Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

This week, we move to consider Amos Tutuola's weird yet groundbreaking novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. When it first appeared in 1952, the reviews were a mixture of astonishment and admiration; Dylan Thomas famously proclaimed it a "brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story," and other reviews were also quite positive; others called it a "strange, eerie, poetic novel" and praised it as the embodiment of an African perspective of Africa. And yet, today, modern African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o have tended to disparage Tutuola, accusing him of being too eager -- even if unconsciously -- ready to write just the sort of exotic, juju-filled story that Western readers expected from the "dark continent."

Forty years after its publication, in 1992, I was fortunate to have a brief correspondence with Mr. Tutuola, and to receive a contribution from him for a book I had proposed at the time: Without Any Rules: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the book proposal never found a home, and when Mr. Tutuola passed on in 1997, I found myself with his contribution still unpublished. And so, it occurred to me that I might share it with the class here on the website. I had asked contributors to reflect on what they considered their "vernacular" mode of writing, and what follows is the opening section of Mr. Tutuola's reply -- it has never been published before now:
By vernacular, I suppose, one means the language into which a child is born and is brought up. A language he picks up almost spontaneously as a matter of course when growing up. By this definition, my own ‘vernacular’ or ’mother tongue’ is Yoruba – a language spoken by a subgroup in West Africa, particularly in the Western and Eastern parts of Nigeria and the Benin Republic. Their root is of course in Nigeria. The people in these areas would now be about 20 million. The sub-group is also called Yoruba people. 
I was born at a time the meeting of our own culture and that of Europe had taken place – indeed at a time British colonialists still held the political and economic leverages of my country and that of some other African countries. This is to say I grew up at a time I had no choice but to be exposed to another language. The language of our colonies. The language in which the official business of my country is conducted, to wit, English. 
But I was not to confront this language until I started schooling. And as fate would have it, I could not get far in formal schooling due to lack of finance (as I lost my father at a tender age). Thus, I had what can be referred to as a tolerable exposure to Yoruba, my mother tongue. 
Years after, when I wanted to write, English, the official language of my country, was the one I wrote in. Ordinarily, this would be a little surprising, given my barely indepth knowledge of the language on the one hand, and my appreciable grounding in Yoruba, my mother tongue, on the other. But that was what I found myself doing.
Although I wrote (and still do)in English, my writings, looking back now, are still in Yoruba, my mother tongue. In here is deliberately put in italics. The medium in which my ideas are expressed is English, but when I write, the ideas I express, the atmosphere I create, and as reviewers of my works (perhaps rightly) maintain, the gestures readers encounter on the pages of the books I write are YorubaishThus I think it can be said that beyond being a Yoruba writing in English, my works are African in conception.
I think that Mr. Tutuola's comments here give us a remarkable account of the unexpected combinations, conflicts, and sometimes fortuitous collisions of language and consciousness that are a powerful feature of postcolonial writings. Should a writer seeking to resist colonization be obliged to write in the colonizer's tongue? And if she or he chooses it despite its histories, can it be shaped, as Tutuola suggests, back into a "native" language?

Two years after The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he published My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was later the inspiration for an electronic album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, which is widely regarded as one of the most powerful, pioneering recordings of its kind. I urge everyone to read -- and listen to -- all of these remarkable works.


  1. After the narrators father had passed away, he decided to go to Dead’s Town to find his tapster. Many weird things happened to him while he was there. They sold their deaths so that they would not have to worry about dying, which is not something you hear of happening for a tapster. In “The Palm-wine Drinkard” many inanimate objects have been brought to life such as heaven and land. I think “The Palm-wine Drinkard is an extremely weird piece of writing as it is painfully obvious how fiction most of it is.
    - Rebecca Flores

    1. Rebecca PotrzebaMarch 1, 2016 at 6:56 AM

      Going off of this post, I also agree that this book was very unrealistic. The way the author approaches different points in the novel just seemed very impractical. Between the birth and the couple selling their deaths, this novel is very random to me. The palm-wine drinkard is not something I would read on my own.

    2. Id have to agree, this is not a piece I would read in my own time. Seeing as though I don't read in my own time anyways, it is difficult to find a reading that strikes my interest. I feel like this piece was just too odd to follow along. In agreement with the personification of heaven and other non life like objects come to life confusing me. Selling ones soul so they could flourish and live doesn't make sense to me either, why would you give away your true self away when it is the only definite thing you have to your name is your soul. I can somewhat relate to this because death is my biggest fear, I can't imagine not living never mind living without a soul.

  2. I think a writer who is seeking to resist colonization should not be obliged to write in the language of their colonizer, although many times in the time period of many post colonial writings, the writers did not have much of a choice whether or not to write in the colonizer’s language, it was forced upon them. In the more present time if a writer choses to write in the language of their colonizer, I do believe they can do so while still shaping their writing to convey the message as it is intended to mean and conceptualized in their native tounge. I think one’s native language will always come first when trying to convey a thought or idea, even if the language is written down in another language it is simply more an interpretation of their native tongue than a different idea.

  3. Personally I would not read this book in my own time. I do not usually enjoy books or plays that draw attention to the narrator. To me the purpose of reading is to take you out of reality and being aware of the narrator just reminds me that I am reading a tale that is untrue. It was interesting to me how the son sold his deaths so he would not have to worry about dying. I do like how inanimate objects were brought to life. The only major problem I am facing while reading the book is how unrealistic it is, this makes it unenjoyable to read.

