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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

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, Mamuwa.com, 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.

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, which questions child marriage, is the September book of the Month at Cassava Republic Press

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Last month, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press contacted me and asked if I would contribute a “book of the month” for their monthly book series. I am currently working on a dissertation chapter on three of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels: Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Wane Kare ne ba Bare ba?, and Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (translated by Aliyu Kamal as Sin is a Puppy… ). So, I identified the “Book of the Month” as Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who will marry an illiterate woman?), Hajiya Balaraba’s novel about the irrepressible Abu who is forced into marriage at 13 but refuses to let her early trauma at the hands of her 52-year-old husband define her life. I sneaked in a brief summary of the other novels as well. You can read the post here on the Cassava Republic Press blog.[Update, the link is broken on the Cassava Republic Press blog, so I have archived it on my own blog here. -CM, 1 August 2015]

“Wa Zai Auri Jahila?” Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on child marriage, reviewed by Carmen McCain

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 July, I also wrote a longer review of Wa Zai Auri Jahila? in my column, which I will copy below. The scholars Abdalla Uba Adamu [see here and here], Novian Whitsitt [see here and here], and Graham Furniss [briefly, see here] have also written about the novel:

The question of child marriage and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 27 July 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

Last week, after I asked “Where are the translations?”, I was delighted to hear from two professors working on Hausa-English translation projects: Professor Yusuf Adamu and Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi.

I continued to think about the issue of making Hausa literature available to a wider audience this week as I read Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s two part Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/ Who will marry an Ignorant Woman?, first published in 1990. The novel is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about child marriage in Nigeria, and it made me think that if I were to translate a novel, I would love to translate this one. For those who read Hausa, the novel is currently no longer in the market, but Hajiya Balaraba tells me she soon plans to release a new edition in one volume of around 400 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

The novel, set mostly between the village of Gamaji and the city of Kano, with brief detours to London, Kaduna, and Lagos, tells the story of the headstrong, bookish girl Zainab, nicknamed Abu by her family. In the first part of the novel, Abu’s dreams are threatened by the pride and thoughtlessness of men. When she is thirteen, Abu’s father, Malam Garba, swayed by other villagers who think Abu is too old to be outside the house, pulls her out of school. Amadu, her cousin who had promised from childhood to marry her, forgets his proclamations of love when he leaves the village and goes to Kano to start university. Starting an affair with an older and more educated woman, he refuses to marry Abu—telling her he cannot marry an uneducated woman. Malam Garba, humiliated by Amadu’s rejection of his daughter on the eve of their marriage, insists that Abu must marry anyway and gives her to the first suitor to come along, Sarkin Noma. Her marriage is more about his pride than her well-being. Ignoring her tears, he maintains she will be happy once she is in her husband’s house. It is not until after the marriage that Malam Garba regrets the ridiculous husband to whom he has given his thirteen year old daughter: a fifty-two year man, with a big stomach and red eyes, whose own eldest daughter is four years older than Abu. Sarkin Noma’s insistence on marriage to Abu comes initially out of his own need to reinstate control over his three quarrelsome wives and later out of his desire to subdue the stubborn Abu, who expresses her disgust for him every time he comes courting. His pursuit becomes a horrifying exercise in asserting his power. He tells her “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” For those who do not believe marital rape is possible or who believe the best place for a young girl is in her husband’s house, this disturbing novel should cause them to reexamine their assumptions.

As against the sort of arguments I’ve seen this week that girls will become wayward if they are not married young, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? provides a different and much needed voice—the perspective of a girl herself. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu has spoken in interviews about how she herself was married as a very young girl to a man much older than her, and her portrayal of Abu’s suffering and determination to succeed rings true. She resists the temptation to caricature Abu’s antagonists as simple evil villains, however. Abu’s father, despite his pride, comes to regret what he has done to his daughter. Even Sarkin Noma who violently forces himself on his young bride dwindles to a pathetic character, shocked by the secrets his wives have kept from him, and frittering away his life longing for a woman he cannot have. The novel does not demonize particular characters so much as show how a patriarchal culture traps and degrades even those men whom it supposedly benefits.

