Every Writer is a Writer in Politics: A Dialogue with Tanimu A. Tahir
Tanimu A. Tahir is a Nigerian novelist and poet from the northern part of Nigeria, Borno State. He is the author of the novel Dear Sweet Mother. Tanimu is a Media Practitioner and presently serving as the Special Adviser on Media to the Borno State Governor.
BY SA’ID SA’AD
The conversation—which the interviewee called a heated one—took place on WhatsApp while the interviewer was on his writing desk under a fluorescent light in Maiduguri, and the interviewee was at his office at Government House in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
Sa’id: I have known you to be a politician—precisely the special adviser to the Borno State governor. Suddenly it was all over the cloud that you just published your debut novel. So, what can you tell us more about yourself?
Tanimu: Thanks, my friend. My full name is Tanimu Adamu Tahir. I was born in a remote town called Marama in Hawul local government area of Borno state in Northern Nigeria. I’m a graduate of Microbiology from University of Maiduguri. I am a Media practitioner and a writer with immense passion for storytelling, especially that that’ll lubricate the friction in the wheels of our national cohesion and development. So beyond politics, just like all well-meaning Nigerians, I’m that innocent guy who firmly believes in the authenticity and indivisibility of the project Nigeria. Therefore, most importantly, I am a proud Nigerian greatly interested in telling the Nigerian stories especially the unpopular or unknown stories of the Northern part of the country.
Sa’id: Interesting! Being a politician which is something you are popularly known for, tell us more about your writing journey?
Tanimu: (Laughs) To start with, let me say I battle myself in rejecting the tag ‘politician’ even though writing and politics are somewhat interwoven. To borrow the words of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in his book Writers In Politics where he said “Every writer is a writer in politics. The only question is what and whose politics?” So I like to be seen as someone involved in politics rather than a politician.
Nonetheless, on the journey to my writing career, it was a sort of unknown voyage triggered by the sheer passion to share my stories. By that, I mean the stories of my environment—socio-economic, ethno-religious, cultural and political stories. But because I’m a politically conscious person and greatly appreciate the ills of sentiments borne out of differences in social make-up of where I came from, I get more interested in exploring the possibility of seeming impossibilities particularly with regards to religious intolerance, ethnicity, partisan politics, cronyism, etc.
“To borrow the words of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in his book ‘Writers In Politics’ where he said ‘Every writer is a writer in politics. The only question is what and whose politics?’ So I like to be seen as someone involved in politics rather than a politician.“
Perhaps metaphorically, I think the driving fuel for my writing is the untamed desire to counterbalance the age-long narrated stories of northern Nigeria, especially those written by writers or commentators from outside the region. I am more concerned because as a true Nigerian and keen observer of our national affairs, I understand that one major problem with Nigeria is that we’re victims of inaccurate, distorted, imbalanced and politically engineered stories which metamorphosed into what I called a “confused historical hybrid”. A sort of false-truth complex coated by the deadly sugars of negative sentiments. Left for politicians to decide which distorted part of the story could yield a boost to their political careers so that it becomes the unwritten political campaign mantra that’ll guarantee victory ls. A sad reality! It’s against such background and many others that I decided to be a writer.
So, despite the fact that I love writing especially when I’m angry, happy or alone, I began to appreciate creative writing through music—hip hop. I used to write rap songs in English, Hausa and Bura language either altogether or separately. I felt I could preach peace and love, unity and progress with music. But because my environment doesn’t support such talents, which is very unfortunate, I thought of something related to music and in poetry I found a home. I wrote 98 poems on my mobile phone. Unfortunately, I lost the phone to theft. I was shocked to marrow and got into what I would afterwards called ‘writing coma’. Then I began to write a romantic novel I had titled The hell Awaits. I wrote six chapters and lost the manuscript. At that point I gave in. However, almost a year later, I decided to write about things I’m quite angry with. Things such as religious fanaticism, child abuse, corruption, dishonesty and so on. Fortunately, I wrote the first complete draft of one of my novels which is still unpublished. There upon, my flair for writing grew, yet a surviving one. Then I began to work on my craft more fervently. Some months after, I wrote this book, Dear Sweet Mother.
Sa’id: Perhaps it is rare especially here in Nigeria to have politicians being writers, especially literature, so how were you able to manage being a politician during the day, and a writer at night? (Laughs)
Tanimu: (Laughs) Well, I started writing since when I was an active political and human rights activist and that’s long before I stepped into partisan politics. And being in politics—particularly close to the corridor of power—becomes an added advantage to closely observe how life revolves around such circles. So I had virtually no consideration for the balance I need during the work period and rest time. But in between, I let my erotic pen kiss the empty papers on my table (Laughs).
Sa’id: You recently launched your debut novel. Congratulations! Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you about the millions of naira you got (Laughter). However, it seems to have early acceptance from a lot. So, what was the inspiration behind the book? And why the title Dear, Sweet Mother?
Tanimu: (Laughs). It’s humbling and encouraging that the book is receiving keen attention from a score of readers. The book was inspired by a lot of factors, as revealed by it content, but the leading one seemed to be the sheer desir to promote religious tolerance, social cohesion and accurate socio-cultural content of my environment. And because it’s a didactic epistolary novel, it speaks within the context of topical issues ranging from religiously mixed family relationships, lack of trust in marriage, poor parenting, education, adolescence crisis, youth inclusion in governance, and so on. I tried to get an appealing title and there could be no better attractive headline for all classes of people than the one that relates to a mother—the universal embodiment of love amongst humankind. Thus the title Dear Sweet Mother.
Interestingly, if you read the book you’ll understand that its multi-thematic content are all encapsulated between and within a space of writing a letter from Liverpool by Ibrahim to declaring his missing rib to his mother. It’s in a way of beating about the bush-narrating his childhood experiences to adulthood that he found the courage to hit the nail.
Sa’id: The novel is an epistolary novel that was written in a form of letter to someone, which is something quite close to Mariama Bâ’s So Long A Letter. Is there any connection between the two? If not, why an epistolary novel rather than the narrative style?
Tanimu: To be very honest if there is any connection, it could only be the style. I haven’t read Mariama Bâ‘s So Long A Letter. Why epistolary novel rather than the conventional style? I think that’s a good example of simple-complex question if there’s anything like that (Laughs).Well, I think I wrote the book in letter form mainly because I perhaps unwittingly consider myself a good letter writer. Though, not as good as Former President Olusegun Obasanjo (Laughs). And also it’s that style I find so comfortable to flow with. It may interest you to know that I have a plan of working on a collection of letters as well.
Sa’id: Still on the novel, the story you portrayed the life of a young man Ibrahim, who is coming from a typical northern Nigeria home, yet with conflicting family background: A Muslim father and Christian mother. Perhaps this is a kind of a family setting in some parts of northern Nigeria like Borno, which is where you are coming from. So is there any elements of yourself in the central character, Ibrahim?
Tanimu: For me, my writing is more or less the product of my time, circumstances and the environment. So it won’t be incorrect to say so.
Sa’id: In the end, what do you want your readers to take from the novel?
Tanimu: Well, since the novel is multi-thematic, I don’t want to decide for my beloved readers. Personally however, I’m more interested in the aspect of religious tolerance and the effect of poor parenting to our society and humanity.
Sa’id Sa’ad is a Nigerian storyteller and poet. His works have appeared in Kalahari Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Nzuri Journal, Ibua Journal and elsewhere. He worked in the broadcasting media and presently works as a media person for an International Peace-Building Organization.