Tag Archives: African literature

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

I am working right now on a dissertation chapter on spectacle in Hausa films and currently on the “music video” portion of it. I actually had to come to my blog to find one of the songs I wanted to look at, as it seems to have mysteriously disappeared from my computer. Here it is. The cinematography is rather boring, but the song (seen alongside the film) is brilliant.

In the meantime, Weekly Trust did not post my column on my WT page this week for some reason, so at the request of Twitter followers, I am posting it here on my blog. It has actually been three years since I started my column in Weekly Trust, and, though I have sometimes turned in late, sleep deprived and occasionally incoherent articles that I am less than proud of, I have actually never missed a week since I started–even when deathly ill! So, if you check my Weekly Trust page and something is missing, get in touch with me and I will try to post it on this blog. This week was kind of an index to what I have written this year, which may be why WT didn’t post it. I will include links below, so that if you missed reading something this year, you can find it here.

My Thoughts Exactly: Year Three in Review

Last week marked the third anniversary of this column “My Thoughts Exactly,” which I began writing on 16 October 2010. Last year, in my second year review, I wrote that I planned “to take a slightly more scholarly turn in the upcoming year while I finish writing my PhD dissertation.” I’m not sure if this year was more scholarly, but it did become more literary, as I focused more on reading, libraries, and a lot of book reviews.

I reviewed Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation, Sin is a Puppy…, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne, published by Indian publisher Blaft. The skillful translation is a historical event as it marks the first English translation of a woman’s novel in Hausa. I also later reviewed Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Wa Zai

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Auri Jahila? which has not been translated, but, if the letters I received are any indication, is one of her readers’ favourites. I also examined the politics surrounding the reception of northern Nigerian and Hausa literature in a piece that reviewed the 7th conference on Northern Nigerian Literature at Bayero University in December 2012 and a celebration held the next weekend for Hausa literary critic and translator Ibrahim Malumfashi. Later, I reviewed the October 2013 issue of the online translation journal Words Without Borders, which focused on translations of works by African women writing in African languages and included Professor Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahma Abdul Majid’s novel Mace Mutum. I wrote one piece on my vacation reading over Christmas 2012, and another topical review looked at the performance of three Nigerian plays, a workshop performance Banana Talks, Femi Osofisan’s play Midnight Hotel, and Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau, during the 7th Jos Festival of Theatre by the Jos Repertory Theatre.

Other books I reviewed this year include Lola Shoneyin’s hilarious yet troubling The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; Ngozi Achebe’s page-turning historical novel of life and slavery in 16th century Igbo-land Onaedo: the Blacksmith’s Daughter; Eghosa Imasuen’s brilliant alternate history of Nigeria in To Saint Patrick; Labo Yari’s thoughtful yet often ignored 1978 novel Climate of Corruption; Chika Unigwe’s NLNG-award winning novel about sex-trafficking in Belgium, On Black Sister’s Street; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest

Chibundu Onuzo giving a tribute to Chinua Achebe at #AfricaWrites 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

novel about race and class in America and Nigeria, Americanah; Chibundu Onozu’s romantic thriller The Spider King’s Daughter, and Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s brilliant, multi-layered novel We Need New Names. I also interviewed novelist Nkem Ivara about her romance novel Closer than a Brother.

The Caine Prize for African Writing this year was a treat to write about, as the 2013 shortlist featured four Nigerians. While the previous year my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the Caine Prize workshop to which they had been invited in South Africa because of the yellow fever vaccination row between Nigeria and South Africa, this year both of them were shortlisted for the prize. I briefly reviewed all five shortlisted stories [that was a sleep-deprived piece, as I stayed up all night to read all the stories after they were announced and was partially writing during my cousin's graduation] and was luckily able

Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta, Pede Hollist, and Tope Folarin at one of the Caine Prize Events, London, July 2013 (c) Carmen McCain

to attend the Africa Writes Festival in London, where the Caine Prize events were taking place. In two subsequent columns about the event, I critiqued emerging ideas about African literature, usually coming from writers based in the West, that attempt to exclude narratives of suffering. [A follow-up from my initial piece critiquing Bernadine Evaristo's manifesto on suffering children last year.] I also followed up on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s critique of the way literary establishment often awards prizes, that ignore and even exclude African-language literature. [Bizarrely, the South African literary blog Books Live wrote a whole post on my article. I was surprised but gratified for the link!]

The sadder literary events of the year included the death of two of Africa’s literary icons, Chinua Achebe, [I was honoured to be the only non-Nigerian writer included in Weekly Trust's piece "How Achebe

English: Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall...

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2″ series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspired Us, by Young Writers”–my paragraph was pulled, with my permission, from my Facebook page] and the tragic murder of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor in the September 2013 Westgate Mall terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Another tragedy for readers was the suicide of intellectual activist Aaron Schwartz, who had been persecuted by courts in the U.S. for trying to make scholarly materials free and available online.

I often receive emails from readers asking where they can find the books I’ve reviewed. While I often direct them to bookstores in Abuja and Lagos, and online stores like jumia.com, konga.com, and mamuwa.com, I also explored literary resources available online [which WT didn't post online and I haven't yet uploaded the hard copy to flickr--I'll try to do that soon] and addressed the need for better library resources, whereby people who don’t have the money to buy sometimes outrageously-priced books can read them by borrowing. The secretary of Jos Association of Nigerian Authors Onotu David Onimisi told me in an interview (see part 1 and part 2) about the ANA project to develop a community library in Jos. He directed me to the excellent American Corner library in Jos which is open to the public and is currently hosting the ANA library while they build another location. I also interviewed Kinsley Sintim who during his NYSC youth service started a community library in Tasha outside of Abuja and has been able to get a massive number of donated books for children in the community. (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I really should have edited it down to just two parts, but I was travelling….] For a comparative perspective, I interviewed an old college classmate Elizabeth Chase, who is a senior librarian at a library in Frisco, Texas. I shared some of the feedback I’ve received about my “literary pieces,” in an August readers column.

I also reviewed a few films: Hamisu Lamido Iyan-Tama’s Hausa-language film Kurkuku that revisited his trials at the hands of the Kano State Censorship Board in 2008-2010; the English-language documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta, made by nine women about the struggles of women living in the Niger Delta; and Dul Johnson’s Tarok-language documentary There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle, which examines Tarok burial customs. I interviewed director Hafizu Bello, who won the Africa Magic award for the best Local Language film in Hausa for his film Fa’ida in March, and director Husayn Zagaru AbdulQadir (part 1, part 2 wasn’t put up by WT), who won a federal government YouWiN! Award to expand his Kaduna-based production company New Qamar Media. I wrote about visiting the set of the film Bakin Mulki in Jos and responded to Aisha Umar-Yusuf’s blanket scapegoating of the film industry for Nigeria’s social woes. [I am loathe to link to it--it's currently at only 303 hits--but if you want to see what I was responding to, her piece is here.]

