Category Archives: African literature

A Win for Translation: Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s novel Tram 83 wins Etisalat Prize for African Literature. (And I archive my articles of 2013 critiquing lack of translation)

The Etisalat Prize for Literature just announced its 2015 prize for African Literature at a ceremony in Victoria Island, Lagos. The winner of the £15,000 prize is Congolese novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila for his novel Tram 83, originally written in French and published by Éditions Métailié, Paris in 2014, and translated  from French to English by Roland Glasser for Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas.  I have not yet read the novel, but I picked it up at the most recent Modern Language Association Conference on the recommendation of Aaron Bady. So, it is going onto the top of my reading list.

Let’s use this space to celebrate, also, the translator Roland Glasser, who writes here about the process of translating the novel. Glasser watched the ceremony via live webcast (Etisalat, couldn’t you have brought the translator to the event as well? This makes me also wonder if the prize money will be split at all?)

Tram 83‘s  win is exciting on multiple levels, but I am the most excited about the reversal of Etisalat’s 2013 policy that the prize would only be given to works written originally in English. See the twitter conversation I had with the organization in June 2013.

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I criticized the policy in my column in Weekly Trust, part of a two-week critique of African literary prizes inspired by my time at the 2013 Africa Writes event in London. Rather bizarrely the South African literary website Books Live, picked up on my critique of the Etisalat Prize and gave it a headline.

Since the time I wrote my critique, there have been many changes for the better. In 2015, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Lizzy Atree founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, In October 2013 Words Without Borders published a special issue on African women writing in indigenous languages, Abuja-based Cassava Republic/Ankara Press published a special Valentine’s Day anthology in 2015 featuring stories written in African languages translated by well-known authors, and Nairobi-based Jalada published a special language issue in 2015. Since 2015, Praxis Magazine has also been making an effort to publish creative work in African languages and in translation. There has been an upsurge of interest in Hausa literature, brought about by both the 2012 publication of Aliyu Kamal’s English language translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home by Indian publisher Blaft, and Glenna Gordon’s 2015 book of photography Diagram of the Heart that features gorgeous images of Hausa novelists. And now the Etisalat Prize for African Literature has become truly pan-African in awarding a Francophone novel translated into English, not from London but from Lagos. (The prize is in pounds rather than naira, but I suppose we have to take one thing at a time.) I hope the next big news will be that a pan-African prize is awarded to a novel translated from an African language.

In the meantime, I have realized I have not archived either one of my 2013 articles on the Africa Writes event or the Etisalat prize on this blog, so I will copy them below here:

Defining the “African story” in London: a preliminary response to the African Writes Festival at the British Library

It was around 10:20pm on 8 July in London. Just as I was handing my boarding pass to the ticket agent at Heathrow airport, I refreshed my phone screen and saw the news that Nigerian-American Tope Folarin had won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Miracle,” a subtle well-crafted story set in a Nigerian church in the American state of Texas.

I had spent the weekend at the Africa Writes Festival hosted at the British Library in London, hanging out with the lovely Tope Folarin, as well as my two friends Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who had also been shortlisted for the prize. After finding my window seat and chatting a moment with my seatmate in Hausa, I asked her “have you followed the Caine Prize at all?” “Not really,” she said. “I’ve been so upset about the killing of these school children in Yobe.”
My heart dropped. As I kept refreshing the twitter homepage on my phone, waiting for the winner of the Caine Prize to be announced, I had seen some chatter on twitter about a school attack. I suddenly remembered the Facebook message my cousin had sent me a few days before condoling me on the school attack and saying she was praying for Nigeria. I hadn’t known what she was talking about, and I didn’t google the news. I was too busy going to the festival and seeing London-based friends, too sleep deprived from late nights of gadding about with writers. I did not read the full story of the attacks in which, according to Leadership, forty-two students and teachers at a Yobe boarding school were shot in their beds Saturday morning by invaders, until I arrived back in Nigeria on Tuesday morning.

The juxtaposition of the two news items made me think about the ongoing debate about the Caine Prize and “stereotypes” about Africa. Last year in my article “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story,” I questioned the rhetoric of last year’s chair of the prize, British-Nigerian novelist Bernadine Evaristo, who said it is time “to move on” past stories of suffering in Africa. At the Africa Writes festival on a panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” on 6 July, Evaristo continued in this vein, speaking about how during her tenure with the prize, “I was absolutely determined that we were not going to have any traumatized children winning this prize.” She described her “battle” to make sure one particular story, “which ticked all the boxes … a boy living in a terrible situation, prey to gangs, brutalized etc” did not make the shortlist. In her defense, she brought up U.S.-based author Helon Habila’s recent review of Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names, in which he commented that it seems Bulawayo “had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa.” Habila, himself a recipient of the 2001 Caine prize for his story about the suffering of a journalist in a Nigerian prison, worried that a certain “Caine Prize aesthetic” was developing that valued sensational stories of Africa—what he called “poverty porn.”

Ironically, Evaristo was expressing her impatience with stories about “traumatized children” only hours after the attacks on the school in Yobe. When I arrived back in Nigeria, a friend described to me a story he/she wanted to publish about terrorism in a Nigerian newspaper but was afraid of becoming a target. As I wrote in my article last year, “To say we must ‘move on’ past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.”

Later that night after Evaristo’s panel, Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi on the platform with his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, spoke of his concern about “this push for what I call Afro-Optimist writing … wanting to show an Africa that is very Hakuna Matata…. In Kenya you have a very, very wealthy estate and next to it you have poverty…. I think it is our job as writers to explore this contradiction.” In response to Habila’s essay he cautioned, “we have to be very, very careful. It’s too easy to say there is a Caine Prize aesthetic… it’s as if we want to paint happy colours over the poverty and all those complications.” Caine Prize nominee Chinelo Okparanta further argued that “many people who jump on the poverty porn thing don’t even understand the context of what is being said…. These are superficial discussions.”

When I asked Evaristo about these contradictions, she hurriedly assured me that she was not in the position to tell people what stories to write, but that it was time to “start talking about different kinds of stories coming out of Africa, and I think this is happening especially with Taiye Selasi’s new book, and Chimamanda’s new book…” Ironically, the two novels she cites as more exciting new African stories are about relatively privileged Africans living in Diaspora—stories more like her own than the stories of traumatized children she is so determined to squelch.

As I point out these contradictions, I do so self-consciously, because I recognize myself in Evaristo’s impatience, in my own tendencies to review books published abroad before those published at home. I too am implicated because in London, I too did not make the effort to follow up on my cousin’s mention of the school attack. Another shooting? I thought. It has become too common. I don’t want to know about it right now. I just want to enjoy all of these great debates about African literature.

It is perhaps for this reason precisely why it is so problematic to have the “gatekeepers” of what stories are heard centred in London or New York. Because even a writer like Helon Habila, who has written such beautiful novels about the humanity of Nigerians who laugh and love and write amidst  conflict and poverty, now, from his professorial position in the West, jumps on the band wagon of complaining about how Africa is perceived in the rest of the world. But should not the focus, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long stressed in books like Moving the Centre, be instead on one’s immediate audience, expanding beyond that only when the story has been first heard at home?
Satirist and Caine Prize nominee, Elnathan John mentioned on several occasions during various interviews that he was still trying to get used to this talk of the “African writer” or the “African story.” He was writing, he explained, about northern Nigeria. His nominated story “Bayan Layi” was a northern Nigerian story, which he wrote shortly after the election violence of 2011, in which he was thinking about how to explain the nuance and complexity of the event to a Nigerian audience.  Author of The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundu Onuzo touched the heart of the problem when she challenged Evaristo’s assumption that such stories were meant for publication in Britain. “Why do African writers need to be published here?” Shouldn’t the focus, she asked, be on building up publishing institutions in Africa, so that editors and publishers on the continent make the decisions on what kinds of stories are the most important and export them, rather than always having the most famous African writers be those first recognized in the West?

This, indeed, is one of the most central problems in discussions of African literature based in the capitals of what literary critic Pascale Casanova calls the “World republic of Letters.” Only rarely was there mention of the irony of such a festival being held at the centre of the former colonial empire, and there was more talk of “development” of African writers by Diaspora-based writers than I was comfortable with. However, I did think it was encouraging that Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees,” from his short story collection of that name, made the Caine Prize list.  The Whispering Trees was the first title published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia, and the story selected by the Africa-based “Writivism” Facebook group as their Caine Prize winner. As Africans continue to tweet, blog, sell books through homegrown digital distribution like the phone-based okada books, and develop their own prizes, there is hope that the “centre” will move south to the continent itself.


African Literary Prizes: Where are the translations?

Last week, in my discussion of the Africa Writes Festival, which was held on the 5-7 July in London at the British library, I followed Kenyan author and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in calling for “moving the centre” of the discussion about African literature to Africa itself.

As fantastic an initiative as the festival in London is and as impressive as the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth prize, the Brunel Prize for Poetry, the recently announced Moreland Writing Scholarship, and other such initiatives to reward African literature are (may they flourish), the healthiest state of African literature will be when the infrastructure to support African literature is developed and hosted on the continent itself.  As Caine Prize shortlisted writer Elnathan John pointed out at one of the first Caine Prize events in London on 4 July, “I think it is a shame that we are in London having this. I think all of us should be in Nairobi or Ghana or Lagos… Is the Caine Prize useful? Of course. It is among the best things that has helped African writing. But could the interaction be more equal? Yes. You don’t want us to just sit down be getting. We also want to interact and add value to the entire process, and I hope that as time goes by we are able to contribute more to that process.”

