Amos Tutuola...

“A World of Ghosts” by Steven Thompson

Though I write about an astounding book, forgive the immediate digression towards music.
In 1981, Brian Eno and David Byrne made an album called ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’. This album is distinct for its wide use of sampling. Some mistook Eno and Byrne as inventors of the technique, which Eno denied. Some give John Cage the credit. In 1968, he thought to use film phonographs (which is a phonograph for playing only the sound recording on a photographic or magnetic film) to construct unique sound, a type of music composed of sounds with no initial musical intention.

David Byrne and Brian Eno.

I call these things to mind for 2 reasons:
First, many of us know the album, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’. Many more of us know the names of Brian Eno, David Byrne and John Cage; but relatively few of us know the origin of the album’s title, a fairly short and relatively unknown book of only 174 pages, not so much a novella as a tale, by the Nigerian author, Amos Tutuola.
Even Eno and Byrne had not read the book before making the album. They believed the title reflected their interest in African music and had an evocative, vaguely sinister quality that also referenced the voices sampled for the album: recordings of Arabic singers, radio DJ’s and even an exorcist, by reports.
Second, however, and in the wider scheme of things, the fresh use of commonalities and an admixture of cultures hard to separate the start of one and the beginning of the other are traits that seem peculiar to Tutuola’s visionary work, traits that caused important arguments among Africans in 1952, arguments long since vanished.

Amos Tutuola.

A close friend of mine, Andrew Brown, originally gave me the book ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ back in 1993.  He said to me.  Tutuola will never win a Nobel Prize because his language isn’t that of Chinua Achebe.

Primitivism is a snobbish concept of the purity of the inferior. Of course, perceptions or projections are not the same as truths or definitions. An apologetic form of criticism spilt from the corners of some critic’s mouths. The criticism seems distant now, dated and condescending. For example, in 1967, Martin Tucker wrote with faint praise, ‘Nigerians regard him as a primitive showing no desire to move from his ‘primitive habitat’. Yet it is likely that in time he will be seen as a real talent, not merely as a phenomenon that introduced the exotic barbarities of an African jungle to a living-room world.’ [1]

“Palmwine Tapper” by Twins Seven-Seven.

In 1952, when Amos Tutuola published ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’, a rather heated debate sprang up in Tutuola’s native Nigeria and spread among African intellectuals, including some of it’s foremost names in African literature, like Chinua Achebe, author of ‘Things Fall Apart’, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Tutuola’s language was the spark. Choosing to write in the ‘broken’ grammatically unpredictable English of the common Nigerian rather than his native Yoruba, his language is that of the foreigner, second-language English.

The result is unique in literature, but some found it awkward and a poor reflection of African intellectualism at that time. In the 50’s in Africa there was much debate regarding the present condition and future of African literature and education. To some, the book’s swift popularity in Europe brought up anxieties regarding the perception of Africa beyond it’s borders. I guess, you could say, there was the fearful possibility that African intellectualism might continue indefinitely in stereotypical form – the brilliant primitive. In France, the book was praised for it’s beautiful, incongruous imperfections of language, most importantly for a type of language that cannot be faked. However, in Africa at that time, such praise was hollow, potentially dangerous and obliquely racist.

“My life in the bush of Ghosts” play by The imaginists, photo by Eric Monrad, 2008.

Was it dangerous? African Americans could not vote until 1964. Apartheid survived until 1993. To this day, Africa, a continent with perhaps the richest resources in the world, still suffers the residues of post-colonialism, exploited resources criminally abused. Think diamonds, lumber and oil. In fact, colonial rule did not generally end until the end of World War II. Africans had much to fear in 1952.

Is it a stretch to find defiance in Tutuola’s language? There is too much imagination, humor and surprise, too gruesome a surrealism to fall short of self-determination. What is more freeing than that and by extension more defiant? Defiance for everything but the pleasure of one’s identity expressed in a well-told story, even one gruesome and nightmarish, is independence.

“The Long Eared Ghost” by Twins Seven Seven.

The Nigerian poet and critic, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie in reassessment says, ‘What commands acclaim is Tutuola’s use of his materials, chosen from all and sundry, and minted to make something beautiful, new and undeniably his own. He has handled his material with all of the skill of the good story teller and he has been able to endow it with the qualities of a “well-told-tale”. His denigrators who think it devastating to name him a mere folktale-teller must realize that not all folktale-tellers are necessarily good. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola has infused the life of his hybrid with the energies of a well-wrought tale. There is the urgency in the telling, the rapidity, indispensable to the Quest-motif, with which life unrolls itself; the fertility of incidents; the successful maintenance of our interest through the varying scenes. And the good-story teller is ever present in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, speaking to us in warm human tones, genial, good-natured and unpretentious.’ [3]

Tutuola gained influence abroad with his easeful, vital rhythmic style invited European and American attention to African writers. His English over his native language of Yoruba was instrumental and significant, and his books seemed a reflection of African ambivalence rooted in a tribal past caught up in a modern power struggle.

