Tutuola: When I am writing I am always happy
This rare interview on an afternoon with Pa Amos Tutuola was conducted in his residence in Ibadan on June 14, 1993, 15 years ago, by FEMI OSOFISAN for the Opon Ifa Review and was probably Tutuola’s last interview. For some reasons, however, principal among which was the journal’s early demise, the interview has never been published. Also with Osofisan were the late Akinwunmi Isola, Steve Shaba, and Jare Ajayi. And as Onyeama Dillibe-led Delta Publications (Nigeria) Limited prepares to him Tutuola on May 30 at ‘Profiles at the Lagoon’ b this is fitting tribute to the legendary author of 1952 classic, The Palmwine Drinkard
We first of all thank you, sir, for granting us this interview.
We learnt you have not been well for some time. Hope you are okay now?
I thank God.
Apart from your illness, you’ve been rather quiet now for some time. What’s been happening?
You mean about writing another book?
Well, you know, my policy is that when I finish working on a book, and it is published, I always hesitate to lay hands on another book because I always [have to] think, go out collecting materials here and there, and then sit down, think both day and night. That is why it takes a long time before I write the next book.
What is the last book you published?
The last one, the title of that one is Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer.
Yes, I saw that. But that is about two or three years ago, isn’t it?
So you have not published another since then?
I have not, but I am preparing now. As soon as my eye is okay, then I will start to work on another one.
Have you got a title for that one yet?
No, no title.
Sir, you just said you were collecting material for other books. Where do you collect these materials?
From my village, or villages around my village.
In what form? Do you interview people? How do you collect stories?
You know that nothing goes for nothing nowadays. Before, I didn’t give anything to them, when I invited them at night during the leisure hours after the day’s work. In those days, there was nothing to amuse people, like radio, television and so forth, except to tell tales at night. Well, I invited people together – this papa, the brother, and so on – to tell me some tales. They started. When one finishes his own, another would start, and so on. [Then] I gathered the stories together.
With a tape recorder?
No, no, no! There was nothing like a tape recorder then. Just listening. I may listen up to six or eight stories. When they went to sleep, I put on light and then start to write them down from the brain. That is why I have got soot on my eye.
Okay, what about now?
Now, as I did now (i.e. recently), it is with money and drink. I bought some ogogoro and palm wine, then in the form of telling them what is happening in the town… Later I produce…
But I thought [by now] you must have heard all the stories available in Yorubaland?
In Yoruba? Er… no…
Do you still collect new stories then?
Of course, still. But many of them tell me those which I already heard and written down. It is a sort of repetition, but that one I don’t take as anything because I have already got that one in hand… but it is very difficult to get proper folk tales now.
Well, you know, I think this civilization has affected everything.
In what way?
The people don’t mind to tell tales any more. So they have no interest in telling tales. Instead of that, they listen to radio, to television. They play tapes and so on.
But they all know you, don’t they?
They know me. Why?
If you call them now, they know it is for a story?
It is for a story, yes. But really, if they tell me about ten, may be only two of them would be okay and it may be in the form a small boy, who wouldn’t mind….
Do you, therefore, modify those stories, or do you use them exactly as they tell you?
Thank you. When I want to use a folktale, Yoruba folktale is the main material I use in my stories. Then second, Yoruba proverbs… Third, Yoruba religion; I use it in my stories. [Fourth] I use Yoruba beliefs. Then jokes. After, I add my own self-imaginations, and my imaginations are those of Yoruba.
Well, I was going to ask those questions later. I thought maybe we should finish with the personal details first… So, what I’d like to know is, what has kept you going since then?
Well, you know, just as, for example, if someone has started to drink bit by bit, or is following a drunkard, and then he too started to take bit by bit, later it would become his habit. Well, I started storytelling from school. Later, when I read several books about stories, that gave me inspiration to write my own. I write it first, then dumped it somewhere. Later, when that one was published, I saw the fame it gave me, and that encouraged me to continue.
And have you been satisfied with the fame and success…?
Am always happy about the fame it gave me, my writing.
But it seems that, when the fame came, it was not from the country itself? Seems as if your fame was largely from the outside?…
Yes, how did you feel about that?
That they don’t take it serious, or that they don’t pay much interest in my own country? Well, in those days, we were not serious about our own things, but we were much interested in white man’s things. So, immediately the white man recognized my work, I was more interested. So it did not give me much headache that my people, my own country, did not take my work so serious.
But what is the situation now? Do you feel now that nowadays they take it seriously in the country? Is there a change from when you first started?