There are changes in this direction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila both regularly hold workshops in Nigeria funded by Nigerian banks. The Kenya-based (albeit with European and American sponsors) Kwani Manuscript Project just awarded its first three authors and plans to publish other submissions from its short and long list. The Ghanaian-based Golden Baobab prize, founded in 2008, awards and helps publish African children’s book manuscripts. The Nigeria-based Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, founded in 2006, is awarded every two years to a work of African literature, cycling through a different genre each time. The NLNG Prize, though open only to Nigerians, similarly cycles through different genres and at a whopping $100,000 is one of the most financially rewarding African literary awards. The most recent Africa-based prize is the £15,000 Etisalat Prize for African literature that was founded in June 2013 to award first novels. Similar to the Wole Soyinka Prize in its pan-African scope, the Etisalat prize, which has its first submission deadline 30 August 2013, seems to go beyond some of the other prizes in infrastructure building. Its website mentions that “Entries by non-African based publishers will require a co-publisher partnership with an African based publisher should any entries be shortlisted,” and Etisalat commits to purchasing “1000 copies of all shortlisted books which will be donated to various schools, book clubs and libraries across the African continent.” Although the prize still looks north in offering the winner a U.K.-based fellowship at the University of East Anglia (and mentorship by British author Giles Foden) (why not a residency in an African location with an African writer?), the infrastructure building for African publishers is important. The most glaring deficiency to the prize, however, is this: Although the United Arab Emirates-based company Etisalat also gives a prize for Arabic children’s literature, the criteria for entry in the African Literature prize specifies that books are only eligible if they have FIRST been published in English. Now, the other prizes I’ve mentioned also specify English-language submissions but most also accept translations into English from other languages. Yet when I tweeted the Etisalat Prize’s twitter handle asking them if they were indeed excluding translations, they confirmed, “At this time we are only accepting books originally published in English.” Ironically in the photos of the Lagos gala event opening the prize, there were photos of steps honouring African writers Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic, Okot p’Bitek who wrote in Acholi, Assia Djebar who writes in French, and Mia Cuoto who writes in Portuguese, all of whom are accessible to English-speakers only through translation.

This dismissal of translation, particularly from African languages, by those who desire to promote African literature is a shame, considering that translation has been the major way “world literature” is transmitted and studied between cultures. In Germany, the “International Literary Prize” awards the best German-translation of an international work, which was won this year by Christine Richter-Nilssons translation of Teju Cole’s novel Open City. The Nobel Prize has been given to writers of dozens of different languages including small ones like Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Japanese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish, and Turkish. Yet translations from and between African languages are rarely rewarded or recognized even by Africa-based prizes.

It was this sort of exclusion that Ngugi wa Thiong’o challenged at the “Africa Writes festival” in London two weeks ago. During the 6 July panel discussion “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” he asked rhetorically, “Can you seriously think about giving a prize to promote a French writer but you put a condition that they write in Gikuyu?”  He was concerned that “the abnormal has become normalized” when African languages, incredibly still called “tribal” languages by some festival attendees, become almost invisible in discussions of African literature.

Obviously, as Bernadine Evaristo, founder of the Brunel Prize for African poetry pointed out, there are logistical problems with prizes that accept entries in multiple languages, such as finding jury members who can adequately judge in submissions. While there are fewer such logistical problems with translations, Billy Kahora of Kwani and Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree pointed out that submissions in translation are rare.

In a later appearance, Ngugi spoke passionately of his “deep concern at what we are doing to the continent and this generation.”  “It pains me, in a personal kind of way to see the entire intellectual production of Africa—the one that is visible—in European languages” as if “Africa can only know itself—be visible—in English.” While qualifying that he did not begrudge anyone their prizes, he repeated his call for translation, not just between African and European languages, but between African languages themselves.  He pointed out that people should focus on whatever language they inherited and then learn others. “Why don’t we secure our base economically, politically, linguistically and then CONNECT with others. […] If you know the language of your community and then add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.”

It is not as if literature in African languages does not exist or even flourish. The day before, Ghirmai Negash, Mohammed Bakari, and Wangui wa Goro spoke of translating into English, Gikuyu, and Swahili Gebreyesus Hailu’s Tigrinya-language novel The Conscript written in 1927 about the experiences of Eritrean men conscripted by Italy to fight in Libya. In Nigeria, there have been novels and poetry written in Efik, Hausa, Igbo, Tiv, Yoruba, and other languages. In Hausa alone, there are thousands of published novels and a voracious reading public. Though it seems to have been stagnant for a few years, there have been three editions of the Engineer Mohammed Bashir Karaye Prize for Hausa Writing, which awards Hausa prose and drama. Yet, as far as I know, not one of these award-winning or nominated works has been translated into any other language, and judging from the lack of interest in translation at the level of “African literature” it is unlikely that they will be without the intervention of bodies interested in supporting translation.

Fortunately, there are some venues interested in publishing translated work. Last year, the Indian publisher Blaft published Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne translated into English as Sin is a Puppy… by Aliyu Kamal and are interested in other such translations. The translation journal Words without Borders recently contacted me looking for African women’s writing translated from African languages. The problem is that there are few literary translators, and even fewer financial incentives within the continent.

Now, one solution is to protest this purposeful exclusion of translation by the Etisalat Prize, which you can do by tweeting them at @etisalatreads or emailing them at But judging from the experience of prizes like the Caine, even if Etisalat changed the rules, would there actually be any translations submitted? Another, perhaps more practical solution is to work on building up resources and training for translators through existing structures, like the Ebedi Writers Residency or to start new residencies to for writers and translators to come together to work on projects. Another incentive would be to start a prize for African literature in translation to focus on making the wealth of literature in Africa languages available to the world. Any lovers of literature out there who want to help make this happen?

As Ngugi said, this is his challenge to the next generation, “Connect. Let us choose the path of empowerment.”


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.

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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.

Translator’s Note: Glenna Gordon’s Striking photobook Diagram of the Heart and its Many Reviews

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Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

Diagram of the Heart, a photobook by photojournalist Glenna Gordon, captures breathtaking images of women’s lives in northern Nigeria, and it has been getting a massive amount of global attention in the past few weeks. I have been intimately involved with Glenna’s project from the very beginning and provide the translations of excerpts from Hausa novels that feature in the book, so I am delighted with all the publicity it and, by extension, Hausa literature has been receiving. But I have also been disturbed by how sensationalistic so much of the coverage has been, and by how it so often distorts, stereotypes and actually reverses the kind of nuanced portrait of life in northern Nigeria that I think Glenna’s photographs do so well. (If you want my critique without the background, scroll down to the end of this post)

Background on the Project

So first, a little background to build on my previous post about Diagram of the Heart: This project started in around 2012, when Glenna contacted me and asked if she could call me on Skype to talk about life and culture in northern Nigeria. She was in the middle of a project “Nigeria, Ever After” documenting Nigerian weddings. So far she had mostly taken photographs in Lagos and other parts of the south, and she was interested in photographing weddings in northern Nigeria as well. We had a long Skype conversation about Hausa weddings, and I told her about my research on Hausa novels and films, which I had started in 2005. I sent her links to my blog and collections of photographs, as well as attachments of academic articles. I suggested that she read Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… that Follows You Home, which had recently been translated by Aliyu Kamal and published by the Indian press Blaft. She bought the novel and was enchanted—later featuring it on Guernica as her springtime read.

Glenna came a few months later to Jos, where I was trying to finish writing my PhD dissertation (which includes two chapters on Hausa literature) and stayed with me for a week while she went out to find weddings to photograph. Some of my favourite photographs from her “Ever After” project come from those she shot in Jos. While she stayed with me, I told her more about my research and showed her my collection of Hausa novels. She was intrigued, told me she’d like to do a photography project on women novelists, and asked me if I could give her the contacts of writers in Kano.

Initially, I must confess, I was a little bit reluctant. I had my own plans to publish an article on the thriving field of Hausa literature. Abiola Irele, at that time editor of Transition, had contacted me a couple of years earlier and had asked me to write an article about the women writing novels in Hausa. I had gone out and done interviews, and had taken photographs, but I had not yet written the article. I felt that I just didn’t yet have the depth of knowledge and breadth of reading to do it justice. I had fallen into that idiotic and terrible hole that ABD PhD candidates often fall into, where you feel like you are not allowed to work on anything else but your PhD dissertation. It’s not that I wasn’t doing anything else but my dissertation. I had been writing a weekly column in Daily Trust since 2010, and had written quite a bit about Hausa literature in my column and on my blog, but the idea of publishing in Transition was so intimidating that I wrote this great imaginary article in my head, but didn’t ever actually write it all down. This is something I will always regret.

Later, I did write a short chapter for a Nigerian book that was supposed to be published in 2013, but as so often happens, the funding for the publication of the book fell through. (To read some of my writing about Hausa literature, see my reviews of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy here, and here, Wa Zai Auri Jahila [Who will marry an Illiterate Woman] here and here, my report on a literary expedition to Damagaram, Niger, my thoughts on the state of translation and background on Glenna’s book, my review of a Words Without Borders issue that features Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum, etc)

While writing the introduction to my dissertation, I had also been thinking a lot about Pascale Casanova’s idea of the “World Republic of Letters,” and about hierarchies of power in literary studies and publication. Why is it that this vast Hausa-language reading public in northern Nigeria and surrounding regions is “invisible” in the “World Republic of Letters.” Why should it be that most of the literary world knows nothing about such popular novelists as Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino or Bilkisu Funtua or Balaraba Ramat Yakubu or Nazir Adam Salih, while English-language writers who are less read in Nigeria get global attention? Glenna had access to publication in places like Time, The New York Times, Harpers, and the New Yorker. I thought that her interest had the potential to give the authors I knew the kind of global publicity that “Afropolitan” writers writing in English regularly get. Perhaps such publicity would also elicit more interest in translation.