“King of Ghosts” Twin Seven-Seven.

The Guyanese author and critic Oscar Dathorne said, ‘Tutuola deserves to be considered seriously because his work represents an intentional attempt to fuse folklore with modern life. In this way he is unique, not only in Africa, where the sophisticated African writer is incapable of this tenuous and yet controlled connection, but in Europe as well, where this kind of writing is impossible.’ [4]

More recently, Tutuola has begun to gain the recognition he deserves including a respect among his fellow Africans, who no longer seem to be quite as embarrassed about his presence as they were in the early 1950s. African critics began to notice something different in African literature; but what is that difference. Tutuola does not represent typical African fiction.

Born in Uganda in 1939, Taban Lo Liyong is one of Africa’s well-known poets and writers of fiction and literary criticism. He is a fierce opponent and strident force against the ongoing post-colonial system of education in East Africa.
Liyong has fought to emphasize the oral tradition as an endemic intrinsic African form of learning. As a fierce advocate of the African language as counterpoint t Western European forms work taught in African Universities, Taban Lo Liyong states, ‘Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language? Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is written in seven dialects, he tells us. It is acknowledged a classic. We accept it, forget that it has no grammar’, and go ahead to learn his “grammar” and what he has to tell us. Let Tutuola write ‘no grammar’ and the hyenas and jackals whine and growl. Let Gabriel Okara write a “no grammar” Okolo. They are mum.

“Wild Hunter..(Bush of Ghost, Amos’s first narrative) drawing by Max Winkler.

Why? Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination. Some of these minds having failed to write imaginative stories, turn to that aristocratic type of criticism which magnifies trivialities beyond their real size. They fail to touch other virtues in a work because they do not have the imagination to perceive these mysteries. Art is arbitrary. Anybody can begin his own style. Having begun it arbitrarily, if he persists to produce in that particular mode, he can enlarge and elevate it to something permanent, to something other artists will come to learn and copy, to something the critics will catch up with and appreciate.’ [5]

Tutuola, his hero in ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ and the book itself are misfits. Like one who cannot find a haven, a singular character and presence. Liyong’s mention of Joyce’s Ulysses is an apt comparison to the narrative and the book: a character and tale about the desire and determination to return home, lost and vulnerable, caught in a web not of his own making, ensnared as it were and subject to dangerous temptation. Like the intense fear in nightmares, the fear of trapped, helpless humanity in the presence of, or in the grip of, bestiality and malignancy; but ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ is colloquial and funny, too. The transitions are completely unpredictable, but not so far as to say random, far from it. This tale is like one told by campfire or flashlight and summons that rapt attention we all felt when we were there.

Tutuola’s world is the jungle – landscape for the supernatural and the surreal. His English, so specific and personal, would seem completely untranslatable, but he has translations in French, Italian, German, even Swedish. ‘How’ is a question this article will not succeed to answer.

Tutuola might no longer be considered as have suggested the “‘pure’ example of contemporary African writing – the African writer par excellence – the only original African talent, almost totally uninfluenced by the West.” No doubt admirers of the past discovered these ideas with regard to his clear relation to the oral tradition of folktales, mythes and undeniable language of the Yoruba ‘everyman’; but Tutuola’s tales are not fictions of academic tradition. His work is a product of personal narrative and Yoruba culture – filtered through an impressive imagination which morphs a narrative form often more closely related voyage narratives. The psychology of fear and struggle in the Bush of Ghosts beguiles us, too. Finally, we find our deeper meaning in the personal search for unification of the external and the spirit world.

In 1963, Africa’s only Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote that, ‘Of all his novels, The Palm Wine Drinkard (1st book only prior to the 2nd, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts) remains his best and the least impeachable. This book is the earliest instance of the new Nigerian writer gathering multifarious experience under, if you like, the two cultures, and exploiting them in one extravagant, confident whole.’ [6]

It seems the less definable the book or art, the more debate and criticism one finds about it. This book seems so effortless.  Funny so much effort is expended upon it. I’m sure I’ve added my name to the list.

African Visionary (not Novelist) Amos Tutuola was misunderstood at first, then polarizing figure, then accepted. Now he just needs to be read again.

Steven Thompson, has taught at various colleges (The New School and the University of Georgia) over the past ten years, and is, involved with The Oracle Club (LIC) he is also, a friend and contributing writer for by such and such.

[1] Martin Tucker, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary
Writing in English, 1967

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, 1961

[3] Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, N0. 9,

[4] Oscar Dathorne, Amos Tutuola: The Nightmare of the Tribe

[5] Taban Lo Liyong, Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola, 1975

[6] Wole Soyinka, The American Scholar, Vol. 32, No. 3, (Summer 1963)