Monday, 4 May 2015

Guest Blog Post: The Writer’s Wrestle —Femi Macaulay

Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) (Image source:

by Femi Macaulay
A few days ago, my eyes were drawn to email on “the book no one would publish.” It was one of the “eclectic excerpts” delivered regularly to my email address. After reading it, I felt like sharing it. The thought-provoking excerpt is from a 2015 book by Brian Grazer, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

Commentary to provide context:  The first book of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to us as Dr. Seuss, was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before it was finally accepted by Vanguard Press: “Being determined in the face of obstacles is vital. Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, is a great example of that himself. Many of his forty-four books remain wild bestsellers. In 2013, Green Eggs and Ham sold more than 700,000 copies in the United States (more than Goodnight Moon); The Cat in the Hat sold more than 500,000 copies, as did Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. And five more Dr. Seuss books each sold more than 250,000 copies. That’s eight books, with total sales of more than 3.5 million copies, in one year (another eight Seuss titles sold 100,000 copies or more). Theodor Geisel is selling 11,000 Dr. Seuss books every day of the year, in the United States alone, twenty-four years after he died. He has sold 600 million books worldwide since his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published in 1937. And as inevitable as Dr. Seuss’s appeal seems now, Mulberry Street was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before being accepted by Vanguard Press. ..

“The story of Geisel being rejected twenty-seven times before his first book was published is often repeated, but the details are worth relating. Geisel says he was walking home, stinging from the book’s twenty-seventh rejection, with the manuscript and drawings for Mulberry Street under his arm, when an acquaintance from his student days at Dartmouth College bumped into him on the sidewalk on Madison Avenue in New York City. Mike McClintock asked what Geisel was carrying. ‘That’s a book no one will publish,’ said Geisel. ‘I’m lugging it home to burn.’ McClintock had just that morning been made editor of children’s books at Vanguard; he invited Geisel up to his office, and McClintock and his publisher bought Mulberry Street that day. When the book came out, the legendary book reviewer for the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman, captured it in a single sentence: ‘They say it’s for children, but better get a copy for yourself and marvel at the good Dr. Seuss’s impossible pictures and the moral tale of the little boy who exaggerated not wisely but too well.’ Geisel would later say of meeting McClintock on the street, ‘[I]f I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today. …’

My mind went to Amos Tutuola. One defining moment in Tutuola’s life will just not go away, it will never go away.  The famous Nigerian writer who died in 1997 is considered the first African novelist in the English language “to attract international attention” with the 1952 publication of his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Faber and Faber in London. In 1953, the book was translated and published in Paris as L’Ivrogne dans la brousse by Raymond Queneau.

A writer noted: “Indeed, he could hardly have had more distinguished literary godparents, because it was T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber who recommended that his first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, should be published in 1952 and it was Dylan Thomas who gave it its first prominent review, when he praised this “brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching . . . tall, devilish story”.

Tutuola’s early history: “When his father died in 1939, Tutuola left school to train as a blacksmith, which trade he practised from 1942 to 1945 for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria. He subsequently tried a number of other vocations, including selling bread and acting as messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labour. In 1946, Tutuola completed his first full-length book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within a few days.”

Tutuola was quoted as saying, “I was still in this hardship and poverty, when one night, it came to my mind to write my first book The Palm-Wine Drinkard and I wrote it in a few days successfully because I was a story-teller when I was in the school.” It is noteworthy that the novel has been described as “one of the most important texts in the African literary canon, translated into over a dozen languages.”

The gripping image of a tormented soul struggling to escape the punishment of poverty and creatively imagining the liberating power of letters is an enduring metaphor for self-knowledge, self-recognition and self-belief. Tutuola never fails to arrive whenever I reflect on the writing life and how it can change a writer’s circumstances.

Stories like these show why it is important to “keep on keeping on.”  Sometimes, like this moment, I ponder what Roger Rosenblatt calls “the craft and art of writing” and wonder where it may lead me. I have just finished reading Unless It Moves the Human Heart by Rosenblatt, an eye-opening book about teaching and learning writing. Speaking about writing programmes in America, Rosenblatt said in his book, published in 2011, “Since 1975, the number of creative writing programs has increased 800 percent. It is amazing… all over America, students ranging in age from their early twenties to their eighties hunker down at seminar tables like this one  in Iowa, California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, and hundreds of places, avid to join a profession that practically guarantees them rejection, poverty and failure.”

