Of Geography and Poetry: An Interview with Yusuf M. Adamu

By Ismail Bala

Department of English and French, Bayero University, Kano

YusufAdamuYusuf Muhammad Adamu, a bilingual writer, writes in both Hausa and English. He has a Ph.D. in Medical Geography, and is currently an associate professor at the Department of Geography, Bayero University, Kano. At present, he heads the Strategic Planning Unit of the university as well.

He has published three collections of poems: Litters (2000), Landscape of Reality (2008), and They Can Speak English (2010); two collections of children poetry: Butterfly and Other Poems (1995), My First Book of Rhymes (1998); as well as an illustrated book for children: Animals in the Neighbourhood (2007). He has also edited two anthologies of poetry in English: Pregnant Skies: Anthology of Fifty Nigerian Poets (2003) and Mazan Fara: ANA Zamfara Anthology of Poems and Short Stories (2008), and co-edited an anthology of poems and short stories in Hausa: Kwaryar Kira (2010). In addition, he has published three novels in Hausa: Idan So Cuta Ne (1989), Ummul-Khairi (1995), and Maza Gumbar Dutse (2007).

Ismail Bala – How did you start writing?

Yusuf Adamu – I started writing very early, out of my interest to share stories in written form, stories that I heard from aunties and sisters. Stories that I feel are just good stories to share. But that desire must have been assisted by my father’s habit of asking us to write a report whenever he took us for an excursion. Later, I read a lot of Hausa novels and short stories in addition to folktales I listened to regularly. I love stories. By the time I was in primary six, a friend and I wrote a ‘book’ we titled “Amina and the Snake”. We illustrated it because we were artists then. I can’t remember what the story is all about, but I always remember the title. By the time I was in form 3, I started writing my own book (Maza Gumbar Dutse) that was on February 13th 1983, and finished it sometimes in September that year. It was an interesting journey indeed.

IB – You have written poetry in English, novels and short fiction in Hausa, and you have equally been a literature enthusiast and a cultural activist in the wider sense of the word. Are you more or less at ease in any one form than in others?

YA – Yes, I write in both Hausa and English. I started writing in Hausa because it is my mother tongue, and my early literary influence was in Hausa. I read a lot of stories in Hausa and I was always impressed with the imaginative skills displayed by Hausa writers. It is really amazing to create a story out of nothing. So my earliest writings are all in Hausa and are all fiction. To be frank, I find it easier and more in control writing fiction in Hausa than in English. My interest in writing in English began when I was in form five after being introduced to poetry by our English teacher, a Ghanaian. My first English poem was titled “Life”. I can only remember one line “work and rest” that’s it. I really find it easier to write poetry in English because English poetry is more flexible than Hausa. I have attempted many a times to compose poems in Hausa and most of the time I failed. I am impatient when it comes to expressing myself. So, rightly, I use two forms. Fiction is mostly in Hausa and poetry almost entirely in English.

IB – Your first collection of poems, Litters is indeed an innovation in publishing in Nigeria. It is printed as a pocket size pamphlet. What promoted that experiment?

YA – I decided to publish a pocket size book because I felt it was handy and required very small amount of money to publish. The idea was to encourage new poets especially young ones to publish while waiting for the “big book”. In addition, I also started a poetry card series. I published two of my poems “Happiness” and “Faith” just like post cards (but actually smaller than postcards). The book and the cards were popular, but I was unable to get any of those targeted to send their manuscripts, while the cards I distributed free. I know of a fan who still keeps a copy in the bag.

IB – You are a Medical Geographer by training, though during your undergraduate days you did some courses in Hausa language and literature. What challenges, if any, did you face switching, so to speak, between different poles, each with its own demands and expectations?