Well, gradually my people here started, I think… I don’t know whether [it’s because] when they go overseas, they see my book there, and when they return… I know, …what I know is that my people, our people here, are now interested in my book bit by bit, because in so many universities now they use my books.
That is very good. Still, going on the personal side, what do you actually do now for a living? Is it this writing?
Not at all! Well, I am a farmer [laughter]. As Jare knows, I work hard on the farm because, you know, I was born by a farmer and we were trained how to do farming.
I was wondering, does that farming, does it come into your writing?
It does not affect my writing.
You don’t get ideas when you are on the farm?
When I am working on the farm, ehn, that’s why I say my own imagination comes from my mind. Having collected stories, then the religious shade, the type of religion which I will add to the story, the views of Yoruba people and so on – then the imagination of the society worry me… but working on, singing and so on, then it would come to my mind bit by bit.
Where is your farm, sir?
It is around Ibadan here.
What things do you plant?
I plant yams, cassava, maize, pepper and so on.
So that’s what you live on?
Yes. I don’t eat any… Sometimes even if it has pepper, I don’t eat it. I don’t eat cassava…er, garri. I don’t eat yam…
So what do you eat?
I eat this, er, semovita, when it was available [in the market]. And now I just take small bread and tea. That is all right.
And that has been since your childhood?
Never, never; if I did not eat eba twice a day, I don’t think I would… I would not, in fact, be happy!
So what happened?
Before I left it? And pepper… When I returned from farm, I eat pepper, make garri elepo, then put pepper, raw pepper, and eat it first before I make eba in those days. What then made me stop eating all these things is that I developed ulcer, for several years now.
So, how do you find the time to write, sir?
You know, in the daytime I cannot sit down and write, except to go to farm. When I return in the evening, by seven, then whatever I get for food…I eat my food in the night. After that, when the whole people in the house sleep, I start to write.
Till sometimes 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock.
Do you sleep in the afternoon then?
I do, I do. When I return from the farm by 1pm, I take my bath, then I eat… drink my ogi, then after, I sleep till 4pm. Then I go to farm again.
Which do you like better now, farming or writing?
I prefer both the same. I have the same interest in both.
But do you get any encouragement at all from the society, to write?
The people around—-the family, then the town, the community, school children…
Oh yes. You see, I play with children.
If they come near me and I see they are cheerful, they are happy, I start to chat with them, to tell them stories.
You depend on your farm for your—
Ah yes, I depend on my farm and my monthly pension.
But how about your books?
Well, whenever that…er, my books reach something, I invest it on bread baking business, then photocopying…
I mean, do you earn much money in a year…?
Well, since I have started writing in 1948…
How many books now?
About eight. It was in 1989, 90, 91, I got better money for my writing.
Is that because—I remember that Kole Omotoso and the Association of Nigerian Authors [took up the question of your royalties]…
Yes, they helped a lot, they helped me… I think they went to my publishers…er, anyway they damned them…er… But that gave them, I think, fear… Then things began to change bit by bit….
Okay, but you’d better watch it, sir. I think – we very much suspect – they have been cheating you a lot.Well, you cannot rule that out. However, it is very difficult to say ‘yes’ and to say ‘no,’ because you know, publishers, they may print, let’s say, 2,000 copies of the book and they tell the author 500 or even 200. Even when I went to America in 1983, I got in touch with my publisher in Washington. They told me boldly that, “We publishers are crooks!” [laughter]. “You see,” he said, “I bought one manuscript from my friend, my tight friend, for $25,000, and I did not know that he has sold it to another person, and I did not know until he has left the country!…”
Papa, what you have just told us is surprising, even to me as familiar as I am to you. The feeling was that… that you built this house probably out of the proceeds of your books?
No, from other earnings on my salary. Though the little I got from my books I added to it. And then, with my own power, I built the foundation…
What year was that?
That is in… 1971, I think. It took me about five years to deck it, raise it bit by bit, bit by bit.
Okay, talking about your books, which one are you most satisfied with?
So many people ask me, but I don’t know what…er, how I can answer it, because a person who does something for people – not a bad thing o! – will not say this is the best, and that is the best. So I take all my books; I put the same interest in them because when I am writing, I am always happy.
Well, I understand. We are also asked the same question sometimes, and we know how difficult it is to answer…. But, talking now about writing, different things move people to write.
Some people want to entertain; some people say they want to teach. What is your own aim in writing?
Before I started to write, abi? Er… it is a sort of amusement for me. Writing is an amusement for me. Though we all need money, em… as for me – I don’t know if it’s for all people or artists, er… — I have more interest in writing than to get money on it. If get money, it is all right; if I don’t, I don’t mind, and that does not disturb me to write another.
