By Ibrahim Sheme
Hajiya Bilkisu Salisu Ahmed Funtua (a.k.a. Aunty Bilki) is one of the leading women novelists writing in the Hausa language. In fact, she can be described as the most popular Hausa woman novelist. Married, she lives in purdah with her family in Funtua, Katsina State.
I was able to interview Aunty Bilki a few years ago when I was working as deputy editor of the Kaduna-based 'New Nigerian Weekly' newspaper. The interview, which happened to be the novelist's first, was conducted in Hausa and was translated by me for our readers. The interview was published in the newspaper as it appears here.
QUESTION: One would like to know when you began to write and why.
BILKISU: I started in 1983 with the publication of the novel Allura Cikin Ruwa (A Needle in the Water), though was not the first book I wrote, Wa Ya San Gobe? (Who Knows the Future?) was my first novel, but the other one was published earlier due to certain problems.
In what volumes is "Allura"?
It is in three volumes-books one to three.
So, what motivated you to become a writer?
There were many reasons: I think I was motivated by three main reasons, all of them based on my feelings for the North. The first is the way girls in the North are having their rights denied. You find a brilliant girl with the urge to further her education but as soon as she gets married the husband prevents her from going further. I know that marriage can not be a hindrance to a woman wanting to further her education. In this regard, Southerners are more progressive than us. As such, I realized that through the medium of writing using the little talent God gave me, I could put into the heads of girls ideas-through entertainment and enlightenment-to appreciate the importance of education.
Secondly, you find that once a Hausa girl gets married even if it is one based on love without the imposition of he parents, the marriage eventually collapses. In the past when our own parents and grandparents got marred, it was difficult to find two or three divorcees in the community. But nowadays it would be a lie for one to say there is no divorcee in one's family; in the community there are divorcees a] over the place, you hardly distinguish between the unmarried ladies and the ax-married ones.
The main cause for this is lack of understanding an! awareness on the way to live in marriage. That's how our children are: they don't know how to live together as couples. It is possible that other tribes are more realistic than u in teaching their children perseverance and attitudes in staying with their husbands. We the Hausa parents are too shy to do that; only the educated or enlightened ones among us would sit down with their daughters and teach them the way to do things that would improve their marriage. Parent only try to teach by example, in a sort of insinuatory manner which the daughters may not understand.
As a result of marrying off unenlightened girls, they soon lose interest in the marriage. Also, the husband himself might not have grown up enlightened, so he is quick to anger an~ so says he would not go on with the marriage. And a crisis would ensue. That is despite the fact that and love each other, they are materially comfortable, but the marriage collapses.
Thirdly, there is the issue of forced marriage. There is the need for children to take the advice of their parents. It is no always that parents, aim to marry off their daughters to rich people; sometimes, a girl would choose the wrong person and a partner whom her parents might oppose, and the girl's position would harden. I had observed that when the (present crop of) novelists started writing, they seemed to indicate that a marriage based on soyayya (love) is compulsory, the so-called auren dole (forced marriage), which your parents forced you into, would never work.
In my understanding, I observed that our own parents got married under such circumstance whereby a girl would not have ever met the prospective husband before the union was consummated; she would see him only after she had been taken to his house. It's their parents that would arrange everything, and it worked. Those were my three reasons for wanting to write, with the hope that girls in the North could progress in terms of marriage and education.
Did you read other people's books in order to pick styles and other insights?
I have been interested in reading quite a lot. I love to read more than you can imagine. But whenever I read the Hausa novels, before I began to write mine, I used to feel bad. I would begin to say only if so and so were was written or said, the story would have been more enlightening to people, instead of overemphasizing the romance aspect. I do not mean to say that I dislike the romance as I also incorporate it in my stories, but there is more enlightenment in my novels. There hadn't a novel I found impressive after reading it.
How many novels have you published so far?
I have published nine so far.
Why are all these prose fiction? You don't seem to delve into drama or poetry.
I have considered prose as the best medium of reaching out to women and men with my messages. Prose is the ideal way of teaching through entertainment.
I'd like you to respond to the charges critics make against contemporary Hausa novelists in general. For example, it is said that the novels are mere Western stereotypes, that they are based on Indian movies without consideration to Hausa culture.