So, I went on the Hausa writing groups on Facebook and asked women writers if they would be interested in being photographed. This request generated some controversy, mostly with a few men who questioned the intentions behind the photographs. Several women expressed an interest. I gave Glenna their numbers along with the numbers of other people I knew from Kano, and she took it from there.

One contact led to another. She came back through Jos and showed me some of the photographs she had taken. In that series of formal portraits was one of the photographs that is my favourite, the portrait of Farida Ado, author of the novels Tubalin Toka [Bricks of Ash], Ni ko Shi? [Me or Him?], and Ra’ayina Ne [My Prerogative], dreamy eyed and glowing in the window.


Hausa novelist Farida Ado (c) Glenna Gordon, via CNN


Glenna brought back a few novels for me, and photographed a little bit more of my novel collection. One of the photographs in the Diagram of the Heart comes from a photo of my copy of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 2006 novel Matar Uba Jaraba set against the emerald prayer rug I have for when friends visit and need to pray.


Metacontexts. Photo spread in Glenna Gordon’s Diagram of the Heart pages 38-39, taken with the book and the background it came from (c) Carmen McCain

Fast forward to 2015. I had finished my PhD in 2014 and had returned to Nigeria to take up an appointment in the School of Visual and Performing Arts and the Department of English at Kwara State University. Glenna wrote me sometime around April and told me that the Open Society in New York was going to exhibit the photographs of the novelists in their “Moving Walls” Exhibition. She asked me if I would be willing to travel to Kano to purchase novels to display alongside the photographs. She also wanted to have translations of excerpts from the novels and summaries of some of the novels, so that passages from novels could be displayed alongside the photographs of the writers. I went to Kano in July and visited the writers she had photographed, buying copies of their novels for the exhibition, and interviewing them about the plots of their novels and their lives as writers. I love reading Hausa novels, but I remain a slow reader in Hausa, so my friend, novelist, poet, and journalist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad, who is shown in the grid of authors at the end of Glenna’s book, read about 9 novels and wrote summaries of them in Hausa, which I then abbreviated into English for the exhibition. (Sa’adatu very generously did this in the week before her wedding (!), and her work was credited at the “Moving Walls” exhibition.) I also worked for a month on translations of excerpts from several novels, and then sent them off to Open Society, where they were displayed alongside Glenna’s photographs. The exhibition will be up until 13 May 2016. (I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to on a trip to New York this April.)

A few months later, Glenna contacted me asking for permission to use the translations in her book Diagram of the Heart. I agreed pending the approval of the authors, and the book was published a few months later. So it was that the photographs became an exhibition and the exhibition became a book.


About the Book


Diagram of the Heart by Glenna Gordon (c) Carmen McCain

The book, Diagram of the Heart, is a beauty. When Glenna sent me a few complimentary copies, I was surprised that it was so small, but the small size works well, a conscious imitation of the novels that inspired the project. It includes, in a back pocket, a small book of henna designs brought from Kano, Sabon Kunshi by Khadija Muhd. I love the cover, a collage designed by Bonnie Briant of the images Glenna had taken over the two years she visited Kano, and I love the title, which is named for a diagram of a heart she photographed on a school room wall but which evokes the focus on love in so many of the littattafan soyayya, novels of love.

It’s hard to pick my favourite photographs, but I love the one of Farida Ado, gazing out the window and into the light. It became the cover photo for so much of the publicity about the “Moving Walls” exhibition. The light of windows becomes a motif in the book. On page 26, there is another photograph of a woman silhouetted against the light under a tasseled curtain, and in the spread on pages 90 and 91, novelist Rabi Talle looks out the window, a wedding calendar of a couple behind her. I also love the photographs that focus on faces, particularly the spread on pages 58-59. The face of a bride emerges out of the darkness of the background and her black hijab. Her niqab is flipped back over her head, and a pool of light reveals her delicately made up face.

And then there are the many wedding photographs that overlap with Glenna’s “Nigeria Ever After project,” a striking photograph of a woman’s face out of focus in the foreground while other wedding guests behind her stare at the camera.


(c) Glenna Gordon via Huck Magazine

On page 104, a young girl sits, her crimson gelle and orange top vibrant against the brown of the couch. There is much play of shadow and light in the book, as many of these photos are taken in interior spaces where women spend so much time visiting and writing or under the canopies set up for weddings. On page 113 there is a striking photograph with a shadowed foreground, luminous light in the background as women gaze across one of the narrow streets of the old city in Kano. Or the photograph of a wedding in Jos: the wedding guests facing the front of the auditorium are backlit, their faces lost in shadows, while the light pours through the translucent curtains at the back. Probably my favourite photograph in the entire book, captures the camaraderie that I loved so much when I lived in Kano. Women sit in a bedroom, gelles and hijabs removed, their heads thrown back in laughter. A little girl grips her mother’s shoulder and stares solemnly at the camera.


(c) Glenna Gordon via CNN

In a different photograph of the scene published in Huck Magazine, the little girl cheekily sticks out her tongue.

Wedding guests "gist," gossip.

(c) Glenna Gordon via Huck Magazine


The photobook is self-consciously about the novels, and the novels reappear over and over. There are repeated photographs of women reading and writing, of books on bedside tables or “formal portraits” of the novels set against rich fabrics.


(c) Glenna Gordon via National Geographic



(c) Glenna Gordon, via Buzzfeed

There is also a grid of novelists’ portraits at the back of the book on pages 136-137. But like the novels themselves, the book is also about daily lives of women in the city, in the cloistered spaces of home and in the social spaces of weddings and work.

I am glad that Glenna also chose to feature excerpts from several novels in the book. It becomes, therefore, a book not just of images but also a larger project that allows featured authors to speak for themselves. The translated passages give a certain nuance and voice that would otherwise be lost. The excerpts feature a passage I translated from near the end of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s tender two-part novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman) and from the translation by Aliyu Kamal of her novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Sin is a Puppy that Follows you Home). Also from Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad Fagge’s novel Sirrin Zuciya Ta (The Secret of My Heart), Hadiza Sani Garba’s Cikon Farinciki (Dreams Fulfilled), and one striking sentence from Maimuna Idris Sani Beli’s Zuciya da K’wanji (A Strong Heart).

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From my translated excerpt of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila (c) CNN

I am proud that I was able to be a part of this project, not simply as a scholar who gave background knowledge, but also as a translator bridging the words of the novels from Hausa to English. With the exception of the excerpt of Aliyu Kamal’s translation of Sin is a Puppy, this is the first time any of these works are appearing in English. (see excerpts of the translations on CNN). I am not absolutely happy with my translations, but I suppose no translator ever is.

[Update, 15 March, 2016, I just found this BBC interview with Glenna as well. They very nicely read a couple of the excerpts of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels but they did not identify the novels or the translators. The first excerpt was from Wa Zai Auri Jahila and was translated by me. The second excerpt was from Sin is a Puppy… that Follows you Home and was translated by Aliyu Kamal.)

I hope everyone who reads this  post will think about purchasing a copy of the book, which is now available on Amazon and through the publisher Red Hook Editions. Red Hook Editions allows for international purchases through Paypal. In addition to being a meta-textual work of art, it is also an important contribution to knowledge about the culture of reading and writing in Nigeria. Occasionally captions are over-simplistic or in error, but the photographs themselves are stunning and worth “a thousand words.”


Critique of the Publicity

The publicity about the photobook has partially fulfilled what I had been hoping for when I first helped Glenna access the Hausa novelists. Hausa literature is gaining a higher profile in the global media than it had when I started my research 11 years ago. However, I have been troubled by the sensationalistic nature of much of the publicity. Rather than focusing on the achievements of the novelists and their philosophy of writing, as coverage of English-language writing does, it seems to instead import shallow Western notions about “Islam” and “Muslim women” and “feminism” and paste them onto the lives and writing of these women. For the most part, the coverage talks about the women as if they are all the same. There are no reviews of the novels, few interviews with the novelists, only of the photographs of the novelists.

Now, of course, this is not necessarily the fault of the journalists but of a literary field in which, up to now, there has been very little emphasis placed on translation. The only access English-speakers have to the novels are in Aliyu Kamal’s translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy…, Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s Mace Mutum, my own translation of the first chapter of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s Kaico!, and a few other translations sprinkled across the internet such as the excerpt “Cry Freedom” from Halima Ahmad Matazu’s  novel Amon ‘Yanci  that she self-translated with Ibrahim Malumfashi and Jalaludeen Maradun. It is difficult for a Western media to place these writers in context without more translations.

As a result, much of the publicity has been sensationalistic and filled with errors.

Take a look at some of these titles:

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Mother Jones sensationalizes

Amid the Horrors of Boko Haram, These Women Yearn for Romance. A photojournalist goes behind the scenes in a land of Islamic terror,” gasps Mother Jones.

An otherwise well-researched and nuanced article at Wired screams “The Subversive Women who Self-Publish Novels Amidst Jihadist War.”

