African science fiction: rereading the classic Nigerian novel The Palm-wine Drinkard



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Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

In 1952 The Palm-wine Drinkard became the first West African novel written in English to be published internationally. That it was written by Amos Tutuola, an unknown Nigerian clerk who took to writing to alleviate boredom, meant the book caused a stir. To this day, it’s celebrated as a key example of African fantasy.

But more recent analysis suggests that the Western view of Tutuola as a fantasy writer is slightly patronising, because it overlooks how seriously his work engages with African reality on its own terms.

Similarly, my reading of the novel explores how it is more suitably classified as a pioneering work of African science fiction than of fantasy. And a lot of that has to do with the way Tutuola uses language. Fantasy deals in the mythic and supernatural. Science fiction is an invention more grounded in reality. I suggest that the lazy appeal to African fantasy and folklore is in line with a longstanding dismissal of Africans as technological beings and, by extension, writers of science fiction.

What the book’s about

The Palm-wine Drinkard introduces us to the Drinkard, who passes his time drinking palm wine with his friends. The alcoholic drink is made from the sap of palm trees, collected by a tapster.

Then his beloved tapster dies after falling from a tree. No longer able to access palm wine, the Drinkard soon loses favour with his friends.

He resolves to bring the tapster back from the place where all dead souls go – Deads’ Town. He passes through many strange towns, meeting bizarre creatures on his journey before finally reuniting with his tapster. Only to learn that a dead person cannot leave Deads’ Town.

In black and white, a balding dark-skinned man looks frankly and openly at the camera.
Amos Tutuola.
Marcoslampert/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Bereft, the Drinkard returns home. Having matured on his journey, he is no longer a nonchalant drunkard and demonstrates his newfound sense of civic duty by bringing an end to a famine in his village.

Western critics hailed The Palm-wine Drinkard as inventive and avant-garde. But Nigerian critics were puzzled and even embarrassed by Tutuola’s use of English. They argued no such English existed, even in a purely spoken form.

Putting the debate of literary quality aside, Tutuola’s striking use of language is undoubtedly sublime, able to transport the reader in ways that are necessary and expected for science fiction. He takes great pains to place his narrative within lived and believable African experience that is more in line with science fiction than fantasy.

Creating a sci-fi world

Samuel R. Delany is a luminary 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 hallmark essay About 5,750 Words, he gives an insightful explanation of how science fiction is distinct from other types of fiction. Where realism tells what “could have happened” and fantasy explores what “could not have happened”, science fiction opens up space for events “that have not happened” yet.

An older man with a huge white beard sits looking at camera, behind him a study and shelves of books.
Samuel R. Delaney, a self-portrait.
Samuel R. Delaney/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Fantasy can travel anywhere, but science fiction approaches the world with an inventive attitude rather than a fanciful one. Science fiction can stretch outside our current world, but never to the extent of fantasy. As Delany explains, science fiction writers very carefully use language as part of a process that helps the imagination make the leap from our world into an alternative one.

Tutuola is invested in this balancing act: he stretches the limits of realism but also reins in the unlimited possibilities of fantasy. For example, the Drinkard explains that he and his wife became immortal because they “had ‘sold our death’ to somebody at the door for the sum of £70: 18: 6d and ‘lent our fear’ to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3: 10: 0d per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again”.




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Tutuola imagines a refreshing option where states of existence like death and anxiety – much like everything else in our consumerist culture – can be traded or rented and “worn” like clothing. Giving the exact amounts in British pounds marries something as familiar as shopping with the wondrous potential that we may one day discard existential inconveniences as easily.

A swirling orange and gold graphic book cover. In the background, African women's faces, with green lettering reading 'The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.'
The 1952 edition.
Faber and Faber UK

For every fantastic suggestion, Tutuola provides a real-world equivalent. He places the most bizarre creatures within the limits of our current experience.

In the forest the Drinkard meets a creature whose two large eyes “were as big as bowls” and feet as “long and thick as a pillar of a house”. This reliance on similes or mundane comparisons is part of an effort to weave the fanciful into the reader’s reality.

The Palm-wine Drinkard uses language in ways that critics like Delany insist are universally crucial to science fiction.

African sci-fi and fable

Some contemporary appraisals of science fiction in Africa argue that the genre is rooted in indigenous fable and folklore and should be read on unique – exceptionalist – terms.

A dense graphic book cover featuring an African figure with high tech glasses on shooting out beams of coloured light, the title reading 'Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century'

The Ohio State University Press

Yet reading African science fiction as an exclusive – and even resistant – form of science fiction, we lose sight of the globalising spirit that’s central to understandings of popular culture in Africa.

Wielding language as the ultimate form of technology, Tutuola has reassembled it and built a vocabulary for his pioneering work of African science fiction that can easily be read as a worthy participant on the global stage of popular genre fiction.

