Mazhun Idris is a Kano born writer from Dawakin Kudu local government. He holds BSc Economics from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and is a professional translator who believes translation and localization hold the future of publishing industry.
He has published several books and is working on three raw drafts. His short story “The Legend of Nakuka” was among the creative works published in an anthology of New Nigerian Short Stories entitled “Telling Our Stories. In this interview with ZAHARADDEEN IBRAHIM KALLAH, Idris said a lot about Nigerian literary world.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am an editor for one, and translator for another. Perhaps this is the persona I wish to be associated with at the moment.By way of proper prologue, I was born in Kano where my father hailed from Dawaki, in Dawakin Kudu LGA. I attended both my primary and secondary schools in Kano. Afterwards, I joined College of Art and Science, still in Kano where I graduated with an IJMB certificate in 2003.
In the year 2005 I moved to Zaria to read economics at Ahmadu Bello University and graduated in the year 2009. I currently live in Kaduna where I am an executive in a media communication firm, aside other private practices as editorial consultant and private economic advisor for a number of companies. On the sidelines, I am a graduate student of two schools, a newspaper columnist, a TV presenter, impulsive poet,Wikipedian, author of two and a half books (laughter). I actually have two published books and two manuscripts and about three raw drafts in the pipeline.
When and how did you start writing?
Perhaps what will best describe my writing journey is the axiom that says you must read before you write; and you must write before you edit. I started reading and writing Hausa text, my mother tongue, since my nursery school days in late 1980s. I could remember doodling letters to my cousin sister who was in boarding school, whenever my family was going for visitation on school visiting day in any trip I was not planned to partake in.
I have had a good background of reading and writing both Latin and Arabic alphabets. For Latin scripts,it was from my nursery lesson teacher who was, if my memory serves me right, a Yoruba woman then.By the time I was enrolled into primary school in early 1990s, being in Kano, the center of Hausa language writing, I was taught to read and write in Hausa language at first in order to master basic morphology. My primary was an Islamic school with roots from ancient Al-Azhar in Cairo.Aliyu Bin Abi Talib Primary School, one of the first private primary schools in Kano. Hence I studied English grammar together with Arabic grammar such that by the time I finished there, I could read and write three languages, English, Arabic and Hausa.
As pupils, we studied books with Arabic books with Hausa transliteration and English translation. That was my foundation as a linguist and a translator. We wrote and sang Hausa, English and Arabic songs, and at one point we had Arab kids who spoke only Arabic language in our midst.I was privileged to come across different writing collections, religious, literary, linguistic, and instructional books in three international languages.Now I remember a rainbow of multilingual book titles, from short stories to poetry books. From Gandoki, to Bari Wa Biba, Hikayoyi Maitan, Passport of Malam Iliya, Iliya Dan Mai Karfi and other children adventure books.
To talk more on my bookish childhood, it is a standard traditional practice in northern Muslim families for children to be educated in both Western and Islamic Madrasa schools simultaneously. It is commonly done in a way whereby children will attend Western education schools in the morning and Madrasa in the afternoon or evening. I could say my case was unique in that my afternoon Islamic school was also a functional public primary school. Perhaps this will explain why I fared with only four years of primary school education. It happened that I got promoted to class four from class two and I eventually wrote my Common Entrance exam at class five. By age ten I was in secondary school and by sixteen I was a WASSCE graduate.
Aside the history of my writing craft, my inspirations as a professional writer must have stemmed from my personally gift of creativity and other personality traits such as observance, curiosity and adventure. When I tell you I am a research buff, I don’t expect you to consider anything as off-limits to my interests. Since I cannot be uneducated in every field of knowledge, I have since learned to become a nimrod of information. With creative inspirations one can easily manufacture or realize education from information. Little wonder Einstein once mentioned that inspiration is above education.
I am very emphatic about the correlation between the nature of my upbringing and my present scholastic disposition. Reason is I strongly believe my story is replete with lessons for aspirating writers on a broad scale,and to parents and guardians. I personally hold it as a pretty truism that reading and writing provide positive distraction for kids against juvenile misdemeanor and for the youth, against exuberant social vices. Individual scholarship is a very healthy lifestyle, which guarantees self-control and precocious erudition.
