Tag Archives: reviews

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… (a review)

A few months ago, I posted the news about the publication of a translation of Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne as Sin is a Puppy… by Indian Publisher Blaft. 

On 3 November 2012 I published a review of the novel-in-translation in my column in Weekly Trust. I am only just now getting around to posting it on my blog, which you can read if you scroll down past the links below. Since publication in October 2012, there have been quite a few reviews and articles about the novel posted online, most of them from India. In fact the number of reviews I’ve found are overwhelming. How many Nigerian novels published in Nigeria get this kind of critical response? We need to do better. But I’m thrilled that Hajiya Balaraba is finally getting the attention she deserves!

5 August 2012 A brief mention as a forthcoming book in DNA India’s “Booked in the Second Half.” 

26 October 2012 Bookshy mentions Sin is a Puppy in a post about Hausa popular literature.

1 November 2012 A mention in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture

3 November 2012  My own review of the novel for Weekly Trust.

4 November 2012 Dhamini Ratnam’s article for the Pune Mirror: “A Filmi Affair in Nigeria” (Reprinted by Blueprint)

4 November 2012 Deepanjana Pal’s article for DNA: “How Bollywood Fought for the Nigerian Woman.” (She posts the “unsnipped version” on her own blog.)

17 November 2012 A promotion for the novel on Nana Fredua-Agyeman’s blog ImageNations

22 November 2012 Seema Misra’s review on her blog. 

25 November 2012 A Review on The Financial Express  and The Times of India

29 November 2012 Aishwarya S’s Review on the blog “Practically Marzipan.”

7 December 2012 Subashini Navaratnam’s detailed and thoughtful review on Pop Matters. (And some follow-up observations on her own The Blog of Disquiet)

14 December 2012 Deepa Dharmadhikari’s charming review on Live Mint. (reposted on Emeka Lison’s blog.)

16 December 2012 Tolu Ihidero’s review for Ariya Today.

30 December 2012 The heroine Rabi gets a mention in DNA India’s list of unforgettable fictional characters of 2012!

5 January 2013 A thoughtful review on President Blink-Blink

6 January 2013 Shelley Walia’s review in The Hindu, one of India’s most respected papers.

1 March 2013 Sandra Rafaela’s post on the Women of the African Diaspora site.

18 March 2013 Guernica Art Editor Glenna Gordon picks Sin is a Puppy as her Springtime Read, Guernica Magazine.

You can find other reviews on the Goodreads page for Sin is a Puppy.

If you would like to read Sin is a Puppy, you can buy it directly from Blaft, or read it as an ebook on Kindle or Nook. Blaft has made the first chapter available for free.  You can read an interview with Hajiya Balaraba here. 

Here is my review for Weekly Trust, published on 3 November 2012:

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy…

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 November 2012 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain
Last week independent Indian publisher Blaft released Sin is a Puppy (that Follows you Home), a translation by Aliyu Kamal, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 1990 Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Ubangidansa yakan bi). Publisher Rakesh Khanna makes an unfortunate error when he claims that “This book, is to the best of our knowledge, the first published English translation of a complete novel from Hausa,” an inaccuracy that I hope he will change in their next print run. Hausa novels like Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja and Muhammadu Bello Wali’s Gandoki have been abridged and translated and used in the Nigerian school curriculum, and a translation of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s novel Shaihu Umar is available for sale abroad. [Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s brilliant bestselling novel In da So da Kauna was also violently abridged and awkwardly translated into The Soul of My Heart.] However, this publication is still quite significant. It marks the first international publication in translation of a contemporary Hausa novel from what is sometimes called the Hausa “soyayya/love” genre, a literary movement of mostly self-published authors that began in the mid-1980s. In fact, as far as I know, Hajiya Balaraba is the first female Hausa novelist to be published in translation. An excerpt of Alhaki Kukuyo Ne was earlier translated by William Burgess and published in the 2002 anthology, Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell. The novel was also adapted into a film directed by Abdulkareem Muhammad in 1998 and has been the subject of scholarly work by Abdalla Uba Adamu, Novian Whitsitt, and others.

The novel tells the story of a Rabi, a woman married to a stingy, womanizing business man, Alhaji Abdu. Although she has nine children to take care of, her husband only gives her five naira a day to prepare their meals, while he spends over ten naira a day on restaurants and entertaining other women.  (Beyond literary value, the novel is also useful for tracking the inflation of the past twenty years!) Rabi pays for school fees from the money she makes cooking and selling food and takes care of Alhaji Abdu’s daughter from another marriage as if she were her own. Alhaji Abdu’s decision to marry an old prostitute as a second wife, however, brings Rabi’s misery to a climax. When the women quarrel, Alhaji Abdu throws Rabi and her nine children out on the street. The rest of the novel traces the decisions Rabi makes in her newly independent life, her daughter Saudatu’s marriage, and the continuing drama as Alhaji Abdu continues to alienate friends and family on behalf of his new ungrateful wife.

