The fascinating aspects of Akinwumi Isola’s verbal dexterity and panache

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

This is a slightly revised excerpt from the Foreword to one of Professor Akinwumi Isola’s books, A Treasury of Childhood Memories, that was published in 2016

By Biodun Jeyifo

The writer of this “treasury of childhood memories”, Akinwumi Isola, is one of the best storytellers, or fabulists, or spinners of exquisite yarns I have met in my life. By this assertion, I do not refer only to his vast corpus of published plays, novels, novelettes, film scripts and tall tales. More extensively or inclusively, I refer also to the experience of hearing him verbally deliver his stories in the company of his close circle of friends, among whom I count myself to be one. That Isola is a master storyteller is partly due to the fact that he comes from a great tradition of published Yoruba writers on whose works he possesses professional expertise as a former Professor of African Languages and Literatures with specialization in Yoruba. But beyond this is the fact that Isola himself is one of the greatest living users of the Yoruba language. Since the Yoruba, like the French, are in a deep and perpetual love affair with their language, this makes the case of our author’s passionate and gifted use of the language very special. In his everyday speech acts, Isola is a fascinating embodiment of this love affair of the Yoruba with their mother tongue. Obviously, this delight in the rhetorical and expressive beauties of one’s language is a universal cultural trait that we find in all living languages. It just happens that the phenomenon seems more widely acknowledged and celebrated in some language communities than others. The analogy I can think of here is the widely discussed socio-linguistic phenomenon of the great celebration that the French allegedly allow themselves to have when they encounter among themselves a writer or a speaker who is acknowledged to be a master of the French language.

Prof Akinwunmi Isola

A Treasury of Childhood Memories

There is also the fact that I am drawing special attention to this factor here because in the original Yoruba version of this book, this element of love of and delight in the use of language stands out clearly as one of the defining achievements of the book: the stories, “the childhood memories” collected in it fascinate as much in the quality of language used as in the vivacity of the tales told. As in those rare occasions in which among friends, relatives or indeed the community a particular man or woman stands out as the one on whose lips and voice everyone else hangs, in humour and excitement, in pleasure and wonder, and in suspense and eventual catharsis, in its original Yoruba version, this book captures all of these fascinating aspects of Isola’s verbal dexterity and panache. To her credit, the translator of this book, Pamela Smith, has done a creditable job of capturing the vivacity of the original version and one expects that the readers of this English version will get nearly as much of the pleasure that one gets in the Yoruba version. I should normally end this Foreword on this note of high recommendation for both the Yoruba original and this translated version, but I ask the reader’s indulgence of a wish to add a few more words about the book itself.

No concrete or specific dates are provided for the time in which the stories in the book are set, but a careful reading between the lines, so to speak, would indicate late colonial Nigeria in the mid to late 1940s as the historical setting of the events and escapades narrated in the book. In effect, this means that that we are in this book in a period that is not yet a hundred years ago. In other words, chronologically speaking, this is not “olden” or ancient times. All the same and regrettably, in Nigeria as in many other parts of Africa, the rate of change – often for the worse – makes the period indicated as the temporal background for the stories collected in this book seem like ancient history. Add to this the fact that all the stories or chapters of the book take place in a rural, bucolic setting that has more or less vanished from the socio-cultural realities and imaginations of most young people in Nigeria and Africa of the present period of a new millennium. If it has not quite become a completely established demographic fact, the projection is that the movement of rural populations to the towns and cities will reach a point where far many more people will live in the urban areas than in the villages and hamlets of Africa and the world. In other words, at the time that serves as historical and social background for the stories in this book, the overwhelming majority of Nigerians and Africans and indeed the rest of the world lived in rural communities. But this is no longer the case. There is no clear and unambiguous internal evidence in the stories that the author had this huge demographic and historical shift as the framing or enabling template for his tales. Nonetheless, I would argue that like a cultural unconscious, this sense of a vanished world, of a time when rural life was not yet automatically synonymous with poverty and social alienation, provides a powerful narrative undertone for the stories collected in this book.