As a concerned parent, you may develop genuine misgivings that your bookish kid risks biting more than he can chew, especially in the age of the Internet where information access is over-liberalized. With timely guidance and parental supervision however, your child will not get to become that freak of a premature scholar or a nerdy little introvert who exhibit amoral tendencies of an unruly loner. That is pretty better than raising a dullard or a dropout, and a beast of no future.
You see, we are a society that is educationally underdeveloped in almost every facet of our modern lives. We must entrench our kids and youth if we are sincerely seeking social harmony, economic progress and political advancement. Education is the single most profitable investment you can incur for your ward. We don’t need any research to tell us that the rise of violent crises in northern Nigeria has a lot to do with the level of our regional educational development.
Of course you should guard your kids against becoming preys toharmful ideologies and destructive information. This is simple if you control what goes on his desk or screen. I once gave a teenager this novel about World War II, called “King Rat”by James Clavell after repeated requests, but I feared initially that the story was a celebration of a self-made king of con and extortion. Unlike Achebe’s “No Longer at Ease”, whose nonlinear plot means it opens with the trial of the doomed protagonist, “King Rat” let the ugly cat of the protagonist out of the bag only in the two concluding pages of the story. Still, I went on to give this girl after I realized that with my guidance, the book may appropriately give her training on vigilance through exposure to stories about street crime, con and exploitation.
Reading is not about a restricted journey for the pursuit of a single shade of light. It is a hunt for the knowledge rainbow, and a spotlight search for the different shades of grays and even darkness. When done by an innocent mind,the light of truth only gets brighter as polished by the raining boulders of falsehood.No devoted study is wasted. If the student reads evil books she becomes aware and more vigilant. Even in a situation where ‘bad’ knowledge intoxicates, she would remain an intelligent danger, or an educated enemy that will feed on logic and agree to sense and reason. Luckily, reading is not a one-way road with no street signs. One would more than likely eventually encounter explanations and corrects his deviations. The same printed words would unravel a previous evil she had consumed from the silent mouth of evil authors.
Do you have role models in writing?
I would simply say Ahmed Yerima and Femi Osofisan in plays. James Clavell, Chimamanda Adichie, George Orwell, William Golding, Agatha Philips, etc, all in prose. Poetry is a different kettle of fish.
After decades or reading I have come to realize my secret penchant for historical novels and short poetry pieces. I enjoy poems that take only a wee of my time to peruse, like Haiku. Aside poems, I like comedy skits especially those that go round social media sites in the forms of quotes and in fographic memes. The best writers to me are those who have much care for reader retention.
You don’t blame my poetry bias. I myself enjoy writing Haiku and Tanka. I was one of the first members of ANA Kano Facebook group to join different Haiku communities online, which led to its popularity among our members. Why call a work a poem if you would have to spend minutes reading poorly complemented phrases, often having to let go the plot line. A poem should be easy enough to achieve memorableness and quotability, aside the need for aesthetic brevity. Logs of in numerable lines and stanzas tend to make a poem prosaic and overly drawn-out with length. Except that they are mine, I would hate a poem I ink which grows above fifteen lines. Ironically, long prose never drain my patience. A suspense-filled novel of john Gresham or my favorite, James Clavell would escort me to my bed.
If you insist on pinpointing my models among writers, I would say where I belong is where I make home. Hence I will need to tell you my favorite genre before I list out the all the A-list names that make my top ranks.
Now coming on to me, I think writing is all about the miasma of inspirations you get sporadically ora mental vision that comes in spasm. Hence to admit a writing category where I would confidently say I belong may require a month of self-retrospection. Writing spasms come like a breeze sometimes cold, hot or moist, damp or salted. Thus in a reality that you could only go with the wind into uncertain aero-adventure, you are not in the best position to identify your writing by yourself. So in effect I am saying my readers hold the aces to define me and my writing. Perhaps they too could not do it fair enough. But they will have their proofs if they call me so-so writer based on a particular piece of my write-up.
For serious book-length writing I would again mention James Clavell as my model. Among African renown writers, of course I must mention Chinua Acehebe, Femi Osofisan, Cyprian Ekwensi and so on. Among modern authors I must cite Chimamanda Adichie, Rotimi Babatunde, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Elnathan John, and other modern literati.