These Women are risking everything to write romance novels in Northern Nigeria” proclaims a New York Times blog.

[Update 11 April 2016] Even news organizations I respect as much as NPR and PRI have joined the journalistic rabble with a mocking:  “Nigerians are writing steamy romance novels to escape religious violence.”

On the blog the literate lens, an interview is titled “Heart of the Matter” taking from the title of Graham Greene’s novel about colonial Africa. It begins with this hair-raising description:

“In northern Nigeria, being female can sometimes be a risky proposition. In this patriarchal, Muslim-dominated society, one of the better options for a girl is to enter into an arranged marriage: worse ones include being trafficked, kidnapped or raped.”

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. It is true that northern Nigeria as a whole has suffered under the Boko Haram insurgency. Multiple bombs have gone off in Kano since 2011, and we must never forget those women who have been kidnapped across the north (but mostly in the northeast on the opposite side of the country from Kano). But not every girl at all times in the north is at risk of being kidnapped or raped. And the adjective “Muslim-dominated” makes it sound as if “arranged marriage,” trafficking, kidnap, and rape are the natural expectations in life for Muslim women (an alarming assumption in the Euro-American media that this article also takes on).

The writer goes on to say

“The whole concept of a female Muslim romance novelist seems like an oxymoron.”

Seriously?! So there is something essentialistic about being a Muslim woman that makes it contradictory for a Muslim woman to write about love?

There is an obsessive and sensationalistic focus on Boko Haram, jihadism, sexism, and violence. One would think, to read the headlines and some of the articles, that the novels are a recent phenomenon, published to subvert Boko Haram. But such publicity wipes out a long history of writing and sensationalizes women’s lives, as if all women in Kano are cowering in their homes, terrified of Boko Haram and violent husbands, except those bold writers defying them. But Hausa literature has been written for centuries, and women have also been writing for centuries. Nana Asma’u, the daughter of the late 18th century early 19th century reformer and political leader Usman d’an Fodiyo, wrote and translated poetry in four or five different languages in the early 1800s, and started women’s literacy and religious education classes that go on till this day. The scholars Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd have written several books about Nana Asma’u, including a 500+ page volume of translations of Nana Asma’au’s work. Hausa novels have been written since the 1930s, although the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa was Hafsatu Abdulwahid whose So Aljannar Duniya (roughly Love is Paradise on Earth) won a writing contest in 1979 and was published by the government publishing house NNPC in 1980. Although Hajiya Hafsatu, who ran for governor of Zamfara State in 2003, does not like being called a “soyayya” [love] writer, her novel with its story of interracial love and supernatural adventures in the world of jinn bridges the themes of earlier supernatural adventure novels with the soon to be published novels of young love.


Hajiya Hafsatu Abdulwahid at a writers retreat in Damagaram, Niger. December 2009 (c) Carmen McCain

Early “soyayya” writers like Talatu Wada Ahmad were followed by novelists like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, and others. The novels were being written for nearly thirty years before Boko Haram began killing people in northern Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency is what “sells” these story, but in automatically linking the novels to Boko Haram, the journalists take this writing out of context and relate all innovation and creativity to war and violence in Africa. This sensationalism contradicts the ostensible point of the photographs to explore the individual stories of women and every day life in Nigeria.

And, boy, are these novels “subversive,” according to this Western media. “Meet the Women Behind Nigeria’s Most Subversive Novellas” trumpets Buzzfeed. Prison Photography features “The Muslim Women who Write Romance Novels in Northern Nigeria, Subversively.” Wired links their “subversiveness” to jihadism. CNN claims that Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is “Kano’s ‘most subversive’ author.” And over at Atlas Obscura, “Nigerian romance novelists sneak feminism into their plots.”

It’s true that I think some of the novels are “subversive.” But the continuous pounding on the theme of “subversive Muslim women” against a “patriarchal culture” makes it seem as if Islam is simply a background to be overcome and not an important part of daily life and devotion that most of the writers promote.

As Saba Mahood points out in her book Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, it is important to recognize

“dimensions of human action whose ethical and political status does not map onto the logic of repression and resistance.”

Similarly, the focus on women “not being allowed to leave their homes” or the troubling assumptions I’ve seen in several of the articles or interviews that men regularly “beat their wives” gives only the most extreme part of the story. It leaves out the larger context of the complex, often playful relationships between men and women in northern Nigeria. The implication that men are all arrogant beasts oppressing women undermines the sort of work that Glenna’s photographs do.

Although the separation of men and women’s lives is sometimes stated as an ideal in the propaganda that accompanied shari’a implementation in the last decade, men and women’s lives are intertwined in many ways in contemporary Hausa society. Although I spent plenty of time in women’s spaces when I lived in Kano, I also spent much time in spaces where men and women intermingle and banter, during Association of Nigerian author meetings, during writer’s retreats, at the university and in shopping malls, in studios and on film sets. While anxieties about the interaction of men and women on film


(c) Glenna Gordon, “Nigeria Ever After” Collection

sets and as portrayed in novels was one of the things that led to the formal censorship board in Kano after the implementation of shari’a law in 2000, such interactions have been almost impossible to control. It is the reality of contemporary life.

Even in supposed women’s spaces, there are teenage boys who run messages for aunts and neighbours, male visitors who pop in for chats, men visiting friends in courtyards who greet and joke with the women of the house, or young men and women at weddings who dance together. I think here of Glenna’s photograph of the young man in purple dancing with abandon at a wedding alongside women.


Today as I was walking home from church in Ilorin, I saw a man walking, holding the hands of two little girls. They wore white dresses and their hair was neatly plaited. “This is Glory, and this is Blessing,” he told me. Their mother was not in sight. Perhaps she had stayed behind in church for Sunday school, or perhaps she had stayed at home to rest today. This Christian man with his two little daughters made me think of all the Muslim men I know in the north, who dandle children on their knees, who carry them around showing them off to their friends, who joke, calling out “‘Yan Mata” to  giggling young women.

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A young man with a baby, Sokoto, 2005 (c) Carmen McCain

I remembered the good-natured but sometimes heated debates I have seen between men and women in public events.

The focus on the “subversiveness” and “oppressedness” of the women in the north, in the reviews of Diagram of the Heart, erase the tenderness and banter and friendships that exist within Hausa society, the way men read women’s novels and women read men’s novels, the conversations they have. It does not mean that oppression or patriarchy does not exist, but it does mean that such ills can coexist with tenderness and love and laughter as well.

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A visit to mother, Sokoto State, 2005 (c) Carmen McCain (scanned as a tif file from a print and then taken as a screenshot, so not the greatest quality)

Other reviews were respectful but filled with errors. The Time Lightbox review for example, is innocuously named “Anatomy of a Photobook: ‘Diagram of the Heart.” But it claims that “Balaraba Yakubu whose book The Wife of Father is a Test founded the genre.” I’ve seen this error repeated on CNN and elsewhere. While Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is an important author, she is not the first Hausa woman writing, she is not the founder of a genre, and the book mentioned here (Matar Uba Jaraba) is her most recent novel, published in 2006. Her first novel, Budurwar Zuciya, was first published in 1987. Although I emailed corrections to the author, Time never changed them (To be fair to Time, I recently realized this error stems from a photo caption in the book. The caption is incorrect.)

Furthermore, the focus on “romance novels” homogenizes the great diversity of literary expression in Hausa, although this is a mistake that has often made in scholarship about “litattafan soyayya” as well. There are plenty of love stories, of course, but the novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and many other writers tend to be more muckraking social critique and family drama. There are also detective novels, supernatural thrillers, fantasy epics, etc. And although it is sexy to talk about “Muslim women” writing subversively, there are plenty of men writing as well.


Novelist and screenwriter Nazir Adam Salih shows off his latest spiritual thriller at a writers conference in Damagaram, Niger, December 2009. (c) Carmen McCain

I first observed this carelessness about details in “international” journalism in 2008, when I introduced a journalist from CNN to my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad to talk about the Hausa publishing industry for an “Inside Africa” feature on Kano. He also interviewed a few readers in the market about the books. When the clip played on CNN, what the reader was saying in Hausa had nothing to do with the subtitles on screen. It was then that I began to wonder if everything we see in the international news is so skewed—well written, slickly produced, but second-hand and filled with errors.

Another worrisome dimension to the coverage of the book are the “columbassing” claims in so many of the articles. The implication that Glenna Gordon “discovered” this subversive undercover market of women writing. To her credit, Glenna pretty strongly corrects this kind of thinking saying in an interview with Jeanette D. Moses for American Photo:

 “I don’t want to be like ‘I discovered this group’—I didn’t discover anything. They were already there—I just learned about them.” There are things that we know exist in different places of the world, and there are things that we’ve never heard of. I’m definitely most excited about the things that I’ve never heard of.

Indeed, the danger of the kind of second-hand journalism that has emerged in the reviews of Diagram of the Heart is to divorce the literary movement of all context—that it has been around since the 1980s (and that Hausa novels have been around since the 1930s  and Hausa poetry and historical writing has been around for centuries), that there are writers associations that sometimes take excursions together. (I went on one with Rabi Tale who is so prominently featured in the book). That there were years of passionate debates in Hausa publications like Nasiha and English publications like the New Nigerian, facilitated by journalist, publisher and novelist Ibrahim Sheme. That the novels have been written about by academics and Nigerian journalists for over twenty years. Abdalla Uba Adamu, one of the earliest and most influential scholars (see a couple of his articles here and here), debated Ibrahim Malumfashi in the literary pages of Nigerian newspapers about the literary worth of the novels. Malumfashi, an early critic of the novels, has now translated Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum. Yusuf Adamu, a novelist and critic, has also written widely about the novels in Hausa and English.

