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2/4/16 - "Amos Tutuola at the Harry Ransom Center" by Alexander Fyfe

Amos Tutuola at the Harry Ransom Center

by Alexander Fyfe

Alexander Fyfe received an ARC research grant in Fall 2014 for his project entitled "Displaced Papers:  An Investigation into the Diasporic Status of the Amos Tutuola Collection".

Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) was one of the first Nigerian writers (perhaps the first) to achieve considerable notoriety outside of Africa for his writings in English. His first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was published in London in 1952 (around 6 years before Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) and received considerable interest for its use of non-standard English to recount a heady and fantastic tale of a journey through the African bush. Tutuola published nine further novel-length tales during his lifetime and one collection of short stories. Whilst critical interest in his work has remained relatively constant over the last few decades, Tutuola remains an enigmatic and elusive figure. The University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center holds a substantial collection of Tutuola’s papers and is an invaluable resource for those wishing to gain an insight into the author’s practice as a writer. The collection contains some of Tutuola’s original manuscripts (including that of The Palm-Wine Drinkard), as well as a large number of drafts, typescripts, letters, and personal papers.

On July 1, 2015, I travelled to Austin, Texas and stayed for a period of 6 weeks. This trip was generously funded by a grant from Penn State’s Africana Research Center. I had ample time to examine the 13 boxes of material relating to Tutuola, in addition to that contained in the Bernth Lindfors and Robert Wren collections, parts of which also pertain to Tutuola. Whilst I was particularly interested in finding evidence of any of Tutuola’s political views or activities, I also had a more fundamental research question relating to the existence of the archive itself. How, I wanted to ask, does one explain the apparent incongruity between Tutuola’s apparent lack of literary prestige (in the sense in which such prestige is accorded to many of the other authors whose papers are collected at the Harry Ransom Center, such as J.M Coetzee or E.M. Forster) and the location of his papers within a center of ‘literary’ prestige? The weeks that I spent reading and photographing Tutuola’s documents gave me plenty of material to begin to answer this question and I am currently in the process of writing a journal article on the subject.

The Harry Ransom Center’s collection of modern literary and artistic artifacts is unparalleled and I would strongly recommend it as a research venue for scholars of modern literature, particularly those interested in South African writers such as Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. The staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful, whilst the beautiful air-conditioned reading room offers a welcome respite from the Texan summer heat.