YA – It is an interesting experience. While I was an undergraduate student at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, I decided to take courses in Sociology and Hausa. I found both very engaging and appealing. Sociology was my best because I enjoyed it much and I hardly get less than a B in examinations, I nearly transferred to Sociology. As for Hausa, my interest in literature makes it very attractive. I found the courses educative. My relationship with Hausa lecturers and students was close. I joined the “Kungiyar Hausa” and rose to become Secretary General. As for Geography, I always loved the discipline since my secondary school days. I was among the best students of Geography in my class. Geography gives me the knowledge of places, the understanding of man’s relationship with his environment and fuels my imagination.

Many of my classmates were not aware that I was majoring in Geography; they all thought I was majoring in Hausa. I feel at home in literary circles as well as Geography’s. After my M Sc at Ibadan, I became closer to Geography because my stay at Ibadan widened my understanding of the discipline. When I chose to specialized in Medical Geography, all my energy was turned there. I read widely and tried to establish links with physicians. But it was easier linking with art scholars than with medical scholars. I faced a lot of challenges blending with the medics. They found it difficult to see a Geographer in their midst, especially the younger academics. But I fitted in well when I was in literary circles. Sometime I even forget about my literary alter ego when with medics and vice versa. But the experience is really, really rewarding.

IB – All the poems in Litters are dated; their composition time stamped on them; putting them into a specific temporal setting. Don’t you think that would necessarily consign them into a particular time-frame, and force a reading of them within that time-slot?

YA – That is a good observation. I dated my works initially for personal record. After reading many biographies of English poets, like Keats, Blake, Auden and so on, I realised the difficulty faced by researchers in putting certain poems in their proper temporal context. Secondly, I realised that as poets we sometimes hold a particular view on a subject and later change. In addition, my poems are usually influenced by events and experiences, dating the poems gave them a timeframe but also removed their timelessness. Some of my poems I think are timeless but many are time bound.

IB – Each of your three collections depicts a semiotic pictogram and illustrations on the cover: Litters has a picture of the earth as seen from Apollo 17; Landscapes of Reality has a silhouette of a seemingly rowdy scene, with child-like drawings of what could pass for cars at the bottom; and your latest book, They can Speak English, has two juxtaposed pictures: men pushing bicycles in an arid place, and an inverted shot of skyscrapers. Could you talk about these extra textual messages?

YA – I was an artist and still a practising photographer. I run a photo blog on the Internet (www.hausa.aminus3.com). I always try to tell a story from the illustrations I put on the cover of my books. While in Litters I used Apollo 17 picture of the earth to emphasise my geographical background and portray the earth as our common home and destiny of the human race, I used two pictures in Landscapes. On the front is a picture of motorcyclists queuing up in a filling station, and the back cover is a picture of a beggar. All these pictures try to capture the essence of the poems because of their topicality. The drawings were done by my son. He was trying to draw a long queue at the petrol station he saw. I find the drawings very telling and so used it to show a child’s depiction of the reality of the Nigerian situation. The last one, They Can Speak English, tells another story. The two pictures (that were transformed) and presented upside down are talking about globalisation. While the one at the top was portraying developing countries and their reality, the other represents developed countries. Their reality and ours are different and it is just not comprehensible how they would insist on us seeing things the way they do. We have different realities.

IB – You’ve run a poetry column for some time now on the Sunday Trust literary pages devoted entirely to “Poetry of Place”. Is your sense of place necessarily couched in geographical rather than imaginative terms or vice versa?

YA – I think it is both poetic and geographical at the same time. The idea of poetry of places came after I wrote a number of poems on different places, which were inspired by a visit to the places or experiences from certain places. When I realised that I have written a dozen or so poems about places, it became clear to me that the geographer in me is gaining control over the poet. So I deliberately tried to expand and cover more places within the country and beyond. Before you know it I have a sizeable collection. When I started the column, I received many messages and requests from people in other places requesting poems on their towns and villages. I tried to oblige. Truly, the geography is more than the poetry in the poems as I have mentioned in my introduction to the column.

IB – Does being a bilingual writer come with any problem? How easy or difficult it is to switch over linguistically and imaginatively between different languages, different genres: each with its own requirements?

