Sunday, 16 December 2007

Ibrahim Sheme - an interview

This interview was posted on

IBRAHIM SHEME, Editor of Leadership newspaper, is a bilingual writer who has made his mark in both English and Hausa literatures. A Journalism graduate of Cardiff University, UK, and publisher of Hausa home video magazine, Fim, he has produced quite a number of critically acclaimed works in both languages. And recently his latest novel in Hausa, Yar’tsana, won the maiden edition of Karaye Prize for Hausa Literature. In this interview with SUMAILA UMAISHA, he speaks on the prize and the state of Hausa Literature.

NNW: Recently you won the maiden edition of Karaye Prize for Hausa literature. How did you feel?

Ibrahim Sheme: I was really overjoyed to become the winner of the maiden edition of this particular prize. I was even more glad because it has been a very long time before any effort was made towards improving the quality of Hausa literature. I believe that literary awards do help bring out the best in any literary environment. So this award demonstrates the desire of some people to see that our literary values are improved.

There have been criticisms about Hausa literature not being as it used to be in terms of quality. Would you say this prize is a proof of the fact that the contemporary Hausa literature is now improving?

Let’s start with those criticisms. The people making those criticisms have the right to express their minds. But it does not mean that what they are saying is correct about the contemporary Hausa literature. The main criticism is that our writers have concentrated on romance instead of writing about the day to day problems of society, and that the quality of their writing is very low. Now, because of the deluge of books that the youths have been producing you find that it is difficult to sift out the good ones. Because people concentrate on the number that is being produced, they think there is no any good work available. But I can tell you that in the last few years there has been a tremendous push towards bringing out qualitative Hausa literary works. So this award is a proof that something good is coming out of the Hausa literary environment. When the award was announced, over 20 entries were received, after which the three winners emerged. These winners can be said to be the best out of the whole pack. So now it is up to people to go and look at the three winners as representatives of the best of our literature and assess them based on any yardstick and then see whether we have improved in the last few years or not.

Do you classify your writing as Kano Market Literature?

Well, Kano Market Literature has some characteristics. So in order to make any classification we have to know the characteristics. And I will tell you that the characteristics that the main critics of the so-called Kano Market Literature developed, I was the first person to list them in a newspaper even before the critics turned them into their own initiative. First, there is the question of romance. Most Kano Market Literature books tell love stories of young people. Secondly, the quality of production, the printing, is very low. They use very cheap paper to print their books. Some of them even recycle almanacs to print the cover of their books. And the books are mostly pamphlets. Then, of course, they are self-produced. They are not produced under any particular registered publishing company. They just write their thing, go to a business centre, typeset it and take it to a printer. Then there is a question of marketing. They take the books individually to some traders in Kano. You don’t see this books in established bookshops. Also the books are hardly edited. They contain very bad grammar; they don’t follow the rules of writing. You see dialogues without quotation marks, no comas where necessary. And they jam words together. You see five words jammed together. These are some of the characteristics. Now, if you look at the three winners and others that have entered, a lot of improvement have been made in the last few years. People now take their books to academics in the universities and fellow writers for editing.
Talking about the three winners. I will just talk about the two, the first and second winners, because the third one I have not read his book. My book, Yar’tsana is over two hundred and seventy pages. So, it is a standard size. It was edited by a lot of people. Some of the more virulent critics have read it and made recommendations, and I was forced to even make changes here and there in the story-line. It was published by Informart Publishers, which is a formal publishing company registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. I own the company but that does not make it self-publishing because it went through all the rigours of normal publishing. It abides by all the rules of grammar and it is not about romance. It is about prostitution, one of the social problems that bedevil our society. The other book, Matar Uba, by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, which came second, also went through some rigours of publishing. I know, because it was first submitted to my company for publishing and I distributed copies to some people who edited it. I also read the book personally and edited it and made it ready for publishing. But eventually, the author withdrew it from the company, saying she wanted to have a look at it. And when she took it she also asked for the electronic copy. Then she just took it to a printing press and produced it herself. You could see that the quality of the printing does not meet our own standard. But by and large, it went through the rigours of editing. And the story is not about romance also. Now, this romance issue, let me say something about it. It is not because a book is about romance that it is essentially a Kano Market Literature as the critics are saying. You could produce a love story and win a Nobel prize with it. It depends on the way you told the story, the style you employed, and how the book is produced. So, romance may be a characteristics of Kano Market Literature but it is not always a negative thing.

Is this your first prize in Hausa literature?

No. In 1987, Kaduna State Government organized what was called Northern Nigerian Languages Novel Writing Competition. I entered that competition with my novel, Kifin Rijiya (The Ignoramus) and I came third in that competition. So this particular one I can say I’m the winner while in that one I was a runner-up.

What will this do to your writing career especially in Hausa literature?

This has assured me that I’m on the right track. It has also gingered up debate in the Hausa writing circles, which is largely based in Kano. I have had the privilege to be in a forum where the prize was discussed and I hear some Hausa writers talking about my writings. And on my own part I felt that I should also improve on what I write. I should introduce new styles in my writing in Hausa. I was also encouraged to keep on writing in my language. I realized that I don’t have to write in English language to gain popularity or gain acceptance. By this award I’m also assured that my work, Yar’tsana, is the best among all the books produced in the last five years. Because, this competition covered five years. So it is really encouraging.

What would you say to those who instituted the prize?

They have done a wonderful job. We have a saying in Hausa; ana zaton wuta a makera sai ta tashi a masaka. That literally means while fire is expected at the blacksmith’s shop, it was found in a textile factory. That means that the people who organized this award were not expected to have done it. First, Hajiya Bilkisu, who instituted the prize in memory of her late husband is a lawyer, her husband was an engineer, and the man who advised her to institute the prize, Patrick Oguejiofor, is an Ibo man. And some others like Emman Shehu and Ahmed Maiwada that helped to administer the prize are Christians even though they are Hausa. They did it because they believe in the universality of literary values. They believe that literature, in whatever language it is produced, is about humanity. Even the first literary competition in 1933 was organized by a white man, Mr. East. And the one in 1981 was organized by another Christian although he was a Hausa man, Garba Malumfashi by name. These are people who believe that Hausa literature should be improved. They don’t have any hidden agenda. They are just doing it because they believe somebody has to do it. So they have our commendation. The whole Hausa writing circle has been commending their efforts. And I think they should be encouraged by all to continue in their path. It is also a challenge to other people, especially our so-called leaders, to wake up to their responsibilities. They should institute this kind of competition not only in Hausa literature but in different spheres of life in Hausa land. When you organize any competition, even if it is a boxing competition, you are encouraging some excellence.

(c) Interview by Sumaila umaisha, published in the New Nigerian newspaper edition of 15th December, 2007.