A few of my topical pieces were “Christmas in the Age of Massacres” and a piece that reviewed “The Good Things of 2012” in what was an otherwise very sobering year. Last November, I questioned Christian Association of Nigeria president Ayo Oritsejafor’s acceptance of a private jet as a gift from his church, pointing to scriptures that challenge the accumulation of earthly wealth. My review of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila? was a response to the child marriage controversy sparked off by Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima’s insistence that puberty should be the only determining factor in marriage age. “Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” before Palm Sunday addressed the bomb in the Kano car park and attacks on schools and a church in Borno and Kano. Most recently I have written about the parallel terror attacks on Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar, and the attack on the College of Agriculture in Gujba.

I delved into my personal history in a tribute to Chinua Achebe, writing about the influence he has had on my life. I also later wrote about my family’s 25 years in Nigeria. I bid goodbye to a few friends

The McCain family sometime in the 1990s

this year: Hausa film director Balarabe Sango, who passed away in December 2012, and an old schoolmate Dr. Rachel Horlings, one of only three underwater archeologists working off the coast of West Africa, who was killed in Elmina, Ghana in a freak electrical accident. In  “As the Rains Begin” I linked tragedies to the rhythmic seasonal motion of the earth, celebrating the birth of a baby born to a friend who lost her husband the year before.

I was fortunate to host several guest columns this year. Dr. K.A. Korb, currently Head of the Department of General and Applied Psychology at the University of Jos, contributed three pieces, one challenging the perception that teaching is a last resort career by interviewing several dedicated and passionate teachers. She also contributed a two-week column on post traumatic stress disorder and the effects that it is having on people in northern Nigeria. Egyptian writer and journalist Nadia Elawady allowed me to reproduce her piece linking the Boston bombing to the tragic events unfolding in Egypt [here is the WT link, and here is her original piece on her blog). Scholar Hannah Hoechner, who has done research with almajirai in Kano, responded to the proposed ban on almajiranci in Kano.

Thank you for reading this year. If you missed any of these pieces or want to read any of them again, you can find most of them under the “My Thoughts Exactly” tab on the Weekly Trust website. I am trying to push through to the end of my PhD dissertation this year, so I will likely continue to feature guest columns and more “academic” material as I try to close this chapter of my life. I love receiving emails from readers, so please keep sending your feedback. Thank you.

Words Without Borders features African Women writing in Indigenous Languages

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:

Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud DarwishEtgar KeretPer PettersonFadhil Al-AzzawiW.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.

I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.  

I wrote a mini-review of the issue in my column this week, which you can read on the Weekly Trust site, the All Africa site, or copied below, with links and photos, on my blog.

Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 12 OCTOBER 2013

The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.

The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation  “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).

Rahma Abdul Majid (courtesy of Ibrahim Sheme’s blog Bahaushe Mai Ban Haushi)

Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I've previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.

Glaydah Namukasa (Photo Credit: Winston Barclay, Flickr, used by permission)

Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved

Dr. Merit Ronald Kabugo (courtesy of Words Without Borders)

me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.

I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft

Charles Cantalupo (courtesy Penn State)

body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.

Hilda Twongyeirwe (courtesy of UGPulse Literature)

The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It

Juliet Kushaba (courtesy Transcultural Writing)

is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.

Marame Gueye (courtesy East Carolina University)

The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.

The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.

I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne/Sin is a Puppy Published in translation by Blaft

Exciting news! Indian publisher Blaft has published an English translation, by Aliyu Kamal, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne. Aliyu Kamal is a professor in the English Department at Bayero University and a prolific novelist in his own rightSee Blaft’s blog post on the release, where they give this blog a shout out. Hard copies can be ordered from their site, and ebooks for Kindle and epub ($4.99) are also available. To read the first chapter for free, click here. (Update 9 November 2012: Two Indian news sites have also published articles about the novel and the influence of Indian films on Hausa culture: Dhamini Ratnam writes “Filmi Affair in Nigeria” for the Pune Mirror (and briefly quotes me) and Deepanjana Pal writes “How Bollywood fought for the Nigerian Woman “for Daily News and Analysis. I’m not sure Sin is a Puppy… is the best novel to use as evidence of Indian films on Hausa culture, but I’m delighted at the attention the novel is receiving in India.) (UPDATE 8 March 2013: You can read my review of the novel published by Weekly Trust and find links to a lot of other reviews of the novel on my blog here.)

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu was one of the earliest authors of what came to be known as the soyayya Hausa literary movement or Kano Market Literature. While these books were often disparaged by critics as romance novels and pulp, Hajiya Balaraba’s novels are often muck-raking exposes of abuses that occur in private domestic spaces and make a case for women’s education and independence. Other soyayya books tell love stories from the perspective of Hausa youth and tales of the home from the perspective of women.

Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, one of Hajiya Balaraba’s most popular and critically acclaimed novels, tells the story of the family of businessman Alhaji Abdu and his longsuffering wife Rabi, the domestic fireworks that explode when he decides to marry the “old prostitute” Delu as a second wife, and the stories of his children as they make their way in the world with only the support of their mother.

When I first read the book in Hausa in 2006, I described it as follows:

Like many Hausa novels, the title is part of a proverb: “crime is like a dog”… (it follows it’s owner). When the wealthy trader Alhaji Abdu marries an “old prostitute,” as a second wife, his family goes through a crisis. After a fight between the uwargida and her children and the new wife, Alhaji Abdu kicks his first wife and her ten [nine because Alhaji Abdu kept one daughter from another marriage] children out of his house, denies them any kind of support, and refuses to even recognize any of them in chance meetings on the street or when his eldest daughter gets married. What was initially a disaster for the abandoned wife Rabi becomes a liberating self-sufficiency. Supporting her children through cooking and selling food, she is able to put her eldest son through university and see the marriage of her eldest daughter to a rich alhaji. The book follows the story of Rabi, as she makes a life apart from marriage, and her daughter Saudatu, as she enters into marriage.

I have read the translation by Aliyu Kamal and I intend to post a longer review in the next few weeks. The novel was adapted into a film Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne directed by Abdulkareem Muhammed in 1998. Novian Whitsitt has discussed the novel in his PhD dissertation (2000), Kano Market Literature and the Construction of Hausa-Islamic Feminism: A Contrast in Feminist Perspectives of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa, and his article, “Islamic-Hausa Feminism and Kano Market Literature: Qur’anic Reinterpretation in the Novels of Balaraba Yakubu.” Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu has written about the screen adapatation in his book Transglobal Media Flows and African Popular Culture: Revolution and Reaction in Muslim Hausa Popular Culture and in a paper you can access online, “Private Sphere, Public Wahala: Gender and Delineation of Intimisphare in Muslim Hausa Video Films.”

