Prudence and the Contemporary Hausa Novel
The Great Soyayya Debate reminds me of another one on “al-qadim wa al-hadith fi al-adab (the Old and New in Arabic Literature)” between the founder of modern Arabic literature, Dr. Taha Hussein, and Mustapha Sadiq al-Raf’iy, over forty years ago. On the issue of quality however, I quickly recalled the warnings of Dr. Hussein on the declining quality of students of Arabic literature and their publications as voiced in his Tarikh al-Adab al-Hadith.
In the following few lines I have attempted to put down my observations on some important draw backs that have characterized a number of recent Hausa novel particularly those referred to as the Kano Market Literature. But first, let’s review the foundation that still remain our standard reference point.
Most of us interested in Hausa literature have been introduced to the subject through its foundation books like Magana Jari Ce, Shehu Umar, Ruwan Bagaja, etc. written during the so-called Imam era, the era of Abubakar Imam and his contemporaries. Though we read them at tender age, our respect for those pioneer books had nothing to do with the juvenile state of our intellect then. Decades later, we still we find immense pleasure recalling their stories. We also admire the effort of these authors who might not have had a university degree in literature. Those of us who learnt Hausa as a second language, and we form the majority in Northern Nigeria, owe a lot of our vocabulary and adage to the authors of the Imam era. Their books, along with works on Hausa grammar by people like Skinner, have met the challenge of making a solid foundation on which future Hausa literature will be built.
The reputation earned by these authors has largely been due to the diligence of their authorship. It is easy to look up into the skies and concoct a story. But to translate it into a standard novel that will stand the test of time is one of the most onerous tasks in scholarship. Apart from gift and interest, there is a great need for restraint against the temptation of reaching your readers prematurely. Even in our little ways as columnists, we peruse over our scripts sometimes over ten times. We know diligence is a prerequisite for a writer who would like to earn the respect of his readers. By refining his ideas, reviewing his style, verifying his substance and eliminating grammatical and typographical errors, a writer makes his peace more palatable to the reader and his argument stands a better chance of acceptance. This ideal is also one of the prisms through which every reader determines the personal discipline and intellectual maturity of his author.
Authors of the Imam era were patient enough to meet these demands. They saw the challenge to write foundation books in Hausa literature. Despite the urgency of the demand, they had the patience to think deeply about their themes and frame their stories in a fashion very much in consonance with their culture. Then as they wrote, they had the commitment to follow all rules of authorship including adherence to principles of grammar and scripting. This is followed by the processes of self-criticism, distillation and polishing that will boost interest in readership. Knowing that they did not have monopoly of wisdom, they might have sent their scripts to one or two friends for further proofreading criticism and advice. By the time the first typewritten draft came out, the publisher would have had little or no headache in qualifying it as “worth publishing”. Yet, the draft would be made to undergo another round of perusal and refinement by professional editors of the publisher.
Their shortcomings not withstanding, we all remain indebted to these pioneers and their publishers for their astounding effort despite the technological limitations and financial constraints within which they operated. While we are free to observe their imperfections both as human beings and as scholars, they deserve the respect and prayer rooted in our tradition. Four hundred years ago, the author of the most important book on Arabic grammar, the Alfiyya of ibn Malik, knowing very well that it excelled an earlier one in the field, made this humble tribute to the preceding author, ibn Mu’ti. He said,
“As a predecessor, he has earned respect
And (he) deserves my good praise.
May God reward with abundant gifts
For him and myself in the Hereafter.”
Adaptation in Literature
Sheme has in his rejoinder (Weekly Trust, June 25, 1999) blasted Malumfashi for a blind “nostalgia.” He tried to describe what he termed “the appalling shortcomings” of the Imam era charging that “most of the literature of that bygone epoch was a translated or even plagiarized copy of yet another bygone (and foreign) era.” No one disputes the link between the theme and sometime substance of the Imam era literature with those of Abbasid era. Ruwan Bagaja for example reminds us of the famous stories of Maqamat al-Hariri. This to me and to most students of literature I believe is not a shortcoming. We do not expect them to adapt the styles and stories of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens anyway. After all adaptation is the most common practice not only in literature but also in arts generally. Our variety of cars today are all adaptations of their earliest prototypes just as the airplane is an adaptation of the form and function of the bird. All authors writing for the first time derive inspiration or guidance from earlier authors. Al-Hariri himself was accused of “plagiarizing” the stories of a learned North African who was on visit to Baghdad.
The most outstanding father of modern Arabic literature, the Dr. Hussein we mentioned earlier, wrote his masterpiece al-Ayyam (The Days) back in the thirties. It was quickly adapted by another celebrated scholar, Sayyid Qutb, in Tiflun min al Qaryah (Country Boy) and dedicated it to his mentor, the author of al-Ayyam. But the style of al-Ayyam, which has now been translated into more than forty languages, is itself an amalgam between the Qur’an and French literature.
Sometimes it could be just a simple similarity. I find a parallel between the poetry of Abu Nuwas and A Sha Ruwa of Mamman Shata which in some verses again resembles Gangar Wa’azu. The songs of Hasan Wayam are very similar to the obscene poetry of the famous Basshar, a contemporary of Nuwas and Haroun al-Rashid.