This article is based on Moonsamy’s chapter in the new book Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century from The Ohio State University Press.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Giving back to English: how Nigerian words made it into the Oxford English Dictionary



Photo by Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Nigeria was recently in the spotlight when the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its January 2020 update included 29 Nigerian English words.

The reception, in both the traditional and new media, was nothing short of sensational. Most Nigerians expressed a great sense of pride in the fact that the unique ways in which they use English were being acknowledged internationally.

The Oxford English Dictionary said in the release note:

By taking ownership of English and using it as their own medium of expression, Nigerians have made, and are continuing to make, a unique and distinctive contribution to English as a global language.

Interestingly, the idea of Nigerians owning English is the fulcrum of my doctoral research. In it, I found that increasingly Nigerians are demonstrating a strong sense of ownership of the English language, and in particular their use of it.

The inclusion of Nigerian English words in the Oxford English Dictionary is, in a sense, a recognition of the tremendous efforts by scholars of Nigerian English many of whom have produced discipline-shaping research. This has included four published dictionaries of Nigerian English.

These developments indicate that Nigerian English has indeed come of age. They also validate the concentric circle model developed by Professor Braj Kachru, the father of world Englishes research. This avers that the ‘outer-circle’ varieties of English (where Nigerian English belongs) is ‘norm-developing’. In other words, that Nigerian English is adding to the norms of English.

I think the English, indeed the English-speaking world, should be thankful to Nigeria for this historic gift.

So how were the words chosen?

As the Nigerian consultant to the project which saw the inclusion of the words, I have insights into the process the team underwent in adding them. These include the rationale for adding them, and the enormous significance the inclusion holds for the English language.

How, and why, new words are added

The Oxford English Dictionary has a wide variety of resources to track the emergence of new words and new senses of already existing words.

The Oxford English Corpus is one. This is an electronic database of different types of written and spoken texts specifically designed for linguistic research. In the case of Nigerian English and other World English varieties, for instance, suggestions of new words and senses come from the corpus, reading books and magazines written in the English varieties in question as well as looking at previous studies, and the review of existing dictionaries, if any.

Once there is a list of candidates, a team of expert editors at the Oxford English Dictionary looks closely at the databases to ensure that there are several independent instances of the words being used. And how they are being used.

Other factors that are considered include the time period over which words have been used, as well as their frequency and distribution. But there’s no exact time-span and frequency threshold. Some words – such as Brexit – are relatively young but were included quickly because of the huge social impact they had in a short space of time. Others are not used frequently but are included because they are of specific cultural, historical, or linguistic significance to the community of their users. An example is ‘Kannywood’, the word describing the Nigerian Hausa-language film industry, based in the city of Kano.

It’s clear therefore that the editors don’t simply select the words or senses that appeal to them. Instead, they are guided by use, which links in with the prevailing thought in lexicography and linguistics more generally: that the remit of dictionaries and linguistic research is not to prescribe how languages should be used but to describe how languages are being used.

Words are added because the Oxford English Dictionary recognises that English is a universal language. It believes that including words from varieties of English all over the world enables it to tell a more complete story of the language.

These varieties also reflect the unique culture, history, and identity of the various communities that use English across the world. Nigerian English is a good example. Like other English varieties, it is a living ‘being’ with its own unique vocabulary, encompassing all sorts of lexical innovations. These include borrowings from local languages, new abbreviations, blends and compounds.

Failure to capture such words would deny English an opportunity to grow. It would also deny the flavour of what the speakers of these varieties contribute to the development of English.

What does it mean for English?

One of the reasons previous world languages such as Egyptian and Ancient Greek ceased to exert dominance internationally was their inability to keep pace with developments around the world.

Perhaps this is one factor that clearly distinguishes English. It has demonstrated a capacity for growth by keeping its borders open, helping it to develop from a West Germanic dialect spoken in a small island into a world language. English is now spoken by about 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the
world’s population
. This includes first and second language speakers.

One way English grows is by admitting new words and senses not just from other English varieties but from virtually all languages of the world. For instance, English has had the word ‘postpone’ since the late 15th century, but it was through India that its opposite ‘prepone’ entered English in current use during the 20th century.

Similarly, Nigerian English is reintroducing the verb meaning of ‘barb’, which existed in 16th century British English.

This is how English maintains its dominance. In addition, the Internet has given today’s Oxford English Dictionary editors wider access to non-traditional sources of linguistic evidence. This has enabled them to widen and improve the dictionary’s coverage of world varieties of English, affirming Oxford English Dictionary’s claim as “the definitive record of the English language”.The Conversation

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Lecturer/Doctoral Researcher, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nigerian writers compare genocide of Igbos to the Holocaust


File 20190208 174864 ldpkgf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biafran refugees flee federal Nigerian troops on a road near Ogbaku, Nigeria in this 1968 photo. Between one and three million people are estimated to have died.
(AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, University of Winnipeg

During the massacre of Igbos in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970, one to three million people died. In the decades since, writers have worked to make sense of the immense human tragedy.

