Amos Tutuola’s similes in Palm-Wine Drinkard “hyphen” Afro-modernity, suturing differentially experienced time-spaces. Similes are about the potential of proximity, designed to invoke a sensation, a memory, an experience, a history that can be drawn out, elicited, invoked to create a shared framework. Their task is to make strangeness proximate, if not familiar. And this labor of proximity makes similes very strange indeed, and, perhaps, the best able to render strangeness.
We experience this strangeness when Tutuola writes that “spirits . . . were just like partners.” In what sense is a “partner” something to be feared? Is this about proximity, about the threat of it that emerges from Afro-modernity, and Tutuola’s recent experience of the war? How do we understand the disembodied threat of the spirit to be akin of that posed by a partner?
To think of a spirit as a partner requires forging a conceptual-affective relationship between the two, and this become the work of simile in the service of Afro-modernity, as the hyphen that sutures Afro-modernity.
Take, for instance, this description of the narrator’s baby: “there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.” We have to ask ourselves what “like a telephone” is doing in the middle of a dystopic story of aborted parenthood—the narrator and his wife have just attempted to kill their monstrous child. Also, what is this sense that the telephone does not facilitate talking, but actually talks? How do the telephone’s distorting effects create it as an agent within a techno-modernity? And how does framing a monster-human-baby’s voice through a techno-modern agent-displacer tell us something about Tutuola’s Afro-modernity?
Here, of course, the ongoing question of how Tutuola’s “voice” is framed and amplified and distorted and manipulated through English and through editing: how he is “telephoned.”
And for whom does Tutuola frame this sound-voice distortion of Afro-modernity?
My favorite of these distortions is when Tutuola writes of the power of juju to transmogrify. During a moment of danger, “I became a big bird like an aeroplane.”
In this simple simile lies the power, horror, and possibility of Afro-modernity. References cross the organic/inorganic divide, aeroplanes appear in the forests of the imagination, and the human body is transformed into its ability to occupy another space, in another form. Surely, it is no coincidence that this World War II veteran reaches for the aeroplane, that militarized object, to describe transformation, pointing, also, to deep changes in epistemology.
Like or as names proximity: a comparison is made to something or someone that can be readily evoked, something that is a memory away. There is no such thing as a frame-less simile, a simile that does not create the possibilities for its own framing.
Tutuola’s similes demonstrate the changing imaginative landscape of Afro-modernity. Even what can be imagined or recited—here, the claim that Tutuola “appropriates” folk tales—must forge a relationship with and be mediated by changing notions of space, time, and sensation.
And, so, these similes construct histories of before and after “like” or “as,” histories in which we ask how to describe a big bird prior to Tutuola’s experience with the aeroplane, what this new simile has “cost” (comparisons as sites of endless loss), and also what we might have gained, for similes are also polysemous: while Tutuola may only want to invoke “size,” he also invokes other meanings of the aeroplane—its history in WWII, its noise, its smell, a history and present of sensation.
Two names frame this engagement, and I cite them here to be responsible: Fanon and Jameson. Fanon’s claim that taking on another language is taking on another world, and implicitly erasing one’s own, published the same year as Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard, encounters resistance in Tutuola’s work. Because Tutuola’s vision is always dialectical, always interested in making visible the process of encounter (using “as” or “like,” for instance) and inhabiting the uneven results of that process. Jameson’s claim that genres emerge within and change given historical circumstances finds great resonance in Tutuola’s “appropriation” of folk tales to map Afro-modernity. And, here, I’m especially indebted to Jameson’s discussion of Conrad, as a writer whose genre is located on the cusp of two moments, in that long-abrupt transition to modernism.
Cusp or bridge.
In Tutuola, simile is a bridge, not one that compels a crossing from one side to another, but one that enables voices to travel from one side to another—hence the telephone.
Arguably, I am staking a lot on a little, taking a certain lesson from deconstruction-influenced close reading too seriously, to see in the slightest of units significance, and this risk I happily take. (I will confess, here, that I was tempted to think about Tutuola in terms of translation, if only because it would make a friend happy to have me thinking more seriously about translation, but I am still in thrall to simile.)
To reach for simile is to reach outside the self and the familiar, not simply to inhabit but also to create proximity. Simile not only names what is available, but also makes available what can be named. It makes proximity available—and I admit that language is straining here.
Thinking through simile in Tutuola is one way to apprehend the conceptual stakes of his work, and the crucial, indeed foundational, role it must play in any discussion of Afro-modernity.