Synthesis and Storytelling: An Interview with Dr. Toyin Falola

dr. toyin falola is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost scholars of African history and has written over one hundred books, including a book of poetry and the award-winning memoir A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt. He was born in Nigeria and spent his youth there and is now a Fellow of both the Historical Society of Nigeria and the Nigerian Academy of Letters. He is currently the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Front Porch: You’ve written over one hundred books.

Toyin Falola: One hundred nineteen.

FP: What’s your secret? Do you follow a strict schedule, or have you figured out how to go for long periods without sleep?

TF: First, it’s an issue of passion. It’s the only thing that makes me happy. People don’t see the tradeoff, which is that I’ve not been on vacation in thirty years. I don’t accept dinner invitations and things like that. Second, it’s an issue of work ethic. We’re talking about eighteen hours a day of work since 1977. And third, it’s an issue of definition. I think for most people, the challenge is that they cannot define an idea; and, because they cannot define an idea, it is difficult to project. But for me, as I’m closing one book, the next idea is accosting me. And many of these ideas are related to events, conversations, and episodes that are of interest to me. I don’t see it as a burden, as a chore. Many people seek pain in what they do, and they complain. Once you begin to complain when you wake up, you are not energized.

FP: Your work has covered African economic issues, social issues, political issues, and cultural issues; and you’re considered one of the most highly respected contemporary African historians. You’ve also written an award-winning memoir and a volume of poetry. Is there an overarching theme to your work or a way in which you synthesize it cohesively?

TF: I work on the principle of fragmentation. That is, there is just no way in one book to deal with all the issues connected to the focus of a particular work. You can take a large theme and fragment it. I just finished a manuscript of one thousand and two hundred pages. My interest had just been in two centuries, the nineteenth and twentieth. Also, my work has been focused on just two themes—economy and politics, driven by one assumption, that they are the twin problems that define contemporary Africa. When we talk about contemporary Africa, we talk about underdevelopment, and we talk about political instability. I analyze the present but work backwards to see what we can benefit from that past. I posed this idea to my undergraduate students in 1982. I’d finished my PhD on the nineteenth century, and I was teaching. One day a student asked me a question that shook the very foundation of history. This student said, “Okay, all this nineteenth century stuff, this talk about ancient Egypt, what are we supposed to do with it? What does it mean if you are telling us that there were great leaders in the nineteenth century but we can no longer manage the present? Or that Africans built a pyramid before the time of Christ but we can no longer build a bridge, what does that mean?” That question set me thinking. As a young man in my twenties, I was still content to study the nineteenth centuries, but I wanted to answer this question. So, I began to examine health issues, technology issues, political issues, to say, this history has relevance, and we must use our intellectual power to also understand the present. Bear in mind, I was also taking a risk because in my discipline, until recently, there were many who did not see contemporary history as history. That kind of orientation by and large has diminished the intensity of [historical study].

FP:  The form of your memoir, A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt, is very unique in that it seems to illustrate the Yoruba notions of time discussed in the first chapter. That is, the book focuses on formative events of your youth as episodes, with less emphasis on combing through your past and stringing the events together linearly. Can you talk a little about your choices in structuring the book?

TF: It’s very simple. I wanted to give the impression that you are not reading a book but that I am talking to you. That you and I are engaged in a conversation, and I am talking. So, you will see digressions, digressive stories within layers. Life is a drama, hmm? In which we are permanently, on a daily basis, performing—even if we do not think that’s what we are doing. For that to happen, there must be a dialogue. The language was important. The argument has to be made that there’s no one English. Part of the condition for this memoir was that it should not be copyedited. If I’d allowed that memoir to be copyedited, it would have been damaged, it would have been totally destroyed because they would have re-written it for a different kind of market, and my voice would have gone. I said no, this is my voice.

There’s a way of also writing English that is different from British or American English. And the way it is in that memoir is what I would call Yoruba English, or English in Yoruba, in which [speech] must be embedded with idioms, with proverbs, with stories. That’s a way of communication. The only thing I didn’t do there—and I may do it in the second memoir—is to use many words for one sentence because, in conversation, you can say one thing five times. And when a person expresses frustration, anger, and things like that, they tend to use many words. So the memoir that is to follow will be similar to the [biblical] book of Job. Christianity has taught us, including me—I was in the choir for eleven years—that we should not speak in a certain way. In my next writing venture, I want to ask, why not? Why can’t we speak in that way? Speech has been damaged by political correctness. An enormous amount of damage.  So that, in my department, I know longer know what my colleagues mean. For instance, I could say, “Emily, I like your dress,” but I’ve been told not to do things like that anymore. And I think it’s creating enormous damage to conversation, so that a new kind of comedy has now emerged in which those things you cannot say or do in regular conversation are turned into jokes. And people laugh at the jokes, forgetting that what we call jokes could have been part of daily engagement with oneself and others in a process though which life acquires more meaning, acquires more interest, without hurting the feelings of anyone. I moderate a listserv called United States in Africa, and at Christmas somebody wrote a nasty pin about Jesus Christ, and I didn’t post it. They complained to my colleague Augustine Agwuele that I was censoring. So I said to him, “Augustine, if somebody in your department calls you a nigger, is it alright?” He said it was not. I said that was why I did not post an attack on Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. But if somebody calls me a black person, I’m not going to get angry. People now get so angry at so many things. At some point, somebody has to have the courage to say look, stop it, this is going too far.  If a woman can’t compliment a man, or a man can’t compliment a woman, that is going too far. Complimenting someone doesn’t mean I have any motive whatsoever.