The first non-Nigerians to study these novels were Novian Whitsitt, Brian Larkin, and Graham Furniss. Novian Whitsitt won an award for his 1996 MA thesis on the soyayya novels at the University of Wisconsin Madison and went on to write his PhD dissertation on the novels of Bilkisu Funtua and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. Brian Larkin analyzed Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna in his groundbreaking article “Indian Films and Nigerian Lovers”, and Graham Furniss, Malami Buba, and William Burgess put together a thousand-strong collection and bibliography of the novels at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Since that time there have been dozens of other Nigerian scholars, who have written academic work on contemporary Hausa novels.

Although I understand that journalism does not have the room to cite sources in the way that academic writing does, surely there should be some acknowledgment that there are plenty of people who have written about these novels before. One of the most annoying experiences I’ve had so far regarding this project was when a journalist called to interview me for about 15-20 minutes about background information (when I was getting ready to travel internationally that same day) and then didn’t cite me at all in the post she wrote, even though she used information I had given her. (She corrected this when I later stumbled across her article and contacted her about it.)

I can understand the feeling of excitement in first finding out about the novels, though. When I first began reading Hausa novels in 2005, I was in Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria to work on improving my Hausa, a requirement of my PhD program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. My teacher Malami Buba had me read Hausa novels out loud to him over breakfast. It all felt like homework until I started reading Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel In da So da Kauna, which was translated into English as “The Soul of My Heart” in the 1990s, and which the author claims has sold over 300,000 copies to date.

As I read, I began to feel like Helen Keller, suddenly connecting the feel of water flowing over her hands to the letters being signed to her. Hausa finally broke in over me in waves, as I went to my room and continued to read hungrily. I wanted to know what happened to the star-crossed lovers Muhammad and Sumayya. This was the novel that would change my life, and make me move my research interests from studying contemporary Nigerian literature in English to contemporary Nigerian literature and film in Hausa. I understand the luminous excitement of personal discovery. It is a heady feeling. It’s a shame, though, that so many of the articles about it have made it about one American photographer’s “discovery” in a time of Boko Haram, and not about the larger history and context of young people writing or the debates that have gone on for thirty years.

The best review I’ve seen so far has been Laura Mallonee’s article in Wired. Despite having the inevitable sensationalistic title and intro that connects the writers to Boko Haram, she contacted Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu and myself to fact-check for her. (We did not see the entire article beforehand, only a list of questions.) She also asked me for contact information for the novelists and called them. So their voices are represented in the article as well. Other more nuanced articles include this World Photography Organization interview with Glenna and this Road and Kingdoms interview with Glenna. Although this CNN article retains a few errors, I like how they reproduce excerpts from the translations in the book, including part of my translation from Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman?) And of course leading African literature blog Brittle Paper‘s publicity is always welcome!

Despite my alarm at the misconceptions flying around the internet, I’m glad that attention is now being paid to Hausa literature, I’m glad that Glenna has so sensitively captured the women’s world of reading and writing in her photographs. I hope that her dedicated and beautiful work will draw the needed attention of publishers and translators to this vast field of literature in Hausa, which speaks first to its own community but has so much to offer to Nigeria, Africa, and the world.


Further Reading

I have sprinkled links throughout this article, but here are a few interviews with Hausa novelists that prioritize their own words rather than what other people write about them.

Akintayo Abodunrin’s interview with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

Ibrahim Sheme’s interview with Bilkisu Funtuwa

Yusuf Adamu’s interview with Hafsatu Ahmed Abdulwahid. Another interview Ibrahim Sheme conducts with Hajiya Hafsatu in Hausa.

My interview with Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed and Ismail Bala’s translation of one of her poems.


And other Hausa writing in translation

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… that follows you Home translated by Aliyu Kamal for Blaft.

Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Rahama Abdulmajid’s novel Mace Mutum on Words Without Borders

“Cry Freedom,” an excerpt published in Praxis Magazine from Halima Ahmad Matazu’s novel“Amon ‘Yanci” translated from the Hausa to English by Ibrahim Malumfashi, Jalaludeen Maradun, and Halima Matazu. (Halima Ahmad Matazu contacted me and wanted me to let readers know that Amon ‘Yanci is  “a 300 page novel that symbolises the struggle and journey of a young girl Mairo, towards freedom of finding that inner peace and her identity as a female child.”)

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s self translated love story “Painted Love” in the Ankara Press Valentine’s Day collection, and a lovely interview with him, in which he talks about the Hausa literary tradition.

My translation of the first chapter of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! In Sentinel Nigeria.

Love poems written and translated by Ismail Bala

Shaihu Umar: A Novel About Slavery in Africa by Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and translated by Mervyn Hiskett

Ruwan Bagaja: the Water of Cure written, abridged and translated by Abubakar Imam

Jos Theatre Comes to Abuja: Jos Repertory Theatre’s Queen Amina of Zazzau opens in Abuja on 13 November, and I archive my review of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes

Jos-based theatre director Patrick-Jude Odeh just sent me an email asking me to pass around information about the Jos Repertory Theatre’s production of

The Jos Repertory Theatre's performance of Wale Ogunyemi's Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

The Jos Repertory Theatre’s performance of Wale Ogunyemi’s Queen Amina of Zazzau, in Jos, February 2013 (c) Jos Repertory Theatre, used by permission

Wale Ogunyemi’s play Queen Amina of Zazzau in Abuja. There will be two performances a day, at 4pm and 7pm, on the 13th and 14th of November at the Abuja Sheraton. I love the Jos Repertory Theatre’s productions and I have actually seen them perform Queen Amina of Zazzau several years ago, so Abuja people should check it out. The tickets are N5,000 regular and N150,000 for a table for six. For reservations, please call 0703-246-0159 and 0905-365-2544 or call Eniola at 0909-287-3099. Tickets are available at Silverbird Galleria and at the gate. The production is supported by the Center for Arts Management, Nigeria.

But the primary reason for this post was to follow up on Noah Tsika’s recent review of the Netflicks distributed film Beasts of No Nation based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, and a subsequent twitter conversation I had with playwright Africa Ukoh. Tsika’s review of Beasts of No Nation, a film which I have not yet seen [2 February 2016. Just saw it. Still trying to wrap my head around it. A review may follow], argues that the film fits into a “child soldier” movie genre that is often presented to largely Western audiences.

[…] the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South.

Tsika points out that the film, like the novel, is set in an unnamed African country, but is shot in Ghana (and…em…Brazil….) and the characters speak Twi:

That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions.

Tsika also critiques Netflix, the distributor of the film, for bypassing distribution units most easily accessible in Africa.

Scholar Amatoritsero Ede, in a recent article in Research in African Literatures, has critiqued the original novel for similar reasons, claiming that it demonstrates a “self-anthropologizing impulse”:

Iweala’s work is a sweeping allegory of a war-torn continent with its retinue of child soldiers. Due to the absence of a specific geographical setting, the whole of Africa becomes a war zone and is symbolic of conflict—especially war at its most bestial, considering the ghoulish boy-narrator’s automatic, almost psychopathic killing instincts.

Ede points out that it is not the subject matter that is the problem. As I argued previously, we are faced with very real and brutal stories of war that affect very real people–most recently in Nigeria, the stories that have come out of the Boko Haram conflict. Instead, Ede critiques the language in which the story is told:

Beasts of No Nation replicates that African inarticulacy in Agu, who is given, instead of proper speech, “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” much like Conrad’s black characters in Heart of Darkness (Conrad 84). […] Nigeria alone has over 250 languages, apart from a universal Pidgin English spoken by the uneducated mass across indigenous language barriers. In such a context, Agu’s inarticulacy becomes symbolic of “a return to origins.” This is because it is not explained by plot or yoked to any important narrative insight more than to the fact that this boy-soldier is uneducated and even incapable of the simplest thought in clear pidgin, a language so universal that every child and most uneducated adults take refuge in it. Nor could Agu speak his own native tongue. Instead he descends into a Conradian incoherence, alleviated by a “gerunding”: “It is starting like this . . . I am opening my eyes and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body. Then I am feeling my body crunched up like one small mouse in the corner when the light is coming on” (1, emphasis added). All that, even though he says, “I am learning how to read very early in my life from my mother and my father” (24, emphasis added). And this child-soldier who sings, “Soldier Soldier / Kill Kill Kill. / That is how you live. / That is how you die” (31), in order to remind himself of his fate, motivate himself against remorse, does indeed seem to understand the difference between a verb and a gerund after all.

Thinking of Beasts of No Nation, especially after Africa Ukoh tweeted me a review so egregious I initially thought it was satire, reminded me of his play 54 Silhuettes, the premiere of which I saw performed in Jos in November 2013. The play was a critique of the very sort of one-dimensional Hollywood representations of Africa at war that Tsika implies Beasts of No Nation continues. In the play, a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood, Chimezie, faces a crisis of conscious over playing an African soldier to Hollywood specifications. I published a review of the premiere performance in my column in Weekly Trust on 23 November 2013. Because Trust has, for some reason, “beheaded” all of my archived articles, cutting off the first paragraph, I am slowly trying to archive them here on my blog, with their heads retrieved from my pre-edit file and pasted back on.