As far as I know, this is the first time a full translation of a soyayya novel has been published internationally. An excerpt of Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne translated by William Burgess was published in Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell, but Aliyu Kamal’s full translation, while it has a few issues, is much better–not quite so stiff. That is not to say there have been no other translations of Hausa literature. There are translations of the works of early authors like Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja/The Water of Cure, Muhammadu Bello Wali’s Gandoki,  the first prime minister of Nigeria Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Shaihu Umar, Munir Muhammad Katsin’as Zabi Naka/Make Your Choice and others. Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna (The two part novel sold over 100,000 copies) was translated as The Soul of My Heart,  but unfortunately, although the cover illustration (pictured here) was beautiful, the translation was exceedingly bad. It cut a charming novel that was over 200 pages down to about 80, turned witty banter into cliches, and translated out most of the dialogue Gidan-Dabino is so good at. The book needs to be re-translated, this time properly. I attempted to translate Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico!, (an excerpt of the first chapter was published by Sentinel here), but stopped because of lack of time and because I felt like my translation was still too stiff and I needed to immerse in the language a little longer before attempting more translations. As the editorial of Nigerians Talk today pointed out, we need much more focus on translation in Nigeria.

[...] Hausa literature thrives. An old post on Jeremy Weate’s blog explores the disconnect between the idea of a thriving market selling up to “hundreds of thousands of copies” and a country that lives with a consensus that the Hausa don’t have a living literary establishment. Where are the top Hausa writers. How much of the content of their literature makes it into translation and out as a truly accessible text by other non-Hausa speakers? Where is the wall separating those work from the larger body of consumers all around Nigeria? What are the benefits and implications of this insularity that keeps a story locked only within a language medium, away from every other? And what is the value of such literature if it serves only a localized audience. What happened to universality? We won’t know any of this without active involvement of translators, and other conscious literary practitioners bringing us to the stories, and the stories to us. Like Achebe said, “my position…is that we must hear all the stories. That would be the first thing.”

I am very grateful to Blaft for initiating this translation and publication and hope that it will follow this novel with many more. The challenge will be finding translators. As I have said in a previous talk, I wish every Nigerian writer of English who spoke Hausa well would commit to translating at least one  Hausa novel, so as to bring this literature to a larger public. And while I am excited that, as Blaft notes

It’s also, we believe, the first time a translation of an African-language work has ever been published first in India. We like the idea of South-South literary exchange, and we wish this sort of thing would happen more often.

I hope that some of Nigeria’s publishers will take up the challenge to create their own translation imprints.

In the meantime, a big congratulations to Hajiya Balaraba. Here’s hoping that the rest of her novels will be translated soon! Stay tuned for a longer review of

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. (c) Sunmi Smart-Cole

the novel itself.

For more articles and information on Hausa soyayya literature, see these links:

Interview with novelist Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

Interview with the first female novelist to publish a novel in Hausa, Hafsat Ahmed Abdulwahid.

Interview with novelist Bilkisu Funtua.

Interview with novelist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed.

Hausa Popular Literature database at School of Oriental and African Studies

“Hausa Literary Movement and the 21st Century” by Yusuf Adamu

“Between the Word and the Screen: a hisorical perspective on the Hausa literary movement and the home video invasion” by Yusuf Adamu

“Hausa popular literature and the video film: the rapid rise of cultural production in times of economic decline” by Graham Furniss

“Loud Bubbles from a Silent Brook: Trends and Tendencies in Contemporary Hausa Prose Writing” by Abdalla Uba Adamu

“Islamic Hausa Feminism Meets Northern Nigerian Romance: the Cautious Rebellion of Bilkisu Funtuwa” by Novian Whitsitt

“Parallel Worlds: Reflective Womanism in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Ina Son Sa Haka” by Abdalla Uba Adamu

Hausa Writers Database (in Hausa)

My blog post on a (mostly Hausa) writers conference in Niger

In response to Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (c) Sunmi Smart-Cole via African-Writing Online

When I first began to read Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s op-ed piece “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse,” published in on 12 December 2010 in the New York Times, I thought I would enjoy the piece. [If you have trouble finding the full text of the article without signing into the New York Times site, you can find it copied over onto the USA/Africa Dialogues blog and now also on the NEXT website.] She argues that it may be a blessing that Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win a Nobel Prize this year, reasoning that such a prize would encourage young African writers to aim to be the “next Ngugi.” New African writers should pursue their own style, Nwaubani contends, rather than slavishly imitating the elders of African literature.  Although it does not necessarily follow that honouring a writer for a lifetime of work must necessarily create slavish imitations, I am sympathetic to arguments about pursuing new styles and themes, especially coming from a new Nigerian author who in I Do Not Come to You by Chance has given us one of the freshest and funniest novels I’ve read in years. Nwaubani has been the Nigerian author you are most likely to hear me recommending as a good read this year.

However, my first eyebrow began to rise when I read her statement. “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” This is a fair generalization. A Grain of Wheat, Arrow of God, and The Interpreters do make for studies in high seriousness. But has Nwaubani read the complete works of each of these authors? Sure, Ngugi’s English language work does tend to be quite sober and earnest, as do Achebe’s early novels. But Ngugi’s satirical fable Devil on the Cross(translated from Gikuyu) is one of the most simultaneously hilarious and ideological works of African literature I’ve read–and much of its richness, I think, comes from it’s original composition in Gikuyu. Soyinka’s fiction is, granted, famously obtuse, but performances of the Brother Jero plays are some of the funniest and most thought-provoking things my family has seen on stage. Achebe has similar humorous moments in Anthills of the Savannah.

Even if I were inclined to agree with her in general about the serious nature of the “old masters,” I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this statement:

“Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.”

I don’t greatly care if Ngugi wa Thiong’o wins the Nobel or not. I think it would be good prestige for African literature around the globe, and I think he certainly deserves it. Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross almost always makes my “favourite books” list, and I would be delighted if he received the Nobel in the future. But were I trying to make a point about the blessings of Ngugi not receiving the prize this year, as Nwaubani does, my argument would be that the value of Ngugi’s work and of other African literature does not depend on the judgment of some prize committee in Scandanavia, which has made quite conservative selections in the past, but rather on the importance it holds first in the eyes of its “home” audience in Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

I was, to put it bluntly, horrified by the assumptions with which Nwaubani draws her over-easy conclusions in this short piece. Whether or not Ngugi ever wins the prize, I wish there would be many more African writers who would copy, not him, or his style, but his commitment to writing in the language he grew up speaking. Why is great literature in Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa (or Tiv, Itsikeri, or Nupe) a shudder-worthy accomplishment? Nwaubani seems to be implying that the mere fact that people speak and laugh and love and dare even to write in different languages is furthering “tribal differences”  She says “This is not the variety we need.” On the contrary, I would argue this is exactly the variety we need.

