The Other North: A Dialogue with Sada Malumfashi
Sada Malumfashi is an art curator, writer and freelance journalist. He is a fellow of the Berlin Reporters Without Borders Scholarship Program. Malumfashi is the founder of Open Arts, a literary collective, as part of which he curated the Open Arts Launch Festival. He also curated the Sembene Across Africa documentary, and the screening of Africa’s most tireless and forceful cultural heroes in Kaduna and, simultaneously, in 34 other cities.
He is currently the Project Director for the inaugural Hausa Kiswahili Festival of Arts (HAKFIFA), supported by the British Council. Malumfashi’s fiction has appeared in Transition Magazine and New Orleans Review. His creative nonfiction appeared in the reader of the Bamako Biennial 2019, Bakwa Magazine, Saraba Magazine, and Schlosspost, amongst others.
In 2018, Malumfashi participated in the Limbe to Lagos literary exchange program between Nigeria and Cameroon under the auspices of the Goethe-Institut, where he won the Sylt Foundation Fellowship in Germany. In 2019, he won the Art Omi Writers Residency in the United States. He is currently working on a novel.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This conversation is a result of notes slipped electronically between the ancient city of Zaria and the city of Kaduna.
Aisha: The first time I read your work was in the Selves Anthology. “Finding Binyavanga” changed how I saw Kaduna. There’s this magic you bring into Northern Nigeria when you write about it. How are you able to achieve this?
Sada: I believe it’s the honesty of writing about the experiences. I approach the writings not from the angle of wanting to write about northern Nigerian, but from the angle of trying to relate a personal experience, domiciled in northern Nigerian. I think this helps to provide an honest and authentic narrative of my personal experience as a person living in this region.
Aisha: It’s something to note. We all occupy a certain space geographically and politically. Writing honestly reveals the magic in these places. In what ways has your background in pharmacy helped shape your stories? I’m curious about this because it’s not a combination you see often.
Sada: I spent five years studying for a degree in Pharmacy and another three or so years practicing it. So inevitably it is also a huge chunk of my lifetime and not just a background. As such it finds a way of influencing my storytelling, just in the same way as my childhood would, or my love for football would. It’s become an innate part of my experience as such it’s so easy for it to show up.
Aisha: That’s interesting. Can you mention an example of it showing up in your work? I haven’t stumbled on any before.
Sada: Interestingly I have a short story coming up in Lolwe this July. In it I explore a lot around mental health, and one of the characters is even a medical student. In “Slices of Memory,”which was published in Transition Magazine of Harvard University, the whole story is set in a hospital. So depending on the nature of the story, there are always inspirations like this that drive the writing.
Aisha: We’ll be on the lookout for your short story. And I think I’ll do some digging and get “Slices of Memory.”
Moving to Northern Nigerian literature, you’ve been called the “Arewa literary star.” How do you see this title and why do you think it was given to you?
Sada: (Laughs). Honestly, I don’t know. We will have to ask the Arewa crew that gave me that title. But it’s always an honor to feel recognized, especially based on one’s work!
Aisha: It is! Well we’ll have to ask them some day. When writing certain pieces, what challenges did you face? I read your piece in the Asymptote Journal and I kept wondering how you were able to gather all the information you did to write the piece.
Sada: For nonfiction I think the major challenge is accessing materials for research, especially here in and in the context of Nigeria. There is paucity of documentation of incidents and events that for instance had happened just twenty years ago in our local records. If you end up finding such information, then it might be from the New York Times. But then, the report of that incident comes from a westernized gaze, when for instance I am trying to understand how a local reporter might have reported that same incident. So the lack of access to digitized archives is a very big hurdle towards research.
Aisha: I was expecting you wouldn’t be able to find the information at all. Do you think incidents and events coming from a westernized gaze affects how they were told? If yes, how do you “de-westernize” the information?
Sada: Definitely. It takes away other perspectives and leaves us with only one angle to view our own stories. And we can reclaim that narrative by documenting our own stories ourselves, and not using a foreign gaze as the anchor.
Aisha: I think that would help as well. You somehow dodged the answer. I was wondering how you in particular “de-westernize” information.