I thought that the conversation surrounding the “Hollywood” production of this Nigerian novel, was a good time to revisit Africa Ukoh’s play. Please find my original review after the premier copied below.

IMG_5171 (c) Carmen McCain

Premiere stage performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes skewers Hollywood

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today.” One of the best one-liners I’ve heard ends Africa Ukoh’s brilliant play 54 Silhouettes, a satire about Hollywood’s imagination of Africa. The Stratford East/30 Nigeria House prize-winning play was originally produced for radio by BBC after coming first runner up in BBC’s 2011 African Performance competition. The first stage performance by the African Renaissance Theatre, directed by the playwright Africa Ukoh, premiered on 16 November at the Jos Alliance Francaise.

The story revolves around a Nigerian actor Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi), who is trying to break into Hollywood. When his Nigerian agent Sonny Chuks (Williams Obasi) gets him a role as a lieutenant named “Tiger” in a film set in Africa, Sonny thinks he has made Chimezie’s career. Chimezie and the scriptwriter/director Larry Singer (Idris Sagir) hit it off in the beginning, as both turn out to be Wole Soyinka fans: Larry once directed Death and the King’s Horseman and Chimezie once acted the king’s horseman Elesin. In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent. For a man who directed Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, Larry knows very little about Nigeria. In fact, he’s a hack. His film script is about an American journalist pursuing a ghost story in a “war-torn” Nigeria, somewhere in the Niger Delta. Larry manages to, as Chimezie points out, include “voodoo priests, a wrestling match with a lion, cannibalism, and half-naked dancing women” all in one film. The section we get to see performed features a warlord with a non-Nigerian name, played by an actor with a butchered “African” accent, who orders a child soldier kill a saintly Irish priest with lines like this: “You are an African. There is beastliness in your blood, and I shall unleash it.” Or “This is Africa. We are already in Hell.”

Chimezie grows more and more disturbed by the part he is being asked to perform and gradually makes enemies of most of his Hollywood contacts. Although Larry is smitten with Chimezie and seems to be open to suggestions, the swaggering cigarette-smoking “big-shot” producer Howard Flynn (played by the playwright and director himself Africa Ukoh) is irritated by Chimezie’s challenges to the script, telling him he knows “Africa is a big country.” He is also irritated that Chimezie does not seem “jubilant” enough at the news that Denzel Washington will star in the film. Flynn seasons his speech with racist slurs, calling Chimezie “Boy” and “Chimpanzee” and asking him if “you require jungle drums in order to express yourself.”

IMG_5150 (c) Carmen McCain

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.” When Chimezie protests, “That name is not from anywhere in Nigeria” and “That is not a Nigerian accent,” Flynn forces him to speak with the generic African accent too. When Tobi performs the hammy role in Larry’s script, asking Chimezie’s character what he is “insinuating,” Flynn asks “isn’t that too fluent?” Despite Flynn’s racist treatment—at one point saying “Down, Tobi” as if he were a dog—Tobi sides with the producer over his fellow actor from Nigeria. Tobi becomes increasingly incensed at Chimezie’s insistence on responsibility to “his people”—what Tobi calls “romantic idealism.” He tells Chimezie, “I was born in Brighton, I live in London. The closest I’ve ever been to Africa is in a plane flying over it.”

IMG_5141 (c) Carmen McCain

The tension also grows between Chimezie and his agent and friend Sonny Chuks, who has cashed in on a favour Flynn owes him to get Chimezie the role. When the two Nigerians get particularly passionate in their argument, they break into Igbo. Chimezie recites a proverb about the tortoise, “They say he is strong and wise, but when he sits for too long, he is seen as a stone. Who is to blame?” “I have a proverb for you,” Sonny counters, “Money, Make money.”

54 Silhouettes brilliantly skewers Hollywood representations of Africa in movies like Tears of the Sun or Sahara and even slyly weighs in on the casting of non-Nigerian “Hollywood” stars and British-born Nigerians who can’t get the accent right in films set in Nigeria, as in the recent film Half of a Yellow Sun. (See my critique of the casting here: first paragraph, rest of column.) Complementing the ethical questions at the heart of the play are a multitude of biting one-liners. The satirical dialogue reveals the subtle and not so subtle bigotry of the characters: “I make movies to make money, not to promote foreign relations,” Howard Flynn says. “The budget alone could feed a third world country,” Larry quips. “The only reason I kept this bizarre excuse of a name is because the sheer oddity of it gets me attention and makes me stand out,” Tobi seethes.

Of course, what looms over the play but is never spoken is the word “Nollywood,” and the absence of Nollywood here is perhaps the major hole in the play. While the first act pops with biting humour, in the second act, Chimezie enumerates in long monologues the invisibility of the African voice and his ethical problems with performing in the film. Here the play begins to drag a bit and seems repetitious—a flaw that could perhaps have been solved by looking to the new possibilities open to actors in Africa. The choice is not between suffering in anonymity, as Sonny puts it, or acting in a compromising Hollywood film. In a BBC interview with Ethiopian-American filmmaker Nnegest Likké about Africans in Hollywood, she emphasized the need to build an alternative African tradition, as if this was something that should be built within Hollywood. But while there is certainly a need to improve the chances of Africans and African-Americans in Hollywood, there is also a thriving alternate film tradition on the ground in Africa, from Accra to Lagos to Nairobi, which could be enriched by the passions and skills of actors like Chimezie.

IMG_5179 (c) Carmen McCain

Despite the perhaps false dichotomy presented here, the acting in the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes was brilliant. I listened to the BBC radio performance online and, with a few exceptions, I thought that the character interpretation in the live performance was better, perhaps because the playwright Africa Ukoh was directing this production. The actor Idris Sagir who plays Larry Singer butchers his Hollywood character’s American (?) accent with a mixture of an American southern accent and some odd unplaceable accent full of “r’s.” But since so much of the politics of the play was about bad African accents by non-African performers, the (perhaps intentionally?) bad accent felt like poetic justice to me. The bad American accent like the caricatured Hollywood icons, and the over-the-top racism were all subversive gestures that mock and undermine Hollywood’s dominance, and the character of Chimezie becomes the ultimate deconstructor.

“I’m not really in the mood to do any raping today,” says Chimezie, effectively committing professional suicide. And in this moment, his resolve seems more like a satirical version of Elesin’s son Olunde in Death and the King’s Horseman, who killed himself so that tradition could live. What follows in my imagination is a “Part 2,” where Chimezie resurrects in Nollywood, moving beyond anxieties about Hollywood to tell stories his own way.

The play will be performed at the French Institut in Wuse 2, Abuja on December 5-6, and will be back in Jos on 7 December at a venue yet to be confirmed. Go see it.

Translation Conference in Kano and Glenna Gordon’s exhibition of photographs of Hausa novelists opens this evening at New York’s Open Society

Glenna Gordon's photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

Glenna Gordon’s photo book Diagram of a Heart advertised on her site.

I’ve just finished attending a translation conference at Bayero University, Kano, hosted by the Centre for Research in Nigerian Languages & Folklore and the Nigerian Institute of Translators & Interpreters (NITI).  I heard papers on translation from Hausa, Fulfulde, Igbo, Yoruba, and Swahili, and on proverbs, poetry, film subtitles, and novels, as well as papers looking at more technical translations in the media and the efficacy of google translate Hausa. It was an academic conference, but there were also dozens of journalists there, who regularly translate news from English into Hausa. As Hafizu Miko Yakasai, the current president of NITI pointed out, translation is particularly important to “national development” in Nigeria because of Nigeria’s diversity of languages and cultures “with over three hundred language groups.”

NITI is a useful resource for translators, although I was a little worried by the proposed legislation in the National Assembly that would require translators to be a part of the organization before doing this work.

In a document passed out at today’s Congress, entitled “Nigerian Institute of Translators and Interpreters (NITI) International Translation Day (ITD) 2015,” the Secretary General/Registrar of NITI Joachim Okeke writes that in 2008 NITI’s bill “passed the second Reading at the National Assembly and, shortly after that, we were invited to the House for the public hearing.” Although the bill has not been passed,

When the bill is passed and it becomes law, it will make the practice of translation and interpretation regulated in such a way that it would be an offence for those not authorized to claim to be members of the profession to practice, exactly like in other professions: accountancy, law, medicine, engineering etc.

Of course, such associations are excellent resources and can do much to “professionalize” the industry. Translators should be as respected as accountants, for example and renumerated accordingly. As such, it is a good idea to have a respected body that can vouch for the skill of translators and advocate for them. However, I am concerned about creating laws that force creative professionals to be certified to practice their craft, especially as it seems that so far NITI has been more focused on linguistics, interpretation, and technical translations than literary translation, which is much more closely related to creative writing. When someone commented that the translations of advertisements on the radio about birthdays were wrong because “there is no birthday in Hausa culture,” I worried that the forum could become more about policing narrow ideas about culture than supporting people interested in doing creative translations. That said, it is good to have an association to belong for that is looking out for the rights of translators and setting standard rates and skill levels that both translators and those who commission them are encouraged to meet.

It was literary translation that brought me to the conference. I wanted to find out more about who else was doing it and whether anyone else was translating contemporary Hausa literature. Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz presented the only paper on translations of what he called “contemporary Hausa prose fiction” but which he pointed out has been

“variously described as Kano Market Literature (Malumfashi: 1994 cited in Adamu 2002; Whitsitt: 2000, 2003), Hausa Literary Movement (Adamu 2002), Hausa Popular Literature (Furniss: nd) or the ‘littattafan soyayya, love stories” (Larkin: 1997).”