If the critics are talking about me in particular, they are wrong. Other novelists may reflect those charges. Though I am not defending myself I know that all the books I wrote were not based on any film or Western life style. I write totally on Hausa way of life. However, I would like you to go and conduct an opinion poll on which novels the readers best like and the reason why they like them. I know they would first mention culture as a reason for liking them; there's a preponderance of local life style in a Hausa community, then we move on to the urban center. Therefore, the cultures I reflect in my novels are those of the Hausa man.
Let's be specific. Recently, a literary critic writing on the new Hausa writing in the Weekly Trust cited you as one of her examples. She said that in "Sirrin Boye" (The Hidden Secret), when Asma'u is about to meet her father for the first time, having been begotten out of wedlock, she falls into the arms of Faruk, her fiancé, out of apprehension on the encounter. The critic says that's not a Hausa cultural trait, that Asma'u should have burst into tears or something like that. Secondly, in the same book, you are charged for allowing a woman to go to her former suitor's house when her husband sends her packing at midnight instead of going to stay with the neighbors until daybreak
No, that is all truly Hausa culture. There is nothing confusion and apprehension could not cause, either to a Hausa, a white man or an Indian. Asma'u could have even collapsed on the ground then and faint in front of Faruk. The girl has spent twenty years of her life without ever knowing that she has a father and look at the way the father himself comes. Then she, suddenly finds herself in an exotic place where she may not even be accepted. Hence her utter bewilderment. As such whatever anyone does in such a circumstance, especially since she has been considering Faruk as her elder brother is excusable.
Secondly, the critic mentioned the issue of Abu, the mother of Asma'u, who leaves her husband's house and goes to her former boyfriend's house. I think she is right in going to that house because whenever she goes to her father's house he used to beat her and chase her out. She had been going to take refuge in the houses of his friends without getting the necessary succor; they send her back. She therefore goes to her boyfriend's house in order to persuade him to elope together.
In Hausa culture, there may be other alternatives. Abu could have gone to her own relatives' houses no matter how far away. Didn't you consider that?
Abu had done all that, without getting relief. She therefore goes to her boyfriend for relief as all her travails are due to her insistence on him.
You are also charged with encouraging black magic in Sa'adatu Sa'ar Mata (Sa'adatu the Lucky Woman). When Sa'adatu and her suitor Junaid fall apart, she takes up the advice of her mother and her friends and goes to a seer who gives them a love potion. This purportedly helps in cementing the relationship eventually, in which they beget children and live happily ever after. You seem to teach that what the malam does is scientifically and morally correct.
Everybody knows there is the concept of istihara (giving God the choice', a prayerful divination through heavenly intervention) in Islam, isn't it? Asma'u believes in istihara. It is her parents and friends that advice on going to a boka (shaman). Now, it would be an illusion (for us) to assume that our parents and grandparents (the older generation) would not seek for the intervention of apothecaries; it's an age-old tradition.
My aim was to enlighten the younger generation about the superiority of istihara and prayers over the traditional method. I have only made comparisons and showed that it is difficult for children to reject their parents' insistence on soliciting for the intervention of Malams in private affairs. Opposing parents would hurt them, it's better to even pretend to obey them in that regard.
Asma'u has obeyed her parents because they have suffered a lot before they could convince her to take that decision. Even in the Qur'an there is the concept of the efficacy of sorcery and the need for its prevention. Now, all the medicines I mentioned were used by Asma'u none was not used by the holy Prophet Muhammad: milk, honey, meat and dates. These are medicants that you are recommended to use even if you are healthy. They are the ones Sa'adatu uses, not the ones the apothecary gave her. It is Sa'adatu's co-wife who believes in black magic but who pays dearly for it and is eventually divorced.
As a writer, why did you go into film production?
I did so because of old folks non-literates, who would like to read the stories but cannot. I realized that through home videos l could render another great help. Whoever cannot read can watch the video. Also these days men used to say to women, "Oh, why are you immersed in that book? The woman told her husband "Whatever change you see in me, like stopping visiting to many people, I learnt it from this book. Therefore, Aunty Bilki's book is (like) the Hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad). The husband was so glad. Suddenly, one day (my film) Ki Yarda Da Ni arrived and he sat down and watched it. And he was so impressed that he and his wife came all the way from Bauchi to Funtua just to see me. At that time they had a problem of polygamy, which I often write about: (advising that) women should live with their co-wives; a co-wife is your sister in all respects, so don't get unnecessarily worked up. I preach that, and we've progressed (in enlightenment) a lot.
