Bollywood-inspired ‘love literature’ from Nigeria. And the story of a dreamer who just wants to dream. SHELLEY WALIA on two books that make a powerful statement on the clash between individual beliefs and the beliefs of a conservative society.
Balaraba Yakubu is a Nigerian writer whose work is both profoundly personal and about the larger themes of the interaction between culture and power, myth and memory. Her ideological disposition rebels against the existing culture of male dominance, polygamy and the daily pain and suffering of a loveless marriage. These constitute the raw material of her fiction.
Often looked upon as pulp literature, such writing emerging from Nigeria is singularly inspired by the light romances from Bollywood that gave rise, in the 1980s, to the genre of littafan soyayya or ‘love literature’. The Hausa tribe from the town of Kano are particularly influenced by this genre of Hindi cinema and they are prolific writers of this popular fiction, similar to a soap opera, written in the Hausa language and largely depicting a world of scheming harlots and virtuous women, self-obsessed men and enslaved wives.
The popularity of this genre has continued unabated over the last few decades and it is only recently that, for the first time, readers in the outside world have been give a taste of soyayya literature with the translation of Yakubu’s novel, Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home, into English. The novel, in its own simple manner becomes a powerful narrative of resistance and tension not only essential to good literature but also a critical tool for the exposition of cultural politics in Nigeria, where the clash between conservative values and the modern awakening of radicalism is central to the Hausa woman’s campaign.
Extramarital relations, cultural collision, man’s social independence, and woman’s struggle for self-dependence are some of Yakubu’s concerns inherent with the illusion of liberation from a miserable existence in a bohemian male social order. Rabi’s beliefs and values are shaped through cultural and political pressures, conflicting with her will to struggle against abject poverty and provide a decent home to her children. The narrative is searing, a testament to the unbreakable spirit of a mother. The final triumph of a life of struggle that brings self-sufficiency to Rabi is her enterprise of opening a public kitchen. It’s particularly poignant that her husband, who had abandoned her, is finally humiliated when he returns pleading for forgiveness.
The clash between the private and the public, between one’s individual beliefs and the beliefs of a conservative society, usher in a world where women begin to have a voice. This indicates the sincerity of Yakubu’s involvement, notwithstanding the strong backlash by the state machinery and the conservatives against such radical cultural upheavel. As Alice Walker writes, “They knew we would tell our stories from our point of view and that all the terrible things done to us against our will would be exposed, and that we would free ourselves from controlling pretensions, half-truths, and lies.”
Similarly in the other novel, a woman fights back against the world that suffocates her. In Haleema’s Words is a semi-autobiography by Fatima Ahmed, a story about the struggle of a repressed girl who resists the bourgeois morality in order to live her life fully. This non-conformist attitude leads her to experiment with drugs through her contact with the hippie movement of the 1960s. She travels the world and discovers love. She is passionate about life and yet not comfortable in a man’s company, grappling with contradictions and the inherent irrationality of all that constitutes her overpowering existence: “I loved the arts and once learnt Kathak on the sly. After my father got to know from someone, all hell broke loose and I had to hear many things like, “Do you want to be a tawaif?”
This tale of discovery provokes Haleema to write a novel, a coming together of fiction and reality for Fatima Ahmed who herself belongs to the 1960s, the era that brought back a temperament of revolt against traditional forms of moral authority. Politically outspoken and artistically prolific, her generation put to rest the naïve criticism about these young people with their illusionary and romantic “flower power”, and their great idealism and startling creativity.
Haleema, with a little encouragement from her friend, begins to live a life of healthy confrontation with the status quo, imbued with optimism for a future of liberation and love. She embarks on a provocative journey, setting the tenor for a cultural change that would dismantle feudal systems that smother intellectual or creative freedom: “I want things to happen to me rather than me happening to things.”
A story of emancipation and liberation, Haleema’s life foregrounds sceptical perspectives resounding with Nietzsche’s slogan, “So I willed it”. Freedom of thought turns out to be empowering for Haleema, a case of democratising intelligence through the choice of a position. Through her rebellion she begins to be in possession of her own discourse that echoes with the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail/ Yes I would”.
Not wanting a life without alternatives, she confides in her friend Parvati about her book and her deep craving for a life of imagination combined with the joy of dissidence that would unlock her full passionate self. It is a powerful statement of the endurance of art through stifling times, as art and the power of language become a mode of survival for Haleema. As Fatima explains, “She has no feminist propaganda to push. Haleema is just a dreamer who wants to follow her dreams and live life in her own way. She chooses to be free and do exactly that.” And in the end when asked how she feels, Haleema’s answer is: “Vast, I feel I am the sky and the ocean wedded into one”.