Selfhood and Memory:
Mbembe and Murphy on Tutuola’s My Life
by Robert Russell
Amos Tutuola’s 1954 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a work which on the surface appears to thwart critical analysis. It is a novel comprised of short episodic chapters wherein the unnamed narrator, fleeing from slave traders, falls pretty to an array of terrifying events, all the while trying to get back home. While the novel places an emphasis on action, movement, and plot, buried within these episodic chapters are the traces of a structure that not only repudiate a conventional form of storytelling, but also challenge ontological discourse relating to identity and Western understanding of memory. In his essay “Life, Sovereignty, and Terror in the Fiction of Amos Tutuola,” Achille Mbembe discusses the anomalous nature of time within the novel, how “in the ghostly paradigm, there is neither reversibility nor irreversibility of time…only unfolding and folding over anew” (Mbembe 22). The fragmented sense of time inevitably gives way to a chaotic sequence of events which in turn compromises the narrator’s sense of agency. However, in an attempt to thwart the effects of an “indefinite present” and ground himself, the narrator remains resolute in his sense of identity. Since his perception of time, agency, and freedom are thrown in jeopardy, the narrator must retain a sense of selfhood in order to combat the threatening forces of the ghost-realm. While, as Mbembe writes, “the wandering subject has neither a unique form nor a content that has been shaped definitively” (Mbembe 23), there appears to be a certain consistency in the narrator’s sense of selfhood despite the incertitude of the elements that surround him. From the narrator’s attempt to combat such a chaotic sequence of events, to resist the state of flux that he finds himself in, and to maintain a sense of selfhood despite the chaos of the ghost-realm, the concept of memory arises.
In her essay, “Into the Bush of Ghosts: Specters of the Slave Trade in West African Fiction,” scholar Laura Murphy refutes the claim that contemporary African literature has suffered an “amnesia” in regards to the dark history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and instead she argues that “West African writers can hardly avoid the pervasive presence of the slave trade in the memory of the region…[that] the memory of the trade continues to haunt the collective psyche of West Africa” (Murphy 141). Such an assertion propels Tutuola’s novel into a new light: in the escape from one nightmarish hellscape of captivity, the narrator falls into another, one that still reflects the trauma of the slave trade through “representations of the traces of the collective past which arise in the conscious and unconscious memory” (Murphy 144). Such traces not only take the form of each ghost which the narrator encounters, but more specifically each trace takes the form of the enslavement and captivity that the narrator cannot escape. The ghost-realm contains the traces of a past etched into a collective memory of an entire civilization of people, which in turn comprises the collective identity and selfhood of such a civilization. It is the intersection of selfhood and memory that inspires the symbolic nuance of Tutuola’s novel: that the dark history of the slave trade, its impact on the collective conscious of a group of people for generations, is inextricably tied to selfhood and identity.
Traces of the slave trade seep into the very setting of the story. The ghost-realm, into which the narrator falls during his flight from the slave traders in the human-realm, is a place of ambiguity, disorientation, and liminality. The narrator breaches the limits that separate the two opposing worlds, blurs the edges of reality with his transcendence, bringing in with him his humanly characteristics and then occupying the space of the ghost-realm. Upon entering, immediately the narrator discovers that the slavery from which he was fleeing is also prevalent in this new foreign world. From the onset, the narrator is thrust into captivity: the golden-ghost, the silverish-ghost, and the copperish-ghost argue over which is have him as his servant. Tutuola writes,
“[A]ll of them started to argue. At last all of them held me tightly in such a way that I could not breathe in or out. But as they held me with argument for about three hours, so when I was nearly cut into three as they were pulling me about in the room I started to cry louder so that all the ghosts and ghostesses of that area came to their house and within twenty minutes this house could not contain the ghosts who heard information and came to settle the misunderstanding” (Tutuola 12).
