’Yartsana Vs The “Soyayya” Novels

The following is a review of my Hausa novel, “‘Yartsana”, by a female reader. It was published in the Weekly Trust some time in 1994. (NB: I don’t know the reviewer). I love the review largely because very few women reviewed the book when it was published at the end of 2003 even though the theme centres on an aspect of women’s predicament in northern Nigeria.

’Yartsana vs the “soyayya” novels

By Safina Garba Isa

It is an accepted fact that Ibrahim Sheme’s novel “Yartsana” is a harbinger of a new dawn in Hausa literature. Indeed, prior to its appearance, many had wondered why the likes of Sheme had not deemed it fit to save the day, leaving the field of Hausa literature instead to the much debated upon “soyayya” novellas of the Kano-market literature genre. Much has been said for and against these books and much continues to be said. But all said and done, it cannot be denied that these novels appear to be fully entrenched and enjoy a huge readership.

There are many revolutionary things about Sheme’s book, and these include the volume (the average number of pages of a Hausa novel is hardly up to a hundred), the quality of the cover, the publishing company and yes the price. But what immediately sets it part, the great signifier of change, is the style of writing. One could argue that there is nothing to make an issue out of considering the caliber of the author but in a literature where writing skills are nil or non-existent, it becomes something to sit up and take note of for disparity which it creates is great. It is true that the writer of “Yartsana” has many things to his advantage, too many in fact, when compared with the writers of the soyayya novels. And so it is understandable that the book reads like a Thomas Hardy or a Daniel Defoe or Charles Dickens. The wonderful subtlety in terms of the handling of the plot becomes easier to explain and so also the exquisite tragedy and the mellifluous diction. Interestingly, however, it is in these that the problem lies.

There is no disputing the fact that “Yartsana” is a great work of art. But the question which arises is how ready is the Hausa reader, the one who for a long time has subsisted on the “soyayya” diet, to appreciate it? The majority of the Hausa novel readership is not oh so intellectually inclined. Made up mostly of married women and young girls who are secondary school leavers, it has for a long time identified strongly with the “soyayya” theme and the kind of writing it has invoked. The finer points of “’Yartsana” then tend to be lost to it. Not for these readers the masterful handling of language, or the irony that underlines the book from the first page to the last or even the massage it seeks to project. Why a book on prostitution? Many a reader would ask.

It is significant that “’Yartsana” is the first Hausa novel to be critically acclaimed upon publication. No novel of the “soyayya” genre can boast of such a feat. The recognition which such early works as Hafsatu Abdulwaheed’s “So Aljannar Duniya” enjoyed was more because of their contribution towards the encouragement of literacy in the North than for their creative and or stylistic techniques, in a period when the North was trying to catch up with its Southern and Eastern counterparts in terms of literacy, hence the various competitions and certain publishing companies that were set up in that period. Again it speaks volumes that “’Yartsana” is enjoying an attention which such earlier works as Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s are only just enjoying, thanks to the ongoing attempt to elevate the Hausa novel to the level of serious literature. One reviewer termed “’Yartsana” “a valuable handbook for students of sociology and social works,” while in another review, entitled, “The Ways of the Wayward,” the writer says the book “… displays the existence of dialectology in the Hausa language …” Obviously, then, this book is headed towards the academic alter.

Then there is the price factor. It goes without saying that the book is worth its three hundred naira price. But to the average Hausa novel consumer, who is used to the price of the “soyayya” novel of forty naira or so, such might not be the case and this could hinder the availability of such quality books to the majority of the Hausa reading populace. One then wonders if it will not follow that with subsequent works written in the style of “’Yartsana”, the Hausa literature will not, like the English literature of the Augustan age, be divided into two: on one hand a popular literature made up of the “soyayya” novels, and on the other a literature that will cater for the elite.

Stylistically, the choice of theme tends to create an anticlimax, thus rendering the beautifully structured tragic end almost lost. There is a tendency for the reader to feel that “ai da ma karshen alewa kasa” with regards to the end which befalls Zainab. For this is a period when many are aware of the HIV/AIDS consequence of prostitution. Besides, Zainab could have not become a helpless victim of circumstance. She had the opportunity of putting her life back together after her divorce instead of flirting with and getting pregnant for the rich Alhaji in her village. Again in the city, she could have met someone who would have helped her pick up the pieces and do something meaningful with her life, thereby showing the many victims of forced marriage like her know that with determination, all is never lost (remember Abu of Balaraba Ramat’s “Wa Zai Auri Jahila?”). But perhaps more important is the fact that at a stage, Zainab had the freedom to choose to leave prostitution but she did not.

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