Does that mean you will produce more movies?
Yes. By God's grace all my books, whether I am alive or not - I have put it in my will, my relatives and children know it - will be filmed.
Do you envisage a time when you will retire from writing?
As long as there are problems in the world, I will write till die or I am not well. Everyday one confronts one problem or the other which needs to be critically examined.
Where do you get your themes?
Even though I am secluded I used to go out once in a while and receive. visitors. In fact this writing business has made it possible for me to know problems more than before. People always phone me, visitors come, in a day even if I receive a hundred visitors I don't see it as too many. Some bring along a piece of advise which I find to be another form of problem requiring creative attention.
Don't you feel mobbed by these visits?
Honestly, I do. For instance yesterday I wasn't feeling well and my sisters had come to discuss the wedding we are having today (my sister's). But then so many visitors came over. I felt somehow disturbed by people. However, I realized that it was entirely my fault, for I was the one that attracted them to me, so I have nothing to do about it. In any case I love people, so I feel okay with them.
What is your relationship with other writers? Are you a member of any writers' association?
I am not a member of any association but I relate well with my fellow writers. As of associations, my husband wouldn't tolerate my trips to meetings. Moreover, there are certain things that make it hard for me to be in a writers' associations.
For example the (critics') idea that I transform foreign movies into book annoys me. If one reads my book dispassionately one would see that the story realistic and not copied from films. One would feel like one even knows the characters in real life. As such it's the Hausa culture that I write about. I am not happy that writers pick up stories from films and make them theirs. Our cultures are different.
What do you feel can become the future of the contemporary Hausa novel?
We are developing. At the moment, people learn lesson from the stories.
Do you, on your own, react to criticism in order to enlighten your readers on your motives?
It is only God that can satisfy people. Each reader has a different way of seeing things. Look at my intention for writing (about the character) Asma'u: to show that a good child could be begotten through fornication; God knows we shouldn't throw such a child away, because no one surpasses anyone in the eyes of God except those that tear Him most. Asma'u was begotten through bad way but God made her very devoted to God, very modest. And her mother, it is extremism in religious and cultural views that forced her to go astray. In my view, people can learn from this.
What type of problems did you face in the early days of your writing?
Well, they were mainly those of lack of funds; one is a secluded house-wife with no helper in terms of who would go out and pursue the publishing. But I've got a husband who is deeply interested in seeing that I was published, so he helped with the funds to the best of his ability.
What advice do you have for upcoming, unpublished writers?
My advice is to write what readers can pick moral lesson' from, not things that can teach only immorality especially those transforming films into their books. How could you pick Indian culture and bring it here without attracting negative attention? For instance, there was one writer who wrote about a girl who fell into a well to protest a marriage she was being forced into by her parents. I don't think this is a good way of teaching morals; there are other ways that that girl could show her protest: (And) if it is her destiny to marry the man, she would marry him. Another writer told the story of a girl who, because of her infatuation to a boy, put poison in her grandmother's food who ate it and died, just because she wanted to marry the boy. Why should you commit murder in order to marry someone? This is a bad moral which shouldn't be put in a literary work. In my view, such stories shouldn't be told or written.
As for me, anyone that says there no local culture in my books hasn't really lead them or hasn't understood them. I really give our culture priority. I also give priority to our religion; in fact, I was the first writer to be reproducing useful prayers and infusing them into my stories to the extent that people ask if they are genuine. Any of my female characters that finds herself in a crisis would be found praying.
Yes, some critics see positive morals in your stories. For example, in Sirrin Boye, Asma'u, Zubaida and Bilkisu, who are female, are doctors; in Sa'adatu Sa'ar Mata, Sa'adatu is a journalist educated in England, and in Wa Ya San Gobe? Fatima is a school teacher who eventually becomes a federal minister of education. These show that you encourage female education.
That is right. Fatima is from a very poor background but grew to that level.
Hajiya, thank you very much.
You are welcome.