Tutuola, Amos

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tutuola, Amos

Tutuola, Amos (1920-1997) Nigerian ethnographer, novelist, and storyteller

A facile teller of Yoruba FABLES and folk stories, Amos Tutuola surveyed social history and wrote on African survivalism during Nigeria’s emergence into the modern world as an independent nation. A native of Abeokuta near the southwestern coast of Nigeria, he was raised by Yoruba Christians on a cacao farm. With only six years of primary education, he based his untutored writings on a reading of The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. A.D. 942) and on the bedtime STORYTELLING of fables and deity tales of his grandmother. During World War II, Tutuola served in the Royal Air Force as a coppersmith; he subsequently operated a labor department message relay and, at age 36, clerked and stocked shelves in a store owned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Network. While living in Lagos, he found spare time to jot stories on scraps of paper.

At age 32, eight years before Nigeria negotiated independence from Great Britain, Tutuola published The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), an episodic fantasy novel told through the perspective, dreamscapes, and bizarre dialect of a Nigerian naif. In the book, riddling and shape-shifting in the style of Dante’s hell and JONATHAN SWIFT’S Gulliver Travels (1735) parallel the contradictions of colonialism in an unsophisticated African nation where exorcism, polygamy, oral education, and tribal clashes are common. The protagonist asserts manhood through a trial by ordeal. On his flight through “Deads’ Town,” he explains: “If one is captured, he or she would be sold into slavery for foreigners who would carry him or her to unknown destinations to be killed for the buyer’s god or to be working for him” (Tutuola 1994, 18). By equating ritual sacrifice with forced labor, Tutuola expresses the long-term African terror of enslavement.

A similar atmosphere of controlled panic overlays the author’s second Jungian novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954), a GOTHIC mythography that draws on Yoruban cultural symbols, pourquoi (why) stories, and cautionary tales. The structure replicates the quest motif of Tutuola’s first novel in a vision of the flight of a child from slave catchers, the Satan-on-earth figures of Nigerian nightmare. A pell-mell plunge into the jungle forces the boy to rely on animal instincts. Trusting to self, he relies on intuition and sense of smell. In his precipitate venture into the unknown, he observes the threat to age-old Yoruban traditions, which he pictures as spirits: “These ghosts were so old and weary that it is hard to believe that they were living creatures” (24). The wanderings of his protagonist amid anthropomorphic animals, metaphysical perils, ogres, and demons illustrate the confusion of Yorubans in the grip of European values and other predations on the black race. The crises force Tutuola’s characters to emulate attitudes that draw on the preliterate history of the Benin, Ife, and Oyo empires for relief from the diminution of West African culture.


Gerard, Albert S. European-Language Writing in Sub

Saharan Africa. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1986. Quayson, Ato. Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard; and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. New York: Grove, 1994.