This page last revised 23 June 1999
Amos Tutuola Turned into a Palm Tree, by Twins Seven-Seven
Amos Tutuola was born in the Nigerian city of Abeokuta in 1920. His parents were Christian cocoa farmers, of the Yoruba race. At the age of twelve he began to attend the Anglican Central School in his home town. His formal education lasted only five years, as he had to leave school when his father died in order to learn a profession. He went to Lagos to train as a blacksmith in 1939, and from 1942 to 1945 he practised his trade for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. After this he worked as a messenger for the Department of Labour in Lagos, then as a storekeeper for Radio Nigeria in Ibadan. He was married and had six children.
Unlike his near-contemporary Chinua Achebe, Tutuola was not highly educated. He wrote in English rather than his mother tongue Yoruba because he wanted to reach a wider audience to which this local material may have more general interest, but the English he uses in his stories is not polished or sophisticated but instead captures the way English was spoken in Nigeria by ordinary people (Parrinder 10).
The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which was published by Faber in London in 1952, was Tutuolas debut. It is the tale of a lover of palm-wine who journeys into the land of the Dead to bring back his favourite tapster, or wine-maker, who has died in a fall. In this story Tutuola creates a unique narrative from traditional elements of Yoruba mythology. His next book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1952), is similar in theme: a traditional quest narrative, it tells the story of a boy who is lost in the Bush of Ghosts--a parallel world of spirits and magic--who is trying to return to his family. Other books by Tutuola include Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), The Brave African Huntress (1958), Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty (1968), and The Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981).
The Palm-Wine Drinkard was greeted with acclaim on its publication. Dylan Thomas reviewed it, saying the book was brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching, adding that nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story (Moore 39). Bernth Lindfors tells us that English and American critics loved the book partly because it was so delightfully odd and unexpected, but partly because it was just what they would have expected to emerge from Africa--an uncouth, barbarous monster of a tale which had all the vitality and naiveté of childish literature (32). To educated readers in Nigeria the book was an affront: its ungrammatical English did not reflect the level of learning and cultivation many of them had achieved, and many felt that Tutuola had plagiarised Yoruba myths for his best material (Lindfors 33). In Lindforss fascinating study Folklore in Nigerian Literature two versions of a Yoruba tale, published in English in 1929, are compared with Tutuolas interpretation of the same myth in a section of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Lindforss comparison clearly shows Tutuolas version to be both richer in detail and more elaborate in dramatic design that the two traditional versions (37).
Another problem with Tutuolas writings is that they are hard to analyse from the perspective of post-colonial criticism. Unlike Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, who wrote to change the world, Tutuola did not demonstrate a strong political awareness: Pan-Africanism, the African Personality, African Socialism, negritude, these are as dead for him as colonialism itself (Roscoe 99). However, Tutuolas writings cannot fail to refer to the post-colonial status of his home country, though the references are implicit, not explicit. Parrinder comments that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reflects on the situation of Africans under the impact of European ideas and government. Although ancient mythologies and aspects of folklore are widely encountered, we also find churches, schools and Crown Agents in the 10th Town of Ghosts, and the Rev. Devil giving a baptism of fire and water in the 8th Town (12). In a famous episode in the book Tutuolas narrator encounters a Television-Handed Ghostess: the writer uses modern technology as an analogy and extension to spiritual power.
Amos Tutuola is a fascinating writer, whose works are interesting not only because their style is so vibrant, but because they use folklore and traditional structure in new ways to reveal to Western readers what it is like to be a traditional Nigerian. As Gerald Moore comments: refreshed like Antaeus by contact with his abiding Mother Earth, he has forged matter, form, and style anew for himself (57)
Beier, Ulli. Contemporary Art in Africa. London: Pall Mall, 1968.
Lindfors, Bernth. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana, 1973.
Moore, Gerald. Seven African Writers. London: Oxford UP, 1962.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. Foreword to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola. London: Faber, 1954. 9-15.
Roscoe, Adrian A. Mother is Gold. London: Cambridge UP, 1971.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Bronagh Clarke. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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