However it is not an irony that both Maqamat of al-Hariri and the al-Ayyam of Taha Hussein have remained invaluable books on the literature shelves of the Arabic world as do Magana Jari Ce or Ruwan Bagaja in Hausa literature.
Adaptation is no sin. In fact, it surpasses translation in customizing global development in scholarship and civilization. That is why I find Ruwan Bagaja more interesting than Dare Dubu da Daya, the mere translation of Arabian Nights.
The Kano Market Literature
Sheme has correctly observed that the Kano Market Literature (KML, a name I detest) is a reflection of the ongoing tide of global acculturation. He correctly posited that the authors of that literature pick their theme and content largely from American and Indian films in addition to some “local ingredients.”
We started to notice this trend first with interest. This was because our sisters who dedicatedly manage our homes do so at the detriment of their intellectual development. Some even forget the learning and writing skills they learnt in the primary school. At last, they have found a tiny outlet for expressing their views on gender issues in the society as well as sharing the pains of the heartbreaking bruises they commonly suffered from their personal relationships with men.
If these stories were only restricted to Shafa Labari Shuni in Radio Nigeria Kaduna, our interest and that of the local population would have been justifiably limited to the arena of the airwaves entertainment. But both their authors and their admirers want the effort of this literature to be recognized as reputable contributions to Hausa literature. That is the bone of contention. Some are pleased to accept it as a genuine contribution, others, and myself inclusive, are not.
To expect that these books will stand the test of time and be accepted within academic circles as genuine literary contribution is least deserved by any person who might have passed through a degree program. No one will denounce the fact that majority of the books have not met the prudential requirements of authorship that we mentioned earlier as exemplified by the Imam era. After all, to write a book is different from simply telling a story in the air. The written is expected to be passed to generations and so must meet all requirements of literary documentation. From the KML however, we are appalled by a flood of novels that are poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly published. They are no where to be compared with the standard literature of the “Imam” and “Suleimen Katsina eras”.
A Vacuum of Bankruptcy
Or do we indict the students of Hausa literature themselves? The KML might have simply filled a vacuum created by the recent incapacity of our Hausa specialist holding a degree or a Ph.D. in the subject. A number of reasons might be attributed to this pathetic state. One, the curriculum of Hausa studies is oriented more towards the study of Hausa literature with little emphasis on its creation. In other words it is more descriptive than creative. Just something similar to the curriculum of Islamic studies. It is not designed to produce a Buhari or a Muslim, but a secular scholar capable of studying, from a distance, the works of Buhari and Muslim. This is different from what we find in our traditional curriculum of Arabic literature in the Zaure schools. There, creativity is an integral part of the curriculum to the extent that thousands of graduates of such schools have made excellent contributions to Arabic poetry and prose. The same students used the style they learnt in Arabic to produce the bulk of what we read today as classical Hausa poetry, religious or secular.
If the above excuse is not tenable, then we will turn to economics for another. The Northern Nigeria Publishing Corporation that used to accept or commission such writings in the forties and fifties is no longer vibrant. Its decline is part of what the North has to pay in the name of unity of the federation. So along with it also died the elegance in Hausa publication. Someone may argue that there is no patronage for qualitative writing in Hausa today. But this should not discourage good writers particularly during the age of desktop publishing and the existence of a variety of other reputable publishers like the press of various universities. Other channels like the Internet will soon open its arms to authors at a much cheaper cost than even desktop publishing. Again let’s face the fact. If Magana Jari Ce were to make its first debut today, Abubakar Imam would still have had little headache of getting publishers either in or outside Nigeria. That is the unquestionable expediency of literary prudence.
Still, another excuse could be the poor economic conditions of service in the public service and the general trend for material acquisition in the society. This has made the material ride over the intellect of many capable young minds. But this is not a tenable excuse. Great writers are known to have transcended the material to carve a niche in the eternal bliss of scholarship. In fact, history has repeatedly attested that the brain functions better when it is distant from material luxuries. Abul Ala al-Ma’arri is often condemned by clerics for his excessive resort to asceticism. But social and literary analysts contend that it is the secret behind his excellence in Arabic poetry and his milestone achievement as the most celebrated social critic in Islamic civilization. The pioneers of the Imam era were not economically better and their schedules as pioneers in government were also tight. Nevertheless, they were able to create enough time, despite these constrains, to produce those classical books that will ever remain adorable to the Hausa reader.
In spite of these shortcomings, I hope issues like the Great Soyayya Debate will awaken the students of Hausa to their responsibilities. They have been handed the torch of literary glory and they must not allow their incapacity to extinguish it. Let them rekindle our culture with such innovative novels framed in the light of contemporary challenges engendered by globalization and recent social and political developments in the country. But as they do so, they must aim at the ideals of assiduity, prudence and excellence exemplified by the pioneers in the subject. The KML will then cease to be of relevance in our literary circles. A debate over its garbage will no longer serve as an opportunity for exposing the scandalous academic inaptitude of the contemporary student of Hausa literature.
After reading Sheme’s rejoinder I am afraid of continuing my Childhood Memories and Hashish, my own soyayya novel. Even if I could muster the courage to continue, I will still be faced with this difficult decision: To which of the three markets, Kano, Malumfashi or Sheme, should I take it? As a contribution from an unprofessional, I am certain that it will not go beyond Tilde market. So why write at all? Da muguwar rawa..!
5 July 1999