These literary representations of the massacres use the Holocaust as an important point of reference.

The war in Nigeria, with its associated mass atrocities, is arguably one of the first major moments in postcolonial Africa when accusations of genocide were made. Following military coups in Nigeria in 1966, the military and ethnic extremists systematically targeted and killed Igbos across the then Northern and Western regions of Nigeria.

Massacres of Igbos and other Easterners across the country led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions.

The massacres led the Eastern Region of Nigeria to declare its secession from Nigeria. The region was renamed the republic of Biafra. Nigeria invaded Biafra in July 1967, leading to a protracted war. The federal government used starvation tactics which led to upwards of three million civilian deaths in Biafra. Biafra officially surrendered to Nigeria in January 1970.

After its genocidal war, the Nigerian government proceeded to engineer a culture of denial.

To counter that propaganda, writers reflecting on that past have often framed the war as genocide. A common feature in the writings is the comparison of Igbo experiences of atrocities to Jewish ones during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust as cultural icon of genocide

During the Biafran War, U.S.-based Igbo poet, Onwuchekwa Jemie, compared the murder of Igbos in Nigeria to the Nazi German murder of Jews during the Second World War. His poem, “Requiem” (from his 1970 poetry collection, Biafra: Requiem for the Dead in War) reflects this:

Once in 53 
Three times in 66 
Nigerians shoot civilians
through the ears
rehearsing all known tortures
murdering all males
and raping old women
forcing teenage girls in leper clinics
hundreds butchered…
the 30,000 innocents
mowed down Nazi fashion
a final solution
that failed again. 

In “Requiem,” Jemie catalogues the systematic persecutions and murders of Igbo civilians, which he considers similar to the Nazis’ “final solution.”

The lines “a final solution / that failed again” encapsulate the poet’s defiant view that Biafra will survive the genocidal onslaught from Nigeria.

Global history scholar Lasse Heerten has explained in his work on Biafra, that such comparisons of Igbo suffering to the Nazi genocide of Jews reveal the growing awareness of the Holocaust in African conflict zones at the time.

The comparison of Igbo suffering to the Holocaust offers a way for the writers to internationalize Igbo experience in Nigeria. In so doing, they are sharing a moral message about the universal condition of human cruelty.

The cruel human condition

Similarly, the 1971 poem “Vultures” by Chinua Achebe reflects on the troubling realization that humans possess simultaneously a capacity for human care and a vulture’s inhumane savagery. The poet imagines a Nigerian military commander as a vulture and compares him to the Commandant of the Nazis’ death camp at Belsen:

Thus the Commandant at Belsen 
Camp going home for 
the day with fumes of 
human roast clinging 
rebelliously to his hairy 
nostrils will stop 
at the wayside sweetshop 
and pick up a chocolate 
for his tender offspring 
waiting at home for Daddy’s 
return… 
‘Christmas in Biafra and other Poems’ by Chinua Achebe was published in 1973 and includes ‘Vultures.’
Anchor Books

Achebe’s reference to the Holocaust evokes the Nazi death camps as a site of savagery: “fumes of / human roast.” He seems to be alluding to Paul Celan’s 1948 poem, “Death Fugue,” which describes the cremation of Jewish victims in the Nazi camps as a “grave in the sky.”

Reference to the Holocaust in Achebe’s poem provides a way to meditate on the ironic condition of human cruelty.

Another writer who used the Holocaust as a metaphor for moralizing about the human condition is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was jailed for his attempts to mediate between Biafra and Nigeria. His 1972 prison memoir The Man Died expresses his frustration over the unending cycles of brutality and the pattern of genocidal murders taking place in Nigeria. Soyinka’s other books, plays and poems on the 1966-1970 crisis equally draw on the Holocaust as a way to comment on cruelty.

‘And the World Has Remained Silent’

Half of a Yellow Sun.

Such comparison between Igbo suffering and the Holocaust intending to convey a moral message on human condition can be found in several other writings, including Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy novels, Who Fears Death (2010) and The Book of Phoenix (2015), and notably too in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

In Half of a Yellow Sun, there are several instances comparing the experiences of Igbos to those of Jews under the Nazis.

For example, the title of the character Ugwu’s story, ‘The World Was Silent When We Died,’ echoes the original Yiddish title of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, (“And the World Has Remained Silent”).

Universalize can also mean generalize

I believe these literary analogies between Jewish and Igbo experiences have helped to make the atrocities public and known. However, these analogies can also overwhelm the particulars of the Nigerian context of the crisis.

Because the political contexts of such historical mass atrocities being compared vary significantly, these comparisons may come at the cost of our understanding of genocide in African states. Both African and European historical contexts within which these atrocities occurred may become de-territorialized and depoliticized.

In the meantime, local suppression of political questions of Igbo self-determination and justice in the war’s aftermath remain unaddressed.The Conversation

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, Assistant Professor, University of Winnipeg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.