I like science in art. So I love writers that mathematically stick to a genre. Outside the literary arena, I have many other writing role models. I told you how I was raised in a scholarly family with my educated parents, siblings and cousins. I grew up with all sorts of books both religious, technical and literary. I could pick up role models of letters from any field.
I love every written word to the extent that I stay in my room, go into bed and draw the mosquito nets just to read my books. By practical experience, it is said that readers would someday write because of training or admiration of authors. That is why when I write, my pen does not stick to literature. Writing models have shaped my writing greatly. I must revere them for this heritage. As a writer I am what I read because with reading, writing happens.
What type of genre do you specialize in?
Biodun Jeyifois one writer on Wole Soyinka whom I read recently. He mentioned Soyinka’s famous quip on negritude –”The tiger does not go about proclaiming its tigritude but merely lives and acts it”.
Although we are what we love, we don’t tell more than we act it. In this esthetic landscape of literature with its p-prongs of poetry, play and prose, I like to write whatever sounds dramatic in its plots whether short or long. I love to author that which defies readers perception and critics’ presumption of suspense. Any writing that succeeds in tacitly resisting the cheap or critical predictions of experienced readers is my stuff. I want a book that beats readers’ guesswork. What normally appeals to me is historical accounts that are alien to my readers’ ears. I want to specialize in a writing form like that of love James Clavell in crafting adroit convoluted plots of historical novels similar to the long serial of Asian saga. Clavell is one veteran in the art of wrapping historical tales into complicated plots. He builds a tome of books that test the memory of the most committed of his readers.
To take you back to my characteristic upbringing, I am upbeat and fascinated by brevity of words that still manage to convey enough meaning beyond the stretch of their semantics. For brevity sake, the genre I specialize is poetry. I write everyday as a way of making use of your mental notes, which I put down into a distiches of poems. I daily write poems on the go. In fact the biggest amount of my individual publications would likely be poetry. Today I have a dedicated Twitter handle for sharing my own copyrighted poems.Despite my desire to specialize in poetry, to me the genre has a major weakness of dependence on readers imaginations, which varies according to knowledge, mood, awareness and many other dynamics.To interpret a poem, literary appreciators take the brunt of figuring meanings and connecting the plot curve of poems too autonomously.
In Nigeria, and Africa oral poetry and musical songs have a level of acceptance more than written poetry. Although from the religious angle, Hausa scholarship is build on the background of Islamic poetry that summarizes important disciplines such as Arabic grammar, law of inheritance, etc. Local Islamic scholars writing in Hausa vernacular have developed the genre of Islamic Hausa poetry for decades. Late Sheik Na’ibi Sulaiman Wali, late Dr Aminudeen Abubakarare quickly come to mind on this.
Seen collectively, Nigerian English and vernacular written poetry is undeveloped if you go by the number of book publications in that genre. Of course there is a surge in poetry chapbooks from modern publishers like Saraba. Yet only a few book-length poetry publication come out every year. You may realize this if you consider the annual NLNG Prize when it comes to the year dedicated for poetry books. I think since its inception, there were one or two times when the prize judges could not find a befitting book of poetry to deserve the award.
Personally also, I study a lot of Arabic poetry collections such as Alfiyyah, An-Nuniyya, and Ar-Rahbiyya. But aside religious poetry, I don’t take reading or writing English poetry books with the deserved seriousness they demand. The last time I read a poetry book was some seven months ago when my friend Sani Scholar gave me some books on Jamaican poems. I read prose and drama books most of the time. That is why my first literary publication was a collection of short stories titled “The Traffic Jury”, which I authored in 2012.
Perhaps a possible excuse for non-prominence of poetry books is we as Africans hardly have time for sentimentalism which tends to be the nucleus of poetry in English literature. For instance, in local cultures nursery rhythms and bedside lullaby may be considered informal or unworthy of preservation into two covers of a book. Even after the intrusion of Western culture into Africa, singers remain more recognized than vocal poets.I personally don’t like excessive sentimentalism associated with poetry. They may say love captures and sex sells, hence the dominance of love and sex in literature. But I quite disagree with this thinking. When I was a student of political science, I came to believe that there are issues and conflicts far more important in human society than love and sex. In fact in the background of this two themes is the subtle interplay of power, interest and control. I read one book called”The Manipulated Man” and the author who happened to be a woman could not agree with me better.
