Love Is Universal, but Nigeria’s Romance Lit Market Is One of a Kind

Before I went to northern Nigeria for the first time, I read the 1990 Nigerian romance novel Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home, thought to be the first Hausa-language novel by a woman to be translated into English. It’s the story of a man who takes a prostitute for a second wife and kicks out his first wife, along with their children, after they have an argument. The first wife manages on her own, but when the man loses everything in a fire, her relatives convince her to accept his apologies and take him back.

The novel is by Muslim author Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, who was married off as a child bride, jilted, and left divorced at 19. She managed to get an education and began writing books in the Hausa language, pioneering a genre known as littattafan soyayya, or love literature.

The pocket-size novels of the genre are cheaply and quickly made on thin newsprint. They often have spectacular covers drawn by local artists or feature stellar clip art that’s whimsical and uncanny. The stories range from submissive to subversive, but they all have plots that center around love and marriage. Some stories are political—one tells the story of a young woman who was trafficked to Sudan. Others might contain typical romance-novel fodder where the poor girl marries the rich guy, or Dear Abby-style advice columns about being a good Muslim wife.

Yakubu would be a card-carrying feminist if they made Hausa versions, though a Western feminist might expect her heroine to stand on her own, without a man. But family is everything in northern Nigeria, and realizing the strength of this choice means that feminism can also encompass more than narrow, preconceived definitions.

Kano, the traditional Muslim city where Yakubu and other writers live and the largest in northern Nigeria, is a few states over and a couple of hours’ drive from the epicenter of the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Army that jumps in and out of the headlines. When I got there, I sought out writers like Yakubu, as well as other women, not only taking formal portraits but also photographing them during their daily lives.

I wanted my photos to run parallel to the novels, so I went to weddings, photographed the kind of dowry exchanges that the books describe at length, and looked for colors and moments that echoed the aesthetics of the books. I looked for happy moments at weddings, sad moments of loss, and, whenever I could get a little closer, I’d look for whimsy, fantasy, escape, and pride.

I also wanted my pictures to give a sense of what a place looks like and feels like. In some ways, Kano isn’t a pretty city—it’s grimy, dusty, there’s trash on the streets, and it’s often very hot and uncomfortable. But then I would meet these women wearing such incredibly beautiful clothes, with henna on their hands and soft light falling on their faces. That was what I wanted to capture: the metallic pink of a lipstick, the sequins on a gown, or a book cover on a bedside table.

In 2007, the then state governor of Kano publicly burned books and said they were contributing to moral indecency among the youth. (He’s now Nigeria’s minister of education.) The Hisbah, the Islamic morality police, started censoring the books and requiring writers to register with and seek approval from a state censorship board.

Just last week, Boko Haram was in the headlines again after a few months of quiet. They burned down a village in northern Nigeria and may have burned children alive. Most of the schoolgirls they abducted en masse from the town of Chibok in 2014 remain missing. Nigeria’s currency fluctuates, and hard times may be ahead.

This is the context of these pictures, but it is not the content of these pictures.

Sometimes I think I should be photographing those things, but what happens to our understanding of other people and places when the only thing we know is the worst thing that ever happened there? Would we have different priorities and ideas about the world around us if we also knew what kind of lipstick women wear, what a wedding looks like, and what they draw on the cover of their romance novels?

Glenna Gordon is publishing a book of these photos and stories called Diagram of the Heart. It comes out on February 11.

In keeping with the theme of love, Proof has also featured Gordon’s photographs of Nigerian weddings. See them here.

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