful expressions and spellings—for example, ‘guord’ instead of gourd—all in the name of preserving his originality. V.S. Naipaul complained that ‘Tutuola’s English is that of the West African schoolboy, an imperfectly acquired second language.’ On his part, Peter du Sautoy of Faber had remarked, ‘We do, of course, realise that (The Palm-Wine Drinkard) is not quite as good as it ought to be, but it is the unsophisticated product of a West African mind and we felt there was nothing to be done about it except leave it alone. When I say unsophisticated, that is not altogether true, since Tutuola has been to some extent influenced by at any rate the externals of Western civilization. (Nyamnjoh, 2017, 67).’

Nonetheless, Tutuola became Nigeria’s first internationally recognized author with the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard,which was released by Faber in 1952 and issued by Grove Press in the United States the following year. Subsequent editions were released in French, German, Italian and Serbo-Croatian. Nyamnjoh points out that Wole Soyinka was quite vocal in attempting to get foreign publishers to pay the cash-strapped Tutuola his due during his lifetime. Tutuola enjoyed cult success as a novelist, which, of course, did not necessarily translate into large numbers in terms of book sales.

When Tutuola passed on in 1997, the fanfare that attended his death surpassed anything he was accorded by his previously cynical compatriots during his lifetime—notwithstanding the fact that the actual burial itself in the historic city of Ibadan was poorly attended. There was considerable coverage of his death in the Nigerian media, which was not matched by the actual turnout of sympathizers at the burial site.  Part of this might have been due to the fact that only crate-digging literary aficionados engaged with his work instead of a mass audience.

The progenitor of the imaginative universe Tutuola tried to replicate is, of course, D. O. Fagunwa, who may be less widely known internationally but is, by far, a much more original artist than Tutuola ever was. Eminent Nigerian scholars who have written on Fagunwaand Yoruba literature in general include, Oyin Ogunba, Abiola Irele, Akinwunmi Ishola, Oyekan Owomoyela, Toyin Falola, Femi Osofisan and, of course, Wole Soyinka. Fagunwa’s lesser global appeal stems from the fact that he wrote exclusively in Yoruba. However, a couple or so of his books have been translated by Wole Soyinka and journalist and independent scholar, Dapo Adeniyi. In addition, there have been major local and international conferences on Fagunwa’s work graced by reputable researchers from different parts of the world. It is difficult to imagine anyone else who has done as much to portray the Yoruba cultural cosmos as Fagunwa or succeeded as much in exploring the linguistic richness of the language.

So, in attempting to celebrate Tutuola, we must never forget the incomparable achievement of Fagunwa whom the former sought to emulate. The exotic cadences of Tutuola’s writing belong largely to Fagunwa and thus a revival of Tutuola would be incomplete without a thorough re-evaluation of the earlier Yoruba master.

There is very little record of Tutuola explaining himself to the world, liberating himself, as it were, from the gaze and clutches of anthropology. Nor do we observe him bursting forth in speech and writing regarding his artistic process or existential predicament, stating, if you will, that before you label me, I will name myself, and in this way, I shall indict and contradict you. And so, Tutuola remains a sort of literary Sarah Baartman: mute and exoticized by the wreckage, abuses and institutions of colonialism.

The exaggerated sense of the bizarre that Tutuola conjures in his fabulous tales often seems incredible. So, one is compelled to wonder, are these tales meant for children or sophisticated readers? This is a major dilemma faced by Tutuola’s readers and it is one lodged at the centre of the entire colonial structure which tends to infantilize colonized subjects in terms of speech, intellect and subjectivity. It would appear that Tutuola does not quite escape this pervasive infantilization and this is probably why he is received differently by local and international readers.

Despite these basic observations regarding Tutuola, in Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd, Nyamnjoh’s main strategy is to stress the complementarity between literature and anthropology and also to emphasize why the latter ought to seek interconnections with the former in order to bolster common understandings of literary texts. Nyamnjoh explores the reasons behind the intellectual resistance to Tutuola and encourages us to do the same.