Of course, we also need translation. Translation, as I have heard Professor Ngugi say on multiple occasions, is the only equal relationship between languages. Why should we not translate works of Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo into English or even into each other, in the same way that Norwegian or Japanese (smaller languages than many African languages) works are translated into other languages? Why is “the Nigerian reader,” by default, defined as an English speaker. This sort of thinking merely furthers the distinction between the elite and the masses in Nigeria. To my mind, it is not African language literature that furthers divisions between Nigerian peoples, but rather this sort of thinking that sees African languages the enemy rather than a source of creativity and celebration–promoting monolingualism in English rather than the multilingualism that has long been a strength of the continent.

Why is there a dearth of reading culture of African literature in Nigeria? Much of it probably is that there is not enough of the funny, light-reading novels like Nwaubani’s available. But much of it may also have to do  with how “reading culture” in the Nigerian context is almost always defined as reading culture in English. Does Nwaubani know that there is a flourishing market of Hausa language literature in Northern Nigeria that crosses borders into Niger, Cameroon, Ghana, and even further flung places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia where there are Hausa speakers? Does she know that one of the richest sources of women’s writing and women’s voices in Nigeria is being written in Hausa, where hundreds of well-known and beloved female authors write about love, marriage and their everyday experiences, or that Hausa novelists have long dealt with the national experience of being Nigerian? The bestselling Hausa novel, thus far, In da So da Kauna self-published in two parts in 1991 and 1992 by Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino sold over 100,000 copies (200,000 if you count both parts), which although hardly a New York Times bestseller is a good selling book even for Western publishers like Penguin or Random House. Is that literature (and what I hear is also a rather flourishing Yoruba literary scene) doomed to be trampled and denounced by Nigerian intellectuals and English-language writers because it is not written in the “language of unity,” which because of the history of colonialism happens to be English? Is it doomed to be trampled and denounced because, since no one has translated it, it has not been read by those large corporate publishers in America and the UK, who have made the careers of so many recent Nigerian authors writing in English?

I intend no disrespect for African literature in English here. It has its beauties and its advantages, such as a more immediate global and, yes, national audience. But we NEED literature in African languages because embedded within their etymology is history and a rich cultural heritage that we will lose if they die. These languages should be given the chance to develop same way that English language literature has developed, through literature. And this English language literature would never have developed had not rebels like Chaucer or Shakespeare insisted in writing in the vernacular rather than the more elite Latin that was the universal language of the educated elite in Europe at that time. We need such literature in the same way that we need literature in Danish, Mandarin, or Tamil. We need such literature because it is often in that literature you can capture exactly the kind of light-hearted banter, the vast reading audience, and the stories of ordinary working class Nigerians that Nwaubani is seeking. Perhaps, more people across the country would read if more Nigerian language literature were translated. Rather than calling for the death of African language literature, I would rather call for the investment in scholarship in and publication of this literature and the commitment of writers willing to translate it. Maybe then, Nwaubani will recognize her fellow “literary groundbreakers,” not in the old sober masters of the English language, but in those of her contemporaries who capture millions of readers in the language they speak every day.

UPDATE 19 December 2010. Since my response to Nwaubani’s article shortly after I read it last Sunday, a number of brilliant responses from African writers and intellectuals have popped up around the internet. Here are some of them:

“In Africa, The Laureate’s Curse” by Chielozona Eze on Africa Literature News and Reviews, December 12

“Not so, Adaobi” by Chuma Nwokolo on AfricanWriting.com, on December 12

“The Laureates Curse? I think not” on Kinna Reads, December 14

“The Nobel and Ngugi’s Cause–a short response to Tricia Adaobi’s article, In Africa the Laureate’s Curse” by Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, December 14

“Why Nwaubani was Wrong” on Nigerians Talk, on December 15

“Nwaubani, Ngugi, and the Nobel” on Molara Wood’s Wordsbody, December 18

And for a piece arguing the opposite of what Nwaubani wrote, see Zoe Norridge’s piece in the Guardian, “Why Ngugi wa Thiong’o should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

[UPDATE 13 February 2011. I am currently uploading photos and links to some my column in the Weekly Trust. I used this essay, slightly edited, as one of my columns on 18 December 2011: “Regarding Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse.’” To read the piece in the original version, click on the photo below which will take you to a photo large enough to read.

Creative Writing Workshop with Helon Habila, Abuja, July 16-22 (and an earlier review I wrote on his Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time)

Helon Habila, author of Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, and his latest  Oil on Water (publication date August 2010–but an excerpt from the novel published as a short story “Irekefe Island” can be read at the Virginia Quarterly Review), will be hosting a creative writing workshop in Abuja from July 16-22. For a chance to participate in the workshop, apply by June 20, 2010. The workshop is sponsored by Fidelity Bank. For more information about Habila’s workshop and other literary opportunities in Abuja, see the website of the Abuja Literary Forum. (UPDATE 21 July 2010: The final event, which is open to the public, will be held Thursday, 22 July 2010, 4pm, at the Abuja Sheraton.)

Helon Habila speaking at the closing ceremony for the Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop, Abuja, 22 July 2010 (c) Carmen McCain

Helon Habila speaking at the closing ceremony for the Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop, Abuja, 22 July 2010 (c) Carmen McCain

In my opinion, Helon Habila is one of Nigeria’s best contemporary prose stylists, although I may be biased as my (very flawed) MA thesis was an analysis of his first novel Waiting for an Angel. Elsewhere on this blog, I have posted an interview I did with him in November 2007 and my thoughts on a piece he wrote in Next questioning the actions of the Kano State Censor’s Board. In January 2008, I had also posted a review of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time on my personal blog, which I will re-post here:

My review of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time

If you’ve never read anything by the Caine and Commonwealth prize winning author Helon Habila, the first thing to know is that his use of language is exquisite. The second thing to know is that he makes generous use of irony. Although he is a clearly political writer, he questions over-easy assumptions and political binaries. In his latest novel, Measuring Time, Habila continues the project he began in his debut novel Waiting for an Angel—that is to tell history through the eyes of ordinary people.

Waiting for an Angel opens in a prison setting. The imprisoned journalist Lomba is engaged in a battle of wits with the prison superintendent who is extorting poetry from his prisoner in an attempt to impress a woman. If Lomba’s story were told in a straight line, the way it might appear in his prison file, it would be the story of a failure: a student who drops out of university, who loses friends to madness and military violence and the women he loves to other men, a writer who never finishes his novel and whose journalistic career is cut short by his arrest in the slums of Lagos. However, this is not the story that Habila tells. By breaking up and rearranging the linear story of Lomba’s life, he wrests control of the narrative away from an environment-determined fate. The novel starts at the end of the chronological sequence and then circles back to gather stories of other characters in Lomba’s Lagos: a young boy banished from his home in Jos for smoking Indian hemp, an abandoned out-of-wedlock mother, an intellectual in a tragic love affair with a former student turned prostitute, the daughter of a general whose mother is dying of cancer, a disillusioned woman who runs a neighborhood eatery, a man who defies the soldiers on the night of Abacha’s coup, an editor pursued by the police who refuses to go into exile, a legless tailor who dreams of bidding poverty goodbye.

