- Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel: I. B. Thomas’s ‘Life Story of Me, Sẹgilọla’ and other texts by Karin Barber
This exciting book takes us right to the moment when a new literary genre was born. Between 1929 and 1930 the Lagosian newspaper Akede Eko (Lagos Herald) published a series of letters from a dying ex-prostitute, Sẹgilọla. She had married a loving and indulgent husband, but after her wedding she entertained a clutch of besotted paramours, then ran off with a wealthy businessman to the Gold Coast. She returned to Lagos upon her mother’s death, and, lacking her constraining influence, she entered into a life of ‘promiscuity and debauchery’. It was at the end of her life that she wrote her life story for Akede Eko. Her eyes have swollen, an invasive worm infests every inch of her skin, pus streams from both nostrils, and she is ‘almost starving in the middle of the city where I was born’ (p. 131). She narrates her life story, she says, in order to enable readers to ‘learn from my example, wretched woman that I am, for the reformation of your own journeys through life’ (p. 207).
Sẹgilọla’s life story caused a stir. One generous reader donated ten shillings towards Sẹgilọla’s maintenance. Another asked the newspaper’s editor for a photograph of Sẹgilọla in her humiliated state, for it would allow him to say, ‘Come and see the results of promiscuity or loose living–see the person in disgrace!’ (p. 353). Such was the interest in Sẹgilọla’s life story that, in 1930, the editor published it as a book, entitled (in translation) The Life Story of Me, ‘Sẹgilọla of the Fascinating Eyes’, She Who Had a Thousand Lovers in Her Life.
All of it was fiction, composed by Isaac Babalọla Thomas, editor and proprietor of Akede Eko. Over the course of many years he disguised his authorship of Sẹgilọla’s life story, presenting himself as her copy-editor and publisher. In this edition, Karin Barber shows us how Thomas worked up the literary energy to compose this, the first novel written in the Yoruba language. There is a translation of the text, in all its enriching complexity; a collection of the letters and editorials occasioned by Sẹgilọla’s appearance in the newspaper; a copy of the rather plain English translation that Thomas published in 1931 and 1932; and a wonderfully illuminating introduction from Barber herself, which sets Sẹgilọla and Thomas firmly within the Lagos of the late 1920s. The book is a remarkable work of scholarly industry, the fruit of many years of concentrated, difficult labour, and a characteristically generous gift to Yoruba readers and to scholars and students of African literature.
I. B. Thomas wrote fiction in order to instruct, guide and reform his readers. We are never given access to Sẹgilọla’s interior self, nor is there an omniscient narrator who can move seamlessly between settings and characters. Sẹgilọla is, as Barber argues, an archetype: her narrative is that of public discourse. Her life story is structured around a set of formulaic texts that were circulating in Lagos in the 1920s. In one passage, she inserts her name into Psalm 51, making it into a lament concerning her own sinfulness (p. 253). In several places – thirty-eight in all – she quotes songs that were then on the lips of Lagosians. Thomas’s book was, Barber argues, a ‘feast of popular, shared culture’ (p. 74). It was a shared culture that was only then coming into being. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, political life had been dominated by Lagos’s Saro elite, who jealously identified themselves with their British rulers in order to distinguish themselves from up-country commoners. But during the 1920s, elites...