Amos Tutuola: A Bridge across the streams
(Being a presentation by Richard Mammah at the Lagos book fiesta ‘Profiles at the Lagoon,’ Art Gallery, Kongi’s Harvest, Freedom Park, Lagos, May 30, 2018)
A few things are remarkable about our subject under reference today, the very prodiguous Amos Tutuola.
First, when his first novel, the Palm Wine Drinkard, rolled off the presses in 1952, there had not been much in the way of advance notice that he would be a successful writer.
As one who had barely struggled to get a basic education, not many gave him a chance to venture into, and then make a mark in this area. But thanks to his determination, doggedness and industry, he worked at it and not in addition to getting that first book, The Palmwine Drinkard out, he also went on to write and bring out other very remarkable titles:
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954)
Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955)
The Brave African Huntress (1958)
Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962)
Ajayi and his Inherited Poverty (1967)
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)
As is most apparent from this profile, it will be seen that our author did indeed demonstrate a very prodigious commitment to his chosen vocation, which ensured that other than the decade of the 1970s, he not only brought out book after book, beginning with his 1952 debut offering, indeed, he also sustained a pattern of sorts in that he succeeded in getting into the market, fresh new titles within two, three and five year intervals!
Second, Tutuola stands as a bridge across the many trajectories of the Nigerian creative writing firmament. From when The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African entered the scene in 1789 through the outing of the maiden edition of the first Nigerian newspaper,“Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba Ati Yoruba on November 23, 1859, and on to the coming into the scene of other pioneering texts such as Pita Nwana’s Omenuko in 1933 and Daniel Olorunfẹmi Fagunwa’s 1938 text, Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, it was evident that it was just going to be a matter of time before an even more robust creative writing tradition would be experienced.
With the end of the Second World War in 1945, the coming of the decade of the 1950s - with its very strong pan-Africanist fervour, along with an accelerated march to nationhood - Nigerians across all walks of life began to express themselves in even more assertive tones. One of these who moved on to demonstrate the capacity of the emergent Nigerian in the arena of creative writing was Amos Tutuola. It was indeed a mark of his sterling achievement in this regard that he was to round off work on his first book, The Palm Wine Drinkard, in 1946. And the road to this achievement was indeed not an easy one as he had been forced to drop out of school upon the death of his father in1939, and then go on to train as a blacksmith, work with the Royal Air Force in Nigeria, become a bread seller and then a messenger with the colonial Nigerian Department of Labor! How did the other wise man put it: ‘tough times don’t last; it is tough people that do. Tutuola was quintessentially one cut out of the thick cloth of hardwork, determination, drive and endurance; he was of ‘the strong breed.’
In a sense, a contemporary of Tutuola at this time would be the other most prodigious writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, who after jointly winning a British Council Writing Competition with Mabel Segun and Ogundipe Leslie, had gone on to feature as a star player in the famous Onitsha Market Literature series with his twin offerings in that ‘pamphlet explosion,’ that were published by Tabansi Books in 1947; namely, When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Igbo Tales. From there he published many other books that included An African Night’s Entertainment, the passport of Mallam Ilia and The Drummer Boy. And if you think Tutuola’s six-year wait to have his first book come out in print was a heck of time, then what would you say about Ekwensi not having his first full length novel text enter the market until four decades after he had finished writing it! Some of today’s young writers may simply need to find some patience.
Third, it is also to be noted that the coming onto the limelight of the Tutuolas and Ekwensis at this time was in the same progressing line of vision in the development of the practice of creative writing in Nigeria that was to find its next expression in the publication in 1958 of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the inception of the African Writers Series and the work of practitioners such as Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi and J.P Clark.
And fourth, even in death, Tutuola continues to shine on with his works gracing the archival shelves of the Harry Ransom Center, an archive, library and museum at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, which specializes in the collection of literary and cultural artifacts for the purpose of advancing the study of the arts and humanities. Its collection spans 36 million literary manuscripts, one million rare books, five million photographs, and more than 100,000 works of art.
Underscoring this achievement, it is to his credit that Tutuola today shares that space with the likes of D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Woodward and Bernstein (of the Watergate Papers fame), Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Coleridge family.
Others are Doris Lessing, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Kerouac, Chaucer, Alfred A. Knopf, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Harry Houdini, Arthur Miller, John Osborne, Peter O'Toole, George Bernard Shaw, Pablo Picasso, George Aiken, George Frideric Handel, Robert De Niro, Napoleon Bonaparte and Emperor Maximilian I.
Finally, let me salute Delta Publications (Nigeria) and its CEO, Dillibe Onyeama for convening this most epochal event. In a land and clime that continues to pay scant regard to the great creative achievements of its people, it is important that some who do know should continue to hold the torch high in the hope that over time the rest of our people would come to be converted. I therefore anticipate even more of such grand offerings from the Delta Book Club and Delta Publications (Nigeria) in the years ahead.
- Richard Mammah