It was nice catching up with you at the first edition of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival in July. What did you think of the festival?
Great seeing you again too, Kola. I thought it was a lovely festival. It was well organised, with exciting and illuminating discussions. I think it was a crucial intervention in the literary landscape, especially in a region that has been maligned for its aversion to ‘learning’; a region where some zealots are killing people for ‘daring’ to go to school. This intervention was a statement. And for me personally, it gave me the opportunity to interact directly with the people I have written about. I have been moved by these interactions.
Any highlights or favourite memories?
Absolutely. The Leila Aboulela and Zainab Alkali panel promised and delivered so much – two phenomenal women in conversation. I had a fabulous time on my panel with Odafe Atogun and E.E. Sule. But a personal highlight for me was a very lovely elderly woman who felt so moved by Season of Crimson Blossoms that she pulled my ear for writing a naughty book and told me how much it reflected what was happening in her life and those of her friends. She was really passionate about it and, I suppose, had been looking for a way to express herself. For a writer, it is the greatest validation when people feel very strongly that the stories you tell speak to them, speak of their reality.
Why has it taken this long for Northern Nigeria to get this kind of attention from the mainstream literary establishment?
Several factors contributed. One is that the publishing industry in Nigeria had collapsed for a couple of decades, causing a generation of Nigerian writers to go unnoticed. With the revival, if you like, of the publishing industry, which coincided with the rise of some amazing talents, not just in the north but across the country, we have seen attention converge on this region because we have had stories that, in their own unique fashion, have documented the human condition in a region that, though open and large, has somehow remained a mystery to the rest of the world.
What role does the conservatism of the environment play?
It plays a huge role in the way people live, the kind of conversations they have and the kind of literature they produce. We had rabid attempts to censor creative works from certain parts of the north when creatives were beginning to explore certain themes. That attempt, of course, could never be sustainable and has inevitably fallen on its face. Regardless, the way children are brought up in the north follows a code that has been in operation for centuries and is only now being subverted by newer trends. So you have communities of people with a conservative approach to life – which is not necessarily a bad thing because there is a certain charm to life in the north – but, like everything else when it is in the extreme, it becomes problematic. So because of this conservative upbringing and the close-knit structure of the society, we have people who are brought up with in-built censorship mechanisms in the form of religious codes and societal expectations.
It takes some daring to put aside the internal censorship we have to write some of the things that we are writing today.
What more can be done to promote a thriving literary industry in Northern Nigeria that would attract global attention?
I think we are at a stage where a lot of young writers in the north can benefit from writing workshops, not because I think workshops can teach one how to write, but they do give one the awareness of the expectations of the craft, and what you need to expose yourself to in order to become a better writer. But no matter how many workshops one has in the region, if there is no outlet for these works, then it becomes largely futile. So there needs to be greater channels that provide access to literature, access to books, create the charm around literacy and reading and for producing books about the north by people from the north who write with the rare balance of boldness and consideration for the sensitivity of Northerners.
Why don’t we have more English translations of Hausa literature?
Literature in Hausa at the moment is concerned with navel gazing. It is focused on itself, probably because of the market it feeds into at present. And because the literature that is being produced and the consumers are all looking inwards, I don’t think much thought has been given to translation. Certainly not many resources have been committed to that aspect. The resources don’t exist in the first place and I think some thinking needs to be channeled in that direction.
What draws you to fiction as a medium of expression?
The attractions are the limitless possibilities that exist in fiction as a vehicle for introspection, for intellectual engagement, for sheer entertainment value, for the art, for the license to remould reality and history and for the context it gives to life and history and identities. The possibilities of fiction remain endless and for an artist, a writer, such abundance of possibilities is an irresistible draw. Fiction is the one thing that can be used for anything, for entertainment, artistry or to convey ideas and thoughts without seeming to do so. This explains why all sorts of people are drawn to creating and consuming fiction.
What inspired your latest novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms?
Many things. First it was inspired by the story; by the subversive idea in a relationship where the woman is older and the male is far, far younger. It is inspired by the idea of interrogating relationships and our recent history and documenting our stories, warts and all. The story was inspired by the two principal characters, Reza and Binta, and it grew from there.
What was it like to be announced the winner of the NLNG in such a competitive year?
It was exciting, to be honest. I have always maintained that writing gives me fulfilment. And when people read and connect with one’s work, it is an important validation. And when the book is awarded a prize, it validates the long hours of solitude a writer devotes to his craft at the expense of life, of family and other things. The NLNG Prize is one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world and winning it has inspired a lot of people to dream and believe and, for me, that has been an extra incentive. It was emotional as well because I lost my father some months before and when I heard the news, I really did wish he had been there to share it.
What was your strategy for coping with the suspense between the longlist and the announcement?
I tried to disengage completely from conversations about the prize and the longlist and shortlist. I just focused on living and writing. That always helps to keep one grounded but it was hard because a lot of people where obsessing over the prize money. Some even made plans for me on how to spend the money when a winner hadn’t even been announced yet! There were people who couldn’t help themselves but talk about the prize whenever they saw me. Unfortunately, with people who are not necessarily readers, the focus was on the money, not on the merits of the books on the shortlist. But being focused on other things and pointedly refusing to dream or fantasise about winning the prize helped me stay focused.
Which books influenced you as a child and which influence you now?
The influences are ever-expanding.
Every book I have read has had an influence on me, even the bad ones, because they challenge me to write better.
I am delighted to find new influences in new works or in old works I am just discovering. However, having already found my voice as a writer, the influences I get from other works are limited. I suppose when you are a writer just setting out, one is more likely to be influenced because one is not certain yet what your writerly voice is or should be.
Would you ever write in Hausa? If not, why?
I am not in a hurry to rule that out, but I am not thinking about that at the moment. I have written in Hausa, when I was a teenager. That writing will never see the light of day because it has been lost permanently.
When you take a bird’s eye view of Nigerian (and African) literature today, what do you think we should be doing more of to sustain the enthusiasm that seems to have returned in the last couple of years?
This enthusiasm has coincided with some happy happenstance. The first is the emergence of a generation of writers with important stories to tell. The second is the increased confidence entrepreneurs have had to venture into publishing because they believe not only in the quality of writing that is out there but in the viability of the market. What we need to do here is to support the publishing industry by actually buying these books. Retailers [should] ensure that publishers are able to recoup costs for books they supplied so that authors receive their royalties and publishers are able to publish other books. I don’t think the government needs to interfere here, except in providing enabling policies that will help bring down the cost of book production and check book piracy.
What Hausa literature would you recommend for an interested reader?
There are the Hausa classics; the works of Abubakar Imam, such as Magana Jari Ce and Ruwan Bagaja. There is Iliya Dan Maikarfi by Ahmadu Ingawa. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa wrote a brilliant book, called Shehu Umar, which was made into a fine movie years ago. Among contemporary Hausa writers, I would recommend the works of Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino, Bala Anas Babinlata and Hajiya Balaraba Ramat as well.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I am in recovery. I am between works because I have just finished a new novel. I am catching my breath after that experience.
I know you have just returned from Germany. What were you doing there?
I was in Germany for the African Writer’s Residency in Sylt, where I spent a couple of months completing a novel.
Any more short stories from you in the future?
I am in the early stages of putting together a possible collection of short stories, which may be loosely connected in some way. It is really early into the work, so we will have to see how that goes.