Essayist and author of ‘Zata Iya: A History of Hausa Feminist Writings’, Sada Malumfashi, has always wondered ‘how different and more diverse the stories of first-generation Hausa novels would have been if women also participated in the writing process.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I grew up surrounded by Hausa literature. I learnt to read in Hausa before I knew how to read in English. My bedtime stories were tales from Abubakar Imam’s Magana Jari Ce, and when I got tired of having to wait for my father to read these stories to me, I began to learn how to read for myself. I would go on to devour all the Abubakar Imam collections in my father’s library. After, I read all the first-generation Hausa novels from the 1930s; then, as a pre-teen, I got interested in Hausa romance novels, which I could read in one sitting. During my secondary school days, I got introduced to Nigerian literature written in English, from Cyprian Ekwensi to Chinua Achebe, and this spiked my interest in other African writers. I soon discovered the works of Wole Soyinka, Abubakar Gimba, and Festus Iyayi, and the poetry of Niyi Osundare, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Christopher Okigbo.
If you could rewrite a classic book, which would it be and why?
I’d rewrite Gandoki by Muhammadu Bello Kagara. Published in 1934, Gandoki is Hausa speculative fiction in which a brave man opposes the imposition of British rule in northern Nigeria with other mythical creatures. In rewriting this book, I’d make Gandokia a female character fighting the British imposition with her daughter in mythical northern Nigeria. I’ve always wondered how different and more diverse the stories of first-generation Hausa novels would have been if women also participated in the writing process.
What is one misconception people have about Hausa literature?
The biggest misconception people have about Hausa literature is actually its erasure. People think Hausa writing is something new, or that it’s just about romance books in the streets of Kano. The first generation of Hausa novels written in the Roman script was published in the 1930s, a while before Nigerian literature in English became popular. Even before the introduction of the roman alphabets, Hausa authors wrote in the Arabic script. So, there has always been a literary tradition in Hausa, and one that goes as far back as the 16th century.
What’s the book (or series of books) anyone interested in Hausa literature must start with?
I’m an Abubakar Imam fanatic, so I will definitely begin the initiation with his collection of works. His first novel, Ruwan Bagaja (published in 1935), is a humorous quest story whose hero experiences many adventures on his various travels to find a cure for his ailing father figure; followed by Magana Jari Ce (published in 1937). Magana Jari Ce is a collection of short stories in three volumes narrated by a parrot who will rise to be a vizier to the king through the prowess of his storytelling.
Finally, I’d recommend Tafiya MabudinIlmi, published in 1944, when Abubakar Imam visited wartime England by sea in the midst of Nazi ambush. His tales from the travel and his experiences of England and the ensuing war were published as a travelogue written in Hausa.
The classic works of Abubakar Imam are appetizers; ultimately, I’d recommend delving into the current pool of women writers dominating Hausa literature, by also beginning with the pacesetters. Hafsat Abdulwaheed’s So Aljannar Duniya was the first Hausa novel by a woman from northern Nigeria and would set the pace for a roller coaster of romance writing. Published in 1980, the novel wrests open a romantic adventure between a Fulani girl and a Libyan boy, taking the reader through the changing dynamics of Hausa society at that time.
My reading list continues with the current women writers attracting global attention: Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel, Alhaki Kwikwiyo, which has been translated into English; Rahma Abdulmajid’s novel, Mace Mutum, which has a translated excerpt in Words Without Borders and Halima Ahmad Matazu’s Amon ‘Yanci, which has an excerpt translated into English that appeared in Praxis Magazine.
Your essay, ‘Zata Iya: A History of Hausa Feminist Writers’, is a reader favourite. What made you feel that you had to write on this topic?
This essay continues a process I had started three years ago and hope to conclude, perhaps, as a trilogy of essays. In the first essay, ‘Historical Echoes: The Literature of Hausa Women’, I had chronicled the development of literature by Hausa women from the 16th century to the 20th century.‘Zata Iya’ built on that. What drives me to write and tell these stories is the striking similarity in the feminist resistance of Hausa women using literature as a tool for activism throughout these hundreds of years, despite the varying dynamics of the different eras they lived in. Among these women, creative expression, as a tool for activism, was a basic spiritual necessity.