The narrator cannot escape captivity, in both the human-realm and the ghost-realm. Fleeing from the slave traders who, had they caught him, would have enslaved him, the narrator seeks refuge in the ghost-realm and is immediately captured by the golden ghost, the silverish-ghost, and the copperish-ghost. Each one quarrels over who will enslave the narrator, that is until, the “Smelling-ghost” arrives, stops the arguing, and abducts the narrator, putting him into a bag, which Murphy purports, “is a means of representing the complete subordination of the African body in slavery” (Murphy 147). The narrator is shuffled from captivity to abduction and back again which repeats throughout his duration in the ghost-realm. Murphy, in her essay, explains that this unceasing sequence of slavery and captivity, “the perpetual state of capture and escape” not only “mimics the cycles of the slave trade” (Murphy 146), but also mirrors the traces of the slave trade that mark the imagination of the narrator which, in turn, “exposes the terror inflicted on West African communities by slave raiders and the effects it had…on the imaginations of those who lived in West Africa at the time” (Murphy 145); that the inability to escape the fear inflicted upon inhabitants by the slave trade, “the specter of enslavement in their daily lives,” seeps into the imagination, a place that should normally be a means of escape and refuge. These “paralyzing fears the slave trade instilled in the people of West Africa” are introduced as a first and major source of conflict, one that not only severs any anticipated semblance of refuge and safety, but also works to disenfranchise the narrator’s sense of selfhood.
Furthermore, the narrator is in a constant state of flight; whether in physical flight, escaping from a ghost who has transformed him or bound him or captured him in some other way, or whether he is in captivity and dreaming about when to flee, the narrator is never idle, in neither body nor mind. Because the narrator is always moving, it would follow that his perception of his surroundings, and in turn his perception of himself in relation to his surroundings, is also in a state of motion. Mbembe addresses such an assertion in his essay:
“With life’s contours barely sketched out, the wandering subject must escape from himself each time and allow himself to be carried away by the flux of time and accidents. He produces himself in the unknown, by means of a chain of effects that have been calculated beforehand, but never materialize exactly in the terms foreseen. It is thus in the unexpected and radical instability that he creates and invents himself. There is thus no sovereignty of the subject or life as such” (Mbembe 23).
However, despite the chaotic forces that constantly propel the narrator into a state of flux, he does still seem to retain a sense of identity, of selfhood; the subject does retain a sense of sovereignty despite Mbembe’s assertions. Throughout the novel the narrator repeatedly undergoes transformations, and through each one, he still remains himself, conscious of his own selfhood and identity. The narrator is first transformed into various animals in the 7th Town of Ghosts: “In the presence of these guests, my boss was changing me to some kinds of creatures” including a monkey, lion, camel, horse, cow (Tutuola 21). Not long after, in an attempt to outrun one malevolent ghost, the narrator transforms himself into a cow: “I used the juju…it changed me to a cow with horns on its head instead of a horse, but I forgot before I used it that I would not be able to change back to the earthly person again,” (Tutuola 27-28). Even though the narrator has been transformed into a cow, he still maintains his own consciousness, feels regret in his forgetting about how to change back to a human, and continues to refer to himself in the first person. The same is true when he is later transformed into a monster in the 9th Town of Ghosts: “I found myself inside this pitcher and at the same moment my neck was about three feet long and very thick, and again my head was so big so that my long neck was unable to carry it upright” (Tutuola 55). The narrator, from animal to monster, is still himself, still the same person who entered the ghost-realm, still the same person trying to escape the ghost-realm and return home. Maintaining a sense of identity combats the transformative forces that impose upon him, threatening to strip away the only freedom he has left.
Moreover, it is the ghost-realm itself that the narrator combats. Murphy writes, “the very landscape itself works as a captor” (Murphy 148), relating each attempt at disenfranchising the narrator from his sense of selfhood to the trauma of the slave trade. The narrator’s agency and freedom are completely stripped away by both the ghosts and the fragmented, chaotic sequence of events that propels him throughout space and time in the ghost-realm. That the forces of the ghost-realm would attempt to seize and distort his sense of identity and selfhood further evidence the inescapability of trauma–the unconscious pain of the past is unrelenting and ever-present. In this light, the narrator thwarts the trauma that threatens to infringe upon him, what threatens to foment his undoing, his surrender to the ghost-realm. Not only does the ghost-realm present very real physical dangers to the narrator–the ghosts, the insects and various deadly creatures, as well as the brutal forces of nature–but the ghost-realm threatens the narrator psychologically and ontologically. And it is in his resistance against the ghost-realm that he retains a sense of selfhood.
