In Kano, the biggest city in north Nigeria an area more known for ethnic strife and the horrors of Boko Haram - an unusual genre of literature is selling in the hundreds of thousands. Called littattafan soyayya ('books of love'), the cheap and short books written in the Hausa language are mostly by and for devoutly Muslim women, and cover not only romance, love and marriage, but also difficult topics such as forced marriage, human trafficking, the education of girls and HIV/Aidds. Award winning photographer GLENNA GORDON photographed some of the authors for her new book, Diagram of the Heart - she speaks to Marie Claire about the experience
Are people surprised that such devoutly religious women are writing novels about love and romance?
Many are - as I was when I first learned about this! That's part of what's great aobut it, that it has the power to challenge people's misconceptions. How often do you learn something about this world you truly had no sense of? To me, that's what this job is about.
The writers have to register with the morality police before they can start working. How much influence do the police have on their work?
The hisbah [the Islamic morality police] is very haphazard. A few years ago, the state governor of Kano, where most of the writers live, publicly burned books and said that romance novels were immoral. After that, the novels became less racy and the authors now act more cautiosly. The hisbah are there as a looming threat, but are mainly hands off.
Have you read many of the books? Which is your favourite?
Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu is great. Unfortunately, most of these novels aren’t available in English and I don’t speak Hausa. But I was glad we were able to have some of them translated for my book with the help of the Open Society Foundation. There’s also an incredibly heartbreaking story about child marriage available in English, called Mace Mutum [see sidebar for an excerpt].
What did you learn about love and relationships?
When I started working on this project, one of the most exciting things was meeting feisty young women who had such a di erent outlook from me yet shared a commitment to a life spent making work. But when one author tried to seriously get me to consider becoming the second wife of a local lawyer, I understood the incredibly wide chasm between us. I did learn a lot about what it means to be respected and powerful despite an intensely dominant patriarchy. These women hold their ground, make their own money and live their own lives, despite the constraints of their circumstances and the rigidity of expectations. Diagram of the Heart ($35 [about R580], Red Hook Editions) is available at Glennagordon.com
Author Khadija Gudaji works on her novel in her home in Kano, northern Nigeria
A bride at a wedding in Kano
littattafan soyayya (‘books of love’) on sale at the local market in Kano, northern Nigeria