Though Abu is victimized by men as a child, she refuses to stay a victim. Haunted by Amadu’s harsh words about her lack of education, she determines to better herself. She is fortunate to have an aunt in Kano who supports her in her quest for education, and the village girl Amadu rejected for her “ignorance” proves her brilliance once she enrolls in remedial classes. As Abu grows in years, knowledge, and maturity, changing her name from Abu to Zainab, her old antagonist Sarkin Noma dwindles into a pitiful creature. It is as if her success emasculates him. Indeed “…almost everyone knew that Sarkin Noma was no longer a man.” Yet, Zainab’s education is a blessing to almost everyone else, including the other men in her life. Though she makes Amadu suffer when he comes back from schooling in England, he comes to realize how badly he had treated her. Similarly she is able to influence her father so that her sister is not married at a young age as she was but instead allowed to go to secondary school. The title is ultimately ironic, as over the course of the novel the power shifts to create a more equal relationship between men and women. The question becomes not “Who will marry an ignorant woman,” but who is worthy to marry an educated one?

For all the horror of part one, part two is full of sweetness. As I read the last one hundred pages I had a huge smile on my face. There are several love stories here, but the most tender ones are between old married couples. I was touched by the scene where Abu’s parents, Malam Garba and Bengyel, make up after a long quarrel, with Malam Garba humbly apologizing to his wife. The endearments between Zainab’s aunt Hajiya Kumatu and her husband Malam Sango, married for twenty-three years despite their childlessness, brought tears

Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne.

to my eyes. As with Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, the happiest moments here occur in households where there is one man and one wife.
In addition to demonstrating the attractiveness of love between one man and one woman, this novel provides a contextual lens through which to view the issue of child marriage. First, as Hajiya Balaraba notes in the introduction to the second part of the novel, the book serves as a warning to parents who force their daughters into marriage, and particularly illustrates the horrors faced by a thirteen year old given to a 52 year old man. Abu would have been much better off had Amadu, who was only four or five years older than her, married her as originally planned. Yet, even that marriage, the author implies, would have had its problems. In his teenage years, Amadu was immature, made the wrong friends, and chased the wrong kinds of women. He was not at a stage where he could have provided a stable home for Abu. Similarly, marriage at 13 for Abu not only complicated her ability to continue her studies but also damaged her body. Although she had gone through puberty, she was not developed enough to give birth successfully, and her old husband’s rough treatment injured her badly.  While not explicitly condemning young marriage in the novel, the author demonstrates the contrast between Abu’s marriage as a child and the much healthier marriage between more educated financially-independent characters in their twenties.

There were occasional moments in the novel that I wish were different. There are several small factual errors which could easily be fixed in the next edition, such as implying that Oxford University, which Amadu attends, is in the city of London. I wish that instead of pursuing nursing, Zainab had gone all the way and become a doctor. I also wish that the unfaithful woman for whom Amadu left Abu was not portrayed as a Christian Yoruba. That said, the author, elsewhere, does portray positive relationships with the “Other.” Amadu meets several kind British characters in England and his friendship with the British woman Jennifer ends up helping him redeem his past mistake. Similarly, in Hajiya Balaraba’s 2006 novel Matar Uba Jaraba, part of the story is set in Ibadan where the Hausa boy Aminu grows up with kind Yoruba neighbours and marries his childhood sweetheart Shola. Ultimately, despite these flaws, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is an important novel, which gives voice and agency to the “girl-child” who is so often used as a pawn in ideological battles but rarely gets the chance to speak for herself. I just wish that everyone could read Hausa and enjoy as much as I have this novel that takes you from the depths of horror to the joyful heights of love.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the novel itself.

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

Interview with novelist Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

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

Interview with novelist Bilkisu Funtua.

Interview with novelist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed.

Hausa Popular Literature database at School of Oriental and African Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hausa Writers Database (in Hausa)

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