However, selfhood and memory are inextricably linked, and while retaining a sense of selfhood combats the threatening physical and psychological forces of the ghost-realm, memory combats the threatening temporal forces. Many anomalies arise in regards to time: it is never explicitly disclosed when the novel takes place, and contradictions arise from the clash of temporal perceptions of the human-realm and the ghost-realm. The narrator is “seven years old before” (Tutuola 145) he enters the ghost-realm at the beginning of the novel. The middle of the novel, he grows up in the ghost-realm, and then at the end, twenty-four years later (Tutuola 166), he returns to the human-realm. Such a conventional, temporally sound structure of a novel alludes to a certain temporal consistency which in turn counters Mbembe’s assertion that:
“[T]he ghostly sphere is a lateral space. But it positions itself equally as a décor. It is found not at the periphery of life but on its edges. It constantly spills out over its assigned time and space… Everything takes place in an indefinite present. Before and after are abolished, memory is destabilized, and multiplication reigns. There is no life but a life that is fracture and mutilated” (Mbembe 6).
Mbembe tries to capture the “uncapturability” of time: what results in the episodic, sporadic chapters in which the narrator falls prey to the suddenness of events, and in which time appears to move in a mangled fashion. There are frequent contradictions that arise in the portrayal of time: the narrator often tells time by saying “one o’clock midnight” (Tutuola 66) or “two o’clock midnight” alluding to his tenuous grasp on time. And yet, at other times, he has a better sense of time: “Having finished these fruits at about eight o’clock I was looking for a safe place to sleep” (Tutuola 71), “so this animal fell into their hands at about nine o’clock in the morning” (Tutuola 85). While such a delineation of time conveys a certain understanding of time, which would effectively counter the “indefinite present” that Mbembe asserts, the narrator precedes each time-telling with the descriptor “about,” which alludes to temporal incertitude. The narrator’s grasp of time falls in between certainty and uncertainty which gives rise to the “fractured” sense of time throughout the novel. Time is a series of fragmented pieces that comprise the pointillistic mosaic of the narrator’s journey in the ghost-realm, a picture painted with the painful memories of the slave trade.
The novel, being such a mosaic, reveals the chaotic, imponderable nature of trauma, something that spurns understanding. Herein lies the importance of the novel. The novel itself is a protest: by revealing the “uncapturability” of trauma–what seeps into the imagination of writer and character, what disillusions, what separates body from mind, and threatens to diminish a sense of selfhood–the novel combats what is inherently unescapable. Tutuola exposes the unavoidability of a painful past, one that continues to haunt the present and threatens to affect the future. While the ideas that emerge from Mbembe’s exploration of the nature of time and selfhood appear to overlook certain details in the novel–preservation of identity despite repeated transformations as well as the temporal consistencies that persist throughout the novel–his insights still contain important questions that inspire instead of thwart critical analysis. In the convergence of Mbembe’s and Murphy’s essays, Tutuola’s novel reveals a resistance, an insurrection against Western metaphysics and the ontological discourse surrounding the intersection of identity and memory. His novel reveals the complexity of the collective conscious of an entire civilization of people, the trauma and painful memories therein, and works to show how such a nature transcends generations and impacts all areas of humanity, particularly storytelling.
Mbembe, Achille, and R. H. Mitsch. “Life, Sovereignty, and Terror in the Fiction of Amos Tutuola.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 34, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1–26. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
Murphy, Laura. “Into the Bush of Ghosts: Specters of the Slave Trade in West African Fiction.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 38, no. 4, 2007, pp. 141–152. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
Tutuola, Amos. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. London, Faber & Faber Ltd, 2014.