Tag Archives: translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

African Literary Prizes: Where are the translations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translating (and Transcribing) the Hausa film song Zazzabi [Fever]

Zazzabi

I’m going to do something today that I haven’t done for a long time on this blog, but which is something I originally started this blog to do, and that is to put up some work in progress–a song that I am working on right now in my dissertation–and ask for help from Hausa speakers in correctly translating and transcribing it.

Zazzabi (Fever) directed by Sha’aibu Idris Belaz and produced by Auwalu Madaki (story by Salisu Buldoza) for Sa’a Entertainment in 2005 is one of my favourite Hausa films. And the first song in the movie, sung by Sadi Sidi Sharifai, Ikram Garba Ado, and Sa’a A. Yusuf, has obsessed me since 2006. Yes, that long. (I’ve mentioned and posted it in previous blog posts in November 2009 and just the other day in October 2013). It must have been pretty popular with its audiences too, because the songwriter Sadiq Usman Sale gained his industry nickname from the film: Sadiq Zazzabi.

It’s a story full of twists and turns, so I can’t talk too much about the plot here, in case there is someone who ever wants to see the film (if you can find it anywhere). But, as it becomes clear by the 6th verse of the song, it is a film about love and HIV, but it is no NGO film (thank God). HIV is one of the things that complicates the love between the characters in the love triangle between the characters played by Sani Danja, Mansura Isah, (who ended up marrying in real life) and Ibrahim Maishunku. (Because the characters played by Sani Danja and Mansura Isah are not named in the film, I call them Sani and Mansura here. The character played by Ibrahim Maishunku is named Salim in the film.)

What I LOVE about this song is the ambiguity of the word zazzabi (fever). It can be used in the metaphoric sense as a fever of love, and that is the sense in which the audience would most likely initially interpret word. In Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna, for example, the young lover Muhammad writes that he is fleeing Kano to Kaduna

Part 1 of Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino's bestselling novel In da So da Kauna

Part 1 of Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna

because he has been separated from his sweetheart Sumayya, “Ciwon sonta ne ya sa ba zan zauna ba/The sickness of loving her is the reason I won’t stay” (part 1, 85). Sumayya sings on a cassette to Muhammad, that  “In na tuna ka sai na farka daga barci na,/ Ciwon so ya sanya wannan ba komai ba/If I remember you I wake from my sleep/ The sickness of love makes it nothing” (part 1, 71). When she dreams that Muhammad has been killed in an accident she sings, “Ciwon so shi zan kashe ni/ The sickness of love will kill me“[or The sickness of love will make me kill myself] (part 1, 87).

However, the word “zazzabi” can also be used literally here, as a literal fever. Indeed it is when Sani complains about a fever that Mansura suggests he go for a medical check-up–a checkup during which he tests positive for HIV. The song thus layers a literal meaning of the “disease of love” on top of a metaphoric usage, creating a striking and disturbing image of the dangers love brings not only the heart but the body. In Verse 6, Sani comes out and says “Kanjamau cutar a jikina. Lafiya bata dawowa/ AIDS is the disease in my body. Health will not return.”

My attempts to transcribe the song (from the video below) and translate it– the transcription file on my computer dates back to 2009–however, has made me painfully aware of how much more Hausa I still need to learn. Of course, the poetic language of the song makes it a bit more difficult to transcribe than ordinary language. I’ve been sitting here with the R.C. Abraham dictionary, the Bargery dictionary, and the Hausa-Hausa dictionary published a few years ago by Bayero University, sometimes wondering if I have even divided the words correctly when I transcribed–or if the words I have written actually exist. So, I would love help from Hausa speakers and readers in checking 1) the transcription of the words of the song, 2) my translation. As I get corrections, I will try to make corrections on this post. At this point, I am not trying to be very literary in my translation–although I did translate “kauna” as “passion,” even though I know that “kauna” has a much milder connotation, because I felt it fit with the overall meaning of the song. For the most part, I just want it to be accurate. After I feel I have an accurate translation, I may try to make it sound more like poetry in English. But mainly, right now, I want a working translation that I can feel confident working with as I write about the song. At the moment, I probably don’t have the room to include an in depth analysis of the entire song in my dissertation–I’m using the refrain and chorus, which I understand fine. But I’m thinking I’d like to write a separate article on the entire song and the film at some point, and any suggestions people can give me here will help me work towards that goal.