The fact that he was the only one at a translation conference in Kano to talk about translating the thousands of novels that have built up one of the largest indigenous-language reading publics in Africa, indicates that there is a serious gap between the intellectual translators in the academy and the readers and writers creating the work. Several professors made condescending comments about contemporary literature after his presentation, even proposing that the novels were all “translations” from Western novels. Clearly, there  is much more work that needs to be done. And at the moment, much of this work is being done outside of the university.

Coincidentally, this conference comes at the same time as the opening of an exhibition in New York featuring photographs of several Hausa novelists, including several  of my translations of short novel excerpts.

A few years ago, photojournalist Glenna Gordon got in touch with me and asked if she could talk with me over Skype about culture in northern Nigeria. She had been doing a series of photographs on Nigerian weddings, but thus far most of the weddings she had photographed had been in the south. She was planning to go to Kano and wanted to know about northern Nigerian culture.

I told her about my own research on Hausa novels and films and sent her several academic articles on Hausa literature and culture. But I told her that the best thing for her to do would be to read Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel translated as Sin is a Puppy by Aliyu Kamal. Glenna read it and was enchanted, featuring it as  her “springtime read” at Guernica, where she is photo editor. And later when she came to stay with me for a week in Jos while working on her wedding project, she photographed some of my collection of “soyayya” novels and told me she wanted to do a photography project on Hausa women who wrote. Although I had started my own project writing about Hausa novelists several years before, and had given an editor a brief chapter in a book to be published in Nigeria that has yet to come out, I was in the middle of the slough of despond that is ABD, trying to finish my dissertation. And I thought it would be a fine thing for Hausa novelists to receive publicity in the kind of publications Glenna had access to like Time and New York Times. So, I contacted several writers’ groups asking women if they would be interested in being photographed for the project, and I put her in touch with a few other writers I knew. She took it from there, visiting Kano, Kaduna, and other parts of the north off and on for two years taking photographs of writers, weddings, and other things.

Earlier this year, she told me she would be exhibiting the photos with the Open Society’s “Moving Walls” series in New York and asked me if I would travel to Kano to purchase some novels from the market for the exhibition, as well as help

My own non-artistic photo of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

My own non-artistic photo of some of the books I was sending her before I shipped them off.

with summarizing some of the novels and translating excerpts for them for the exhibition. I did this in July, spending a week visiting writers, buying their novels and other novels in markets and at used book stalls, and interviewing them about their writing. As I read Hausa slowly, I recruited my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad, a journalist and also one of the novelists Glenna has photographed to help me read and summarize some of the novels. She gave me ten summaries in Hausa, and then I wrote up the rest, depending (probably too heavily) on my interviews with the novelists about their books and from my own readings. I also translated five excerpts from novels by the authors Glenna was featuring: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Farida Ado Gachi, Hadiza Sani Garba, Jamila Umar, and Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad. After the exhibition has been up for a while, I will put up a few excerpts here.

The Open Society exhibition is opening this evening in New York  from 6-9pm and will be open until 13 May 2016. Glenna has also put together a book Diagram of the Heart featuring 75 photos and a few of my translations, which is currently available for pre-order on her site. Her photos were also earlier featured in the exhibition Photoville in Brooklyn. If you are in New York, check out the exhibit at Open Society at 224 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019. If you are not in New York, consider pre-ordering the book.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin at the Leselenz 2015 in Hausach (c) Harald Krichel, via Wikipedia

Last week, I was chatting with a colleague recently moved to Nigeria about  contemporary Nigerian literature. She was enchanted by Lola Shoneyin’s novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. I mentioned to her that I had written a review of the novel, which reminded me that I have dozens of reviews I wrote in my column at Weekly Trust from 2010 to 2014 that I need to archive on this blog. Sadly, there is something wrong with the Weekly Trust archive, and now every single one of my articles has been “beheaded,” ie. they are all missing their first paragraph.

I am going to begin slowly re-posting my favourite columns, first paragraph reconstructed from my file of drafts I submitted to my editor, onto this blog. This week I will begin with my piece on Shoneyin’s novel.

As I re-read my review while editing this blog post, Shoneyin’s description of Baba Segi reminds me a great deal of the character of Ibrahima Dieng, in Ousmane Sembene’s 1968 film Mandabi that I showed my students a few weeks ago. For those who’ve seen the film and read the book, what do you think? There’s a similarity there, no? In both the caricature and ultimately the sympathy with which these rather vain and silly men are treated.

Lola Shoneyin polygamist satire in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

(courtesy of Cassava Republic Press)

By Carmen McCain | Publish Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM | Updated Date: Nov 10 2012 5:00AM (Weekly Trust)
Re-reading and reviewing Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s translated novel Sin is a Puppy… (Blaft, 2012/1990) last week, which presents a woman’s perspective on life in a polygamous household, reminded me of a book I had been meaning to read for two years, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Cassava Republic, 2010). Shoneyin’s novel was long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011 and for the NLNG prize this year. Once I started the 245-page Secret Lives…, I couldn’t put it down. The novel is stunning—one of the best novels I’ve read this year. This week while working on this article, I picked it up again, meaning to just flip through and find the passages I needed for the review. Instead, I found myself re-reading the entire book again.

The novel, set in Ibadan, is extraordinarily well crafted, immersing the reader in a world so vivid that it takes some time to emerge out of it. Shoneyin has a sharp satirical eye. She captures the foolishness and hypocrisy in the polygamous household of the title with a biting precision; however, she also has a tender touch. As I was reading, I came to care for the characters despite their flaws.
Although there are a few chapters told with third person narration, most of the chapters are told in the powerful distinct voices of Baba Segi, his four wives, and his driver. There is Iya Segi, the first wife, a fat entrepreneurial woman who loves money more than nearly anything else. She is the real force behind the household. There is Iya Tope, a kind and sincere but easily intimidated farm girl who loves simple meticulous tasks like weeding or braiding her daughters’ hair. There is Iya Femi, a vain, vindictive woman who bleaches her hands yellow and spoils her children but loves cooking and cleaning. There is the fourth wife Bolanle, a graduate, who is haunted by a trauma in her past. She loves children but is having trouble conceiving any of her own. Finally there is Baba Segi, a big-hearted man whose greatest joy in life is fathering children.

Shoneyin devotes this brilliant piece of characterization to her title character:

“Baba Segi could never keep things in. He was open-ended. His senses were directly connected to his gut and anything that didn’t agree with him had a way of accelerating his digestive system. Bad smells, bad news and the sight of anything vaguely repulsive had an expulsive effect: what went in through his mouth recently shot out through his mouth and what was already settled in his belly sped through his intestines and out of his rear end. Only after clearing his digestive system could Baba Segi regain his calm.”

While Baba Segi is a vain, and sometimes absurd, character, he is also generous. His household becomes a shelter where wives find refuge from hard backgrounds and cultivate their secret fantasies and desires. Iya Segi puts it more cynically: “Women are my husband’s weakness. He cannot resist them, especially when they are low and downcast like puppies prematurely snatched from their mother’s breasts.” While, Baba Segi celebrates his sexual prowess and is proud of his kindness to the women he takes in, he eventually becomes as disillusioned by polygamy as any of his wives, telling his son “When the time comes for you to marry, take one wife and one wife alone. And when she causes you pain, as all women do, remember it is better that your pain comes from one source alone.”

The story, woven together from these multiple perspectives, emerges with this portrait of a family: a smug head of the household oblivious to the intrigues in his house; his wives with their secret passions, hidden tragedies, and private goals of which their husband knows nothing. Despite tensions, the household runs fairly smoothly under Iya Segi’s firm hand, until the educated Bolanle arrives as fourth wife. Bolanle’s presence causes a crisis in the household and changes the lives of Baba Segi and his wives forever. The other wives resent her education and accuse her of being arrogant. Iya Segi and Iya Femi turn down all of her overtures of friendship and threaten Iya Tope when she timidly responds.

In the meantime, we begin to get more of Bolanle’s backstory: her ambitious youth, her nagging mother and drunken father, the tragedy that destroys her dreams and eats away her personality, until finally she thinks she has found peace in Baba Segi, the man with many wives who initially accepts her as she is. Although her mother calls him an “overfed orang-utan,” Bolanle sees him as “a large but kindly generous soul.”

Although Bolanle’s marriage to Baba Segi is pivotal to the plot of the novel (and is actually based on a true story), it left me unsettled. Despite the description of Bolanle’s psychological woundedness and her gratefulness for his acceptance, I couldn’t quite believe that such a sensitive, un-materialistic degree-holder would actually agree to marry an illiterate man as ridiculous as Baba Segi.

Shoneyin caricatures polygamy as a relic of another time, an institution that Bolanle finds difficult to reconcile with her education and sophistication. Bolanle initially sees herself as a self-sacrificial missionary to a backwards field: “Living with them has taught me the value of education, of enlightenment. I have seen the dark side of illiteracy. […] I will not give up on them. I will bring light to their darkness.” She is embarrassed by Baba Segi’s behaviour at the teaching hospital where they go to investigate her inability to conceive. The doctors treat her with pity and her husband with condescension. Eventually, Bolanle realizes that she has been living in “a dream of unspeakable self-flagellation.” Bolanle’s description of being with “people from a different time in history, a different world” draws a distinct boundary between the world of education and hospitals and modernity and the world of polygamy.