Sada: I think it will be difficult to, and that is why I talked about reclaiming the narrative. It sounds cliche already, but more and more, we need to tell our own stories. We cannot be reliving our own experiences through another perspective. Rather, we need to own them, and I think that is where the political act of writing comes into play.
Aisha: I think I understand what you mean. Speaking about reclaiming the narrative, I once saw an excerpt from a book you’re currently working on that you posted on your WhatsApp status and I kept wondering how you did the research for it. Could you tell us about the book and about the process of its research?
“I approach the writings not from the angle of wanting to write about northern Nigerian, but from the angle of trying to relate a personal experience, domiciled in northern Nigerian. I think this helps to provide an honest and authentic narrative of my personal experience as a person living in this region.“
Sada: Which of the books is that?
Aisha: I don’t know the title but in the excerpt you were talking about Mansa Musa’s life and the use of gold in west Africa.
Sada: Ahh, yes. So for now, I am just doing the literature review, and that alone is looking like quite a herculean task. I mean there are tons of works out there but mostly paywalled, so first of all it takes a lot of money to do just the literature research, after that I will need to be in the field of course to have that authentic narrative I was mentioning. So how has the gold value chain progressed since the time of Mansa Musa with a special emphasis with women as the custodians of gold in West Africa. So it’s about finding the right voices and allowing them to speak.
Aisha: Seeing the subject matter you mentioned, I’m curious to know more about what the book is about. Can you tell us about that?
Sada: The book tries to unravel the history of gold in west Africa with a focus on women as custodians of gold from the era of Mansa Musa; the context of gold in the ancient empires and kingdoms of West Africa, and back to the role of contemporary miners and goldsmiths and artisans, especially in northern Nigerian.
Aisha: Certainly a book I would love to read. Its theme would be very impactful and useful in understanding and demystifying Northern Nigeria. Do you believe the North is underrepresented in mainstream Nigeria?
Sada: It’s a tricky question. You mean underrepresented in what aspect here?
Aisha: When I talk about Nigerian mainstream media, I mean books, shows and movies that reflect the life of Northern Nigerians. I ask this because on many occasions I have heard stereotypes about the North and Northern Nigerians that seem so unrealistic, and I believe that stories about a people need to be told by them to portray an accurate narrative.
Sada: I quite agree. I try to find books, movies and shows by Northern Nigerians that reflect the truth about the region in all its diversity and not as a monolith. You cannot always expect validation from others.
Aisha: About the arts in Northern Nigeria, can you tell us about the work Open Arts does?
Sada: I founded Open Arts in 2018 to basically create a space for conversations around books, arts, fashion and culture in Northern Nigeria. Our interest is in the democratization of arts and cultural initiatives and providing a space for accessibility to the creative arts especially. I am so proud of the understanding and the unraveling of this initiative and currently we are working on two festivals, The Hausa International Book and Arts Festival (HIBAF) where the aim is to use the arts in indigenous languages as a means of opening up conversations around minority issues and diversity in Northern Nigerian; and The Kaduna International Poetry Festival where we are hoping to use the power of poetry to counter and prevent violent extremism and resist human rights abuse in Northern Nigeria.
Aisha: Interesting! What have you been doing to achieve this democratization?
Sada: Basically bringing down art and cultural initiatives to an often forgotten audience. We do this by engaging in activities in indigenous languages, specifically Hausa which gives us a wider reach. We have partnered with Media Trust Limited, the publishers of Daily Trust and Aminiya Trust to administer a Hausa Short Story Writing Competition, and using our online presence we transitioned to the online space to give voices to poets in Northern Nigerian via our Friday Night Poetry Series. The aim is to as much as possible disseminate art to the indigenous audiences in Northern Nigeria.
Aisha: Coming back to the question of books and movies in the North, can you share with us some of the books, movies and shows you’ve read that have diversified the story of Northern Nigerians, stories that show that not all Northerners are uneducated Hausa Muslims.
Sada: To be honest, I grew up reading books written in Hausa from the 1930s. These were written by writers such as Abubakar Imam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the rest: Ruwan Bagaja, Shaihu Umar, Jiki Magaji and so forth. So an uneducated region could not have been writing novels as far back as the early 20th century. Like I said, it’s not about seeking validation from others, but looking inwards.
