Hajaarh Muhammad Bashar is a writer from Minna, Niger state, Nigeria. She holds a degree from Al-Hikmah University, Ilorin, Nigeria. Her works appeared in Gold Dust Magazine, Art-muse fair, Voice of the Aspirants Anthology, Art and Nature Anthology of Free Poetic Universe, Late Night Blues Anthology of PIN Poetry Chapbook Series, SETU’Mar19 anthology and other literary sites. She emerged the winner of the weekly Poetry Planet Contest themed ‘Coffee’. Hajaarh was a participant of the Art-Muse Fair Creative Writing Workshop, 2018, and the MinnaBaf Workshop for Nonfiction, 2018. She was both shortlisted and Longlisted for the JB Afenfia Flash Fiction and Poetry Contest 2018. She was also longlisted for the Syncity Anniversary Anthology Prize, 2019, runner up in the Sevhage Short Story Prize, and the third runner up in the Poetically Written prose contest, 2019 respectively.
BY IFEANYICHUKWU PETER EZE
This conversation took place between two northern States in Nigeria, Kaduna and Niger, on a Wednesday morning, via WhatsApp.
Ifeanyichukwu: To begin with, congratulations on your recent awards: Sevhage Short Story Prize, and the Poetically Written Prose Prize. You came second and third respectively. You were also long-listed for the Syncity Anthology Prize. So, this has been a good year for your writing. For this purpose though, I would be more invested in your short story, “Three Shades of Darkness”.
Hajaarh: Thank you. I was happy winning those prizes because they came as a surprise. Beautiful surprise. And I will love to talk about it.
Ifeanyichukwu: Interesting! Who wouldn’t be? Writers deserve some validations. A line at the end of your first paragraph, “But strength is in the living, and those who continue to fight their way are the true heroes,” represents the core of your story because in it, to live is to be in continual struggle. In this sense, Ladidi makes end meet by being a prostitute, to take care of herself and her siblings amidst an irresponsible father. Maryam seeks divorce from a sour marriage. And Zinah takes the bold steps to face her husband, which results into his death. Did you set out to interrogate the plight of women, especially in the north of Nigeria?
Hajaarh: You are right. It is sad. And when you think about it, you find that it’s the reality of some women especially here in northern Nigerian. Maryam’s story was actually inspired by a woman’s story here in Minna. Although the real woman didn’t fall in love with another man, she is living a worse fate. She is left to go around begging for alms to help sustain her and the children. The husband is never around.
For Zinah, many are going through it as well. We call them ‘Matan kulle’. They go through the excessive possessiveness of their men, which is traumatic to them in most cases. Though, most of that possessiveness is wearing off, there are still parts of it going on. As for Ladidi, there could be many other ways to tell her story. It could include hawking or selling food in the market because it happens to most of the young women here. They go through series of sexual harassments as well. I decided to use prostitution in Ladidi’s case because it happens. It is not something people often talk about but it is there.
Ifeanyichukwu: Yes. You know, like you, I live in the North. I see these things. They are happening as you have pointed out but they are masked with silence, and that’s why writing is potent. I see Ladidi, Maryam and Zinah as the various voices of empowerment. They project the things we hear in whispers, without guilt. I am a fan of conversations and free spaces. Apart from using writing and music, how else can we confront these ills and give voices to the helpless?
Hajaarh: Well, in all honesty, there could be ways of starting campaigns, educating them on how to help themselves and be resourceful, how to engage in networking, and so on. But there is something you should understand; Northerners are blind to their sufferings. It has become a part of them and something they wouldn’t want to change easily. I am glad this conversation is ensuring because there are things I needed to talk about.
Some days back, a female writer and activist started a campaign about rape here in northern Nigeria. This is something that happens everywhere, I mean the rape. And people around the world speak of it and try to fight it, to kill that act in their country, state, or locality. No one goes rampant when such campaigns happen somewhere else. However, the woman engaging in this campaign against rape here in the North is subjected to cyber-bully, insults, and mockery by the Northerners themselves. Despite knowing rape truly happens to our sisters, daughters and friends, they demand that she forfeits this campaign because they feel she is tainting them, spoiling their names and exposing the forgery in their piousness. Now, such people cannot be salvaged in any way unless forced to see the hard truth, which I think could be through Art. If this generation is blind, we need books or the likes kept in place for the next generation so they will not be equally blinded.
I have another piece, “Heaven Under the Feet”, that portrays the restricted belief that push women to a corner. And currently, I am working on a manuscript about this issue.
“Now, such people cannot be salvaged in any way unless forced to see the hard truth, which I think could be through Art. If this generation is blind, we need books or the likes kept in place for the next generation so they will not be equally blinded.“
Ifeanyichukwu: Oh beautiful. I’d look forward to them. I’m glad people, especially young women, are refusing to be silenced. The society has to listen. There have been movements like the #ArewaMeToo. The Mariacutty Foundation organizes monthly conversations on mental health. Specific topics are chosen for each month. This brings me to the scene in the bus. The passengers complain about the inept government. It’s a typical portrayal of our political sphere. I find the bus to be that safe space where people can talk freely and unburden the load of being citizens in a poorly managed country. The pleasure to speak and be listened to.