What can [Hausa] literature teach us about activism?
Hausa literature has been considered to be a pastime, a fun thing, hence not warranting so much importance politically. However, within that ‘entertainment’ comes a form of resistance. The ability to wield words as tools of resistance and subversion has given Hausa writers power. The Hausa novels of the 1930s all had embedded within their humorous language, resistance to British imperialism, to slavery; they evinced activism and a fight for freedom. The novels of the 1980s targeted corruption and neglect by the government of social institutions and infrastructure.
Generations of Hausa women writers have resisted the oppression of women, fought against patriarchal privileges and advocated for the education of women in their novels. I believe Hausa literature just like any other literature is, in its own way, a form of protest and social criticism.
People think Hausa writing is something new, or that it’s just about romance books in the streets of Kano. The first generation of Hausa novels written in the Roman script were published in the 1930s, a while before Nigerian literature in English became popular.
Do you always write ‘what you know’? In other words, are you always writing from experience?
I believe writing is always a combination of three things: personal experience, the environment, and the imagination. I try to use these three things in developing my works. Actually, it is inescapable not to use all three; they are all I can gather from to create, to write, to produce. Nothing comes from nothing; rather, each thing comes from a combination of ‘every-things’.
What’s more important: the story or how you write it?
For me, both go hand in hand. The story comes with its own style, so I cannot separate one from the other. Conceptualization happens in my head and it does not appear as a title, a topic, or a story. Rather, it comes with a rhythm that needs to be molded in a certain style when writing the story. Even the best of topics would be boring without the proper writing style for that topic; so too would excellent stylistic language that evokes nothing.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I always write, rather, pour a draft first before I do anything. My writing process is very chaotic, so the first draft is, of course, always a mess. What I derive pleasure in doing, however, is performing surgery on the draft, fixing it, redistributing it, until it takes a shape, takes a form, that I can finally relate to.
What was your process for writing ‘Zata Iya’?
Writing ‘Zata Iya’ involved combining research and my personal encounters with these authors and their writings. It was important for me that the writing did not come out as purely academic, because I have not actually studied these texts in a formal academic setting. Rather, I had read the texts as part of my reading experience while growing up from when I was 9 years old. I recall meeting Balaraba Ramat Yakubu for the first time when I was 15 at the Northern Nigerian Writers Summit in Minna. Even then, I had already read her entire collection of works. And since meeting her, I have been privileged to engage with her on various occasions including in 2017 when I interviewed her for the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (as part of the festival’s media team). Writing this essay, then, became a process of personalizing my experiences with the writers, with their texts, and refining all of this with research.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Binyavanga Wainaina once told me (after he had suffered a stroke): ‘You’re talented. Write something. New. Fresh perspective’. This was all the validation I needed to continue the pursuit of writing.
What is your favourite topic to read about these days?
On my reading desk currently is the collection of essays, Studies in the History of Pre-Colonial Borno, edited by Bala Usman and Nur Alkali. I also tend to read a lot about global politics (for example, Narendra Modi stokes divisions in the world’s biggest democracy in the Economist; Nigeria’s Travel Ban from the US and Brexit issues). I also enjoy reading bold ideas about mitigating climate change—for instance, ‘As Sea Levels Rise, Scientists Offer a Bold Idea: Dam the North Sea’ in the New York Times; and ‘It’s not just Greta Thurnberg: why are we ignoring the developing world’s inspiring activists?’ by Chika Unigwe in the UK’s Guardian. At the same time, I’m keeping an eye on the happenings in Hollywood by obsessing on pieces about Parasite’s Oscar win (‘How “Parasite” Falls Short of Greatness’ in the New Yorker; ‘Punching Down: On Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”’ in the LA Review of Books). And, of course, I’m reading poetry, current favourites being: Saddiq Dzukogi’s ‘A House That Does Bad Things to Me’ (Kenyon Review); and Fatimah Asghar’s ‘Partition’ (Financial Times).
What should we expect you to write about next?
The relationship between the arts and climate change; how to interact with today’s climate crisis through the lenses of colonization and neo-colonization; and the current western-, global- and capitalism-created waste and inequality—all of which are making climate change have disproportionate impacts on low-income societies in the global south.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Tell me about the books that are dearest to you, and why?⎈
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