My Interview with French Magazine Grazia about contemporary Hausa Novels ” Boko Haram et les noces de papier”

This afternoon the internet at the university was working so I decided to do a little googling.

A Hausa novelist called me yesterday a bit frustrated that a few international journalists had called her over the phone to interview her but had never sent her the link to their article after it was written. I told her I would keep an eye out for any articles with her name in them and forward them on to her. (Incidentally, despite my kvetching about how Hausa literature has been covered by armchair journalists in the past few months, here is one of the best articles I’ve seen. A feature on Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu by Femke Van Zeijl on Al Jazeera.) So, this afternoon after teaching my class of the day, I began to google.

Imagine what I should find among all the sensational headlines I talked about in my last blog post … An interview with myself in a French magazine Grazia from October 2015 that I did not know had been published. My French is not fantastic, but with the help of google translate and the wonderful hover function that allows you to read the original in French alongside the robot-generated English translation, I was able to read the interview. It had been translated into French from an email I had sent a journalist back in September in answer to a few queries for background information.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 4.32.20 PM

Screenshot of my interview with Grazia. Featured photograph by Glenna Gordon shows Firdausy El-yakub reading a Hausa novel while waiting for the university to go off strike.

From the very beginning let me address a couple of embarrassing errors. If I understand how I am being represented in the introduction correctly, I am not “LA”/”THE” (in all caps) global specialist on Hausa culture. People have been writing about Hausa culture for centuries. If you want to talk about THE global specialist on contemporary Hausa popular culture, I would give that honour to Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, the recently appointed Vice Chancellor of The Open University, Nigeria, who has written dozens of articles and a few books on Hausa literature, film, music, and other aspects of popular culture. I have mostly written about Kannywood, the Hausa film industry, but I have also been researching Hausa novels and literary culture since 2005 when I was in Sokoto on a language course. I hope to publish more on the novels in the future. Of course, many scholars preceded me in this interest. The second issue is one of translation. There is at least one spot where I have been mistranslated,  which I will try to clear up here. (I wrote “at the same time,” and it was translated “paradoxically,” completely changing the meaning and tone of what I was saying.)

Now about the interview, the journalist had sent me an email in September 2015 asking if I could answer a few background questions on Hausa literature for an article she was writing on Glenna Gordon’s photographs, which were later published as Diagram of the Heart. Grazia was planning to go to press with the photographs and the article soon, she said, so I needed to get back to them within a few days.

I spent a few hours that evening answering her questions in an email. I thought it was just for background information for an article about the photographs, and that she would quote me here and there on points of information. I did not realize it would be published as an interview, especially when in response to my long email, she let me know that the project was on hold. I was a little annoyed that I had spent so much time answering the questions to meet a publication deadline that looked like it wasn’t going to happen. But that was that.

Now that I find it as an interview, I’m honoured and gratified that they published a good chunk of what I spent a few hours to write up (that time was not wasted!). I’m also happy to see my own words published at length rather than used out of context in the sort of sensationalistic articles I critiqued in my last post. But I’m also a little alarmed, as I had not realized that what I wrote would be published as an interview, and bemused that I am only just finding it now via google.

Journalists need to do better about sending their sources links to articles they write with information that sources have given them. I have ranted about this on Twitter. But I realize, with some guilt, that this includes myself, as I am not always wonderful about staying in touch with all of my contacts either. I realize people are busy going on to the next story, and as a journalist reminded me on Twitter, they don’t always know when articles will be published. However, it seems to me that something as big as the publication of an interview deserves notification.

To clear up any English-French translation issues or places where context I gave was edited out in Grazia, here is much of the original email I sent (in English), lightly edited for clarity and grammar….