YA – Well, for me, it is not difficult to switch linguistically even though I find it easier to write certain genres in one language than in another. For example, even though I write fiction in English, I find it easier to write it in Hausa than in English. I write poetry only in English. I find it difficult to write poetry in Hausa because of its strict rules.

IB – The title of your third collection, They Can Speak English, is rather bland, even unpoetic. What called for that title?

YA – It is not unusual for poetry collections to have titles like this once in a while. I chose the title after the attention it received from German high school students. I know that it sounds unusual but it has that aura of captivating a reader. Many people are eager to read beyond the cover when they see it. It is an experiment. An experiment always looks awkward and even weird, but when it succeeds it becomes acceptable and normal. We shall see what critics would say about the title in the next few years to come, but I like the title very much.

IB – Your poetry is often said to be simple: the diction uncluttered, the imageries derived, as it were, from what the reader could easily relate to; yet there is, one could argue, a deceptive ingenuity behind the so-called simplicity. Is this something directly related to your conception of poetry as a public form?

YA – Absolutely. Poetry is not a popular genre because it is shrouded in the mystery of its meaning. Students hate poetry because they don’t derive pleasure in what they do not understand. There are many poets that try to hide the joy of their poems behind a difficult word-terrain. Some try to make a forceful use of language in order to display their wordscraftmanship; some use many images so as to conceal the simplicity of their works. Some write imitating other poets that are successful. One can see how poets force themselves to use language as the primary raw material for poetry. Many see the quality of their writing in the scale of its difficulty. Well, every poet has his choice.

When I started writing poetry, I adapted the same method I use when I write fiction. I give it to someone to read and see if it makes sense. I realised people don’t enjoy poems that are difficult. I made a resolution that I must take my poetry to the street and make it not only enjoyable but also very accessible. I want to say that I have succeeded in making the people on street appreciate poetry at the risk of being dismissed by fellow poets and critics as being too simplistic. I have made it a tradition to present poems at every public gathering I attend. I made poetry presentation at workshops (academic and developmental) conferences, wedding ceremonies, and many more. I have been taking poetry to the public, and I enjoy how people appreciate it. As a poet, I will feel defeated if the reader doesn’t understand me, because if I am not understood, I won’t be appreciated, and I want to be appreciated and understood by my readers.

IB – What can you say about the publishing scene in Nigeria, yourself being a publisher?

YA – It is a difficult terrain. This is so because many Nigerians don’t read and if they don’t read, they won’t buy books. If people don’t buy books publishers can’t make profit. If publishers can’t make profit, they can’t stay in business. In the 1970s and 80s when the economy was good and education was sound, government made bulk purchase of books and many people especially students used to buy a lot of books. This kept publishers afloat. When the economy slumped and education was neglected the market for books declined, and that affected the publishing industry. The inability of major publishers especially multi-nationals to publish supplementary books affected creativity in the country. Creative writers found themselves in a difficult situation. One can write as many manuscripts as possible only to find no publisher. Many manuscripts were rejected on the flimsy excuse of not being “standard”. That gave rise to self publishing, commissioned publishing and the phenomenon of the ubiquitous local publishers, or printers as they often seen. Most of us emerged out of these circumstances. We were forced to publish only authors who are able to pay some fees. Those who can’t pay remain unpublished. But the greatest challenge facing local publishers is poor capital base, low capacity, poor marketing system and lack of technical know-how. It is a very rough terrain. But it is encouraging how our initiatives help us cope.

IB – You are from the North-west: a region that is seen as a literary desert when compared to other regions (even within Northern Nigeria). What do you think account for paucity of cultural production of English expression from the region?

YA – If only few published works come out of this region, is not an indication that very little is being done. To the best of my knowledge, there is a great potential for English literary production in this region. There are many promising writers who need a little push to be great. There are many reasons why this doesn’t happen. Hausa authors have been successful in creating their own market by creating their own loyal readership. Therefore, when a Hausa author takes a loan and publishes his work, and it sells well, he/she gets the money back, and sometimes even a margin of profit. Authors writing in English have not been as ingenious. Secondly, the few that are able to publish have not received the right attention from local critics. No matter how good an author is, he needs to be promoted, unless he is promoted, he is nobody. This region lagged behind in that aspect and that has contributed in hiding otherwise great talents. There is also the problem of readership which resulted from poor promotion.