What am I talking about? I’m thinking about the writing space and the publishing environment in Nigeria. I’m thinking about how a writer can repel rejection, pulverize poverty and foil failure. I’m thinking of the future of writing and writers in a country that produced the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Book Capital 2014, Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital.

Femi Macaulay is a columnist at The Nation. Originally published in The Nation.

Amos Tutuola (1920-1997): A Brief Biography
Know as the Nigerian writer who gained world fame with his story THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD.  Amos Tutuola was born in Abeokuta, a large town in Western Nigeria. His father, Charles Tutuola, was was a farmer. Tutuola heard his first folk stories at his Yoruba-speaking mother’s knee. When he was about 7 years old, one of his father’s cousins took him to live with F. O. Monu, an Ibo man, as a servant. Instead of paying Tutuola money, he sent the young boy to the Salvation Army primary school. He attended Lagos High School for a year, and worked as a live-in houseboy for a government clerk in order to ensure his tuition at the school. When his father died in December 1938, Tutuola had to end his studies. He tried his luck as a farmer, but his crop failed and he moved to Lagos in 1940. During World War II he worked for the Royal Air Forces as a blacksmith, and tried a number of other vocations, including selling bread, and messengering for the Nigerian Department of Labor. In 1946 Tutuola completed his first full-length book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, within a few days – “I was a story-teller when I was in the school,” he later said. Next year he married Victoria Alake.

Excerpt from one of his books:

All kinds of snakes, centipedes and flies were living on every part of his body. Bees, wasps and uncountable mosquitoes were also flying round him and it was hard to see him plainly because of these flies and insects. But immediately this dreadful ghost came inside this house from heaven-knows-where his smell and also the smell of his body first drove us to a long distance before we came back after a few minutes, but still the smell did not let every one of the settlers stand still as all his body was full of excreta, urine, and also wet with the rotten blood of all the animals that he was killing for his food. His mouth which was always opening, his nose and eyes were very hard to look at as they were very dirty and smelling. His name is “Smelling-ghost”. But what made me surprised and fear most was that this “smelling-ghost” wore many scorpions on his finger as rings and all were alive, many poisonous snakes were also on his neck as beads and he belted hiis leathern trousers with a very big and long boa constrictor which was still alive.

p. 29

The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published in 1952 in London by a major British publisher, Faber and Faber, and next year in New York by Grove Press. Dylan Thomas wrote in The Observer (6 July, 1952) in his review “nothing is too prodigious or too trivial to put down in this tall, devilish story.” The work was praised in England and the United States, but Tutuola’s most severe critics were his own countrymen, who attacked his imperfect English and presenting a disparaging image of Nigeria. After the storm had calmed, the stage version of the novel was first performed in the Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan, in April 1963, with the Yoruba composer Kola Ogunmola in the leading role.

In the 1950s Tutuola wrote MY LIFE IN A BUSH OF GHOSTS (1954), an underworld odyssey, in which an eight-year-old boy, abandoned during a slave raid, flees into the bush, “a place of ghosts and spirits”. Oumar Doduo Thiam saw in Presénce Africaine that the work is the “expression of ghosts and of African terror, alive with humanity and humility, and extraordinary world where the mixture of Western influences are united, but one always without the least trace of incoherence.” Brian Eno and David Byrne took the title of the book for their 1981 album.

In THE BRAVE AFRICAN HUNTRESS (1958) heroic women continue the theme of the quest. It has been said, that if Tutuola had never written a line, he would have been a famous village storyteller. He often told of dreams, the most basic source of archetypal images. Tutuola’s language is uncorrupted by Western literary gimmicks, words are short and simple, but the impact is fresh and poetic. 

After The Palm-Wine Drinkard Tutuola never had quite the same success. He continued to explore Yoruba traditions and its folkloric sources, and published such works as THE WITCH-HERBALIST OF THE REMOTE TOWN (1981) and THE VILLAGE WICH DOCTOR AND OTHER STORIES (1990). In these works ghosts, sorcerers, and magic continue their existence in the modern world of clocks, televisions, and telephones.   Throughout many of his most productive years Tutuola worked as a storekeeper for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company. In 1957 he was transferred to Ibadan, Western Nigeria, where he started to adapt the work into the stage. In 1969 appeared the first full-length study of Amos Tutuola, written by Harold Collins. Tutuola became also one of the founders of Mbari Club, the writers’ and publishers’ organization in Ibadan. In 1979 he was a research fellow at the University of Ife and then an associate of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In the late 1980s Tutola moved to back Ibadan. He died on June 8, 1997.

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