When you want to write, when you’ve already constructed the story in your mind, [and] you want to put your pen to the paper…your aim at that time, is it to educate people, to say that this is the kind of thing, the kind of story we have in our land, so I want you to know it? Or are there certain morals which you want to teach through that story? Or you just feel like writing, and you just write? Or is it a combination of these things?
Oh yes, em…now…we know, er, certain musicians, like Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey… when they start to play their music, they want all people to enjoy it. That is how it is for me. I want people to enjoy what I do. That is what forces me. And I am happy that if the thing I do the people like it, are happy to see it, they will appreciate it. So that gives me much encouragement.
So you want people to be happy.
So you are not writing, as some people do, because they want to correct something in the society?
I don’t mean to do that for my own people here, but abroad. [I want] foreign people to know that we too have something in our own country… our culture…
The reason I am asking is that we think that writing can play a role in the society, say, for instance, as there are problems in the country now…like, say, poverty, or some people are hungry… some writers think that if they write about it, they can make people aware of what is happening, and may be help them to find a solution, and all that. Do you ever find yourself writing in that kind of way?
No, I don’t have such aim. I don’t write about the present things, but I always write about the past, about what has happened in the past to our people.
So, when you are writing then, the audience, the readers you have in mind are mainly the foreigners, not Nigerians?…
Well, I want foreigners to know that we Yorubas have something in stock. Many things. And at the same time, mind, I want our people to know about it as well. I know there are many of us have already known, but those who are too young to know about our past, to know it…
How do you feel about using the English language for your stories?
That gives me a lot of problem, but I don’t bother much about that. I always have Yoruba/English dictionary, which I look at when I want to use language in English… I open it, and then find the English which I will use for the story. So that helps me a lot. In fact, I have much problem when I am writing in English.
But the question is, why do you then choose English? Why not write in Yoruba?
Thank you. The time I started to write stories, you know, the people, we did not recognize or think about… Everything which was better in those days was English things…English crops, English pawpaw, yam, and so on. Even our children, we like to give them English names. You see, that’s why I write in English. I started to write my stories in English because we prefer English to our own language in those days.
What about now?
Now we have recognized…we have taken our own language serious. Even now, before my eye problem started, I wrote a Yoruba story…
Is it convenient for you now to write in Yoruba?
So it was the influence of colonialism then?
Yes, the influence. Because everyone of us then, we like to speak English. We did not take our own language serious.
What is your attitude to European culture then?
Well, when my eye opened, I preferred my own culture. I keep to my own culture. You know, I have thrown away shirts and trousers… I don’t say European culture is bad on our own, but we have kept to it, thrown away our own too much. But now we have come to our senses and we have realised that we have lost something important which we had.
You said just now you have thrown away shirts and trousers, and prefer Yoruba attire. But when you were younger, that was what you wore?…
Well, in those days, I would never to put on buba and soro, or native dresses. No, no, never! Those who wore it in those days, we would call ara oke – bush man… [laughter].
At what point then did you change your attitude?
Well, as soon as my second or third book was published and the African Congress, the meeting… the year we got our independence (in 1960). Yes, as soon as we got our independence.
Did this have any effect on you in your place of work?
When I wear…? Not at all. Even when I travel to overseas I wear my own dress, and I see that even many of them come to me to touch it… and are surprised to see adire and our aso oke…
Okay. Anyway, we shall be coming to your travels abroad later. But let’s consider another issue first. You are one of our foremost writers. I am wondering – what is your relationship with other writers? Do you have any relationship with other writers at all in Nigeria?
In Nigeria? I can mention Achebe. Though I don’t move with them too much because of distance, but I take their work very serious as I take my own and I appreciate their work as I appreciate my own.
But you don’t have any personal relationship with them at all? With Achebe, Soyinka, Clark?… You don’t go to visit them?
No. We meet on occasions, then we embrace each other and so on.
What of Yoruba writers? What about the state government?
The Federal Government?
Not at all.
So who, or let me say, what institution, has helped you most in your career?
Well, I can say, my publisher.
But these are the people who were not paying you…?
Well, that is why I say that if I write in order to make money, I would have stopped writing!
Talking about your writing again, do you see any influence from other writers – Achebe, Soyinka, etc – on your writing?
No, no influence.
But you see the influence of your own work on theirs?
No, I don’t see… That’s why I don’t read English novel so much, because I don’t want to have any influence which can inspire, to give a foreign inspiration.