Aisha: Indeed it is. These writers in some way must have validated your reasons to document Northern Nigerian seriously. So can we say these writers in some way inspired you to write?
Sada: Very much. I grew up reading in Hausa before I knew English. They still continue to influence my writing because they shaped my reading experience.
Aisha: I would like to ask if reading in Hausa was the norm for Northern Nigerian or something your parents introduced.
Sada: I believe Hausa books were quite popular and accessible among young people growing up in the 90s and early 2000s before Hausa home videos emerged. The 90s especially had a boom of the Soyayya literature genre, something akin to Mills and Boons in Hausa that were sold most commonly in markets in Kano. It is very common then to find young people engrossed in these books. I began reading them quite early too.
Aisha: Could you tell us a bit more about Soyayya literature and how it affected you? Did reading Soyayya literature awaken a desire to write stories of your own as a child?
Sada: Like I said, they were novels in the ilk of Mills and Boons published mostly by women with easy access and availability.
I think you would agree with me that reading is a precursor to writing. So of course, that helped shape my writing background.
Aisha: When did you first begin writing and did you start out writing love stories?
Sada: I actually started writing with poetry. I think I began writing when I was 9. I continued writing poetry and had my poems published across a few journals and got shortlisted. I even won a few competitions and performed at a few festivals. That really gave me the push and validation I needed to pursue writing. So it wasn’t really love stories.
Aisha: What made you shift to prose and creative nonfiction? And when?
Sada: I experimented first with short stories to be honest, and it seemed a nice outlet to share longer narratives. I was then selected to attend a workshop by the Goethe-Institut in Cameroon and that really widened my horizon on the approaches to prose writing—especially creative nonfiction—and how I could push the boundaries of my writing. I have always enjoyed journalism, so it actually came quite naturally to report while using storytelling.
Aisha: Can you say that poetry still finds a way into your work? Anyone who reads your writing might admit that it’s a tad poetic.
Sada: I love poetry. I always go back to poetry. The ability to work magic with words in a poem for me is the perfection of writing. If that could find its way into prose, and works, it always makes for a better read for me. So I will be glad if a reader finds that poetry in my works.
Aisha: This is beautiful to know. Can you tell us a bit more about your time at the Goethe-Institut writing workshop? What else did you take from it and were there other opportunities like it later on?
Sada: The opportunity to be in the midst of writers away from your worries for a week was such a blessing. It allows you to think only about your craft and your work, engage with others and learn. It was very instrumental in shaping my writing process. Of course, that also served as a stepping stone to a three-month writing residency in Germany.
Aisha: Wow that’s amazing! Could you tell us about the residency? How did it affect you and your art?
Sada: It was more of an experience of a new writer acclimatizing to a new environment. My stay in Sylt was a window to new stories, as well as a ride to the end of stories already boarded. It was the only time I had the time and space for a long three months, just for my writing.
Aisha: Was this when you came up with the idea of your book or did you always have the manuscript for it?
Sada: I already had the idea, but it is where I did the bulk of the writing.
Aisha: Oh, so we can say these residencies really give writers valuable time to write and develop ideas and manuscripts. How is writing outside the residency for you? Do you usually make time to write?
Sada: Personally, I will say it helps. One is away from worries and the outside world. Once I’m back, especially when you also combine writing with a daytime job, it becomes even more Herculean to just sit down and write.
Aisha: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Sada. I’ve learnt a lot from it. I wish you well with your writing and I’m looking forward to reading your novel when it comes out.
Sada: It’s been a pleasure!
Photo credit for featured image of Sada Malumfashi: Salmah Ja’eh.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a law student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kaduna state is her home town. Aisha is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her pieces revolve around identity, feminism, and the African mind and body as political and spiritual entities. In 2019, Aisha won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. She later judged the 2020 edition of the prize. When she isn’t studying law and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats and volunteering to spread mental health awareness and to end SGBV. Aisha currently hosts a podcast segment for Ayamba LitCast called Poet Box Series.