But this presentation of polygamy as an institution of illiterates, while it works well in the novel, oversimplifies the choices educated professionals often make in entering such marriages. I think of Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes: a Love Story (Women’s Press, 1991), which describes an educated career woman, who falls for the charms of a married man and agrees to be his wife. While she, too, becomes disillusioned with polygamy, her initial attraction to her dashing husband seems more understandable than Bolanle’s marriage to the awkward Baba Segi. Hausa novels also present the complex decisions of characters who decide to enter into such marriages. Alhaji Abubakar, in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy…, for example, is described as a charming, romantic suitor of the girl he makes his third bride. The young woman eventually finds out that living with rivals complicates the romance. In real life, educated men and educated women choose to enter such households. They are not all buffoons.

Ultimately, however, the novel, as satire, slyly questions the vanity of men who think they can satisfy more than one woman. Women willing to share a husband, the novel implies, might do so more out of a need for security than genuine love for their husband.

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

In 2013, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press asked me to choose a September 2013 “Book of the Month.” I wrote about Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila (Who Will Marry an Illiterate Woman?). Unfortunately, Cassava Republic took down the piece the next month to make way for their next book of the month. I was recently reminded of the short essay as I have been working with my friend Hausa novelist and journalist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed on summaries and short translations of Hausa novels for an exhibition of photographs by photographer Glenna Gordon at the Open Society. I thought it was about time to make the piece available online again through my blog. Note I am reproducing it as it was originally published with updates in brackets.

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on Child Marriage

Much of the public discourse about literature in Nigeria is about literature written in English. According to most African literary prize-giving institutions, English is the language of literature. Yet, Nigeria also has a rich heritage of literature written in languages such as Arabic, Efik, Fulfulde [see here and here], Ibibio, Igbo [see here and here], Tiv, and Yoruba [see here and here], among others. Hausa literature is, however, currently the largest indigenous-language publishing movement in Nigeria, if not in Africa. According to scholar Abdalla Uba Adamu, between the 1930s and mid-1980s, fifty-four Hausa-language novels were published mostly by government-subsidized publishers. The upsurge in literacy promoted by the UPE (Universal Primary Education) initiative from 1976 and the advance in personal computer in the 1980s led to an explosion in Hausa self-publication in the early 1980s. Since that time, thousands of novels in Hausa have been published. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has over 2000 of these novels in their collection.

Called variously Kano Market Literature, or “Soyayya” (romance) novels, scholar and author Yusuf Adamu’s suggestion of the term “Adabin Hausa na Zamani/Contemporary Hausa literature” is probably more appropriate. These novels cover a wide range of genres and themes, from crime fiction and romance, to muckraking social critique and fantasy adventure. While they are often printed in multiple parts in 80-120 page pamphlets to make it affordable for students and housewives, most are not novellas but serialized novels that sometimes run to 700 pages or beyond. And they are wildly popular. According to the author’s print run records, the bestselling novel of the movement, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s two part novel, In da So da Kauna, published in 1990, sold over 100,000 copies—200,000, if you count sales of individual parts. Gidan Dabino is currently preparing to release a new edition of the novel in a single three hundred page volume. Other exciting developments in Hausa publishing include the opening last month of an online shop for Hausa novels,, by the Mace Mutum women writers association led by novelist Rahma Abdulmajid. [Unfortunately, in 2015, this site is no longer viable.]

Rahma Abdul Majid and Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino with me in 2005.

Recently, I have been reading the novels of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, one of the pioneers of the so-called “soyayya” movement (and also the younger sister of the former head of state Murtala Muhammad). She was part of the Raina Kama writing club that began in the late 1980s, which also included authors, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Dan Azimi Baba, Aminu Hassan Yakasai, Alkhamees D. Bature, Aminu Abdu Na’inna, and Badamasi Shu’aibu Burji.

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Raina Kama literary Association photograph duplicated in many of their books

Married at 12 to a 48 year old man and quickly divorced, [as she recounts in this short autobiographical text], Hajiya Balaraba was finally able to access education through adult education offered in Kano. She began by writing plays as class assignments and published her first novel, Budurwar Zuciya in 1988. She has written over nine books, including novels and plays. She has also produced several films and writes popular radio plays. Her novels are generally muckraking exposés of the corruption of hypocritical men and they critique polygamy, forced marriage, and other issues of concern to northern women. While she was not the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa—that honour goes to Hafsat Abdulwaheed, whose short novel So Aljannar Duniya won a 1979 Northern Nigerian Publishing Company (NNPC) writing competition and was published in 1980—Hajiya Balaraba is the first woman to have a novel translated from Hausa to English.

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Hausa novelists Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Hafsat Abdulwaheed at an event celebrating the work of literary critic Ibrahim Malumfashi, Kaduna, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

In 2012, the Indian publisher Blaft sponsored and published Aliyu Kamal’s English-language translation of Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne…Ubangidansa Yakan Bi as Sin is a Puppy… that Follows you Home.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

The translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 2013 by Blaft Publishers.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne published in 1990.

The novel tells the story of a wealthy but womanising trader, who spends most of  his salary chasing prostitutes, only giving a fraction to his wife Rabi for the upkeep of the nine children in the house. When he marries an old prostitute who picks a fight with Rabi, he divorces his wife and sends her and her children away. Although Rabi finds life independent of her selfish husband liberating, she is eventually forced by her brothers and her son-in-law back into a more traditional home. The novel critiques the patriarchal society in which Rabi and her daughters are caught with bitter irony rather than explicit condemnation. [For my longer review of the translated novel, see this blog post.]

Wane Kare ba Bare ba is perhaps Hajiya Balaraba’s most controversial novel,

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast? published in 1995.

and it quickly went out of print shortly after publication in 1995. It is about the outwardly respectable Alhaji Gagarau, who in private is a predatory sexual deviant. He molests almost every young girl he comes into contact with, including most of his daughters and his wives’ sisters. As in Sin is a puppy…., however, Alhaji Gagarau’s sins will follow him home; this time in the form of a hand wounded while committing a rape, which turns gangrenous and begins to rot. Like Oscar Wilde’s picture of Dorian Gray which shows the secret corruption of its owner, Alhaji Gagarau may be able to hide his sins but he cannot hide the smell of his rotting hand, which eventually exposes his secret.

Amidst these muckraking tales of corruption in the home, my favourite is the tender novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/Who will Marry an Illiterate Woman? in which Hajiya Balaraba draws on her own experiences as a bride of 12. Published in 1990 [and soon to be adapted into a mini-series produced by Hajiya Balaraba], the novel is relevant to the ongoing debate of child marriage, recently brought back to public attention by Senator Yerima’s vociferous insistence that he has the religious right to marry a wife or give out his daughters in marriage whenever they start menstruation, whether “at the age of nine, 13, 14.” In Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Hajiya Balaraba counters this male narrative with the woman’s side of the story. Thirteen-year-old bookworm Abu is withdrawn from school when her Qur’anic teacher tells her father it is no longer appropriate for a grown girl to be out in public. Embarrassed, Abu’s father quickly seeks to marry her off to her childhood sweetheart, her cousin Ahmadu, to whom she has been promised for years. But Ahmadu, now in university in Kano, has had a taste of city life and city women and will have no more of his young village cousin, whom he calls illiterate and backward. Meanwhile, a local aristocrat, the potbellied, red-eyed fifty-two year old Sarkin Noma has been plotting to marry Abu before he has even seen her, as a way to subdue his three other quarrelling wives. The headstrong Abu makes no secret of her disgust for him, but her father, humiliated by the immature Ahmadu’s rejection of his daughter, forces his young daughter to marry the old man. Sarkin Noma, initially just in search of fresh new blood, continues his pursuit of Abu as revenge for disrespecting him, telling her, “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” The first part of the novel traces the ever more wretched conditions Abu faces, as a child bride facing brutal rape by her old husband.

However, Abu is not a subservient victim, and she takes her fate into her own hands, running away to Kano to make a new life for herself. The second part of the novel traces Abu’s maturity and knowledge as she enrolls in adult education classes and begins a career, first as a teacher and later as a nurse. Like the corrupt men in Hajiya Balaraba’s other novels, as Abu grows in power, Sarkin Noma dwindles away and becomes impotent. But he is the only one in the book who

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

Part 1 of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila.

is not changed for the better by Abu’s self-improvement. As the other men in the novel learn humility and respect for their female companions, they find much sweeter lives. Ultimately, Abu is allowed the happiness that escapes many of Hajiya Balaraba’s other heroines—having redefined her value, not just as an illiterate girl to be given away but an educated woman who has much to give back to her family. The title is thus ironic, the real question is not “Who will marry an Illiterate Woman?” but rather “Who is good enough to marry an Educated Woman?”

Wa Zai Auri Jahila? challenges the stereotype of the northern woman as merely silent and oppressed and gives her an agency of her own. Unfortunately for those who read only English, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is available only in Hausa. However, if you want a taste of Hajiya Balaraba’s writing you can read her novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, published in translation as Sin is a Puppy… by Blaft. If more effort were put into building up an infrastructure to support translators, perhaps a wider public would be able to access more of these striking stories written by women and young people in northern Nigeria. Instead of awarding a single author with $100,000 every year, the administrators of the NLNG prize may want to consider that.

Read my previous reviews of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels Sin is a Puppy… and Wa Zai Auri Jahila? here.