Politics scholar and author of ‘How to Write about Boko Haram’, Sa’eed Husaini, thinks it’s important to know how to write a ‘shit draft’. ‘Finish the full writing task first,’ he says, ‘no matter how unpleasant the initial output may seem, and then return to tidy up the mess.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I suppose my earliest books were religious texts. I think having to memorize and recite passages early on in orthodox religious schooling gave me an appreciation for the rhythms of the written and spoken word. My more self-directed reading began in the elementary school library.
I fuzzily recall being drawn to books in which anthropomorphic rabbits and mice went on heroic adventures. I also remember enjoying those trippy chose-your-own-adventure sci-fi books (e.g. The Cave of Time by Edward Packard) where the reader gets to assume the role of the protagonist.
Which book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Not an exceedingly original answer maybe, but I’d pass on the J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to someone younger. They certainly helped a younger me cultivate a sense of wonder about nature and humanity, and a conviction in the ultimate triumph of goodness. I’d want to share that.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
This is a difficult one—I like the classics I’ve read the way they are! I fear any changes I’d make would not be for the better. Forced to choose, maybe I’d attempt to depict a Wendell Berry type utopia, valorizing land and life on a family farm, but set in the highlands in Uganda.
I think having to memorize and recite passages early on in orthodox religious schooling gave me an appreciation for the rhythms of the written and spoken word.
What is the last book that you disagreed with, and why?
I struggled through Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow… I’m not certain why. Maybe I disagreed with the book’s tone in a way? The satire felt like it had become caustically omnidirectional at a point in the narrative, and the characters all equally started to seem too distant from what felt relatable.
I felt like it ultimately portrayed a soulless world, but perhaps that is as the narrative was intended… Or maybe it is not written to be read in long stretches.
What’s a book you recently read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read Adom Getachew’s World making after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. It challenged my previous understanding of the history of decolonization in Africa in myriad ways. By exploring how certain anti-colonial leaders sought to confront hierarchy on the international stage it challenged the idea that Africa’s independence leaders were universally content to simply inherit the state in its colonial form.
What is a common misconception about politics in Nigeria?
I think the imprints of global and local economic and political ideologies (from pan-Africanism to Trumpism) in Nigerian politics are both obvious and often neglected or forgotten in popular discourse.
I think we particularly tend to assume that poor and working people lack political and economic imagination, even though political and economic doctrines of various sorts have often gained very popular followings at various points in our history. For instance, what (including ‘popular’) political forces momentarily gave rise to a ‘democratic socialist’ governor (Balarabe Musa, who sadly died this year) in Kaduna State during the Second Republic?
What sorts of local or global ideas shape how we conceive of economic distribution, social hierarchy, and political community even nowadays? (Bonus: Why are stickers of the Senegalese pan-African anti-colonial Sufi cleric, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, pasted on danfos and keke’s in Lagos, in various parts of northern Nigeria, and across west Africa?)
What three books/texts on Nigerian politics should be on everyone’s bookshelves?
Some really great edited volumes have been foundational to my understanding of Nigerian politics. I’d recommend Identity Transformation and Identity Politics under Structural Adjustment edited by Attahiru Jega, Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria: Critical Interpretations edited by Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, Overcoming Boko Haram: Faith, Society & Islamic Radicalization in Northern Nigeria edited by Abdul Raufu Mustapha and Kate Meagher.
We particularly tend to assume that poor and working people lack political and economic imagination, even though political and economic doctrines of various sorts have often gained very popular followings at various points in our history.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I edit as I write, unfortunately. It would certainly be more efficient to edit a concluded version, but I haven’t yet mastered the art of writing a ‘shit draft’, as it were. I am keen to get it mostly right the first go around. I can’t help wanting to work out each sentence first before I embark on the task of constructing a new one.
What was your process for writing ‘How to Write About Boko Haram’?