FP: You mentioned a new memoir—have you already started writing it?

TF: Bad news. The U.S. and Argentina invited me for a talk, and I went. During that trip, my bag containing my laptop and my backup was stolen and has never been recovered. A reward for ten thousand dollars was offered, but we didn’t find it. The bag contained three manuscripts as well as the materials for my classes. It took me a long time to recover [from this setback]. An Indian friend of mine in Seattle had me talk to an Indian guru who gave me a religious symbol and walked me through some spiritual dialogue so that I could recover. I have now recovered, and I will show you what I wrote in vengeance. After all the spiritual pain, this is what I wrote. (Dr. Falola rummages around off-screen and returns with a manuscript roughly the size of a cinderblock, bound together with rubber bands.)

FP: Wow!

TF: (Laughing) One thousand two hundred pages long! I did another book, which will be forthcoming, about the [African] diaspora. So I am just now getting back into my writing regimen.

FP: You came of age in the 1960s, in the early years of Nigeria’s independence from Britain. Reading about your childhood experiences, I got the sense of a young person discovering his own culture. Was writing the book an attempt to understand your place within the larger context of Nigerian culture, or was it your way of trying to situate Nigeria within yourself?

TF: Very good question. Bear in mind that I wrote this memoir in my early fifties. I wasn’t that old. I should have waited another twenty years. I should have been enjoying my life. Enjoying life is more fun than writing about it. But I was motivated by what I call the death of culture, in which every year you go to Africa or Nigeria, you see that values, worldviews have changed so dramatically that you are asked the question, “Were you here before?” Where there was religious culture, now you see secularism. Where there was integrity, now you see decay. Where you see honesty, now you see corruption. So I began to wonder, how come, in a period of forty or fifty years, society can move in that kind of direction? The society that you read about in that memoir, in many ways, is no more; it’s dead. Sometimes transformed. [During that time, Nigerians were] dealing with a period of enormous dilemma and paradoxes, enormous transitions in all aspects, enormous amounts of value dissonance.  That generation had a lot of difficult questions to answer. For example, should I send my son or daughter to school, or should I send my daughter to go and get married? Should I send my son to go and learn a craft? In a transitional society, both answers are correct. It was a time of changing cultures. Westernization was coming but it wasn’t deep enough. Tradition was receding, but not too fast. Should you have one wife? Yes, if you are Christian. Four, if you are not a Christian—and both choices were legitimate. So, capturing those transitions in politics, in religions, in new economies, in imagined cultures fascinated me; and I was able to explore them in a way that a regular textbook would not have been able to do.

FP: During that time, were you at all aware of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; and, if so, how did it influence your own understanding of what was happening in your own country during the 1960s?

TF: No, no, no. There was no way I could have been aware.

FP: How long did it take you to write the book?

TF: Six weeks.

FP: Can you tell me a little about your research process? For instance, did you return to Nigeria, keep a journal, or interview family members for their versions of past events?

TF: I’m an historian, see. Don’t forget that I also have collateral resources, and those collateral resources brought their own advantages. The question you ask is a good one, but it is also misleading because the writing process and the thinking-about-writing process are two different things. The six-week period was computer time during which I was actually typing, you understand? The memoir I have just written was already in my head. So when I begin to write, I don’t need more than a month or two.

FP: So you began with the book already finished in your head.

TF: Yes. As for the thinking about it? I cannot tell you how long that took.

FP: Storytelling is an important tradition in many African cultures, and the rise in popularity of the memoir as a genre indicates that people everywhere are hungry for the stories of others. Can you talk a little about why you think this is?

TF: Many reasons. And I will tell you something. If I knew that the memoir would be successful—and there’s no way I could have known—maybe my entire career would have been different because it is not as if I’m lacking in the gift of presenting knowledge in various ways. But I only chose the ways legitimized by the academe that would give me my salary at the end of the month. Stories are powerful. Memoir is fact, but storytelling is fiction. The fictional aspect of stories is very attractive to human beings because it is playful. It has an element of entertainment, and knowledge retention is faster. Thanks to the loss of my computer, I had to develop some new classes, and two of my most popular classes are tied in some respect to your question—adapting how people retain knowledge. I’m teaching Africa in Photographs. When I tell the students it’s time to take a break, they say they don’t want to! Because they can see what I’m teaching them, they can see the theme in the photographs. When I ask them to read the textbook, they don’t have to memorize anything because it has already been made clear. The way you process [the information in a story] is different than the way you process hard facts. Stories have that kind of power.

—E. D. Watson


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