Hajaarh: Yes. Buses are places people feel free to open themselves to strangers because they know they will soon go their separate ways. There is no one better to talk about than a stranger. I think it is very comforting.
Ifeanyichukwu: It’s very comforting. I understand, or as I see it, the various name changes: Ladidi, Maryam, and Zinah, as one person. It reflects her various approaches to life at peculiar moments. I find affinity in that. It is hard to say one is a single thing, or just a self. We tend to be different things at different times, in different contexts. We are a bundle of selves.
Hajaarh: True. It could be given different meanings. We are a component of multiple selves just like multiple identities. We could also see ourselves in many others.
Ifeanyichukwu: Yes, exactly. In her quest to live, she creates new identities for herself. Travel they say is good for being. On a bus going to Kano, she knows no one there but she just wants to be away from her past. I have had a similar experience. At some point, I was in a sorry situation. All I just wanted was to leave where I was. I took a bus.
Hajaarh: Nice. This is relatable. I must admit that I am equally waiting for the day I will take that bus. Traveling is healing wherever the destination is. And well, I can say having this conversation with you is giving me more ideas. I think it’s safe to say I wrote something I have also yearned.
Ifeanyichukwu: Isn’t that why some hold the view that no story is fiction? You know, conversations are windows to the soul. They lead us to the heart of the matter. They expand our horizons. I’m glad this is triggering things inside you. Life is listening. She will grant your request in due time. Also, it seems to me, life never gets tired of coming at us with darkness. But we have to keep moving. That’s a quality I find in Ladidi: Creating new identities, starting over and bearing new names. That’s a powerful trait.
Hajaarh: You are right about conversation being the window of the soul. Because I had conversations with a colleague of mine, Wuna Muhammad, that part of Maryam came to life. Also, from appearance there were three women in that bus facing different darkness. This darkness follows us everywhere. Some of us are still oblivious of it, while most of us are fighting it, which brings about the end of the story where I wrote: “But darkness is everywhere and the majority of people are fighting blindfolded. They are strangers to themselves yet connected by their dark lives.” And in the beginning of the story, I wrote:
The world has become a canvass painted in white and black. The white symbolizes light and the black is darkness, and the people living in that light are ignorant, dwelling in oblivion. Those in darkness struggle; they fight their way towards the threshold of light but never making it. They walk, they run, they crawl until they are short of breathe. Some are afraid of giving up and losing all the time they spent fighting. For others whose spirits are damped by fatigue and lack the strength to continue, they give up their lives and go up to become stars. But strength is in the living, and those who continue to fight their way are the true heroes.
This beginning symbolizes those people that are not strong enough to withstand the darkness in their lives and end up committing suicide. This is also me giving strength to those who continue to fight against all odds. They are truly heroes.
Ifeanyichukwu: Beautiful. You know, the last line sounds a striking note for me: “Those who fight darkness no matter how little free themselves from its clutch, and the others who succumb to it, become the breaking news.” However, it makes me feel the story has not ended yet. It leaves us to our conjectures. What happens to Ladidi afterwards? Will the law catch up with her? Will it find her guilty or vindicate her on the death of her husband? I love that there is no closure. There are endless possibilities. It’s good for our imaginations to fly.
Hajaarh: Don’t tempt me into making this a novel… But you are right. The endless possibilities at the end make it thirst-worthy. This might actually motivate me to turn it to a heart-breaking book. But time shall tell. Maybe someday. I am also glad you love it. I am always happy when people find pleasure in what I write. It means I did touch their hearts.
Ifeanyichukwu: I’m now your muse. Make it a book then.
Hajaarh: We will see.
Ifeanyichukwu: You’re a scientist. And you are about completing your M.Tech. in Microbiology. But art is your home. With poetry and prose, you interrogate and confront the society. The future is huge. We are looking forward to seeing more of you.
Hajaarh: Yes, that’s correct. Science is a good place to be but I’ve found home in Art.
Thank you. I look forward to having more conversations with you again.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze is a contributing writer at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. He strongly believes in good writing. A good writing is an art. Art appeals, sings, laughs. tickles, wrenches. It engages us to think and have needful conversations–our windows to the worlds of the text and beyond. This is beauty. Beauty is the product of craft and skill. His works have apppeared in: Tiny Essays, Pangolin Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Expound, Brittle Paper, Praxis, The Single Story Foundation Journal, Selfies and Signatures Anthology, The Vanguard Book of Love Stories, Late Night Blues Anthology, BPPC Anthology, and a few other places. He was the winner of the May 2019 edition of the Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest with his poem, KILL. His Piece, ‘Life Deferred ‘ was in the top four of the January 2017 edition of the Igby Prize for nonfiction. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Nigerian, Nsukka.