I slightly devoured the book I was reviewing (Eat the Heart of the Infidel) as I had been reading mostly academic studies at the time and really appreciated the challenge of taking on something more journalistic.
My process of writing the review was probably shaped by my academic writing process at the time. I framed each section as a big question I thought the book answered, and then concluded by reflecting on some questions I thought were inadvertently raised or left unanswered by the book.
What three things make a book review stand out in a meaningful way?
I’d say a good book review should at least: tell us what the book argues or is grappling with, give us a sense of the structure of the argument across the book’s chapters, and highlight aspects of the book that either break new ground or represent gaps and limitations.
I can’t help wanting to work out each sentence first before I embark on the task of constructing a new one.
What three books should we be reading to understand (or as we think about) the #EndSARS protests?
I think Owei Lakemfa’s Parliament of the Streets, on the #Occupy2012 protests is obviously relevant for understanding the trajectories of mass protest movements from the perspective of an organizer.
I think we can also learn from contemporary struggles for liberation against oppressive policing systems in other settings. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation is important in this category. I think it is also important to read some fairly recent academic takes on policing in Africa from an insider’s perspective, including Olly Owen and Jonny Steinberg’s Police in Africa: The Street Level View.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I suppose it would be ‘write a shit draft’; i.e. finish the full writing task first, no matter how unpleasant the initial output may seem, and then return to tidy up the mess. It’s proven to be more difficult than it sounds but it remains an aspiration.
What’s a hack for reading/writing academic texts?
If it’s a book, definitely read a few of the academic book reviews to get a sense of its reception by peers. For writing, at a certain point, you have to decide that you have read enough! If you think you’re still in the reading phase that’s ok, give yourself a moment to ‘metabolize’, but make sure to do a self-check-in at least every couple of weeks.
For writing, at a certain point, you have to decide that you have read enough!
What’s more important: the topic or how you write about it?
Certainly, a combination of both, I think. But more probably it depends on the ‘how’ than the ‘what’. In skillful hands, universal truths are plainly unearthed in the most arcane of obscurantisms.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I wish I’d read Amilcar Cabral much earlier in life, e.g. in high school. A certain amount of teenage angst could have more fruitfully been directed at more interesting literary and political aims.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I’ve been reading and thinking about the history of the political and cultural left, particularly in Nigeria and West Africa. In terms of reading, a good introduction is Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria by Adam Mayer.
The minority draft of the 1979 constitution, written by the two socialists on the Constitution Drafting Committee, is quite an interesting one to read as a counter-factual history of Nigeria, if one imagines what Nigeria would have become had we adopted the alternative constitution.
Finally, and relatedly, I think a history of the Zaria School of Marxist Historiography would be amazing and still remains to be written or produced. I think a lot of the tributes that came out after the passing of Professors Raufu Mustapha and Bjorn Beckman shed an interesting light into a very fascinating moment in Nigerian history that is all but forgotten.
One teasing glimpse into that period in Nigerian history is a recent article by Yusuf Bangura entitled Epic Battles in Radical Development Theory, Field Research and Praxis: A Celebration of Björn Beckman (1938–2019).
In skillful hands, universal truths are plainly unearthed in the most arcane of obscurantisms.
What’s one thing about the political left in Nigeria that you never get tired of sharing?
There is a long tradition of opposing social and political inequality and forms of hierarchy here. It has been shaped as much by the global circulation of egalitarian and liberal ideas as by the history of local and diasporic resistance to subjugation in its varied forms.
What can we expect you to write on next?
My short term writing goals surround working out some of the academic implications of my thesis on ideology and the APC and the PDP; but medium and long-term, I’d be keen to write more film and book reviews, and also perhaps something on emerging forms of ‘disruptive’ political organizing in the last few years.
Question from Chukwudi Ukonne: What word would you delete permanently from the English lexicon and why?
Yuletide. The Nigerian media in particular should kindly free us from that one please.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
What would you identify as three major turning points in Nigerian history since 1999?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].