Writ­ten RO­MANCE

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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - REPORTAGE -


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

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