How about writing in Yoruba, like the works of D.O. Fagunwa? Have you read them, or do they have any influence on your own works?
When I was at school, when I was able to read Yoruba, I read Ogboju Ode. Then it gave me much encouragement because during the time I wrote my first book, I bought one magazine published by the then PRO…. When I was reading it, I came to the page where they advertised books there – Fagunwa’s book was among them, I remember. When I was at school, I was one of the best storytellers… When I saw that they advertised Yoruba books in this English magazine, I wonder. Then the following day, I took pen and paper, then started to write.
You mean, it was not reading Fagunwa as such, but just seeing his name in print that…
Up till today, I have got no Fagunwa’s book in my library. Yes. [laughter]
Because I write in English, and his own is in Yoruba. Only recently my mind said I should write [in Yoruba]. Even those white men, they ask me, why did I not write in my own language, or you don’t know how to write in your language? I say I know…
Okay, still circling around the Yoruba culture generally. What do you feel about all these Yoruba theatre groups?
I watched some.
Is there any of them you really like? I mean, you must have watched Ogunde when he was alive, and Baba Sala?
Ogunde, yes! Oyin Adejobi… Well, I like to watch Ogunde always, even before I became a writer, when he started his stage plays around 1940. I mean, that was at Lagos.
Were you living in Lagos then?
Oh yes. I was invited [to Ibadan] by the university, to do the Palmwine Drinkard, and since then I have not returned to Lagos…
But what were you doing in Lagos?
Ehn, by that time, I was store keeper, for Radio Nigeria. Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS), now Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Then for two weeks I came there to write the play.
So it was from NBS that the University of Ibadan invited you…
Yes. The School of Drama we called it then…
It was Axworthy; he came to Lagos, often and often. Even, I did not want to leave Lagos. I say why, because I did not want to come and disgrace Africa. But then I [finally] forced to come here.
So did the university then employ you or what?
No, no… In the day time, I went to work in the store, and then in the evening, they came to my place…
So you were still with the NBS, only transferred to their Ibadan office.
You were saying that you watched Ogunde…
Ogunde, Oyin Adejobi, Duro Ladipo, Ogunmola….
Good. What I am wondering is, since you like the theatre, why is it that, after the Palmwine Drinkard, which you did at the university, why haven’t you written any play since then?
I wrote a play. The script is still with me. But I don’t know where to send it to; then I keep it at home.
Please send it to me, perhaps we can find a way of doing it. I was thinking maybe you don’t like the theatre…
Even I have worked hard on the play.
What’s the title?
Em… The Sword of Vengeance.
It’s in English?
Yes. [But] it’s about our own culture.
When did you write it?
About three years ago.
Okay, to go back a little. I said, which authors do you read, and you said that you don’t read any. So, which books do you read then? Or you don’t normally have time to read?
The bit I read while at school was Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode. But only a bit.
I just use my own imagination. And then folk tales, proverbs, religious beliefs, I make it up to a story.
Is it because you don’t have the time since you go to the farm?
I don’t have the time.
But if the books are in Yoruba, do you think you would read more?
Well, I think so. If it is about our culture and not one of those things of these days.
Do you read newspaper or the bible?
I read bible. That’s for religion. I read newspaper but not always. I may come to your place now, and they’ll put newspapers on the table, then just to glance…
All right. Let us go to a more general thing. Now, you have travelled a lot outside Nigeria. But not much within Nigeria itself. Is there any reason for this?
Within Nigeria? Well… er, I’m not invited. If I am invited, I would go; I would travel.
Do you think, sir, that your not travelling around Nigeria in a way is not helping your writing?
Emm… I like folk tales too much, listen to folk tales much. But I think, I’m not proud, I think Egba people know about these folk tales much. And… it means that I will mix up my culture, dilute my culture…
Okay, let’s leave that subject, and talk about your travels abroad. How do you feel when you are going abroad? Can you tell us some of the things that happened to you when you went abroad?
The first time I went to America… in 1983. That was my first time I went. I was shocked when I got there, when I saw strange things which I had not seen in my life.
One, the weather. Because I wear ordinary clothes like this. When I got down at… No. First of all in London Heathrow Hotel; I lodged there. I wear buba, very light.
What month was that?
September. Anyway, very cold for me. I began to shake like this. Well, when I entered the hotel, they took me to their room. I didn’t go out again till the following day! [laughter].
Because of the cold?
Yes, because of the cold!
Who invited you at that time?
The Iowa School of Writing.
The International Writing Programme?