You seem to specialize in poetry yet disdain “love” as a popular theme in literature, what is that bigger theme you believe surpasses love?
Despite my genre of special interest being poetry, my love for rendering lengthy historical accounts and everyday class conflict, means I switch to plays and dramas which enable me to plot words into a volume larger than poetry. So class conflict is my favorite theme in all of my writings.
I choose class conflict over love stories because I am particularly amazed by socio-cultural adventure. I fascinated by class difference, socioeconomic competition and the struggles of different classes of the society towards a unique end. Economic class is so real that no story is written a hint of individual or group conflict that borders on explicit or vague segregation. In fact many fictional tales have to extract their beautiful endings with in a simple inter-class crossover, where the good guys got their final elevation, like when the protagonist ends up becoming the king, or if it is a she, ends up marring the rich prince and swimming in gold and silver.
Similarly I spring equal passion to clash of culture, civilization and discrimination. The first time I read “Rich Dad Poor Dad” which is not a literary book by the way, I was fascinated because it was as spectacular as it was realistic in its revelations, something aimed by literary writers. You will remember Chimamanda’s TED Talk classic on the dangers of a single story. As she argued class rhetoric is at the center of sociopolitical subjugation and media bias all over the world.
Let me tell you how I first cracked my storytelling and writing shell. After attending private nursery and primary schools I was thrown into a public secondary school, into what I deemed then was a social maelstrom, though fascinating to my boyish curiosity.I encountered a unique class of students who were, sorry to say, a bit backward or unrefined. They came from an entirely different background from those I knew in my primary school. Those days private and public schools were a huge story on class, background and social segmentation.My discovery of a different lifestyle and social orientation in this public school, was so intriguing to me that I could say my storytelling carrier began there and then. Everyday I returned home I would sit with my siblings to narrate my shocking or captivating discoveries of the eerie lifestyle of Kano city kids. I could recall my wonder when I was invited to play a football game which a ball they made from rolling polythene bags like a rag doll.Since those days, most of my writings would have a subtle theme of class conflict.
Do you publish book in your favorite genre?
A book? I did that only once in prose. Although I live in the midst of literary inspirations, somewhat somehow we end up leaving them to live and die as mere mental notes or digital drafts. Perhaps due to the nature of my endeavors, I end up publishing more newspaper articles and academic papers than literary works. If I have my ways, I would publish 4 books every year, say one every quarter.
My only published literary work is short stories collection published in 2012 by Ahmadu Bello University Press titled “The Traffic Jury”. It is a garland of 5 fairly long short stories.After that, I would have since published my only play in 2014, but I have been delayed by my editors in the theater arts department of ABU Zaria. Right now the drama students of that department are doing a project on the play and planning to stage it soon, after which it will eventually go to press, possibly by July this year. The manuscript has been three years old now.I’m also planning to publish either a chapbook or a book-length poetry this year. Saraba is into individua lpoetry chapbook series like the one I read titled”The Poet of Sand”, by a Kano writer known as Umar Sidi.
Perhaps I am too expansive as a writer. This is typical of professional contents writers. Aside publishing numerous opinion and technical articles on newspapers and magazine both local and foreign, I have authored an economics and history book, published in 2014, which is titled “Akwa Ibom State &The Airport”.
As I mentioned earlier, my pens dance to the tunes of the times.My translator persona is now dominating my writing. Toady I tend to dwell more on translation and localization. Only recently I proudly translated Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o.With my work and that of over thirty translators, Ngũgĩ achieved a feat in Africa, which is only surpassed by his writing father Chinua Achebe. Incidentally Achebe was the one who discovered Ngũgĩ while on a lecture visit to Kenya. The work is published in Jalada, whichis a pan-African literary magazine based in Kenya, as established by the editor Moses Kilolo and some African writers including our own Richard Ali. I have been a participant in Jalada for about two years now and was part of the 33 translators who rewrote Ngũgĩ’s short story into different African languages and even Hindi and Arabic. My translation works in Jalada covers other stories by Edwige Droand a poem by Ajise Vincent coming up soon. I have plans to translate Dami Ajayi’s work also in Jalada.
