Category Archives: Photography

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(c) Glenna Gordon via National Geographic

 

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(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.

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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

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(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.

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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

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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.

Global Reach?

Several times I have proposed keeping up with the blog by posting photos from my vast archive and writing a quick memory of the context behind the photograph, and today I intend to start that–begin the rhythm of a new blog posting schedule.

I went into my photos folder and picked a date at random. And this is the first photo that came up.

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Taken on 26 February 2012 after the Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church in Jos, Nigeria (c) Carmen McCain, all rights reserved

The date: 26 February 2012

The photo: A bank flier amidst broken glass from a Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church. I had been living in Jos at the time, while writing my dissertation, and the church was only a block and a half from my house. It was around 7:15am. I was lying in bed, procrastinating getting up, when suddenly an ear-splitting BOOM came, shaking the house. I lept out of bed, tangling in the mosquito netting. I couldn’t find my keys to run out of the front door, so I ran out the side door. In the sky were thousands of bats.

The closed windows in my neighbour’s houses had shattered. We all sat on the ground in a neighbour’s house, listening to the shouting outside the wall. Later that afternoon, when tensions cooled, I walked over to the church to take a few photos. I later wrote about the experience in more detail.

With the recent attacks on mosques in Jos and Kano, church in Potiskum, and during a biometric verification exercise for state workers in Zaria, it felt like a the right photograph to post today, expressive of multiple ironies. It expresses the uncertainty that we continue to face about the “global reach” of terror, in a time when ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram often seem to work in conjunction (and in a time when more stories of terror against minority populations in the U.S. and Europe are being heard); the tensions of Nigeria’s economic expansion and attempts to join marketplaces of global capital in a time of Boko Haram. And so on.

Hopefully, my next photo will be a little more cheerful.

Writing Companions

“La Danse” (second version, 1909-1910) by Henri Matisse, Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When I was a teenager and I still had an already old fashioned record player, one of my favourite albums from my parents record collection was a record of Ravel’s “Bolero.” The cover was the second version of Matisse’s painting “La Danse.” (I would love to take credit for my great knowledge of art, but I actually found it by first googling “Ravel’s Bolero record” and then “red men dancing impressionist.” It’s amazing what google can do.) The painting and the music melded, and I remember lying on my bed, eyes closed, floating on the sinuous threads of the ballet, as the shiny black record undulated under the needle. The music starts out softly with a single flute and snare drum and then a clarinet, so softly (pianissimo I whisper) you can hardly hear it, and as each instrument takes up the Bolero theme, the orchestra grows louder and more rowdy until it finally ends with a tumbling crash.  

I would play it as I daydreamed and as I read and as I wrote little stories that I never finished. It is sensual music that pulls at your body so that you have to follow its rhythms, follow Matisse’s red dancers even if you are lying down.

I think this is the same record. Photo courtesy of Positive Feedback Online, Issue 14.

 

Sensual. It is a word that comes to me every time I hear Ravel, as does my old Jos room, with its fluttering blue curtains, and yellow record player on the floor, the shimmer of the large flat disc as it spun. A dizzying array of senses: circling vinyl, circling red nudes, circling bolero theme, whirl of instruments.

I have recently discovered Spotify (unfortunately not available in Nigeria), with its endless fields of free music. I write best when I am listening to rhythmic, wordless music, so Ravel’s Bolero is at the top of my “writing music” playlist, followed by a whole lot of Bach. I sway. I type. The orchestra circles and crescendos, trumpets blasting and drums marching.  I still get chills.

Outside the windows tonight, there is a mist that shines red in the security lights. The polar vortex with its arctic temperatures has given way to the more gentle Atlanta winter, and the rain comes and goes, tapping against the wood walls. The mist and the rain make me feel safe, provide a companionable solitude. I try to write but I think more of process than content, of memories rather than analysis, round and round with the clarinet.

I am alone tonight, but for two little writing companions, insects that look like knight’s shields, with a delicate inlay of filigreed gold, painted with tiny spots of red and brown. They explore my charge cords and my wallet and patter along the top of my screen with stalk legs, extending their patterned wings out from under their shields to whir away when I startle them. I wonder where they come from, these little beings, in all this cold. I think–I should write about these creatures, but I keep pushing the urge away–attempting to work on a chapter about censorship–until the music and the rain and the living things overcome me and I run through the cold corridors of the house to find my camera and wish as I hold my kit lens close, “Oh, if only I had a macro.”

