(a post in which I meditate on my research obsessions and recommend a recent opinion piece on “Art and Censorship in Kano” by multiple award-winning Nigerian novelist Helon Habila)
In Helon Habila’s first novel Waiting for an Angel, which was the subject of my MA thesis, he blurs the boundaries between his characters’ fictions and the reality of the world they live in. Originally self-published as a collection of short stories Prison Stories, the novel is fractured into stories told from multiple perspectives about “ordinary” people living out their lives in the “prison state” of Nigeria under the Abacha regime. The artist, Habila implies, provides a challenge to oppressive structures by gathering up the voices of poor ordinary people, so often lost in official propaganda, and putting them into print. The novel is not merely a litany of hopelessness, although the hardship of poverty is illustrated, but also captures the loud irreverent conversations in a Lagos “Mama Put” joint on Morgan street, which has been re-named “Poverty Street” by its inhabitants and the vivid dreams of ordinary people for a better life.
One striking scene shows the main character Lomba, a journalist and aspiring novelist, watch a fictional scene he had written for his paper come to life. Lomba’s characters reflect what his editor James tells him to capture: the “general disillusionment, the lethargy” of being trapped into a story where “One general goes, another one comes, but the people remain stuck in the same vicious groove. Nothing ever changes for them except the particular details of their wretchedness. They’ve lost all faith in the government’s unending transition programmes. Write on that” (113). The story that Lomba writes is filled with “ubiquitous gun and whip-toting soldiers,” “potbellied, glaucomatous kids” playing in gutters alongside the carcasses of “mongrel dogs worried by vultures” (118). This story does, indeed, seem to reflect the despair of life in a prison until the end of the story where he writes of “the kerosene-starved house-wives of Morgan Street. I make them rampage the streets, tearing down wooden signboards and billboards and hauling them away to their kitchens to use as firewood” (118). This moment suggests both the extremity of the environment, which has forced the people of Morgan street against the wall, as well as the agency of the women who take their futures into their own hands. And although James removes the celebratory conclusion before publication, telling Lomba he is “laying it on a bit too thick,” on his way home, Lomba sees an angry mob of women who “set to hacking and sawing” at a large billboard advertising condoms. It is Lomba’s knowledge of the script that allows him to tell the man next to him that “‘They are not crazy. They are just gathering firewood’ I explained to him. It was my writing acting itself out. And James thought I had had laid it on too thick. I wish he were here to see reality mocking his words.”
Although Lomba’s first reaction is one of hopelessness that “we are only characters in a story and our horizon is so narrow and so dark[,]” this episode is a revolutionary moment in the text (119). While Lomba, as well as the women outside the window of the Molue, may be characters in a story, this moment marks a remarkable departure from the prophecies of prison and death foretold by a marabout in another “story” in the novel. The porous borders between Lomba’s fiction and his reality that allow his writing to act itself out indicate the possibilities of the imagination—the possibility that while caught in a the literary metaphor of a prison, the “prisoners” might turn around and revolt. Lomba, and subsequently the mob of women, take the text into their own hands and appropriate the property of the state to sustain their own needs
In recently thinking about my research interests on Nigerian films and ”meta-fictions,” I realize that what obsessed me about Waiting for an Angel is also what obsesses me about Nigerian and particularly Hausa films, both in the reflection of the stories of “ordinary people” so often seen in these films and in a projective imagination that often (although certainly not always) challenges injustices by acting as what Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentions as a crucial aspect of art, that of a mirror, which “reflects whatever is before it—beauty spots, warts, and all” (1998, 21). People are rarely passive in these films. Beloved comedians like ‘dan Ibro often skewer the rich and powerful in their satirical stories.
I’ve heard people complain that there is too much “shouting” in Nigerian films, yet to me this “shouting” becomes a powerful metaphor for what Nigerian films have done for the “voiceless.” Gayatri Spivak has asked if the “subaltern can speak”? While I want to be over-cautious about over-romanticizing Nigerian films, which often do reproduce Nigerian society’s worst stereotypes of women and offer alarmingly unhealthy “solutions” to problems, I think one of the reasons I love the films so much is because they do seem to allow the “subaltern” to speak, both literally (in that so many of the film participants come from poor backgrounds) and metaphorically.
Attempts to suppress these films, therefore, seem like the attempts of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel to suppress and co-opt the voice of the writer Lomba. The writer is imprisoned, seemingly muzzled, but attempts to suppress his voice ultimately prove to be impossible. Lomba smuggles stories about his “life in prison” through metaphoric language in his ”love poems” commissioned by the prison superintendent for the woman he is woo-ing.
Hausa films are often dismissed for being “just love stories.” But stories of love can be powerful. There is often more going on than the reader of surfaces will find.
I was thrilled, therefore, this morning to find that Helon Habila has recently brought together my two research obsessions in a recent article in one of my favourite new publications, NEXT: “Art and Censorship in Kano.” In the article, he both challenges simplistic critiques of Nigerian films and meditates on the “politics” of censorship. As Habila points out, while Nigerian films are not always polished “cinema” pieces, they have “made movie making a grass roots experience.”