IB – If you are asked about the writers who influenced and inspired you, who would those writers be?

YA – Frankly they are largely Hausa writers, notably Ahmadu Ingawa (author of Iliya Dan Mai Karfi) Abubakar Imam (Magana Jari Ce), Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Shehu Umar). As for English authors, I also enjoyed the works of Rider Haggard, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, and they must have fed my imagination in some ways. As for poetry, I want to say I enjoy the poems of William Blake, Keats, Auden and many others. For African poets I like Niyi Osundare’s poetry, and many other African poets too numerous to mention.

IB – You are among the most vocal proponent of the new Hausa novel, the so-called Soyayya (romance) pamphlets which are mass produced mainly in Kano (prompting the sobriquet “Kano Market Literature”, similar to Onitsha Market Literature; yet you also dislike and down play the comparison and the market tag given to those books.

YA – I have said a lot about this and have given many interviews and even published a couple of academic articles on this. But for the purpose of this interview I want to point out the fact that Hausa popular literature has been misunderstood by many especially academics and religious critics. First of all, because it is a new phenomena that was under-rated and not given attention. When the literary movement that created it flourish, it was initially dismissed as mere “soyayya” (romance) novels, market literature and many other names. We are against those labels because they are derogatory and unfair. The literary movement saved Hausa literature from dying and gave Hausa literature an enviable position of being the fastest growing literary language in Africa.

IB – You have professed your penchant for the African-American poet, Dollar Brand, even dedicating one of your poems to him. What is African-American poetry like to you?

YA – I read a few of them and I like them very much. Dollar Brand’s poetry inspired me to write “They Can Speak English”: a poem that is popular, especially in Germany, because it is a recommended poem for high school students there. I communicated a lot with German students over their assignments on the poem.

IB – You have lived and written in the US; what would you say are the major strengths of American poetry and writing generally compared to Nigerian poetry?

YA – American poetry is a public poetry if I may say so. Nigerian poetry is somehow still shackled by difficulty and dogma. Poetry, I believe, is a personal explosion of thoughts and I want to believe that anything explosive is also visible. In the case of Nigerian poetry, we are somehow constraint to believe that only poetry in the manner of Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark, etc. are good poems. Poems that are very difficult to decipher, poems that are too technical. I attended some poetry readings in Alabama, and I made presentations. I have published my own poems in American journals. The power of American poetry lies in its variety, straightforwardness and wide subject matter. The power of Nigerian poetry lies in its complexity, its latitude derived from oral traditional and its powerful language. Somehow, I enjoy American poetry better.

IB – Is the poem, “Global Village” necessarily a poetic censure of globalization; or is it, in a subtle, distant way, an acknowledgement of its seemingly unstoppable match across the globe?

YA – It is in some way. The way globalization is viewed varies of course from one person to the next, from one perspective to the other. Some see it as a positive phenomena others see it otherwise. Some see it as an ultimate necessity created by technology, some see it as a systematically orchestrated phenomena aimed at establishing a single global government. I believe information technology has succeeded in making the world flat, the friction of distance has been removed and people find it easier to interact and communicated but also sell their views within a blink of an eye. Yet it exposes the less economically developed ones to the dangers of cultural domination by the developed countries, which use their socio-cultural scale to measure others. There is a danger in this and that’s what I was trying to point out. Ultimately, world culture is being shaped by information technology and the outcome may not be unilateral.

IB – Finally, what would you like to be remembered for?

YA – This is a big one. I would of course like to be remembered by the academic and literary community. I want to be remembered as a scholar who contributed to the development of knowledge in his own modest way. I also want to be remembered for my contributions to the development of literature in this part of the world. But in the end, I would be remembered by what people feel I deserved to be remembered for.

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