There will always be a high degree of uncertainty in the manner in which Tutuola is critically received: the nagging doubts about him being more than a naïve primitivist; misgivings about the worthiness of the literary sub-genre he might have founded under more auspicious circumstances; and befuddlement concerning the cultural loss and confusing hybrids engendered by what is the unsettled and often unsettling legacy of the colonial encounter. It is most probably through these fractured prisms that Tutuola is forever condemned to be judged.

In Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd, Nyamnjoh makes a strong case for collaboration between ethnography and literature in rehabilitating figures such as Tutuola. In spite of all the obvious difficulties, I would argue, believe it or not, for Tutuola’s complete adoption by literature since he has always been regarded as its disconcerting orphan. As emphasized, at least, part of the blame must be placed with Tutuola himself whose embrace of literature was slightly skewed.

Indeed, who really was Tutuola? An amazing but naïve primitivist? An ethnographic curiosity? A quasi-plagiarist of the fantastical creations of D.O. Fagunwa? An atrocious writer of prose who peppered his tales with outrageous imaginative nuggets? A historical misfit caught on the cusp of tumultuous colonial transformations? A creator of a dense mythopoeic universe populated by ghouls, monsters and ogres of an astonishing variety that predates the far more reader-friendly genre of magical realism? The most likely answer: he was all of these but also more.

The rhythms of Tutuola’s language are quite peculiar; in not being a competent user of English—let alone a master of it—Tutuola can frequently prevent entry into what might have been a truly fascinating creative world. And his gnarled diction causes the fragmenting of that world in ways that are often jolting rather than appealing. In The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, there are numerous passages of Tutuola’s offbeat prose:

… it was a great pity that this man could not walk to the altar, because he was totally lame, the hump which was on his back or nape was big as a mound. Again, there was a goitre on his neck which was just like a hillock. So both hump and goitre were a heavy load for him to lift himself up from the ground or floor. Not only that, big boils were all over his body and each was as big as the head of a child. His forehead was deeply dented so much that there was not a person who would like to look at it twice. Not only that, as well his nose was so compact that it was very hard for him to breath in and out. So, for this he had a non-stop hiccups. More, he had one eye only, the other had been totally blinded for a number of years, and his body was also twisted…

The world Tutuola is preoccupied with is fluid and filled with luminous beauty and, thus, requires the heightened powers of a poet to convey its startling plenitude. Tutuola’s syntax, on the other hand, is disastrously hampered by the recalcitrance of its jaggedness and angularity.

By any stretch of the imagination, Tutuola is not discussed in the manner the other great Nigerian modern masters—Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J. P. Clark etc—are. Perhaps even more intriguing are the reasons behind his relative obscurity, reasons pertaining to strictures of colonialism and the terror of the anthropological gaze.

Tutuola’s life and work embody a powerful paradox: how can one be so vividly anti-literature and yet so decidedly pro-writing at the same time? Well, you can be if you are able to narrate captivating tales through a splintered, partially undomesticated idiom.

A terminal dilemma also looms across the work of Tutuola; can this bastard child of literature be rescued from the sentence of definitive banishment or would widespread adulation eventually be his ultimate vindication? In Drinking from the Cosmic Gourd, Nyamnjoh obviously thinks the latter would be the case.

There is a context in which Tutuola’s art would make absolute sense—within Yoruba culture with its lush pantheon of deities, cascading myths, self-perpetuating folklore and legends. This is, indeed, an alternative way to approach Tutuola, one in which he continues in the footsteps of illustrious artistic forebears as both innovator and custodian of tradition.

In this sense, perhaps the joke is on us after all who seek to apply the standards and conventions of Western literature when the point precisely would be to apply concepts and discourses that belong properly speaking in the realm of orature alone. Perhaps more than Tutuola himself, we are in urgent need of intellectual decolonization if we are not able to read his work as a probing subversion of the colonial mind-set