UPDATE: 10 November 2013. Anas Musa just sent me some amazing corrections to my transcription via email, and suddenly it all begins to fall into place. I will make his corrections on the transcription here and keep working on the translation. I am so grateful. He heard words and expressions that I just couldn’t quite get like kwarjini and kamani and furucina and kudurina and burin ruhina and dimaucewa and gane batuna and jin lafazina and akwai uzurina and gurbi and kulli yaumin and hangena and the whole proverbial expression “Mai guri ya zo gurbinsa shinfidarka ka zo ka nade ta” and don in zam in ganta and kuwa ya cancanta and hawaye (instead of ta waye) and Gashi na yi biyu ko daya (rather than Ga shi na bude bako) and Wayyo kaina (rather than Wayyo Allah). As you can see he’s made a huge difference! I’m still working on the translation. It’s rough but a lot cleaner now that I can actually hear what words they are saying.

I will post the video and my transcription below that. The cinematography is rather grey and uninspiring, but the song is brilliant. Please note that the video is included in this blog post as part of fair use policies for review purposes:

Zazzabi

Fever

 by Sadiq Usman Sale (ie. Sadiq Zazzabi)

Refrain:

Sani:  Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi, Ciwon so, ciwon kauna,

 A Fever has come to my body, Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion,

Salim:  Zazzabi shi ne a jikina

A Fever is what is in my body

Female back up Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has caught the lovers, A fever so hot,Fever of love, fever of passion, A fever that burns

Mansura:  Zazzabi ya sauka  jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi, Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, Zazzabi shi ne a jikina

Fever has come to my body, Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, A Fever is what is in my body

Verse 1

Sani: A gaskiya ciwon kaunarki, a tuntuni shi yake kamani.

Truly, lovesickness for you captured me long ago.

Female backup Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: In na zo, wurin ji a gareki. Kwarjini shi yake kamani.

If I come to hear it from you. I am overcome with shyness.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: Ina tsoron furucinki, shi ya sa jinkiri a gareni

I fear what you will say, that’s what made me delay

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: Kin ji, dai, dukkan kudurina, ya a bar burin ruhina

Hear my great passion for you, oh my deepest soul’s desire.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has captured the lovers, A fever so hot. Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever of scorching heat.

Verse 2:

Sani: Ki amince da ni, don Allah, kar ki sa ni na dimaucewa.

Trust me, for God’s sake, don’t let me lose my mind.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: So da kauna abin girmamawa, kin ga shine tushen kowa….

Love and passion is an inestimable thing, you know it is the root of us all… 

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Na nutso kogin kaunarki ko dagowa bana yowa

I am drowning in a river of your love, I can’t come up out of it.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Nai jiran amsa a gareki don kuwa duk kin gane batuna.

I wait for your answer, so that you understand all that I’ve said.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has caught the lovers, a fever so hot. Sickness of love, sickness of passion, Fever a sickness that burns.

Verse 3:

Mansura: Na ji dukka batunka bayani, to, tsaya don jin lafazina. 

I’ve heard all, all of what you’ve said. To, stop now and listen to me. 

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Tun ada, tun tun na fahimta kai kana kauna a garena.

For long, I’ve understood that you love me

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura:  Gaskiya ni da kai soyayya, ba na yi don akwai uzurina.

In truth, I have my reasons not to agree to love between me and you.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Babu gurbi cikin ruhina sam… Salim shi ne a gabana

There’s no place in my heart. Salim, hes the one in my future now.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

It’s a fever that captures lovers, Fever so hot. Sickness of passion. Sickness of love. Fever a sickness that burns.

 

Verse 4

Mansura: Alkawari, ni da shi mun dauka duk wuya bama canzawa.

It’s a promise he and I have made each other. No matter the difficulty we won’t change.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Son Salim, shi ne a gabana, kulla yaumin na ke ta tunawa

My love for Salim is before me,  I’m always thinking [of him].

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: So da kaunarsa ke ta bugawa zuciyata suke rayawa.

Love and passion are throbbing my heart to life again.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Son Salim shi ne hangena har ke loda harkar ganina.

Love for Salim is what I see from a far, it fills my vision.

Instrumental Interlude

 Refrain

Salim: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

A fever has entered my body, A fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever, that’s what’s in my body.

Mansura:  Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana

A fever has entered my body, A fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever, that’s what’s in my body.

Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has captured the lovers, a fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever of scorching heat.

Verse 5:

Salim: Mai guri ya zo gurbinsa shinfidarka kazo ka nade ta

The longing lover has met his fate. Here’s your mat, come roll it up.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Ga ni gefen abar kaunata, in tsaya don in zam in ganta.

See me here by the side with my heavy love, I’ve paused here to stay and see her.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Zo mu je lambunmu na kauna, mu shige, don kuwa ya cancanta

Come let’s go to our garden of love, let’s enter it, because it is befitting.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Kai ku sai ka tsaya, bisa nan gun ke da shi, ku yi bankwana

You just have to stop all the familiarity you have with him,  you must say goodbye

Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

Fever has captured the lovers. Fever so hot. Fever of love, Fever of passion. Fever of scorching heat.