While the form of Waiting for an Angel reflects the frenetic beat of life in Lagos, the small town setting of Habila’s second novel Measuring Time allows for a more meandering pace. Mamo and LaMamo are twins growing up in the middlebelt town of Keti, and they hate their father, a womanizing businessman with political ambitions. They hate him for breaking their mother’s heart before she died giving birth to them, and they hate him for his long absences and his neglect. The twins’ simultaneous desire for revenge and quest for fame ends in their separation. When LaMamo runs away in search of adventure as a mercenary soldier, Mamo’s sickle cell anemia forces him to stay at home, spending more and more time in his imagination. The narrative of Mamo’s day to day life in Keti is rhythmically punctuated by adventure-filled letters from LaMamo as he travels around West Africa. Mamo reimagines events in Nigerian history: the poet Christopher Okigbo did not die in Biafra but instead lay down his gun to travel around Africa with Mamo’s Uncle Haruna. LaMamo enacts Mamo’s imagined story, becoming a soldier-poet who reports from the Liberian war front, and his words capture the spiritual horror and the boredom of war as it is rarely recorded in international news. The twins long for the other: while Mamo imagines adventures beyond the borders of his small town, LaMamo constantly searches for reminders of home in foreign lands.
The narrative of Measuring Time is frequently interrupted by folktales told by Mamo’s Auntie Marina, letters from LaMamo and a professor in Uganda who becomes Mamo’s mentor, excerpts from the memoir of the first missionary in Keti, his wife’s diary, and colonial reports, and the oral histories told by other characters. One of the most remarkable aspects of Habila’s prose is this inclusion of multiple genres alongside a continuous pattern of tributes to preexisting literary works. In Waiting for an Angel, he borrows the character of the prison superintendent from Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and gives him some of the associations of the folkloric dodo, a dim-witted monster who is often outwitted by the youth he kidnaps. Throughout the rest of Waiting for an Angel he references writers as varied as Ayi Kwei Armah, Ousmane Sembene, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Franz Kafka, John Donne, and Sappho. Similarly in Measuring Time, he bundles together Plutarch, Christopher Okigbo, William Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Alex La Guma, the Arabian Nights and Faust legends, as well as references to oral tales and Nigerian video films. The effect of these competing voices is to open up the boundaries between his fiction and other fictions and historical accounts that lie outside the novel. The illusion of a smooth, progressive, and abbreviated history, such as the Brief History of West Africa that is brought to Lomba in prison (as the Letters of Queen Victoria had been brought to Soyinka in prison) is a false one. Habila’s fictional histories play a function similar to the colonial history the Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in which the district commissioner writes only a paragraph on a man who has been the subject of Achebe’s entire novel. Habila parallels Achebe’s fictional colonial text in Measuring Time with the missionary text A Brief History of the People’s of Keti by Reverend Drinkwater.

It is with these “brief histories” that Habila’s project in both Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time becomes clear. Mamo is determined to write a history that does not “cut details” as the colonial histories had—a history that tells the stories of “individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer” (MT 180). The traditional ruler’s story he has been hired to write, Mamo states, is “simply a part of the other biographies…. [that he would] eventually compile to form a biographical history of Keti. That’s what history really is, people and their lives, no matter how we try to manipulate it. It is the story of real people with real weaknesses and strengths and… not about some founding fathers and … even if we want to write about the founding fathers we shouldn’t privilege them, we should place them on par with other ordinary folks…” (225). In Mamo’s subsequent “biographical history,” he writes of his father the failed politician, and his aunt the divorced wife, placing their stories alongside the less than glorious history of the mai, the traditional ruler, of Keti. Every story has its own place alongside the others. When LaMamo returns with a revolutionary fervour reminiscent of Ngugi’s Matigari, the separate lives of the twins blend and become one—LaMamo’s panAfrican experience and his soon to be born child are given into Mamo’s safekeeping and for recording into Mamo’s history of Keti.

Such a history is not merely a radical rewrite of racist colonial histories but an empathetic window into the lives of even the unpleasant characters. The characterization of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel follows Soyinka’s original caricature, but the man is given a more complex psychology. He is a man grieving for his dead wife, a father of a young son. As Lomba realizes when he meets the superintendent’s girlfriend, “The superintendent had a name, and a history, maybe even a soul” (WfA 37). While in Measuring Time, the sleepy-eyed traditional ruler of Keti and his evil vizier take on the typed characteristics of folktale or a video film, most of the characters in Measuring Time are treated with complexity and compassion. When LaMamo calls the old widows who had pursued their father all his life “shameless old women,” Mamo reminds him that “they weren’t so bad… People are just people” (MT 343). And although the missionary Reverend Drinkwater may have misrepresented the history of Keti, his family has become a part of the history of the town. The missionary’s daughters, now old women, live in Keti, tending their parents’ graves. Although they are not Nigerian, they belong in Keti. It is the only life they have ever known.

This concern with multiple perspectives on history is behind what at first glance might seem to be an editorial flaw in Habila’s two novels. When reconstructed in both novels, time doesn’t quite add up. According to the chronology given in “Mamo’s notes toward a biography of the Mai,” the number of years between the installation of the first mai by the British and the current mai should be about thirty two or three years, yet the time period is stretched from 1918 up to the 1980s (MT 238-240). The year-long planning period for the celebration of the mai’s tenth anniversary seems to turn into three. Similarly in Waiting for an Angel, the time between Lomba’s stay at the university and his imprisonment seem much longer than the actual historical tenure of Abacha’s regime. He supposedly meets and falls back in love with an old girlfriend some time after he becomes a journalist. Yet, two weeks before he is arrested (after he has worked at the Dial for two years), another girlfriend, with whom he has lived for a year, leaves him. The times between the two love affairs don’t quite seem to add up.

