How A Child Tells Violence: A Dialogue with Hussani Abdulrahim
Hussani Abdulrahim is a writer from Nigeria. He is a finalist for the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize and the 2021 Albert Jungers Poetry Prize. He won the 2019 Poetically Written Prose Contest and the ANA Kano/Peace Panel Poetry Prize. Abdulrahim was a semifinalist for the Boston Review 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, a 2018 Africa Book Club short story contest finalist, and was shortlisted for the 2019 ACT Award. He also won the 2016 Green Author Prize. His works are forthcoming or have appeared in Boston Review, The Other Foundation, 2022 Gerald Kraak Anthology, 20:35 Africa, IHRAF, Praxis, Africa Book Club Anthology 2018, and Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry. He is currently working on his debut collection of short stories. He is a graduate of Pure Chemistry and lives in Northern Nigeria.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between Lagos, Nigeria; Sokoto, Nigeria; and Kano, Nigeria; via WhatsApp.
Uchenna: Congratulations Hussani on being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Prize. I particularly loved your story, ‘Twilight’, because of its timeliness and method of narration. Here we have a crisis story told by one directly affected by it, not just anyone but a child. A child who has lost but doesn’t understand loss. A grieving child who isn’t allowed to grieve. A child who watches as his mother and people around him are constantly being ripped off by others who claim to look out for them.
There is this innocence in the telling that effortlessly evokes empathy. It’s such a sad yet important story that shows us how even children are not shielded from the effects of crisis. I could go on and on talking about ‘Twilight’, but we will come to that. What I would like to know now is how ‘Twilight’ came to be.
Hussani: Thank you very much, Uchenna. I’ve always wanted to write stories based on the crisis that has taken its toll on the Northeastern part of Nigeria. I remember sitting in my mother’s shop in Kaduna as a teenager when a bomb went off inside a church. We were quite far away, but we felt the impact. It shook my mother’s shop to its foundations. That one instance made me imagine what it was like to be at the center of it all. I wondered how it felt to encounter loss and have no understanding or answers to the whys or hows; what it was like to pay for a crime you knew nothing of; what it was like to be innocent and still suffer.I wondered what the terrain in the little villages in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, (etc.) felt like. I imagined they felt like being in a box and not knowing which way to go, whether you would survive to see the next day or even have something to eat to bind your hunger.
I began writing a full-length manuscript on the issue but ditched it due to impatience and a lack of experience at the time. After so many years, I decided that writing it in short story form would serve me better. That was how ‘Twilight’ came to be. The story is the box and the characters sadly represent the true victims we’ve encountered on the pages of newspapers, televisions and the internet. We see them today around the world, in places where wars have usurped peace.
Uchenna: A year ago, I convinced my Dad to finally share what it was like in the IDP camp during the Nigerian-Biafran war. When it happened, he was just as young as the protagonist. Even after several pleas, he was only able to share a little. He shared how they never had enough food to go around and how they lived in constant fear of the unknown. He cut himself short and simply ended with, “War is not good”, which has since been his response anytime I bring it up again.
We don’t talk much about the psychological effects being born or having to live in times of crisis has on children. How it strips them of a normal childhood, and how that changes everything, including their worldview and how they relate to others.Everything is changed, and as a result, it is almost impossible for them to turn out as “upright” adults. There is already so much rot in our society. Adding a rough childhood only cements it.
In the case of ‘Twilight’, your protagonist was dealing with two crises. One from his society and one at home. Zaitouna confesses, “When I look into the eyes of my son, I see war” revealing how helpless she feels where raising her son the “right way” is concerned. There is a lot to unpack there, including the helplessness Zaitouna feels, how it shaped her choices to protect her little boy, and the ironic turn of events in which said choices end up negatively impacting the boy instead. Could you talk about writing the character of Zaitouna and the helplessness I speak about here?
Hussani: First, I agree with your thoughts on war. It does a lot of damage, especially if you were caught up in one as a child. I remember how during one of those numerous crises in Kaduna, soldiers stormed into my street and went away with our neighbor’s innocent sons on claims that they had a hand in the unrest in our community. I remember my mom and sisters hiding me in a wardrobe just to keep me safe. I remember my body shivering from the fear that I’d be taken away and never seen again. I was barely thirteen at that time. Wars and crises of any kind leave a lot of trauma behind. Because you are so young, you don’t understand the many things happening around you. Hence, you keep asking yourself questions whose answers are hard to find.
