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
Porch: You’ve written over one hundred books.
Falola: One hundred nineteen.
What’s your secret? Do you follow a strict schedule, or have you figured out
how to go for long periods without sleep?
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.
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?
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].
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
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.
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.
You mentioned a new memoir—have you already started writing it?
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.)
(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.
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?
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.
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?
No, no, no. There was no way I could have been aware.
How long did it take you to write the book?
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?
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.
So you began with the book already finished in your head.
Yes. As for the thinking about it? I cannot tell you how long that took.
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
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.