15 December 2012

Nigeria: The Silent North - Problems in Studies of Northern Nigerian Literature

Last week I attended the 7th Conference on Literature in Northern Nigeria held at Bayero University Kano 3-6 December 2012, themed "Literature, History and Identity in Northern Nigeria." As Professor John Sani Illah of University of Jos pointed out in his lead paper, the definition of "northern Nigerian" literature is a problematic one, including the question of which geographic areas and languages the term includes. Much of the discussion revolved around problems of access. Literature by authors from the north, many of the presenters pointed out, is discussed far less often than literature by authors from the south. Several commenters from the audience made the point that the only northern Nigerian writers they could think of were Zaynab Alkali, Abubakar Gimba, and Helon Habila. There are, of course, hundreds of writers in the north, but the lack of knowledge about them in larger studies of Nigerian literature, is a real problem.

Part of the difficulty a larger audience has in accessing northern Nigerian literature, I pointed out in my own paper, is that very few northern novelists, with the exception of writers like Zaynab Alkali and Helon Habila, have been published by large commercial multinational publishers that draw the most international attention. From 1962 to 2003, the Heinemann African Writers series was one of the most prestigious publishers of African literature. Nigerian writers dominated the list, writing or editing, at least 83 of the 359 titles. However, of those 83 Nigerian titles, I identified only one book by a northern writer Amadu's Bundle: Fulani Tales of Love and Djinns written by Malum Amadu in 1972--though if you add Cyprian Ekwensi's titles like Burning Grass you'd have a few more.

This lack of representation by Heinemann and other international publishers leads to imbalances in academic scholarship. In the 1990s, literary sociologist Wendy Griswold attempted to identify and read every Nigerian novel written in English from 1952 to the mid 1990s. Of the 261 novelists she identified, she knew where 140 of them were born. Only 10% of those novelists, she claimed, came from the north and 9% from the middlebelt. But part of the problem with her research was that she was relying mostly on international and Nigerian publisher's catalogues, "Africana" collections in American university libraries, and other independently published novels she found in Lagos, Ibadan, Onitsha, Enugu, and Minna. With only one northern city represented in her research, is it any wonder that she did not find more independently published northern writers?

Unfortunately, Nigeria-based scholars and institutions don't do as much as they could to correct this imbalance. Mohammad Sada Bature of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua University pointed the alarming lack of attention to literature in northern schools, claiming that literature "is not taught in government owned schools in Katsina state." Yakubu A. Nasidi argued that "The problem exists largely with our Universities [...] with the way and manner in which the disciplines have been institutionalized and are being taught." As the conference communiqué summarized, there is a "reluctance by academics to give due recognition" to Northern Nigerian works and "admit them into the prestigious [...] canon of literature." Not only are northern novelists not being studied as much as they should be, there is a lack of attention to thriving literary cultures beyond book publication: literary nonfiction being written in newspapers and on blogs, for example, or short stories being published in online sites like Sentinel Nigeria, African Writing Online, or other literary magazines. Literary personalities like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Elnathan John, Ibrahim Sheme, Richard Ali, Sumaila Umaisha and others write popular articles in newspapers and online, but so far there has been little academic attention paid to work in these media.

Perhaps the most alarming exclusion from most studies of Nigerian literature is that of Hausa literature. In the proceedings to the fourth conference on northern Nigerian literature, Umar Faruk Jibril claims that there were 1,837 Hausa titles released between 1987 and 2004 alone. Compare this to the approximately 500 English-language novels Wendy Griswold was able to identify between 1952 and the mid 1990s. Yet ironically, Hausa literature is rarely talked about in discussions of Nigerian literature, and when it is, the academic focus still seems to be on the 54 Hausa novels formally published from the 1930s to the 1980s before the contemporary movement began.

Not all is gloomy for studies of northern Nigerian literature. The annual Northern Nigerian literature conference, which alternates between Bayero University Kano and Kwara State University, helps to promote knowledge about the literature of the north. At this conference, I heard several papers on the 18th and 19th century writing of Usman Dan Fodiyo, his daughter Nana Asma'u and their contemporaries, and on the twentieth century Hausa literature of Abubakar Imam, Ango Hadda, and Sa'adu Zungur; others focused on northern Nigerian works in English by writers like Abubakar Gimba, Ahmed Yerima, Bilkisu Abubakar, Fatima Ba'aram Alkali, Halima Sekula, Kanchana Ugbabe, Labo Yari, Yusuf Adamu, Zainab Alkali and others. The conference communiqué summarized practical solutions put forth by academics such as a more savvy use of the internet in promoting this literature, and the development of infrastructure for publishing, translation, and curriculum development. Ironically, however, I still heard very little on contemporary Hausa writing. Yet, if contemporary Hausa literature were discussed more, it would be harder to make that frequently heard complaint that "Nigeria has no reading culture."

A few days later, on Saturday, 9 December 2012, Kaduna State University hosted an event "Malumfashi @ 50," celebrating Hausa literary critic and scholar Ibrahim Malumfashi, that felt like an answer to this oversight. Professor Malumfashi's criticism of contemporary Hausa literature, which he dubbed Kano Market literature, has often been contentious. He even recently proclaimed the "death" of the movement. But his writing on the literature, even when it was harsh, and the debates he had with both authors and critics in the literary pages of newspapers and other public forums helped bring contemporary Hausa literature to the attention of a wider public. Writers may have suffered from his sharp pen, but behind all the heated exchanges are strong friendships. Many contemporary writers attended the event: Hafsatu Abdulwaheed, the first woman to publish a novel in Hausa after she won a Gaskiya Corporation prize in 1980 for her novel, So Aljannar Duniya; Talatu Wada Ahmed, thought to be one of the first writers of the contemporary "soyayya" movement, with the 1985 self-publication of her novel Rabin Raina; Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, the first female Hausa novelist I know of to be published in translation, with Sin is a Puppy...; Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino whose novel In Da So Da Kauna sold over 100,000 copies and many others including Aminu Ladan Abubakar, Auwal Garba, Bala Muhammad, Binta Spikin, Ibrahim Sheme, Kamilu Dahiru Gwammaja, Muhammad Lawal Barista, Rabi'a Talle, and Yusuf Adamu.

The event featured talks on the history of contemporary Hausa literature by Dr. Balbasatu Ibrahim, Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, Professor Yusuf Adamu, Ibrahim Sheme, and others. There was a presentation of awards to those who had helped promote Hausa literature. Best of all, in my opinion, was a "Question and Answer" session with four of the most "canonized" contemporary Hausa novelists: Rahama Abdul-Majid, Ibrahim Sheme, Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. While Rahama Abdul-Majid was not able to make the event, though her novel Mace Mutum was discussed, one of the things I found the most striking in the other authors' discussion of their work was that all of them seem to have based their fiction on actual events they experienced, witnessed, or heard from someone else. The most celebrated contemporary Hausa novels are firmly grounded "real life."

The evening finished off with a dinner and a discussion. Writers brainstormed on how to form institutions that could promote Hausa literature. Such institutions, particularly those that would support translators, publishers, reviewers, and academics willing to teach the work, are necessary in bringing the flourishing Hausa literature to the attention of a wider Nigerian and international readership. There is no reason for people to say the north is "silent." It is filled with voices. The question is what can be done to help the wider world hear what they are saying?

Copyright © 2012 Daily Trust. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.