IN A REGION OF NIGERIA most associated with Boko Haram, photojournalist GLENNA GORDON discovered a thriving INDUSTRY OF ROMANCE NOVELS being penned by women. She describes her journey to MEET THE AUTHORS, and creating her acclaimed book DIAGRAM OF THE H
‘IF A MAN OFFERS YOU FLOWERS, MONEY, OR MEAT,
ALWAYS CHOOSE MEAT,’ Rabi Talle told me. She’s a romance novelist in Kano, the biggest city in conservative Islamic northern Nigeria — and the unlikely home of an entire genre of popular fiction written by and for women in Hausa, a language spoken by more than 50-million people.
Northern Nigeria is best known, and feared, for Boko Haram, the terrorist group whose name translates to ‘Western education is sinful.’ They [first] made headlines when they kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a remote dormitory. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict started by these Islamic separatists and often escalated by the Nigerian military response.
The novels, somewhere in between morality tales and pulp romance, are called Littattafan Soyayya, which roughly means ‘love literature’. The women write them by hand in small composition books, and then the stories are transcribed onto computers, mimeographed, assembled, and published. Thousands of copies are printed and sell in the markets of Kano for a dollar or two each and are distributed across the Sahel, below the Sahara desert where Hausa is widely spoken.
I met Rabi on one of my first afternoons in Kano. I took her picture on a clunky medium-format Bronica camera, and she and her sisters all took my picture on their Samsung smartphones. One of them brought us a tray of watermelon and juice. I told her I was looking for weddings to photograph. She and her sisters were going to one that evening and they let me tag along – a band of loud-laughing women dressed up to the nines for a Friday afternoon party.
We piled into a claptrap taxi and drove through the crumbling mud walls and narrow alleyways of
The writers sell their books in the same market places targeted by B OKO HAR AM
the Old City. At the wedding, there was booming auto-tuned Hausa music played on scratchy speakers. Bougainvillea bushes lined all the houses and there was enough rice for everyone to eat. The party was interrupted when two men on horses needed to pass through the crowd.
I took a million pictures, but none of them were any good. I kept going back to Kano again and again, looking for different pictures, seeking out various alternative stories.
Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home was the first Hausa novel by a woman translated into English. The author, Balaraba Yakubu, was married off at 12, jilted and left behind as a divorcée at 19. By force of will and some luck she managed to get an education, become a writer and create this genre of literature. The book tells the story of a man who takes a prostitute as a second wife, bringing sin into his house. There’s no fairy-tale-style redemption a Western audience might seek. But there is strength in Balaraba’s ending: the man is punished and the prostitute banished.
The novels range in tone from subversive to submissive. Some are disruptive of the norm, speaking out against child marriage and human trafficking. Others yield to the status quo, advising women on how best to please their husbands, offering fantasies of escape and tales of the poor girl marrying the rich man.
The writers, all devout Muslims, must face off with Islamic censors who make them register with the Hisbah, a morality police, as well as government officials like the minister of education who publicly burned many books in 2007. They sell their books in the same market places that are targeted by Boko Haram.
Littattafan Soyayya became my point of entry into a world where women lived behind closed doors in walled-off compounds. On my first trip to Kano, I made formal portraits of the writers and the production of the books. But later, I sought out more abstract representations.
Women in Kano aren’t supposed to leave their houses, and neither could I. In an occasionally airconditioned apartment above an industrial bakery near the city centre, I settled into my constraints.
Their novels informed my photography – a subtle shift in emphasis that allowed me to narrow in on the moments, objects, and places that matter, to understand the ebb and flow of life, and the structure of the heart. mc Diagram of the Heart is available from Redhookeditions.com