Just quickly before I spend time on the other questions, the Boko Haram angle is just a hook. The novels have nothing to do with Boko Haram, and women (and men) have been writing and self-publishing (and joining publishing cooperatives) since the 1980s. As far as I know, Boko Haram has never made any threats against novelists, and (although I am doing research for my own book in this area) I don’t know of any novelists who have directly referenced Boko Haram in their work. There probably is someone somewhere who has, but it would be a bit dangerous for them.
Yes, I guess you could say that the books are being sold in the same markets threatened by Boko Haram, but that is just a random connection. There are many things being sold in markets that have been targeted by Boko Haram. As far as I know, Boko Haram is not targeting novels. Also as for the censorship of the novels, that was only really very relevant during a censorship crisis in Kano from 2007 to 2011, and even then, there was only a very brief showdown between the novelists and the censors board before the Association of Nigerian Authors negotiated an arrangement whereby writers would register with the Kano branch of Association of Nigerian Authors, which would then send their list of writers to the Kano censor’s board. (For more description of the censorship crisis, see my article here and on my blog). Anyone looking to be outraged by “Islamic censorship” is about four years too late. As far as I know, very few novelists send their novels to be censored right now, although one novelist I interviewed a few weeks ago said she would send her novels there for editing.
 
–          Can you tell me more about the writers of this love literature ?  Are those writers representatives of their society / community ? Or are they exceptions (they can write and read, when just half of the young women are literate) ?
There are hundreds of novelists, both men and women, and thousands of novels. Also, although women writing romance novels are the writers that journalists love to focus on, there are also plenty of men writing, and there are some great thrillers, detective novels, historical fiction, fantasy adventures, etc. out there too. And although the novels frequently feature “love,” they are not always “romance” novels as Western audiences would think of them. A lot of it is the sort of family drama that one also sees in Kannywood films (the Hausa film industry). One of the best selling Hausa novels was Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s In da So da Kauna, which told of star crossed lovers, a rich girl and a poor boy who fought the disapproval of their families to find love. It sold over 200,000 copies. Popular novels are regularly read over the radio, so even people who cannot read or write can still often access the stories. I would say the novelists are probably fairly good representatives of their society. Of course, they would be among the more educated members of society, but some of the most famous writers, including Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu became literate during adult education. Scholar and novelist Yusuf Adamu notes that many people learned to read because they wanted to be able to read the novels, and other novelists and booksellers have told me the same thing.
–          How “famous” are they in their country (are some of them famous ? how popular are littattafan soyayya?)
The novelists are quite well known to readers. They are not well-known among Nigeria’s literary elite who write and read in English, but to those who read in Hausa, they are famous. The numbers of novels that novelists sell depend on their popularity. Some sell as few as 1000. Others sell more than 20,000. As I mentioned, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino actually sold over 200,000 copies of In da So da Kauna. Novelists often receive “fan mail,” telephone calls, and gifts from their readers. The novels are sold in markets all over northern Nigeria and into the Niger Republic and travel with the Hausa diaspora as far as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. As I mentioned previously, there are also radio shows in Nigeria and Niger where they read out the novels and call novelists in for radio and sometimes even TV interviews in Hausa. However, since Nigeria’s most well known authors (such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Elnathan John, and others) write in English, much academic and journalistic coverage of Nigerian literature covers only English-language literature. In my own scholarship and journalism, I try to bring more focus to Hausa-language literature and one of the most thriving literary scenes in the country.
 
–          In this part of the world, oral tradition is still the rule. What does the apparition of this literacy imply?
 