Speaking about Zaitouna, it wasn’t hard figuring out the type of character I needed her to be. She was like my mother, standing before the wardrobe where I hid, ready to claw at those soldiers if they dared to enter our house.
“I speak of the innocent children and women in our societies who, by no fault of theirs, are victims of wars and conflicts. You would agree that usually, there’s a Big Man somewhere pulling the strings and capitalizing on the situation.“
Every mother wants to keep their children safe and away from anything that may harm them, even if it means lying to them and delving into things they wouldn’t normally do. However, sometimes, when we are fazed by something as humongous as wars that strip away everything we hold dear and send us fleeing for our lives. The burden can be so much that we wonder if we can truly help those we feel a responsibility towards. Zaitouna tries not to fall apart just for the sake of her son, but deep down, she knows she can’t save him entirely from all they had gone through and all he had seen. These constitute her feeling of helplessness, and in desperation, she tries to hide the truth about his father and sister.
Uchenna: I empathise with Zaitouna and how much effort she puts into shielding this child whose curiosity continues to threaten the impact of her efforts. Even after realising her helplessness, she doesn’t relent. “D’ana, everything I do today, tomorrow, I do for you,” she says.
There is something fascinating about how you named your characters, and I would like to hear your thoughts. Every other character in the story is given a name, save for the child and “Big Man”. The story is seen through the eyes of the child, but we never get to hear his name. In the case of Big Man, he is simply called that and we do not hear his name or learn the kind of politician he is at any point. He is simply called a politician. Was this deliberate? Were you aiming at a particular effect?
Hussani: I can’t say it was deliberate at first, but as I went on, I realized what I wanted to achieve. Using the second-person POV meant my narrator could take up any identity without necessarily having a specific name, and I believe it worked. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was in Gabriel Okara’s critically acclaimed novel “The Voice” that I first encountered and came to understand the many advantages of namelessness. When you do not name a person or thing, you broaden the scope of what they can be. Whereas doing otherwise is denying them that chance and ultimately constraining them. What I’m trying to say is that this gives the reader an opportunity to personalize that aspect of the story. In essence, the boy could be any other boy—a face you’ve seen somewhere or a face you decide to conjure from your imagination. The same goes for the politician. The character is relatable given the part politicians have played and are still playing in a country like Nigeria. With this, although not named, both characters are closer to us than we think.
Uchenna: Very close indeed. We turn to our TVs and see several Big Men lie through their noses. They exploit the rot for their benefit and make empty promises to fix things. Like Big Man, they come bearing gifts and win favours from the innocent gullible masses. As a result, when it’s poll season, they do not just ‘hope’ that the masses will back them, they ‘know’ they will. So they prowl the cities with confident swaggers. We turn to the streets and see helpless innocent children like your protagonist whose futures have been fatally damaged. Like him, they are caught in the middle of a crisis they do not understand and the Big Men that profits off it. “With people like you around, wars never end,” Zaitouna says to the Big Man.
Also, I’m glad you mentioned the POV because I would like us to talk about it. The second-person POV makes narration intriguing and unconventional. Just as you’ve said, the narrator could be anybody. Still, in telling this story, I wonder and would like to know whose voice you wanted to amplify. Is it the voice of every child who, like your protagonist, is caught up in this mess? Is it the voice of all who are witnesses to the actions of the Big Man and the helplessness of the many children and Zaitounas? Or both?
Hussani: The second-person POV is indeed strange. As I said, I choose it as a means of personalizing the story. Even though it can be argued that the first-person POV would do that better, my point is that it is easier to tell a sordid tale when you do not directly fix yourself in the context of the issue. For instance, I would readily and naturally want to relate a happy event using “I”, but shy away from using it when the event is a sad one. It is a kind of defense mechanism where you try to tell yourself, “This didn’t happen to me” or “This can’t happen to me”. It is so easy to live in denial. Thus, the second-person POV is a way to take the burden of wearing the narrator’s skin away from the reader while still leaving them immersed in it. It is a complex that isn’t premeditated but simply exists and functions that way.