Translation is a genre-crossing practice aside being border-crossing. I do Arabic translations too, so I may be called a tri-lingual writer if there is that word.I edited an Islamic magazine for three years and recently I edited the translation of a popular Hadith book known as “Haqqul Mubin”.
Are you writing in your mother tongue?
Being a professional translator, I have a lot to do with my mother tongue, Hausa language. Aside writing content in Hausa, I do a lot for Hausa as an international language, especially on social media where I control accounts that seek to sanitize the use of Hausa as a modern language particularly in digital media. I produce multimedia contents in Hausa language ranging from articles and books, TV reports, audio recording and video transcription. I wrote two academic papers about Hausa language and people, one presented last year in Bayero University and the other this year in Danfodiyo University.
Your short story was among the works featured in “Telling Our Stories”, an anthology of New Nigerian short stories published by ANA Kano. What can you say about the collection and the caliber of writers that have been published?
My story titled “The Legend of Nakuka” was featured in this anthology. I was very pleased to be published alongside Sadik Dzukogi, Abdulaziz Abdulaziz and veteran writers like Ismail Bala and Wale Okediran who also wrote the book preface. I felt celebrated by the people of my state since ANA Kano represents the whole of Kano State.
It was a great product of months of efforts by promoters and editors of the anthology including you, Zaharaddeen. I am glad and optimistic that such a feat will be repeated in the future. My only regret is I forgot to submit my published story in this year’s Caine Prize.
Don’t you think writers from northern Nigeria are neglected by critiques, which maybe the reason their voices are silent?
Writing in general and especially book writing, is a window to the soul, to the experiences, wisdoms and insecurities of the writer or author. For our books to enter the A-list, their content have to reflect global trends, world class standard and a spectacular representation of our unique cultures and qualities. Mastery of the medium of communication in the case of language is sacrosanct. Let me tell you how this works. I own a library that contains a lot of classic and modern literary,specialized and technical reads, such as books on first aid and Nigerian highway codes. So you will be surprised at how my writing that borders safety or health will easily reflect my knowledge of these areas.When I write I make sure I conduct sufficient research, to the level that I will not be smattering about topics that seem alien to my pen. I write like the expert persona assumed by my characters.
So what I am saying is our writers may be guilty of self-closure in a way that we narrow the scope of our themes and plots. It is not that northerners don’t write or don’t read. The issue is we have a habit of exclusive writing that fails to the extent of its concentration on our immediate environment, our local writers an dour local problems. Hence the outside world remains alien to our works.
One strong excuse is that fact that our publishing industry is underdeveloped compared with the southern press. I can cite the case of my book, “The Traffic Jury”. Although published by a university press of refute, I came to discover it has many editing issues with both language and style. It was when I was applying for the 2013 Caine Prize. Also when you read our Hausa novels which our writers churn out daily, you will realize this problem of poor publishing press.
So if northern writers are scorned, it is not only owing to poor content, but poor publishing. Our observance of publishing ethics is very poor.You may find a very good story but poorly published. Last month I read a nice book titled “Idan Rana Ta Fito” by Halima Kurmin Mashi. As I reached the middle pages however, I discovered mix-up in that previous pages were repeated as the concluding pages. That was how I could not finish reading the story.
Another thing our writers fail to develop is the culture of literary criticism. Even in academics,criticisms took a while before it got into our academic culture because in the case of Muslims, the ethics of disagreement in Islamic writing is never like that found in Western tradition.When northern writers go into authorpreneurship, they will quickly realize the value of literary criticism.Today criticism is very relevant in book marketing and promotion. The Amazon online bookshop is known for valuing criticism as a way of driving readers ranking and increasing book sales.
Are you satisfied with the kind of support writers are enjoying from government?
Honestly I am an entrepreneurial freak. It baffles me when people always look up to government everyday and for everything.As a TV reporter I have always had to swallow my irritation when I hear people I interview begging for government to come to their aid in their creative trades.Did Achebe write his books with government coins. Among popular modern writers Rotimi Babatunde, Chimamanda Adichie and Elnathan John, who waited for government aid before they ventured into publishing? Is
Caine Prize, Etisalat Prize, Pen Prize, ANA Prize, Commonwealth Prize and Booker Prize under any public funding?