Verse 6

Sani: Yau ina kuka da hawaye sai takaice nake ta tunawa.

Today I am weeping hot tears, I keep thinking of my loss…

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Ga shi na yi biyu ko daya babu rayuwata nake tausayawa

See, I have nothing, I pity my life.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Kanjamau cuta a jikina. Lafiya bata dawowa

AIDS is the disease in my body. Health will not return

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani:  Rayuwata tana watakila mutuwa ko yau a wurina

I face the end of my life, maybe even today.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama

Fever has captured

Sani: Wayyo kaina,

Chorus: masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Lovers. Fever so hot

Sani: Wayyo Allahna

Chorus:  Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kona.

Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever that burns.

Refrain

Mansura: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

Fever has come to my body. Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, Fever is in my body.

Sani: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

Fever has come to my body. Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, Fever is in my body.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

This fever has captured the lovers. Fever so hot. Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever that burns.

Words Without Borders features African Women writing in Indigenous Languages

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:

Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud DarwishEtgar KeretPer PettersonFadhil Al-AzzawiW.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.

I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.  

I wrote a mini-review of the issue in my column this week, which you can read on the Weekly Trust site, the All Africa site, or copied below, with links and photos, on my blog.

Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 12 OCTOBER 2013

The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.

The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation  “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).

Rahma Abdul Majid (courtesy of Ibrahim Sheme’s blog Bahaushe Mai Ban Haushi)

Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I’ve previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.

Glaydah Namukasa (Photo Credit: Winston Barclay, Flickr, used by permission)

Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved

Dr. Merit Ronald Kabugo (courtesy of Words Without Borders)

me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.

I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft

Charles Cantalupo (courtesy Penn State)

body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.

Hilda Twongyeirwe (courtesy of UGPulse Literature)

The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It

Juliet Kushaba (courtesy Transcultural Writing)

is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.

Marame Gueye (courtesy East Carolina University)

The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.

The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.

I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.

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

My translated excerpt of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! published in Sentinel Nigeria

The beat-up cover of my working copy of Kaico! (complete with little kid pencil scribbles)

I’m behind on this blog, and there is much more to post, including my trip to Lagos and Yenegoa, for a “Reading Nollywood” conference and the AMAA awards. (For an excellent post on AMAA, see my friend Bic Leu’s blog, which uses a lot of the photos I took while there.) But, in the meantime, here is a link to an excerpt of my translation-in-progress of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico! that was published in the March 2011, Issue 5 of Sentinel Nigeria Online.

The excerpt comes from the first chapter of the novel, which I have completed three (rough) chapters of so far. In addition to needing to finish translating the entire novel, the translation of the three chapters I have completed still need a lot of polishing and editing. But I do appreciate Sentinel Editor, Richard Ali being so committed to start featuring translations of African-language works that he urged me to send this in as is.

Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino is the bestselling author of In Da So Da Kauna, a Hausa language novel that sold over 100,000 copies. Winner of the 2009 Engineer Mohammad Bashir Karaye Prize in Hausa Literature for his play Malam Zalimu, he is also a founding member of the Hausa film industry, and has produced or directed sixteen films in Hausa, including his most recent Sandar Kiwo, which has been shown internationally.

Here is an excerpt from the excerpt:

On Monday, the 23rd day of Ramadan, after we broke fast, my good friend Kabiru visited our house. I saw him as he came into the room, and I quickly got up and grabbed his hand.
“Kai, look who we have here in town today. Kabiru, ashe, are you around? Long time no see!” I said, holding on to his hand.
As we sat down, Kabiru said, “I traveled for a week, that’s why you haven’t seen me. You know that if I hadn’t traveled, it would have been hard to go for seven days without seeing you.”
“I was thinking maybe the fasting was keeping you from going anywhere,” I answered. “You know how the fasting wears you out when the sun is beating down.”
“Well, the sun may be hot, but there’s no sun at night. I was told that you came to my house looking for me while I was gone. Have you forgotten?”
“Oh, I know. I just asked to see what you would say.” We both smiled.
Kabiru looked at me. “Oho, so you want to catch me out, do you?”
“Ai, well, that’s why you should marry relatives. They know you. You know them. If you take the bait, it’s not my fault,” I laughed.
“Ok, well, jokes aside. I have something important I want to talk to you about.”
“I’m listening. What’s up?” I tilted my head to one side to listen.

***

Unfortunately, the English translation published by Sentinel extends beyond the Hausa that was also given, and I have currently misplaced my copy of the book, but as soon as I find it, I will put up the Hausa portion of this excerpt for a side-by-side comparison. To read more, see the Sentinel site.

Hausa novelist Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino and (translator) Carmen McCain in his office, August 2005.