Placing the novels side by side gives a hint to what Habila is doing here. In Waiting for an Angel, Habila gathers up historical events that happened along a spectrum of ten years and bundles them into the space of a week. Although Nigeria is kicked out of the Commonwealth in November 1995, in the novel, a week after this event, Dele Giwa, the editor of Newswatch Magazine, is assassinated by a parcel bomb on the same day that Kudirat Abiola is assassinated by gunmen. Of course, historically, the two activists were killed ten years apart: Dele Giwa during the Babangida regime in October 1986 and Kudirat Abiola during the Abacha regime in June 1996. The quickening rhythm of disaster in this chapter of Waiting for an Angel parallels the last quarter of the Measuring Time in which Mamo falls into the hard-partying lifestyle of corrupt politicians, religious riots break out, and the quiet town of Keti goes up in flames. Time here is not a mathematical iambic pentameter that can be measured with a clock, but a living fluctuating force that lags behind and loops around to find the stories of multiple characters. It reminds me of the way time acts in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or in oral tales and epics. It cannot be diagramed into a dry progression of events such as those found in A Brief History of West Africa or A Brief History of the Peoples of Keti but instead can only be mediated through the memories of those who experienced it. In his afterward to Waiting for an Angel, Habila acknowledges the liberties he has taken with the chronological order of events, “[N]ot all of the above events are represented with strict regard to time and place—I did not feel obliged to do that; that would be mere historicity. My concern was for the story, that above everything else” (WfA 229).

Mamo’s story of Keti, like the story of Lomba in Waiting for an Angel, becomes in miniature the story of Nigeria—not that it can represent all the complex and multi-faceted stories of the nation, but that it offers an example of what can be written: the individual stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Habila layers his work onto that of older writers such as Achebe and Ngugi who rewrote colonial history in their early works, and joins other contemporary Nigerian writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole whose writing seems similarly concerned with providing entry points into historical events as lived by ordinary people. Measuring Time ends with the performance of a play by church women’s group, both celebrating and mocking the appearance of the missionary Reverend Drinkwater into Keti history. Mamo realizes that through their caricatured performance, they are telling the story on their own terms, invoking a way of life much older than the colonial encounter: “They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs: they had done this before when they first met the Komda, and many times before that in their travels and migrations, in times earlier than even the oldest among them could remember. This was their wisdom, the secret of their survival. This was why they were still able to laugh… each generation would bring to this play its own interpretation” (MT 382). This at root is the power of Habila’s work—the ability of humanity to laugh in the face of tragedy—the ability to undermine stories that have been told for you by telling them yourself.

Presenting in Abuja today on the importance of contemporary Hausa literature

For those in Abuja, I will be presenting today on the importance of contemporary Hausa literature to national and world literature.  You are welcome to come heckle me. Greenlines Restaurant, 11 Aba close off Ogbomosho Street, Area 8, Garki. 5pm. Friday.

(Update 7 February 2010, Sunday: Another related event tonight, 6pm, GAP, Play bar and lounge, close to Pennial Apartments, Maitama, Abuja. I will be talking informally about Hausa literature and film.)

AN ELLITERATE INITIATIVE POWERED BY THE NATIONAL FILM AND VIDEO CENSORS BOARD, G.A.P

UPDATE 8 February 2010, since my presentations I have received questions about the details of the publication, etc, and I compiled this list of links. There are far more, but this is a good introduction:
Interview with Hausa novelist Sa’adatu Baba:http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=43816

Interview with bestselling author Bilkisu Funtua:
http://ibrahim-sheme.blogspot.com/2007/04/bilkisu-funtuwa-interview.html

Interview with groundbreaking author Balaraba Ramat Yakubu:
http://www.nigeriafilms.com/content.asp?contentid=2774&ContentTypeID=2

Interview with the first female novelist who wrote in Hausa Hafsat Abdulwahid: http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/5501274-147/story.csp

Another interview with Hafsat Abdulwahid:
http://www.africanwriter.com/articles/310/1/Interview-with-Hafsatu-Ahmed-Abdulwahid/Page1.html

Info on the current censorship crisis in Kano:
http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=43857

Hausa Popular Literature Database at SOAS, London:http://hausa.soas.ac.uk/

“Hausa literary movement and the 21st century” by Yusuf Adamu: http://www.kanoonline.com/publications/pr_articles_hausa_literary_movement.html

“Between the word and the screen: A historical perspective on the Hausa Literary movement and the Home video invastion” academic article by Yusuf Adamu

“Hausa popular literature and the video film” academic article by Graham Furniss: http://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/workingpapers/FurnissHausa.pdf

“Loud Bubbles from a Silent Brook: Trends and Tendencies in Contemporary Hausa Prose Writing” academic article by Abdalla Uba Adamu
http://inscribe.iupress.org/doi/abs/10.2979/RAL.2006.37.3.133

“Islamic-Hausa Feminism Meets Northern Nigerian Romance: The Cautious Rebellion of Bilkisu Funtuwa” academic article by Novian Whitsitt
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4106/is_200304/ai_n9219184/

“Parallel Worlds: Reflective Womanism in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Ina son sa haka” academic article by Prof Abdalla Uba Adamu
http://www.africaresource.com/jenda/issue4/adamu.html

Hausa writer’s database (in hausa):
http://marubutanhausa.blogspot.com/

My blog post on a Hausa writer’s conference in Niger:http://carmenmccain.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/a-hausa-literary-expedition-to-damagaram-zinder-niger/

etc, etc, etc….

Mukoma wa Ngugi nominated for the Caine Prize

Mukoma wa Ngugi (c) Carmen McCain

Mukoma wa Ngugi, September 2007 (c) Carmen McCain

I found out yesterday that my buddy Mukoma wa Ngugi has been nominated and shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.  The winner will be announced on July 6, 2009. Past winners have included (oh yes) Helon Habila, Monica Arec de Nyeko, Binyavanga Wainaina, Leila Aboulela,Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, S.A. Afolabi, and others. You can read Mukoma’s nominated short story “How Kamau wa Mwangi Escaped into Exile” , which I was privileged to read still in draft a few years ago before its June 2008 publication in Wasafiri, here.  

Congratulations, Mukoma! And good luck! So exciting!
 

Image (c) Carmen McCain

Helon Habila speaks on censorship in Kano

Helon Habila liest, P02

Helon Habila liest, P02 (Photo credit: lutzland)

(a post in which I meditate on my research obsessions and recommend a recent opinion piece on “Art and Censorship in Kano” by multiple award-winning Nigerian novelist Helon Habila)

In Helon Habila’s first novel Waiting for an Angel, which was the subject of my MA thesis, he blurs the boundaries between his characters’ fictions and the reality of the world they live in. Originally self-published as a collection of short stories Prison Stories, the novel is fractured into stories told from multiple perspectives about “ordinary” people living out their lives in the “prison state” of Nigeria under the Abacha regime. The artist, Habila implies, provides a challenge to oppressive structures by gathering up the voices of poor ordinary people, so often lost in official propaganda, and putting them into print. The novel is not merely a litany of hopelessness, although the hardship of poverty is illustrated, but also captures the loud irreverent conversations in a Lagos “Mama Put” joint on Morgan street, which has been re-named “Poverty Street” by its inhabitants and the vivid dreams of ordinary people for a better life.