The suffering of the women in the novel seems to be, in large part, because of the patriarchal attitudes of polygamous husbands. As much as Rabi’s daughter Saudatu’s marriage to the devoted Alhaji Abubakar is described in romantic terms, she does suffer in the marriage as the third wife in a household of quarrelsome women. Even when she is alone with her husband, she is unable to rest after she gives birth because her husband wants her to continue looking after all the children he has had with his other wives. The other wives are portrayed harshly, but there is a sense that their quarrels come out of their being forced to co-exist with rivals. Even the men described sympathetically in the novel are sometimes unkind and imperious towards their wives. There are no feminist directives here, but a sense of unease and dissatisfaction at the plight in which women find themselves.  The happiest couples seem to be those who are made up of one man and one wife.

Although so-called soyayya novels are often stereotyped as being unrealistic romance novels, Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, reminds me more of the classic muckraking novels of Charles Dickens, who threw a harsh moral light on the injustices of his own society. Neither does the narrative work like a typical English-language “romance novel” but rather with the uncertainty and ambiguity of modernist social realism. The novel does not resolve into a happy ending. There are no neat ends tied off.  Alhaji Abdu does get his comeuppance, when, as the proverbial title foreshadows, his sins catch up with him. However, there is no reward for the virtuous Rabi. Male relatives, who had initially denounced Alhaji for his abuse and vowed their support for Rabi, end up transferring their loyalties back to their fellow man in the end. The status quo is preserved. Lessons are learned, and society continues on, but no one is left very happy. Hajiya Balaraba questions whether men, in such situations, are actually following religious prescriptions or merely following cultural norms that privilege their own comfort and pleasure over their wives’ wellbeing.

The translator Aliyu Kamal, an English professor at Bayero University, does fine work here. His translation for Blaft reads much more smoothly and naturally than the excerpt translated by William Burgess for Readings in African Popular Fiction. Professor Kamal’s writing skills as the author of ten novels in English are obvious. This is not to say there were not issues with the translation. He sometimes leaves out important content and nuance. In the original preface, for example, Hajiya Balaraba begins the novel with a prayer of gratitude to Allah before launching into a summary of the novel. The translation leaves out the prayer and goes directly to the summary. He also leaves out another particularly pointed sentence in the preface, where Hajiya Balaraba says that abusive, neglectful men “exist in every corner of this state.” He sometimes makes odd translation choices such as describing Rabi as “putting on her makeup” after a bath, rather than “oiling her body” as it is in the original, and sometimes he translates out certain ironies.  In the original, Alhaji Abdu tells his first wife Rabi that he’s got “good news” for her, that he plans to give her “a little sister,” a euphemism for adding a wife. In Kamal’s translation, however, the irony is translated out with Alhaji Abdu merely saying, “I have something to tell you. I plan to take a second wife.” A more careful translation could have maintained the nuance. I would, additionally, have preferred if he had left common food words in Hausa, allowing readers to infer from context that they are foods rather than translating “koko” and “kosai” and “tuwo” as “porridge” and “bean cakes” and “pudding.” Although I was originally startled by some of the larger structural adjustments to the texts, including rearranged chapters, perhaps these were wise editorial decisions, as they do make the story flow more smoothly. Overall, despite these flaws, the translation makes for a good read and I would love to see Professor Kamal do more of such work.

I am particularly delighted by the publication of this translation because it indicates that the larger world is beginning to appreciate novels that have often been denigrated by an intellectual elite in Nigeria. Critics, many of whom have read only a few of the novels, or none at all, often condemn an entire range of genres and literary accomplishment as “trashy romance novels.”  Ironically, while for the past twenty years thousands of novels have been written and consumed by eager readers, Nigeria’s well-known publishers have looked the other way and bemoaned the “lack of reading culture in Nigeria. It took an Indian company to recognize these innovations and search for translators to midwife Hausa creative expression to a larger global readership. Because of this, although the book can be ordered from India and is available in e-book versions, Sin is a Puppy…., like so many other contemporary Nigerian literary works, is more easily available to audiences abroad than it is to Nigerian audiences.  I hope this publication will wake up Nigerian publishers and encourage more English-language novelists to try their hands at translation. Perhaps the Association of Nigerian authors, a university, or other literary initiative could award funding to at least one writer/translator team a year?

Note: My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and those who were wounded in the bomb at St. Rita’s church in Kaduna on 28 October and in the reprisal attacks that followed. May God bring the murderers to justice and grant us all comfort and peace.

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

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

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

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

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

My review of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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