As for whose voice I intended to amplify? Anguish can be very personal, but in ‘Twilight’, it is a collective experience regardless of the POV. I do not think there’s a moment in the story where it feels that the narrator is all I want people to care about. As important as he is, he’s simply the medium through which others are seen, the vault where other doors are revealed. When I say this, I speak of the innocent children and women in our societies who, by no fault of theirs, are victims of wars and conflicts. You would agree that usually, there’s a Big Man somewhere pulling the strings and capitalizing on the situation. These are things we see not just in Nigeria or Africa. The entire world has witnessed such happenings.
Uchenna: Interesting. I think that the fact that you chose a child to be this vault enables us to look at these characters from an innocent perspective. Yes, it may not be completely formed as he is a child, but it is innocent, thus making it factual. In the story, he tells it as it is and leaves us to make the judgment. Take his narration of the Big Man’s tragic porn photo ops, for example. You can tell his innocence from how excited he is and how he talks about being photographed and making the front page of a newspaper. He doesn’t realise it is simply for a campaign and not done from a place of care until his mum Zaitouna tells him.
Let’s talk about your interrogation of grief in your stories. In an earlier work, ‘Alheri‘, you write about a woman who exists in a superlative society where the dead can be raised or rather remade. After losing her husband, she decides to make him come alive again. She would go on to repeatedly remake him and lose him, causing herself multiple griefs in her attempt to escape the initial one.
In ‘Twilight’, we meet Zaitouna, who loses her entire family to a terrorist crises except for her son. Then we watch as her helplessness in the situation almost costs her and her son’s life amidst all of her efforts to prevent him from experiencing grief. What does it feel like to engage such heavy emotions in your writings? Please talk about your characters’ recurring efforts to escape rather than face grief head-on.
Hussani: Losing my father at a tender age has always been a tough thing to deal with. I bring this personal grief to bear both in ‘Alheri’ and ‘Twilight’. Maybe I know this grief too well; maybe it’s what I stare at whenever I look in the mirror. Maybe it’s what runs in the bushy background of my mind when I lay at night and listen to the noise of crickets and the characters begging for life inside my head. Maybe I wonder what growing into an adult with a father would’ve felt like. Show me your characters, and I’d tell you who you are. I’m that boy plagued by hunger, wishing to see his father again. I’m Alheri trying to bring her man back to life, trying so hard not to forget.
Maybe I’m selfish, but I share the same burdens as the ones I heap on the backs of my characters. In this mutualism, I and my characters try to soldier on. These are the hideous mechanisms that play out somewhere in my subconscious. Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed by the extent to which I unknowingly drag myself into these stories. Does that not mean I’m also in full flight by pouring out these feelings? I write about wars, gender inequality, and violence against women, and I’m in all of it. No matter how long we’ve journeyed with it or the smiles and laughter we conjure, grief never leaves us. We may have moments of respite, but it’s there with a sickening permanence.
Engaging grief is, thus, my way to tend to my battles. It’s not easy, and maybe that’s why I hide under the guise of characters like Alheri and Zaitouna. Does this method deliver me from my battles? No, but I’m still pulling through every fiber of what it means to experience loss, and at each turn, discoveries are made. I uncover new insights into what I can create with my characters, what life they can lead and what significance they would have in the mind of readers. These are things that cause me anxiety and excitement all at once.
Uchenna: No, not selfish, but kind. It’s kind to share bits of yourself in the pages you write. It’s also brave. Brave because while you do, you manage not to lose yourself in it. I don’t know if I can do that. I dread loss because I fear myself. I have watched people I love come undone after losing loved ones. I imagine losing someone close, and the thought alone overwhelms me. I shake it off immediately and move on to other thoughts. However, you engage your grief. You share it with the world and, in the process, create a space for others who grieve to see themselves and know they’re not alone in dealing with grief and its ‘‘sickening permanence’’’. I’m really sorry about your Dad.
This makes me loathe Big Man. How more inhumane could one be to choose to exploit a whole community’s grief to their benefit? Big Man saw the sadness in the camp, and rather than offer a tissue paper or simply walk away, he brought in cameras. What Big Man saw wasn’t a suffering people but a story to help sell himself to the masses. Typical of the average Nigerian politician, his cunning knew that to get them, he needed more than just a camera, so he brought items that rightfully belonged to them, and like the average Nigerian community, they cheered him on. Sometimes, I wonder if politics in this country requires one to hide away their humanity. Because how in the world could one with a conscience be that heartless?