One striking scene shows the main character Lomba, a journalist and aspiring novelist, watch a fictional scene he had written for his paper come to life. Lomba’s characters reflect what his editor James tells him to capture: the “general disillusionment, the lethargy” of being trapped into a story where “One general goes, another one comes, but the people remain stuck in the same vicious groove. Nothing ever changes for them except the particular details of their wretchedness. They’ve lost all faith in the government’s unending transition programmes. Write on that”  (113). The story that Lomba writes is filled with “ubiquitous gun and whip-toting soldiers,”  “potbellied, glaucomatous kids” playing in gutters alongside the carcasses of “mongrel dogs worried by vultures” (118). This story does, indeed, seem to reflect the despair of life in a prison until the end of the story where he writes of “the kerosene-starved house-wives of Morgan Street. I make them rampage the streets, tearing down wooden signboards and billboards and hauling them away to their kitchens to use as firewood” (118). This moment suggests both the extremity of the environment, which has forced the people of Morgan street against the wall, as well as the agency of the women who take their futures into their own hands. And although James removes the celebratory conclusion before publication, telling Lomba he is “laying it on a bit too thick,” on his way home, Lomba sees an angry mob of women who “set to hacking and sawing” at a large billboard advertising condoms. It is Lomba’s knowledge of the script that allows him to tell the man next to him that “‘They are not crazy. They are just gathering firewood’ I explained to him. It was my writing acting itself out. And James thought I had had laid it on too thick. I wish he were here to see reality mocking his words.”

Although Lomba’s first reaction is one of hopelessness that “we are only characters in a story and our horizon is so narrow and so dark[,]” this episode is a revolutionary moment in the text (119). While Lomba, as well as the women outside the window of the Molue, may be characters in a story, this moment marks a remarkable departure from the prophecies of prison and death foretold by a marabout in another “story” in the novel. The porous borders between Lomba’s fiction and his reality that allow his writing to act itself out indicate the possibilities of the imagination—the possibility that while caught in a the literary metaphor of a prison, the “prisoners” might turn around and revolt. Lomba, and subsequently the mob of women, take the text into their own hands and appropriate the property of the state to sustain their own needs

In recently thinking about my research interests on Nigerian films and  “meta-fictions,” I realize that what obsessed me about Waiting for an Angel is also what obsesses me about Nigerian and particularly Hausa films, both in the reflection of the stories of “ordinary people” so often seen in these films and in a projective imagination that often (although certainly not always) challenges injustices by acting as what Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentions as a crucial aspect of art, that of a mirror, which “reflects whatever is before it—beauty spots, warts, and all” (1998, 21). People are rarely passive in these films. Beloved comedians like ‘dan Ibro often skewer the rich and powerful in their satirical stories.

I’ve heard people complain that there is too much “shouting” in Nigerian films, yet to me this “shouting” becomes a powerful metaphor for what Nigerian films have done for the “voiceless.” Gayatri Spivak has asked if the “subaltern can speak”? While I want to be over-cautious about over-romanticizing Nigerian films, which often do reproduce Nigerian society’s worst stereotypes of women and offer alarmingly unhealthy “solutions” to problems, I think one of the reasons I love the films so much is because they do seem to allow the “subaltern” to speak, both literally (in that so many of the film participants come from poor backgrounds) and metaphorically.

Attempts to suppress these films, therefore, seem like the attempts of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel to suppress and co-opt the voice of the writer Lomba. The writer is imprisoned, seemingly muzzled, but attempts to suppress his voice ultimately prove to be impossible. Lomba smuggles stories about his “life in prison” through metaphoric language in his “love poems” commissioned by the prison superintendent for the woman he is woo-ing.

Hausa films are often dismissed for being “just love stories.” But stories of love can be powerful. There is often more going on than the reader of surfaces will find.

I was thrilled, therefore, this morning to find that Helon Habila has recently brought together my two research obsessions in a recent article in one of my favourite new publications, NEXT: “Art and Censorship in Kano.”  In the article, he both challenges simplistic critiques of Nigerian films and meditates on the “politics” of censorship. As Habila points out, while Nigerian films are not always polished “cinema” pieces, they have “made movie making a grass roots experience.”

[UPDATE: 19 October 2013. While I was doing a little blog maintenance, I was afraid I had lost access to this article because NEXT went out of business a few years ago and took all their content with them. Fortunately, Sola at Naija Rules had copied the article over on her site. I've previously been irked when Nigerianfilms.com and other such sites have copied my blog content without permission, but I am beginning to be grateful for these sites that make articles available long after the original sites have gone down. I am re-copying Helon Habila's article here for archival purposes.]

Art and censorship in Kano

By Helon Habila

It is so easy to underestimate the achievement of the Nigerian film industry, and this is because we always measure such achievements using false parameters—we compare Nollywood to Bollywood and Hollywood.

Whenever we do that, Nollywood will always come short of our unreasonable expectations. How long has it been in existence? Ten, maybe 20 years? What of Hollywood, over a hundred years? And Bollywood, when was Sholay made, 1960?

The extent of what our film makers have achieved in the short time they have been here was pointed out to me by a Nigerian/South African director friend.

When I asked him to compare the two film industries, he said, South Africa has all the right tools and techniques, they make movies on celluloid and with multiple cameras and have the right post-production requirements, but Nigeria doesn’t have all that, yet South Africans can’t get people to watch their movies whereas the Nigerian movies are practically jumping off the shelves.

It is true South Africa makes great movies, like Tsotsi, every once in a long while, but Nigeria has made movie making a grass roots experience. That is the paradox: whereas movie making in Nollywood is nondemocratic and cliquey, yet the consciousness towards it, and the patronage, is widespread.

This mass patronage and consciousness is indispensable if any nation is going to have a viable film industry. And we are achieving all this without government participation, or should I say, in spite of government participation.

And government participation is what brings me to Kano. The industry here is called Kannywood (what else?) Most people outside the Hausa speaking world aren’t really aware of it, but it has been going on for a while. Just as Nollywood’s progenitors are the early Nigerian soap operas like “Behind the Clouds”, “After the Storm”, etc, Kannywood also grew on the back of popular Hausa TV ‘dramas’ like “Samanja”, “Karkuzu”, and of course “Kasimu Yero’s Gagarau”.

Other unmistakable influences are Bollywood movies. The Indian influence on Hausa films can at best be described as odd, at worst weird—here I am not only talking about the excessively romantic nature of Hausa movies, the love theme could easily have come from Hausa literature, but I am talking about the song and dance numbers. It seems each film has about three songs and dances.

I remember the first time I saw a Hausa film, nobody had warned me that there was going to be singing and dancing, and so when it came I was taken totally unawares, and yes, I was disconcerted to watch these Nigerians singing and dancing on the streets of Kano.

That was the first impression. The second impression was: Well, the songs are really not that bad, if you are a song and dance kind of person. All in all one wished the songs would end quickly so the movie would resume.

But this piece is not really about aesthetics, it is about art and politics.

