In 1952 The Palm Wine Drinkard becomes the first West African novel written in English and published internationally. That it was written by Amos Tutuola, an unknown Nigerian clerk who started writing to alleviate boredom, meant the book made headlines. To this day, it is celebrated as an important example of African fantasy.
But more recently analysis suggests that the Western view of Tutuola as a fantasy writer is slightly condescending, because it overlooks how seriously his work is dealing with African reality on its own terms.
My reading of the novel also examines how it is more appropriately classified as a pioneering work of African science fiction than of fantasy. And much of it has to do with the way Tutuola uses language. Fantasy is about the mythical and supernatural. Science fiction is an invention that is more grounded in reality. I suggest that the lazy appeal to African fantasy and folklore is in line with a long-standing rejection of Africans as technological beings and, by extension, writers of science fiction.
What the book is about
The Palm Wine Drinkard introduces us to the Drinkard, who spends his time drinking palm wine with his friends. The alcoholic beverage is made from the juice palm trees collected by a tapster.
Then his beloved tapster dies after falling from a tree. The Drinkard no longer has access to palm wine, and soon loses favor with his friends.
He decides to bring the tapster back from where all the dead souls go – Deads’ Town. He goes through many strange villages and meets strange creatures on his journey before finally reuniting with his tapster. Just to hear that a dead man cannot leave Deads’ Town.
Bereft returns the Drinkard back home. After falling into disrepair on his journey, he is no longer a nonchalant drunkard and shows his newfound civic duty by putting an end to famine in his town.
Western critics regarded The Palm-Wine Drinkard as inventive and avant-garde. But Nigerian critics were surprised and even embarrassed by Tutuola’s use of English. They argued there is no such English, not even in a purely spoken form.
If we set aside the debate on literary quality, Tutuola’s striking use of language is undoubtedly sublime, capable of transporting the reader in ways that are necessary and expected of science fiction. He goes to great lengths to place his narrative within a lived and believable African experience that is more akin to science fiction than fantasy.
Create a science world
Samuel R. Delany is a light African-American science fiction writer and critic. For him, science fiction is able to “generate the infantile wonder” of the reader through language.
In his distinctive essay About 5,750 words, he gives an informative explanation of how science fiction differs from other types of fiction. Where realism tells what “could have happened” and explores fantasy that “could not have happened”, science fiction still offers space for events “that have not yet happened”.
Fantasy can travel anywhere, but science fiction approaches the world with an inventive attitude rather than an imaginative attitude. Science fiction can extend beyond our current world, but never to the extent of fantasy. As Delany explains, science fiction writers use language very carefully as part of a process that helps the imagination to make the leap from our world into an alternative process.
Tutuola is invested in this balance: he stretches the limits of realism, but also the unlimited possibilities of fantasy. The Drinkard explains, for example, that he and his wife became immortal because they ‘sold’ our death ‘to someone at the door for’ £ 70: 18: 6d ‘and’ also our fear ‘to someone at the door. by borrowed. with interest of £ 3: 10: 0d per month, so we did not care for death and did not fear again “.
Tutuola proposes a refreshing option where living conditions like death and anxiety – like everything in our consumer culture – can be traded or rented and like clothes “worn”. To give the exact amounts in British pounds, marry something as familiar as buying with the amazing potential that one day we can so easily dispose of existential inconveniences.
For every fantastic proposal, Tutuola offers a real equivalent. He places the strangest creatures within the confines of our present experience.
In the forest, the Drinkard meets a creature whose two large eyes are ‘as big as bowls’ and the feet ‘long and thick like a house pillar’. This confidence in comparisons or everyday comparisons are part of the attempt to weave fantasies into the reader’s reality.
The Palm wine Drinkard uses language in a way that critics like Delany insist is universally important to science fiction.
African science and fable
Some contemporary reviews of science fiction in Africa argue that the genre is rooted in indigenous fable and folklore and should be read on unique – exceptional – terms.
When we read African science fiction as an exclusive – and even resistant – form of science fiction, we lose sight of the globalizing spirit that is central to understanding popular culture in Africa.
Using language as the ultimate form of technology, Tutuola reunited it and built a vocabulary for his groundbreaking work of African science fiction that can be easily read as a worthy participant in the world scene of popular genre fiction.
This article is based on Moonsamy’s chapter in the new article book Literary Afro-Futurism in the Twenty-first Century by The Ohio State University Press.
Nedine MoonsamySenior Lecturer, University of Pretoria