By John McLeod (University of Leeds)
Strategic Transformations In Nigerian Writing: Orality And History In The Work Of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri. By Ato Quayson. Oxford: James Currey, 1997, pp.x + 180. £12.95 paper/£40.00 cloth.
As Ato Quayson persuasively argues, oral materials are never deployed innocently in Europhone Nigerian literature. It is not enough merely to denote the presence of concepts indigenous to oral modes of representation in literary texts, as previous critics have; rather, Quayson foregrounds the politics of the mediation of oral materials by probing the strategic purposes to which such cultural resources are put in the work of Rev. Samuel Johnson, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri.
Claiming his study as ‘partial and illustrative’ (9) rather than exhaustive, Quayson examines how the manifold ‘conceptual resource-base’ (101) of the oral materials of Yorubaland are used and consequently transformed in the selected works of his four chosen writers. His examination of Rev. Samuel Johnson’s The History of the Yorubas records how Johnson eschews Western forms of historiography by allowing the forms of Yoruba orality to inform both the content and the style of his work. Johnson’s strategic deployment of oral materials at both levels is asserted as part of a burgeoning nationalism in the late nineteenth century which aimed to build an homogenous sense of identity for Yoruba peoples. Tutuola’s interest in the more grisly aspects of Yoruba folklore in The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is explained as a consequence of the growth of Christianity which lent indigenous materials a ‘repulsive charm’ (59). Although Quayson believes that Tutuola was not fully aware of what he was doing in transforming oral materials in a literary context, the suggestion is that his work challenged the predominantly ‘realist’ texts that were favoured during Nigeria’s transition from dependence to independence, thus allowing otherwise culturally repressed belief-systems to occupy central positions in cultural debates. In the book’s most successful and complex chapter, Soyinka’s The Strong Breed and Death and the King’s Horseman are read as strategic interventions which enable Soyinka both to critique Yoruba ritual and to celebrate Yoruba culture ‘in its ability to contribute meaningfully to world culture’ (98), as demonstrated by the uses to which he puts the myth of Ogun. Quayson concludes with chapters on Ben Okri’s short fiction and The Famished Road. Here there seems less certainty about the strategic uses Okri makes of Yoruba materials in his gnomic fiction, due more, perhaps, to the weaknesses of Okri’s writing than Quayson’s criticism. Quayson proffers that Okri’s fusion of the realms of reality and mythopoeia is part of his syncretic attempt to articulate an identity in the post-Independence period that emphasises hybridity, ambiguity and chaos, and is entirely suited to Okri’s multiple borrowing from and affiliations to both Britain and Nigeria (a fact further complicated by the fact that Okri is not a Yoruba).
Quayson’s criticism is certainly informative and makes for gripping reading. He makes good sense out of a variety of cultural materials without ever closing down the possibilities engendered by the interface of the oral and literary modes in texts. At times his conclusions might have elaborated with more patience; his chapters do tend to finish rather abruptly. But, in the main, this is a sophisticated and thoughtful study.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 62 (1997), pp. 63-64.]