Hussani: Thanks for your kind words, Uchenna. As for Big Man, I loathe him too (LOL). There are good politicians in Nigeria, but the few bad eggs spoil their names. It’s so hard to think positively when you hear the expression “Nigerian politician” these days. I remember how politicians shared packets of salt and mobile phones during elections to entice people and get them to vote for certain parties. I don’t blame the innocent people who fall for these tricks. You see, some politicians are wired to take advantage of the perceived weakness of the common man to achieve what they want. They see a window of opportunity in poverty and go to unimaginable lengths to exploit it.
I don’t believe any human is heartless. Some are driven by goals, and when we have goals, we do everything possible to ensure we actualize them. Now, the politicians believe they have to attain certain positions they’ve set their hearts to. For that to happen, everything else needs to comply and work in their favour. Thus, the line between what is good and bad becomes blurred as they pursue these goals.
That is exactly what people like Big Man do. It wasn’t hard figuring out what type of character I needed Big Man to be. Politicians in our clime can’t seem to do any good without wanting something in return; it’s like a taboo. Thus, Big Man is a flag bearer, the poster boy whose character represents the same breed of politricks-practicing men that populate our communities. Sadly, Nigeria suffers from an overdose of these men.
Uchenna: An overdose indeed, and it is so demotivating, especially now when it’s election season. As usual, the empty promises have begun and it’s almost impossible to tell if those promising this time are any different than the ones who did before. As a result, many people have developed some level of apathy and have chosen to stay away instead. Yet, the irony is that one’s refusal to participate affects nothing. If anything, it assures the continuance of another big man who already has a huge following. Like JP Clark said, ‘We are all casualties’, this time, of Big Man. We can’t escape it.
Hussani: Indeed. Sometimes I wonder if our society is designed solely for these men to thrive. It is hard to see the common man winning this battle. We are the ones in need, and these politicians have all the aces up their sleeves to ensure we cower to their whims. This brings me to a critic’s observation that Nigerian writers of today are fixated on selling sad tales to the world through fiction and poetry; I wonder what that means. Where are the happy tales to tell? The incessant killings and kidnappings of innocent citizens have become a norm. We write the truth, nothing else.
Uchenna: I also find that annoying because what exactly does it mean? Ours is a society where happiness continues to grow distant, and it only makes sense that the stories we tell reflect our reality. They could call it tragedy porn or whatever, but it remains an unfair criticism of contemporary Nigerian literature. Especially considering that what is being portrayed in the stories aren’t far from reality. Yes, we need positive stories, but I don’t think accusing writers in a society like ours of being exploiters of the decay cuts it either. That’s still gatekeeping. Nigerian poet, Adedadyo Agarau recently said, “See, just write. You don’t need anyone’s verification to be a fine writer”, and that’s the Gospel.
Hussani: Indeed, I saw Agarau’s post. As creatives, it seems we have all received our fair share of criticism from those who believe they have better ideas about what our works should look like or what subject matters need to be discussed. This class of people will be doing much good if that energy is instead channelled into addressing the quality of work being put out. It will be a win-win situation for all if they offer criticism on whether the writer has succeeded in nailing every other aspect of their work.
Uchenna: Right? So, Hussani, who and what are you reading right now?
Hussani: I’m currently rereading Graham Greene’s The Comedians. It’s a novel set in Haiti which explores the intricacies of political terrorism. I’m yet to finish We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I don’t know why I’ve put it aside despite it being a gem. Aside from that, I read short stories online whenever I can. I’m fully booked (laughs).
Uchenna: Nice lineup. For my last question, are you working on anything at the moment? Do you mind giving us a scoop?
Hussani: Yeah. My debut short story collection is still in the works. It will be majorly speculative fiction, spiced with a bit of other stuff. I have a couple of short stories coming up in some online mags in the coming months. Also, I’ve completed a poetry chapbook manuscript. It is based on my experience with heartbreak and grief in general. It’s currently being considered for publication. I can’t disclose much now, but hopefully, before the year runs out, I’ll have something concrete and worth reading.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.