(c) CM

(c) CM

(c) CM

(c) CM

Escape (c) CM

The Polar Vortex welcomes America into the Arctic Circle

Guess what this image is.

What is this?

What is this?

I arrived in America just in time to enjoy the coldest winter in almost half a century in some places (Reuters says Atlanta is having the coldest weather it has had for 44 years). Even in Florida, one of America’s sunniest southernmost states, as I left my sister’s house yesterday, her poor hibiscus bushes looked shriveled and sad, flowers translucent with cold, which at some points of the night got down to the teens Fahrenheit (around -7 Celsius). Still in Florida, we passed a fountain that had frozen over while the water was running, looking like something out of the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film, rather than Florida. Arriving in the Atlanta area where my grandmother lives , we were welcomed with the news that the pipes were frozen. Fortunately, there was still a trickle of water coming out in the kitchen sink and the front bathroom, but the hot water heaters were not working, and the back bathroom was completely frozen up.

We put our bucket bath skills to work, my dad and I going outside to draw water in a small bucket from a creek that runs close by and heating water for dishes on the stove. However, we realized how helpless most of us living in America when faced with power or water outages as compared to Nigerians. First, we just aren’t used to such things and don’t have battery back-up systems or generators for power, or even proper-sized buckets or cisterns for collecting and storing water. Moral of the story being, great infrastructure is great, but it does sometimes leave people a little too comfortable, unable to cope in emergencies. Second, the weather is just so much harsher–North America is not a terribly friendly continent to live on without having a solid house and heat–, so that when such shortages happen, people suffer more in the short term, although the expectation is generally that things will soon be better. I imagine futuristic scenarios where America’s economy continues to spiral downwards into another Great Depression, combined with climate change, and people are left without electricity and water again for long periods of time. In such a scenario, poor people in Africa are much better off than poor people in northern countries, as this exciting new Kenyan science fiction series, Usoni, imagines. (Africa is the only place in the world where the sun still shines, prompting reverse immigration southward). And speaking of science fiction, check out these photos from Chicago!

Fortunately, the power stayed on in my grandmother’s house, though she said she had heard on the radio that it went off in some parts of Atlanta and there have been outages across the continent. According to The Independent, a power outage in Newfoundland Canada “left 90,000 homes without electricity” on Sunday. Imagine being without electricity or heat in temperatures of 20 below… And people have died, especially the homeless. CBC reports that at least 21 people have reportedly died during this freeze.

The most dramatic thing that happened in my grandmother’s house was the toilet freezing and a little flood when the pipes warmed up this afternoon. But fortunately my uncle is a brilliant plumber, so the problem has been solved for now.

Ice in the toilet-for web

ice in the toilet.

When I posted the status update “ice in the toilet” earlier on Facebook, my friend Richard Ali thought I was making some sort of existential statement about America. While it does make make a startlingly original poetic metaphor, this time the ice was literal. As Richard put it a “double entendre” from Nature.

In the meantime, I am hoping that the temperatures warm up before I head to Madison, WI, next week. Please help  me pray…. 

Transitions: Life changes and this blog’s 2013 in review

Happy New Year 2014

A lot has changed in my life since my last post, over a month ago. When I posted, I had just had a great writing day. I was about to submit a chapter. I was “raring to go” on the next chapter. I could see in my mind, the rest of the dissertation unfolding, almost effortlessly.  I felt like it was almost already written. It was a blessing, that day of writing.

The day before my grandmother in the American state of Louisiana had an accident. She ran off the road into a tree. We heard that she was awake when she was admitted into the hospital. I don’t think I realized how serious it was. I’m glad I got a lot of work done that day because by Friday, I was packing up my little house where I had written much of my dissertation in order to fly back to the U.S. for a funeral that we knew would be soon. Initially, we had reserved tickets on Saturday, which we held off on buying because we heard she was getting better. She passed away on Monday, and my parents and I flew to Lagos the next day (almost late because I was still trying to pack and organize the materials I was leaving behind. I am very grateful to a few kind friends who came over to help me and who are still helping me scan a box of magazines and other materials I couldn’t travel with). From Lagos, we flew overnight to Atlanta, and by Wednesday morning Eastern Time, we were in a rental car driving to Louisiana for the funeral. Perhaps I will write another post on the funeral and a longer post on my remarkable grandmother. But for now, here are two of the columns I wrote during that time: “A Death at Christmas-time,” and “Home for Christmas?” (and a third rather random piece from last week as America begins to eat my brain cells, “When the lights go out in America and other thoughts on the last day of 2013” .)