People have been writing in Hausa for centuries. Among the most famous Hausa writers is Nana Asma’u, the daughter of the reformer and founder of the Sokoto Caliphate Usman d’an Fodiyo. During the early 1800s, she wrote poetry, as well as historical and religious texts in Hausa, Arabic, Fulfulde, and Tamachek and also did translation work between those languages.(For more information you can see the books of Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd). She was also the founder of a system of Islamic education that focused on training women and girls in Islam and literacy. The oral tradition has certainly affected Hausa writing (and for more on that you can see the scholarship of Ousseina Alidou), but the appearance of popular literature in Hausa is by no means a “sudden apparition.”
Hausa novels have been written since the 1930s, when the colonial government held a writing contest to inspire people to write materials they could use in educating people in the new “roman” or “boko” script (as opposed to “ajami,” Hausa written in Arabic script). Some of the most famous early novelists in Hausa were Abubakar Imam (whose novels included a lot of fanciful stories gleaned both from the oral tradition and his wide reading of literature from other places, perhaps most significantly The Arabian Nights and other tale collections), Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa (Nigeria’s first prime minister who wrote the historical novel Shaihu Umar about the trans-Saharan slave trade) and others. Novels/plays up until the 1980s were largely published by government publishers and were usually meant for the classroom. Writing contests were held occasionally, and the first Hausa woman to publish a novel was Hafsat Abduwaheed, who won a 1979 writing contest. Her novel So Aljannar Duniya was published in 1980. It tells of an Arab-Fulani romance between lovers, who were haunted by a jealous jinn.  In the 1980s, as Yusuf Adamu and Abdalla Uba Adamu have pointed out, the upsurge of UBE (Universal Basic Education), implemented in Nigeria in the 1970s, and the advent of personal computers meant 1) there were a lot more readers and people ready to tell their own stories, 2) more avenues by which to publish them. This upsurge of readers and writers happened in the 1980s about the same time that IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Policies were crippling government infrastructure. Government publishing companies stopped publishing new novels, focusing on their stock list already selling to schools. The young people writing in the 1980s began forming cooperatives (see articles by Graham Furniss and Abdalla Uba Adamu) and self-publishing their novels. Sometimes they would sell the rights to their novels to the marketers (people who owned bookshops in the market). Other times they would just give to marketers to sell the novels for them and the money would trickle back to them that way.
 
As I mentioned, this is no sudden apparition of literacy. This is an environment where historical and religious writing in Arabic and Hausa goes as far back as the 1400s. However, the popular upsurge of popular writing in the 1980s and 1990s formed a thriving reading culture of young people. Readers often became writers or would start writing clubs where people could rent the novels. The novels re-entered “the oral tradition” by being read over the radio to listeners or sometimes by being adapted into films by the Hausa film industry.
 
–          Can you tell me how they write their books, alone/with friends, with notebooks/computers? Do they self-publish or ask for publication by government-subsidized publishers) ?

I cannot speak for all Hausa writers, but I know novelists who write their novels by hand in notebooks, which they later have typed. I also know novelists who write directly on their laptops (which can make for some tragedies when hard drives crash etc). There have been some writers who have sought out government support. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, for example, initially tried to get a government publisher to publish her first novel. They kept asking for so many changes, however, that she eventually self-published. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were some writer’s clubs which provided support to members as far as feedback, editing, and sometimes publishing assistance, but most people self-published. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes writers would approach book sellers and sell them the rights to the novels in exchange for a lump sum. Others would try to maintain the rights to the novels and get reimbursement for the novels sold. Through associations like the Association of Nigerian Authors, people often seek feedback and editing. The most influential writer’s club I know of right now is the Mace Mutum women’s writer’s association, which is active on Facebook and has a stall in the Kano market. It has also published one collection of short stories by women in the cooperation.

–          I read that some of the tales are about how to live life as a good Muslim and a good wife, some others are subversive. Why subversive? How? Do they criticize such things as polygamy, forced marriage, etc.?

For more information on novels, you can read Novian Whitsitt, Brian Larkin, Abdalla Uba Adamu, myself and others. Many novelists claim to “teach” and “preach” how to live a good life in their novels. There are novels, like those of Bilkisu Funtua Ahmed, for example, whom Novian Whitsitt points out, try to encourage women to have good marriages by pleasing their husbands. At the same time, she also encourages women’s education. The novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu that I have focused on in my research tend to be subversive by pointing to the unhappiness women in polygamous and forced marriages face and overall pointing fingers at the hypocrisies of men who are righteous on the outside but cruel, corrupt, and neglectful with their families. I have read other novels by other writers that dwell on similar discontent with the current state of affairs in family life in northern Nigeria. I have also read novels that romanticize marrying as a second wife. So, it really depends on each writer. Writers have their own voices and their own preoccupations just as French, British, or American writers do.

