The further into the Bush we travel, the fewer rules apply to the story, both in terms of the rules that govern the natural world and those that govern the English language. For example, an early scene sees the narrator entering into a battle of wits with a god who might know how to get to Dead’s Town. He tells us, “after the seventh month that I had left my home town, I reached a town and went to an old man, this old man was not a really man [sic], he was a god and he was eating with his wife when I reached there.” This is a lot of information for a single sentence. Furthermore his phrasing, while it can be compared to the modernist, stream-of-consciousness style of a writer like James Joyce, also feels more clumsy than fluid due to the repetition of words and phrases throughout.
Much of the story reads as if Tutuola is in a hurry to summarize all of its events for us rather than transport his readers to the Bush of Ghosts. Thus, dialogue is embedded in the sentences without quotation marks or other grammatical signals to differentiate between his words and the words of others. But Tutuola pulls it off because the stories he tells are so strange, funny, and altogether entertaining.
Tutuola’s novels are all relatively short, but they contain the kinds of subplots, side quests, and digressions typical of epics such as The Odyssey, or Arthurian legends, or, yes, A Song of Ice and Fire. But while readers are often happy to forgive an episodic or even scattered plot, the controversy with Tutuola remains with his language — his word choice, his grammar, or as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it in his 1952 review of the novel, his “young English.”
Reviewing the novel for the New York Times in 1953, Selden Rodman spoke to the anxiety both “Westerners” and Africans felt about the pleasure the former took from the novel: “If you like Anna Livia Plurabelle, Alice in Wonderland, and the poems of Dylan Thomas, the chances are you will like this novel, though probably not for reasons having anything to do with the author’s intentions.” For Rodman and other Western readers, The Palm-Wine Drinkard could only ever rise to the rank of guilty pleasure. Sure, it had the playfulness and humor of James Joyce or Lewis Carroll, but could such a book, by a Yoruba-speaking West African, be high art?
On the other hand, West Africans themselves were deeply skeptical of Western readers’ enthusiasm for Tutuola. In a letter to the editor of West Africa, a London-based news magazine, Nigerian reader I. Adeagbo Akinjogbin admonished the periodical for what he saw as an overly flattering portrait of the author, writing that Tutuola is clearly “not an academic man and therefore … it is not a high literary standard that has attracted so many European and American readers.” Rather, Akinjogbin and other West African readers accused Westerners of seeing Tutuola as proof of their racist notions about exotic and uneducated Africans. For many Nigerians, still living under dehumanizing and exploitative British colonial rule, Tutuola’s works were an embarrassment, another weapon in the Western arsenal leveraged to deny black people self-rule.
After the success of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola went on to publish many more novels and collections of short stories, including My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), The Brave African Huntress (1958), The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981), and The Village Witch Doctor and Other Stories (1990). However, by 1958, Things Fall Apart by the university-educated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe had arrived on the scene, eclipsing Tutuola with its more traditionally modernist sensibilities and portrayal of precolonial Nigerian history, an approach that would prove more accessible to readers around the world. Plus, Achebe’s mastery of the English language gave Nigerians an example of a writer to take pride in, and offered liberal white Europeans and Americans a chance to experience an “exotic” African story that they could also comfortably consider high art.
While Western readers moved on from Tutuola, West Africans were able to reevaluate his work out of the oppressive pressure of the colonial gaze. In 1966, literary critic and academic Eldred Jones revisited The Palm-Wine Drinkard for the Bulletin of the Association for African Literature in English, revealing some of the inventive ways Tutuola had drawn from West African folklore for his novel, and concluding that, “reading Tutuola must be a very different experience for an African who knows the stories and motifs he exploits, and a non-African to whom these ideas come fresh and strange.” But he also noted that “the language is likely to be as puzzling to him as to a European, for Tutuola’s merit is not essentially linguistic.” Thus, with Jones’ and others’ revisions of Tutuola, space is opened up for people of all backgrounds to take pleasure in these novels without necessarily devaluing their author.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard is definitely not the African Game of Thrones, but it is a novel based on folkloric stories that combine the mystical with the political. With so many African fantasy novels resonating in the US and Europe now, it seems like the perfect moment for Amos Tutuola to reenter the public conversation, especially with titans such as James and Okorafor citing him as an influence. In fact, the Tutuola renaissance has already started. In 2015, a group of African literature scholars founded the Amos Tutuola Literary Society, and exciting contemporary writers like Okorafor, Chris Abani, and Chigozie Obioma all cite The Palm-Wine Drinkard as influences. Readers of all backgrounds ought to revisit one of African fantasy’s founders — and allow themselves to have fun doing so. ●
Kate Harlin is a PhD candidate and instructor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is currently writing a dissertation about suicide and contemporary African fiction. Her work has appeared in the LA Review of Books and Prairie Schooner.