I have spent a few weeks with my sister in Florida, trying to continue writing in her quiet, peaceful house. It has been surprisingly cold here in one of America’s southern-most states, but nothing to complain about these days. I am nearly in tears every time I hear dramatic sub-zero weather forecasts further north and face thoughts of returning to scenes like this (Photos I took in Madison, WI in the winter of 2007).

hard beauty

hard beauty. Flowers of metal and ice. (c) CM

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Fangs of ice (c) CM

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Welcome to Wisconsin. Have a seat. Make yourself at home. (c) CM

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And yet there is life, shed of its green, waiting for the earth to tilt and the sun draw near once again. (c) CM

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And winter too has its beauty. (c) CM

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It’s hard to be bitter looking at these photos again. These crystal patterns sculpted by Winter herself (c) CM

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Her gift to those who stay inside the glass, to those who do not defy her. (c) CM

Yes, I posted too many frost pictures. Let me know which one you like the best.

I think of the homeless at times like this. And I hope that churches and mosques and synagogues and other community centres are opening their arms. I read from Facebook friends in Madison that the Salvation Army and public libraries are opening, and that some organizations are paying for hotel rooms.

I wonder how homelessness can be possible, how the homeless survive winter after winter in these deadly days in this part of the planet that is habitable only by those who can afford four walls and heat?

In the meantime, WordPress has cheered me up with their neat little end of the year report. I have been a little obsessed with SEO [the acronym for site optimization, though I can’t remember what the “E” stands for (UPDATE: Actually, as my friend Nwunye reminded me, its “Search Engine Optmization”… duh)] this year when my site hits dramatically and unexplainably decreased in November by around 70%, but as of December they have sprung back up to normal. That makes me happy. Here is the report WordPress sent me for 2013. Even with my November dip, 2013 still seems to have outranked 2012 by about 10,000 hits:

 

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 190,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Sun, the Moon, and a cardboard box

The sun and the moon and me (c) CM

So today there was a partial eclipse. I hadn’t heard about it until I went to lunch with a friend, and in her car, she had armed herself with a box with a piece of white paper pasted on one side and a hole cut in the other, over which she had taped aluminum foil and pricked with a pin. This was her eclipse viewing device, she told me. I had heard about people making these things to view eclipses before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the trouble. But around 2pm, as I sat on my couch reading the Sunday Trust, I looked outside and noticed that the light was long and harsh and strange, so I called her and asked if she was watching the eclipse through her box. Was it happening now? She told me I still had time, as the peak of the eclipse was supposed to happen at 2:40pm, so I went and found an old regulator box and made the same device.

It was not that dramatic as I was expecting. I had thought I might see some sort of photographic image coming through the pin–hole onto the white paper. Yes, people, there is a reason I’m not in the sciences. Instead, it was just a new moon shaped sliver of light, which showed the shape of the moon as it passed in front of the sun. I was too afraid to look up at the sun itself. Next time I’ll have to prepare myself ahead of time with properly treated goggles.

I showed the neighbours, and wandered about looking at it from different angles.

I had some poetic thoughts about it all, but in between going back inside to keep working on my current chapter and staying up too late before deciding to post, the eclipse poetry will have to wait for the next eclipse. In the meantime, here are a few of the photos I took of the sliver of light in my box. Note: there is nothing fancy or dramatic about these photos. I did not risk pointing my camera lens or my eyes towards the light. It’s just a recording of my delightful, dorky afternoon wandering around with a box with a hole taped over with tin foil and paper.

Look for the sun, look for the moon, they are there in the light, in the shadow, in the cardboard box.

Eclipse viewing device (c) CM

the sun, the moon, the box, and me.

The sun, the moon, and an evil forest (c) CM

The sun disappears behind the moon and the trees. (c) CM

The sun, the moon, me and a cardboard box (c) CM

Light (c) CM

Light (c) CM