In northern Nigeria, our leaders like Sardauna have done their best to stoke the fire of scholarship. Abubakar Imam and Sa’adu Zungurwere only aided by the then northern government as a means of promoting education and students scholarship. If today their children could not stand up and do on their own, I don’t know when their dream will ever come true. Northern writers must accept that miracle comes from hard work not handout.
As if to answer these kinds of question, we have a very vibrant writing industry in Kano. The “Romance”books authored by poor housewives and students writers that fall on the category of “Kano market literature”, which the New York Times, Aljazeera and many foreign media houses made feature stories on them recently, are they a product of government patronage? Ask the veteran Balaraba Ramat Yakubu if waiting for government support today is worthwhile.Did Cassava Republic, Parresia, Saraba, Praxis Magazine, AJ Publishers and Farafina build their foundation off government funds?
In newspaper publishing, you can look at the north-based newspapers we have, especially the dominant once that sprouted around the turn of the millennium. Today a decade later or two, they have grown into a force to reckon with without any direct government investment. Look at another creativity industry, the Kannywood. Look at private radio stations in Kano and Kaduna for instance, the pay TVs and internet newspapers and personal blogs. They are all thriving under private capital.
We should stop the self-defeating nagging about government intervention. Our writers must believe in themselves as fully capable of doing something when they decide to, not until the day they construe the collateral cost of waiting for such a pipe dream.
Self-publishing is highly patronized by Nigerian writers. Are you in support of it?
I would have to disagree with this assertion. We have a very weak publishing and printing sector in Nigeria. I recall the publisher of Governor El-Rufai’s “Accidental Public Servant” saying that Nigeria is the only country without a paper milling industry. Wherever you get your statistics, self-publishing is not highly patronized in Nigeria especially if bookshop shelves and school curriculum are anything to go by. Remember that Nigeria Prize for Literature as sponsored by NLNG do not accept submission of self-published authors. The same with the Etisalat Africa Prize.
My take on self-publishing is that it is far less ethical than conventional publishing. Compare the case of academic paper when it’s presented in a conference and vetted by a journal publisher. The same with self-publishing, whenever I see a self-published book, I read it with care, knowing that it has never been rigorously proofread and certified okay for public consumption. As a blogger, I don’t regularly publish post simply because I prefer to send my write-ups to newspaper editors who will vet it before publishing. In fact I feel more fulfilled when I am featured as a guest blogger by a blog owner than when I just blog a post on my own blogs. Even now that I am an editor myself, I still prefer my own product to pass through the eyes of third party professionals who will clear it for press.
As an example, if I had opted for self-publishing, I would have published 2-figure number of books by now. I once spent over 150 thousand Naira to publish 200 copies of one of my books. I could have printed it with anything less than 100 thousand Naira if I had gone to the printing press directly. With desktop publishing as another available option today, as well as the huge advancement in printer and computer graphics and word processing applications, the temptation to self-publishing is very high. Yet the consequence is not attractive.
I know it takes some struggles to publish books conventionally. In 2012 I once waited in the reception of a publishing house for 30 minutes waiting to see the manager concerning the short story book I wanted to publish under their name.
Today however, no one should complain of rejection from publishers as the modern industry is over liberalized, such that publishers now accept email pitching without the interference of literary agents. See Okada Books and other online book publishers aside Kindle and Amazon. Kachifo’s Farafina imprint have just released some of their titles on Amazon Kindle. Why can’t our writers embrace online publishing.
Finally, what would you like to be remembered for?
My bookshelf is my most cherished property. So I want to be remembered by and for my written words and general scholarship.My print and online footprints as a writer, author, translator, editor, proofreader and in some ways, a ghost writer, will create a good memory and perhaps fetch rewards for me with God for the benefit it brings to humanity.I include ghost writing or pseudonymous writing because a content writer and translator cannot escape writing under an alias, either because he must help people out of his love of accuracy and professionalism or for profit.Some of my works are published anonymously without any citation to me. For instance voice over talents and market translation are rarely acknowledged when published. In a few cases such as my Wikipedia contributions, the citation is not too prominent as the works are attributed to the encyclopedia itself as against the contributing writers.
Today professional translation and localization hold the future of publishing and commerce. So I regularly engage in commercial consultancy on education and general localization for projects which covers language, culture, geography, religion, literature and sociopolitical history.With this, I believe I will have a lasting footprint in the media and publishing world.