–          Most of the writers of “littattafan soyayya” live in Northern Nigeria, a region well known for being the cradle of Boko Haram, how risky is it ?
First of all, as I mentioned before, novels have been written in Hausa since the 1930s. The popular novels known as “littattafan soyayya” have been written since the 1980s. By contrast, Boko Haram did not really become a widespread threat to most of northern Nigeria until around 2010, although it has its roots in northeastern Nigeria in Borno State since the 1990s. I would say that as long as the writers do not directly write about Boko Haram, and I have not yet heard of any that have, they are no more at risk than any other normal person is. When you live in the north, you tend to go about your day to day life. There may be a bomb or attack that you cannot predict, but unless you are in the areas that Boko Haram has captured in Borno State, Yobe State, Adamawa State etc., you tend to go about your daily life and just try to be careful.
–          Not only do the writers face off with Islamic censors, but they also sell their books in markets that often hit the headlines for being targeted by suicide bombers…
 
As I mentioned before, this is an incidental point, and I would not make too much of it, if I were you. Novelists and booksellers have not been targeted by Boko Haram. Boko Haram is more likely to attack a public transportation hub or a cattle market or a cloth market (I am using examples of well known attacks on markets) than on a bookseller. If booksellers have been caught up in any suicide attacks, they were caught in it just as the sellers of plastic-wear, cloth, or electronics.
 
The most flagrant attacks on Hausa novels have not come from Boko Haram but from overzealous politicians. In 2007 and 2008, A Daidaita Sahu, the Societal Reorientation Directorate set up by the politician Ibrahim Shekarau during his 8 years as governor, organized several book burnings. One was held at a girl’s school, where school officials had raided girl’s hostels and brought out Hausa novels girls were reading to burn. A Daidaita Sahu gave them didactic novels they had sponsored writers to write. This only happened a few times, though, and A Daidaita Sahu was disbanded when Shekarau left government and the new governor Rabi’u Kwankwaso came in. So all this has much more to do with politics than Islam.
–          How much is it important for women in Northern Nigeria to be able to escape – even in just their mind – the reality of conflict ?
Life in Northern Nigeria is far more than “conflict,” and as I noted earlier, Boko Haram is still a fairly new phenomenon that people are still trying to get used to. The last time I visited Kano in July [2015], very few people were talking about Boko Haram. But people were talking about movies, and marriages, and funerals, and the new Shoprite shopping centre that had opened, and the end of Ramadan, and food. Readers approach the novels like a reader in France or the U.K. would approach popular literature. I’ve seen girls reading in taxis, at home, and at weddings. I’ve seen young men reading on film sets, in studios, and at home. People read to “escape” daily life, but in my research and conversations with writers, they often mentioned that they wrote about things that happened to them or things they felt needed to be discussed in society. So novels are seen as avenues not just of “escape” and entertainment but also seen as avenues for “advice” and “instruction.”
If you have any other questions, please let me know.
Carmen
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3 responses to “My Interview with French Magazine Grazia about contemporary Hausa Novels ” Boko Haram et les noces de papier”

  1. Heh. It would seem the journalists, as you’ve also pointed out from other articles on Glenna Gordon’s book, are preempting a kind of, “These authors are being hunted down by Boko Haram for writing about love and romance,” or “These women brave bombs, ostracism, etc, when they write their stories,” sensationalism. So clear from the questions, they keep hedging. SMH.

    I like the way you handled it, kept drumming it into their (her?) ears that it’s always been a way of life, and that life in those parts of Nigeria mostly goes on as usual.

  2. Hannah, yeah. Both of us are frustrated by how people take nuanced photographs and detailed information and turn it into sensationalistic and often offensive stereotypes. I am pleased, however, by the journalists who do it right. Femke Van Zeijl published a fantastic profile of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu the other day: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/03/illiterate-child-bride-famous-nigerian-novelist-160304155141087.html

  3. Pingback: 6 – Writing Freedom

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