Pamela Olubunmi Smith

Thus, without sentimentality or nostalgia, the stories the reader will encounter in this book tell of a time when years of childhood spent in rural communities constituted a time of perfectly normal and perhaps even wholesome and enthralling experience for the young in our society. It is true that at this period, radio, cinema and television had not yet appeared on the cultural landscape in Nigeria and other colonies of the British Empire, but “modernity”, in combined forms like Western-style education and Christianity, had already arrived and established itself as a permanent dialectic of old and new, indigenous and foreign. Indeed, this was the period when the portentous expression, “aiye di aiye oyinbo” (“the world has become the white man’s world”) entered the Yoruba language as a marker of the ending of an era and the beginning of another. Life and the order of knowledge were changing but some old, time-tested institutions and practices still exerted powerful, cohering and stabilizing influences on behavior, values and identities for old and young, village dwellers as well as city folks: the homestead; family and kinship; farming and trading on the basis of long established processes; festivals and entertainments based on sacred and secular ritual; and ceremonial protocols with powerful moral and metaphysical sanctions undergirding them. For me, there is no doubt that this is why such “culture conflict” as we may find in some of the stories in this book are given comic and satiric rather than tragic inflections and resonances.

In all then, the stories in this book delight the mind and warm the heart. They tell of a time that has passed, perhaps forever, but they do so with an adult writer’s sense of near total recall of the main outlines of his years of childhood. Quite remarkably, though the narrator is a single person whose angle of vision gives a subtle unity to the disconnected diversity of the tales told, there is a complete lack of self-absorption in the self-presentation of this narrator-protagonist. In my recollection, only once or twice is the name of this narrator-protagonist given; at all times and places in the tales, he is one of a foursome of friends and playmates, content to play the role of witness to, and recorder of the collective experience of himself and his fellows, together with moving evocations of their silently but relentlessly changing world. In this sense, this book is also a paean, a hymn of celebration to friendship and comradeship that is highly gendered male but carries a ring of truth that makes it universally applicable across the divisions of gender, ethnicity, nationality and race. And this is why, ultimately, the resonances in this book of Akinwumi Isola remind us of those great, unforgettable childhood memoirs from around the world that tell of the life of one individual in a time and a place that is culturally specific but that nonetheless easily transcend uniqueness of setting and voice: Camara Laye’s The African Child; Wole Soyinka’s Ake: the Years of Childhood; Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays; the early chapters of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In one of his most influential theoretical essays titled “The Storyteller”, the late German critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, opined that the modern story, as we have historically inherited it from past ages, is compounded of two distinct traditions. The first of these is the tradition of stories told by a community to itself and itself alone, drawn from the lore of the land and enshrined in the hearts and minds of those who never travel too far from home. The second tradition is that of tales collected by people who travel widely through near and distant lands and cultures. These stories from around the world are then retold by their footloose collectors everywhere they go and this in effect makes them the intercultural and transnational originators of the modern story. In Benjamin’s opinion, these formerly distinct traditions of narrative are now no longer separate and separable. No stories are now so unique and peculiar to a place that they seem ‘strange” outside the specificity of their original home. Conversely, tales from other places somehow no longer seem to have much about them that make them incommensurable to us, no matter how far they have journeyed in order to reach us. On the surface, it seems that most of the stories in A Treasury of Childhood Memories belong to the first tradition, this being the tradition of tales specific to a time and a place. But as we read and encounter all the tales, we find that paradoxically, in being so true and felicitous in depicting the tenor of life for the young in one obscure little corner of the old British Empire, the tales take on a universality that makes them accessible to readers of all ages everywhere. They seem written for young readers, but I must be young at heart for me, close to “three-score and ten years”, to find them so delightful and instructive!

• Biodun Jeyifo, Ibadan, Nigeria and Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A

• Part of Jeyifo’s Sunday column, Talakawa Liberation Herald 261, published in The Nation on Sunday 25 February 2018