  4. I don't think i would read this on my own time. I also agree that this book is very unrealistic. The fact that they sold their deaths so that they wouldn't have to worry about dying, is very strange since you don't hear of that happening for a tapster. The way the author chooses to approach things doesnt make it very enjoyable to read and you can tell the level of fiction in this book. I wouldn't chose this to read on my free time.


  5. In all my classes growing up we learn about rebellion towards colonization and how these rebels stood up for there own choices. Mr. Tutuola's regards to our professor give us an insight into how he felt the colonization of his people effected his vernacular or language. Growing up in a household which was bilingual I believe I can attest to what he, Mr. Tutuola, was trying to express in this post. The language to which you are brought up and learn to associate everything with is the language you will have your thoughts and ideas. So even though Mr. Tutuola has mastered his colonizers language and writes in this language his vernacular is still that of Yoruba. By this I mean because all his thoughts and ideas are in this language his english will reflect this different way of thinking. So in conclusion yes, I believe a language can be shaped into ones native language.

  6. A man looking to resist colonization should not write in his colonizer's language. To me, that is like giving up his morals and all that he is made up of. Back in the time of slavery, slaves would keep there fate and culture from Africa. They would sing African songs, speak their native language, and call each other by their given birth names. They did not usually give into the europeans. He is not encouraging anyone to embrace their birth culture by him degrading himself to the english language. While I do like that he states his mother tongue is prevalent in his writings, it would be much more sentimental for this story to show that he wrote in his mother language despite what he was told do.

  7. In the short story of The Palm-Wine Drinkard drinks large amounts of wine. When the tapster falls from a tree and dies, it triggers the Palm-Wine Drinkard to go on a search. By this occurrence, it leads to the narrators journey through the bush. He encounters more towns, coming across many spooky spirits. The drinkard and his wife have a child, and as they realized their child turns out to be a monster, they kill their own child, who is reborn again. Furthermore, the couples sell their deaths becoming immortal.
    Personally, I thought the story was sort of interesting. The fact that they had this viscous baby, who is reborn again is sort of cool and not something that occurs ever. Although, I did not agree that the husband and wife decided to kill the baby, that was a little too far to incorporate into the story. Overall, my opinion towards this reading was bittersweet. It did seem to incorporate some humor, ridiculousness, but lots of creativity and imagery, which drew me in as a reader.

    Response done by: Jennifer Gesualdi

  8. The story of “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” sure was one of the more unusual but surprisingly interesting story I have read in this class so far. In my personal opinion, I enjoyed reading and thinking about why certain decisions that were made throughout the story existed, such as the parents killing the viscous baby. I mean, who would even think about writing that? One aspect that I didn’t enjoy too much was the different time settings because they seemed to me very hard to follow. But, all in all, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard” is a story that I would read in my spare time just for the depth it entails. I enjoy reading things that I have to stop and analyze while reading, and this story certainly obtained that characteristic.
    Matthew Dallaire

  9. I think that a writer seeking to resist colonization should not have to write in the colonizer's tongue. We all have a first language that is more suiting to us than any other languages we may even be fluent in. You're thoughts flow more freely in what you know best and when trying to write a book that you want to captivate the readers you don't want to limit your thoughts and expressions by using a language you may not be as familiar with. I think that over time the writer would be able to shape the colonizer's language into their native language but not without a lot of experience playing with the new language.

  10. I do not think a writer resisting colonization should have to write in the colonizer’s tongue. If a writer wants to preserve their language and portray their work through their native tongue, then they should be able to, despite colonization. Even though Tutuola chooses to write in English rather than Yoruba, I agree with him when he says that the language of a colonizer can be shaped into a native language. For Tutuola, writing in English did not change his personal history and experiences. He was born and raised by a certain culture that can be seen in his writings, whether he writes in English, Yoruba, or any other language. No matter what language a writer uses, the language can always portray the mindset and the background of the author. Tutuola writes in English, however, he still has the perspective of a person dealing with colonization.
    Mary Beth Mennucci

  11. The Palm-Wine Drunkard was certainly a different read, but it was interesting. Something about it just kept pulling me in. But I admit, a few times I had to take a moment, stop, and think over what I had just read. The parents killing the vicious baby, then said baby being reborn was one such instance. Or selling their deaths so they would not have to worry about dying. I don't know any other way to describe the story as a whole beside interesting and unusual.
    My personal opinion on resisting colonization with writing is that the author should be able to write in whatever language they feel comfortable with; whether it be their native or not. Whatever way that helps them express their ideas and thoughts to their readers better, they should use; so long as they do it well. Tutuola here is an example where the writing was very well done. Writing in English doesn't seem to take away from the story any, or who knows maybe it adds something to it and gives it an extra flare?
    -Kelley Jean Horrigan

  12. I believe that the writer definitely grasps the reader’s attention with this one, but I do find it to be very weird. When his tapster falls off of a tree and dies, the father of gods decides to go to dead town where he asks around if they have seen his tapster and in return a random fellow wants a tradeoff. He wants him to find his daughter who was taken. Now when he find the man that took her the kidnapper began to give away his body parts piece by piece until he got down to his skull. This part alone just seemed unfathomable as well as many other parts of the story. Some of the details in this story makes the reader do somewhat of a confused head tilt.

    -Jennifer Praticante


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