Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Binta S. Mohammed: The Last Interview
In September, last year, the late Binta S. Mohammed, wife of LEADERSHIP editor Ibrahim Sheme, was interviewed by the newspaper's Arts correspondent Muhammad Kabir Yusuf. The interview was published on the 16th of that month. In the introduction to the interview, Binta, a mother of three, was described as a notable poet and novelist based in Kano.
"Her two works, Contours of Life, a collection of poems, and A Clean Break, a novel, were received with acclaim upon their publication. But for some years now, Malama Binta, who is a lecturer in the Department of English at Bayero University, Kano, seems to have slowed down. No new lieterary work has come from her. Why?" The interview was conducted in Kano a few days earlier. Excerpts:
Readers may want to know your literary background and your earliest experience with the world of writing.
I started writing when I was in secondary school. That was in the mid 80s; and I got inspired through reading. I read so many books written by both European and African writers. I started with poetry. The first poem I wrote was titled Tree. That time I was just sitting down under a tree and raised up my head and looked at the tree, then I got the inspiration to write the poem.
What were the things that made you believe that you could really write and you had a message to send through writing?
Once you are a writer and you have the talent, you have a responsibility to tell people what you think about life as well as saying for them what they would rather say but they cannot. This is the reason why if people read a literary work, they feel relieved, as if they are the ones saying them. So, literature is a two-way traffic between both the reader and the writer. The writer eases up his emotion by writing, so also the reader when he reads.
Going through your anthology of poem tells the reader that you really look at things differently from the way ordinary minded people look at them. Why is that?
As a writer, you can just walk out there and see grasses. So as a writer, you need to give it a second look. But as an ordinary person, you just look at it and that is all. That is the difference between a writer and someone who is not. They see things differently and look at things differently.
It is amazing that you have dual personality: academic writer and creative writer at the same time. How do you marry the two?
I don't think they are a lot different. I see them as complementary to one another. As an academic, I deal with books and I analyse the text. And as a writer, I produce the text. So I don't think there is a lot of difference. I read, I teach and I even teach creative writing. So, they are more or less the same thing.
Ever since you produced your novel and your anthology, you ceased to produce any literary work. Did anything happen to your muse?
Well, I can't say. But then I have books that are yet to be published. I have a collection of poems, which is ready and in the press. And I also have a book which is more academic. It is a textbook on creative writing, which will come out soon. The two books will hopefully come out before the year runs out.
You came from the part of Nigeria which is considered culturally conservative. To what extent do you think the culture and religion of the North influence your writing?
As Ngugi said, "Writers never exist in a vacuum". You write out of experiences. You must belong to a society. The society in turn shapes your thinking, experiences and so on. So, as a writer, as a woman and a person from the North, all these forces shape my thinking and my writing. I have to, first of all, see myself as a woman, then as a northerner, a Muslim, a Hausa and so on. All those things will come to play when I am writing. There is no way, for example, I will write the way a white woman will do; we are simply not the same.
Why are Hausa women writers running away from the tag feminism, even though they treat feminist issues in their works?
I think the simple reason is the negative connotation attached to feminism. That is why Hausa women try to run away from it, because they are afraid people will see them as radicals. That is why many of us reject the term or try to deny any association with it. But I am not saying that I am not a feminist, because there is nothing wrong with being a feminist. It is the interpretation that is sometimes bad. Once you say you are a feminist, they would say that you hate men, you are fighting men, you are only in support of women, but that is not true. Feminism is a relative term. It can be interpreted with varying levels of emphasis. As far as I am concerned, feminism is concerned with the issues of women. It doesn't mean that you hate men or you are against them. But you are just discussing women's problems in search of befitting solutions. Even though the central character of my novel, for example, is female, I didn't portray all the male characters as bad. So feminism is not a movement to paint all men black. So I don't think there is anything wrong with being a feminist as far as I am concerned.
In a book review you did recently, published in LEADERSHIP, you stated that "men are naturally polygamous". Readers would expect you to expatiate.
When I say man is naturally polygamous, I want us to look at the history of humanity. Throughout history, and weather through formal marriage or not, man would naturally want to have more than one woman. Either he would have one wife and many girlfriends out there or he would have many wives through formal marriage. What I was actually saying is that it is more honest to make it formal.
As a man, once you have one wife and claim that you are monogamous, yet you have several girlfriends out there, then you are not monogamous, you are polygamous. What I am saying is that there is no need for you to pretend. You'd better come out and do it the right way.
Throughout your writing career, what are the things that you consider the main challenges?
The challenges of the writer, especially in this part of the world, when I say this part of the world, I am referring to the northern part of Nigeria, people don't care about what you do. When you say you are a writer, who cares? Nobody cares. And nobody is interested to read what you write, especially those of us writing in English. People like Balarabe Ramat who happen to write in local language are even luckier, because people read them. But for us that write in English, they don't really care what we write. It is only the educated few that really take our books and read. It is even more so when you talk about poetry. People don't simply buy our collection of poems. They would rather buy the novel. Because people don't enjoy poetry; to them it doesn't make much difference whether you write or not. There is simply no encouragement. Besides, there is this issue of funding. When you write you will just be keeping them. Like me now, I have volumes of poems, but I have not published them. Sometimes you don't have the fund to publish them. And no publisher will just come and collect your works to go and publish them. You have to fund them yourself. So these are the main problems we are facing as writers.
Against the background of these challenges, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Well, I will just advise them to write. They shouldn't put into consideration the fact that people would not recognise them or read them. They should not even be bothered that they don't have the money to publish. So long as they have the talent, they should just go ahead and write. Even if you never get the opportunity to publish, your children may one day pick your write-up and publish it. So, the only thing is for them to continue writing.
Nigerian writers in the Diaspora are well published and celebrated. Is it possible that they work much harder than the writers at home?
I think they just got better opportunities. Writers are recognised there much more than they are recognised here. Once the talent is there, no talent goes unnoticed there. And once you are recognised, you will get published. And you will be advertised and get promoted. And your work will get promoted, too. But here nobody cares. People don't care about the talent you have, whether you are a writer or not. And this is because people don't read. So, the talented Nigerians abroad find it much easier to get rewarded for their works. But all the same, there is a bit of improvement in the North. Writers are getting recognised. And literary awards are being created. This will inspire aspiring writers.
These days, there is a tension between writers and the Kano State Censorship Board. How possibly can the Censorship Board succeed in such a huge project of censoring all the literary output from Kano?
There is nothing wrong with censorship as long as it is done to protect public morality and advance the cause of creativity. Even in the so-called advanced countries, certain texts and images are abhorred because of their explicit nature, talk less of in a conservative society like ours. In recent years, there has been concern with the slide towards over-explicitness by some of the movie-makers and writers in Kano. Hence the intervention by the government and a resistance by the writers, which created the tension you talked about.
The problem with the censorship regime in Kano has to do with the process and style of the censors. They are combative. And they lack the expertise or personnel to do it. I don't think they can do it. Honestly, I don't think the government can censor all the books that are published or printed, because some of the books are not even published, they are just printed.
They need to engage the writers, exchange ideas, and do things to help the writers in book production. It would be a disaster to kill the writing industry in the name of censorship. While bad texts and images should be censored, efforts should be made by the government to create a conducive environment for the production and marketing of literary works.
Re-published in LEADERSHIP today
NB: In the photo above, Binta is delivering a lecture on "Hausa Muslim Women and Further and Higher Education," at the British Council, Kano, some years ago