These actors would have gone on singing and dancing in peace, and mostly unnoticed by most Nigerians outside the Hausa speaking world if not for what has come to be dubbed the “Hausa Film Porn Scandal”. It seems in August 2007, a popular Hausa film actress, Maryam Hiyana, was filmed making love to her boyfriend, by the said boyfriend. In their defence they said it wasn’t for commercial purposes, so that technically means it is not porn, but somehow the eight-minute clip was leaked to the public and this began a series of what can only be described as a siege on the film industry by the Kano State government. And to quote a source, “So far, according to Ahmed Alkanawy, director of the Centre for Hausa Cultural Studies, over 1000 youth involved in the film industry and related entertainment industries ‘have been arrested in the name of shari’ah and sanitization.’ … However, although shari’ah law is invoked, most ‘censorship’-related cases are being tried in a state magistrate court, a mobile court on Airport Road presided over by magistrate Mukhtar Ahmed.

Defendants are often arrested and convicted within an hour, without the benefit of legal representation. Some are given prison sentences while others are given the option of paying a fine.”

A popular actor, Rabilu Musa (Dan Ibro), was arrested for “indecent dancing”!

What I find most chilling is a book-burning ceremony staged in a girls’ school. Book burning, in a school! The government may as well close down the school, for by burning books in front of students, the whole aim of educating them is defeated.

Even individual writers were required to register before writing!

The most recent case is the arrest of a former gubernatorial candidate Hamisu Lamido Iyan Tama—a film maker whose film, “Tsintsiya”, is an adaptation of the Hollywood classic, “Westside Story”. He was first arrested in May 2008 for three months and fined 2,500 naira, then in January 2009 he was sentenced to 15 months with a fine of N300,000. It seems in the movie, he acted the role of a governor and carried out an investigation into the causes of sectarian violence.

Here, at last, the government is showing its hand. Whenever an art form begins to go beyond entertainment and to appeal to people’s political consciousness, the people in power become scared. That seems to be the case with Kano.

The question to ask is, are the censors working in the interest of the people, or are they using religion for political ends as we have seen so often in the shari’ah states? Any society that seeks to silence the artist is attacking the people, for often it is only the artist that can articulate the secret hopes and yearnings of the people.

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The Heroism of Ordinary People: An Interview with Helon Habila

Nigerian writer Helon Habila at the Göteborg B...

Nigerian writer Helon Habila at the Göteborg Book Fair 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is an interview I did with Nigerian novelist Helon Habila about a year ago, November 2007. I did my MA thesis on his novel Waiting for an Angel, and was thrilled to get to interview him for Leadership newspaper.

Award winning novelist Helon Habila grew up in Gombe State. After earning his BA in English at the University of Jos in 1995, he taught at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi. Moving to Lagos in 1999, he became the arts editor at the Vanguard and wrote a novel, published as Waiting for An Angel in 2002, which won the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2001 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. Habila has published stories, articles, and poems in journals world-wide and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. After a stint as the first Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in New York, Habila took a position at George Mason University where he teaches creative writing. He is in Nigeria from November 17 to November 24 to promote his second novel Measuring Time. In this interview on behalf of LEADERSHIP, he speaks with Carmen McCain, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, about his writing.

CARMEN MCCAIN: I was wondering what your creative process is like. Where do your stories come from?

HABILA: I really cannot say exactly, but I am really inspired by books. Sometimes I write in reaction to books I have read. Then there is also my experience: Measuring Time has a lot of that—my experiences as a child growing up. There was a time when I realised that I wanted to write about my hometown. From that moment whatever I did I viewed it through the eyes of fiction, thinking of how to represent the people I met, the things I did, the places I saw. I was thinking of them as already a part of my book that I was going to write. I was going to write Measuring Timeeven before I started writing Waiting for an Angel.

In both of your novels the act of writing itself seems to take on a political significance. What, to you, is the political responsibility of the writer?

Well, quite a lot, especially as an African writer. I think there is that tradition which started from the first generation of African writers. They were writing against the whole colonial system, which was very repressive, very racist, very dictatorial. They actually used to have congresses where they would discuss the best way to write fiction in a way that would address the political issues of the day. Even before that, in traditional African society, from the folk tales, there’s always a kind of moral lesson, a kind of didacticism that is seen as an aesthetic part of that story. So politics more or less becomes an aesthetic in African fiction. There are no boundaries between what is purely political and what is art. Art becomes politics and politics becomes art. So I think people like me who find themselves in that tradition, and have that temperament, that awareness of what is going on, who feel that things shouldn’t be the way they are, have a duty to speak out. It is tradition and it’s also a matter of temperament, because there are definitely writers in Africa who don’t write about politics. They write art for art’s sake, or whatever you want to call it.

Could you say more about the influences of Hausa literature on

Helon Habila liest, P13

Helon Habila liest, P13 (Photo credit: lutzland)

your writing?

Definitely. I grew up reading the translation of One Thousand and One Nights in Hausa and the works of Abubakar Imam, Magana Jari Ce, Ruwan Bagaja, etc. So there is that magical or folkloric representation of reality, which is very different from pure realism. I was definitely influenced by that. And before that I was also influenced by folktales told to me by women in the compound. So, these Hausa books I discovered later were almost a continuation of that story tradition with the magical elements, spirit figures and things like that.

Both of your novels deal with history. In Measuring Time, the character Mamo wants to write a biographical history. Is this one of your own goals?

Definitely, I think so. Because so much that we have is fast fading away and being taken over by the modern, I see writing itself as cultural conservation. That is exactly what Mamo’s project is, conserving the history of people…, because they were misrepresented by the [missionary] Reverend Drinkwater. If you represent what has been misrepresented, you are putting the records right. And that is what history is supposed be. Taking moments of glory, and also ordinary moments—moments of humanity, of value to the community, and putting it down in books. It doesn’t have to be about generals, it doesn’t have to be about chiefs, it could be about ordinary people, their heroism. That is the whole point of the book, that lives should be celebrated, regardless of what office or what lack of office that person has.

Newton Aduaka, the winner of the Golden Yennenga Stallion at the FESPACO film festival, is making a film based on Waiting for an Angel. How involved have you been with this?

I’m not really involved. I’m just the author of the novel. I see film as being totally different from literature. They are both narrative art forms, but they have different ways of representing their story, their subject. I trust him as an artist. I think my novel is strong enough to stand on its own, even if the movie is a bit different in some of its portrayals.

Have you ever thought of writing a screenplay or becoming involved in film?

I really want to do that some day. Some people approached me to write a movie script. I started writing it and then it became a novel! I’m really enjoying the experience. I don’t know how far it’s going to go, but I’m definitely going to go into movies one of these days. To write, or even direct, if I have the chance. The movie industry is just incredible, and I think this is the moment to get involved.
All right, thank you so much.

Thank you, you’re welcome.