You stayed three months there. How did you find it?
Very nice. We were 35 from different countries. I was rated the highest… and they gave me 14 days extra with $94 a day to travel round the country… You know, I do not boast, but in the bookshops, the university bookshops, only my books were available. And the rest of my colleagues – “Give me books! Give me books!” So I have to send to my publishers to send a lot of books to me, which I gave to them.
What was the programme like? I mean, what did you do in those three months?
Well, I wrote. Short story, folk tales, so many others. Then I wrote another book, and called it The Witch Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts.
And you also gave readings?
Readings. Yes, readings.
How did that go?
They received it well.
What is the response of the foreign audience to you generally when you read?
They are always happy whenever they invite me. Not only university people… Sometimes I was confused. I did not know what to say. But later I tell them whatever they ask me to say. And now have become a master…
How many countries have you been to since then?
London, Italy, and France.
What of Germany?
Because of my eyes, last year, [I could not go]. Ireland, last year, the same thing. Because of my eye, I refused to move.
You mentioned London now. Does it mean that you have been to England, or just passed through?
No, when I was returning home, I branched there. I was invited there by the Writers Association.
Okay. Many critics have written about your work, both in Nigeria and abroad. What do you feel about the criticism that they write?
Whether it is bad or not bad, I don’t listen to it. I have one book here compiled by Lindfors. Read it, and you’ll see comments that people make on The Palmwine Drinkard before it was produced in London, because the people passed it to our people here. They say [all kinds of] comments… But that does not discourage me.
But it was said – was it by Lindfors himself, or some other critic – that at one point, because of the criticism you were getting from Nigerians, that you then began to study, to try and improve your English?…
Well, for example, if I go to the north now, living among the Hausa, as time goes on, to speak Hausa will be easier for me. I will improve. Let’s say I stay there for two years, I will understand Hausa better than if I stay there for one year. The more someone keeps to something, doing it every day, then he will be advancing gradually…
No, that’s not what he was saying, not as you’re saying it now, that the more you write in English, the more you improve. He was saying that, because you were worried by the criticism, about people saying, no, this is not how to write English, and all that, you then started to learn to improve your English. Was that the case?
How can I improve my English myself, when I don’t go to any lesson or school? Writing improves my English.
So you didn’t go to any formal adult education centre?
No, since I left school, when my father died, I have never been to any.
Now, have you considered giving your work to any Nigerian publisher?
I gave one, but in Yoruba to Olaiya [Fagbamigbe]. He took it, he came to my place here, took the manuscript away. Unfortunately, when I wanted to go to America, I learnt that he was killed [during the 1983 political disturbances]… Kole [Omotosho] said he would help me to get the manuscript; I said he should not bother; I have copies.
But since then you have not written any other [work], whether in Yoruba or English, to give to Nigerian publishers?
No. Because of the agreement I made [with Faber], that before I give any work to any other publisher, I must give it to them first. But if they don’t accept it, then I may give it to another publisher.
What is your belief in life and death?
Life and death…er… Let us put Christian religion apart. I believe that when one dies, that is not the end. He is still around. I believe that one who dies is still somewhere where we don’t know. But according to Yoruba belief, we say that, er, people who die have a town where they live together.
These are the charactersyou write about in The Bush of Ghosts?
Yes. Ilu Oku or Ajiran, as we call it in Lagos when I was there…
Which dialect is that?
It is Yoruba. It is a place, just town. People used to go there and buy, but as for that, I have not been there before o! But well, when Lagos was Lagos, people used to go there at night, and they say it is only at night that the dead came out to sell their wares, and so on. And their wares are very cheap. So that’s why I believe that one who dies is somewhere.
But do you believe in reincarnation?
Reincarnation! Well, I believe, because when we say “born-and-die” baby [abiku]… When they give them mark before the body is buried, when they born, they get the same mark. And that’s when we knew they are the same baby. In those days, they used to cut the upper lip, like this, to disgrace them, to make them suffer a lot. When they come back, the place is chopped off. So I believe in that.
Well, I want to thank you very much, sir, for having given us this beautiful chance to listen to you. We are grateful.
Everything which was better in those days was English things…English crops, English pawpaw, yam, and so on. Even our children, we like to give them English names. You see, that’s why I write in English. I started to write my stories in English because we prefer English to our own language in those days
When I was reading it, I came to the page where they advertised books there – Fagunwa’s book was among them, I remember. When I was at school, I was one of the best storytellers… When I saw that they advertised Yoruba books in this English magazine, I wonder. Then the following day, I took pen and paper, then started to write.
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