The reputation of Amos Tutuola (tew-tew-OH-lah) has been the subject of much controversy. Unlike the majority of African writers, who are not only university educated (and therefore well versed in and influenced by the formal structures of Western literature) but also often employ their second language with as much skill as a native speaker, Tutuola had none of this academic preparation. He began school at the age of twelve, was trained as a blacksmith, and, finding no opportunity for plying his trade, became a government messenger in Lagos. It could hardly be imagined that he might become a recognized author as a result of his daily habit of scribbling down stories on scraps of paper to abate his boredom while awaiting errand jobs as a messenger. Yet, perhaps by sheer accident of discovery and with some luck, Tutuola, an apprentice craftsman with no formal education beyond six years in missionary primary schools, is given the distinction of having written the first major modern African novel in English. Tutuola’s rise to international fame is marked by the publication of The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952.
The history of his achievement is extraordinary. Attracted by an advertisement from the United Society for Christian Literature, Tutuola worked feverishly on a draft of The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Clearly, the novel was unsuitable for this group. Yet it was provocative, and an intelligent reader saw its potential; it was sent to publishers Faber and Faber in London, whose editors agreed to publish it. The result established Tutuola’s career at the cost of much debate, which generally separated British and African critics. While Tutuola was heralded abroad as a naïve native genius (partly as a result of Dylan Thomas’s enthusiastic review in the Observer in 1952), African critics at home viewed the untutored bard as a literary burglar with little or no imagination. The basic argument was whether Tutuola’s natural style was brilliantly innovative or...
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