Safiya Ismaila Yero is one of the fast-growing Nigerian writers with a couple of books to her credit. Her debut novel, When There is Life, was published in 2013. In this interview with IBRAHIM RAMALAN, Mrs Yero talks about discovering herself as writer, writing style, as well as major themes in her latest novel, Naja, in which she chronicles the ordeals of some Northern women in the hands of heartless men.
Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born in Area One in the 80s in Abuja, but my parents are from Adamawa State. I attended L.E.A Primary School Area One and G.S.S. Garki Abuja. I obtained a Degree in Literature-in-English from the University of Abuja, after which I did my National Youth Service in FINbank PLC. I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Literature in English at the University of Abuja and because of my love for teaching, I enrolled for a Postgraduate Diploma in Education in the Nigerian Teachers’ Institute. I ran both programmes concurrently. After my Youth Service, I got a teaching job in Fou’ad Lababidi Islamic Academy, Wuse Zone 3, where I taught English Language and Literature in English. I taught for about three years before joining the University of Abuja in 2013, as an Administrative Officer in the Registry Department. I am married, I’ve been married for about a decade and a half now, and God has blessed our union with two beautiful children.
What inspired you into writing?
I think I developed an interest in writing from my early years. Not because I was introduced to books, but because I and my siblings were seldom allowed to watch TV by our step mum, we had to find other past times like listening to music and reading. So, I buried myself in books. While my older sister read Mills and Boons like most girls back then, I fell in love with James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christy and Nick Carter. Each time I finish reading a novel, I think about it for hours and kept imagining myself writing good novels that people will love too, just like the ones I read. So basically, reading novels inspired me to try writing.
Your latest novel, Naja, is set predominantly in Northern Nigeria. Is the book, or some parts of it, a reflection of your experience or that of somebody close to you?
Naja is pure imagination, pure fiction, it has nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with my personal experience. However, you know that writers do not write in a vacuum. There has to be a trigger or some background information. In as much as Naja is fiction, it largely mirrors what still goes on in our societies today, not just in Northern Nigeria, but in other parts of the country, Africa and even beyond Africa. But I choose to speak for only Northern Nigeria, because that’s where I belong, where I know more. Naja is pure imagination that reflects what goes on in our societies.
What are some of the themes in Naja?
Naja is a collage of so many things, quite a number of themes. The major ones are of course early marriage, female subjugation, and physical abuse. Others include rape, childlessness, inter-tribal feuds and self-emancipation.
It is believed that even as a book is a work of art, it often echoes some of the values the writer believes in. Now, you are a Muslim and, as you know, Islam as a religion and way of life, has placed men fully above women. Don’t you think criticising patriarchy is against your religion?
Yes, you are indeed right, I am proudly a Muslim. And yes, a writer directly or indirectly echoes or promotes the values he/she believes in his/her works. I really don’t know how to explain this for you to understand what I mean. Number one, patriarchy is not one of the tenets of my religion to start with, how then, will criticizing it be against my religion? There is no disputing the fact that in Islam, God has placed men above women, for some many obvious reasons which of course I am not contesting. I think you need to understand that God placed men above women because women are meant to be taken care of by the men- not for men to mistreat or subjugate or enslave them. If, therefore, the men decide to subjugate and mistreat women just because God placed them above women, then the women have every right to revolt- not against men generally, but against the way they are being treated. In my novel you see instances where some men deny their wives food, it is happening in our societies, and you expect me to support that, just because I am a Muslim? No, my religion, the Islam I practice, does not support the mistreatment of women. In Islam, women are treated like queens. Of course, I know that religion has gotten so interwoven with our African culture so much so that most of us do not know where religion ends and culture begins, and vice-versa- leading to mistaken one for the other. Do not forget that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) mentioned a mother(woman)three times before a father(man), when a companion asked who is more deserving of his good company. If, Islam is patriarchal (in the African sense), will this be possible? To cut a long story short, my novel, Naja, portrays instances of women mistreatment in the hands of their men, and shows women the way forward through some of my characters- not by picking a knife or pouring acid or hot water on the man as is trending now, but by simple ways as filing for a divorce in the court of law. Yes, in Islam, it is allowed for a woman to file divorce when not happy with the way she is being treated, that is how valuable women are in Islam- they can make their own decisions!
There are some cultures like forced and age-mismatched marriages that are deemed old and barbaric in today’s Northern Nigeria, why did you still choose to project them in your novel or are you one of those writers, who target the Western audience?
In which Northern Nigeria are forced and age-mismatched marriages deemed old and barbaric?
You must understand that Northern Nigeria is big and beyond the cosmopolitan cities of Kaduna, Jos, Abuja, and even Kano. There are lots and lots of rural settlements with large families and jobless breadwinners. What other way do you think they will reduce the number of mouths to be fed if not by sending boys for Almajiranci in the guise of learning the Qur’an and sending the girls to their husbands’ houses as early as possible? Let us not even go too far- here in FCT, in Kuje Area Council precisely, I personally know a little girl who was married off at the age of fourteen! So, I don’t totally agree with you when you say that age- mismatched marriages and forced marriages are deemed old and barbaric in northern Nigeria. Among the educated/ elite northerners, yes, but go to the rural dwellers, who are unfortunately the majority, and you will discover that you are wrong!
As per projecting forced and so-called age-mismatched marriages in my novel, I talked about these things because they are still happening, and because I feel triggering conversations around them will help in minimizing and eventually eradicating them. About targeting a Western audience, know that I did not have any specific audience in mind while writing this book. A writer writes about those things that are of concern to him/her, those ills s/he wishes to expose/correct, these ignorance s/he wishes to enlighten, those assumptions s/he wishes to debunk, and those conversations s/he wishes to bring to the fore.
Your construct of characters, setting and imageries are deeply rooted in the use of Hausa and Fulbe languages, how do you think other non-Hausa and Fulbe-speaking readers could get along while reading?
Well, this is not the first time a writer reflects his/her culture and language in his/her works. It is common, in fact, it is almost impossible not to reflect these things in one’s works. Let me cite a few examples. “The archetypal African novel” Things Fall Apart is deeply rooted in the use of Ibo imageries and language, did that stop us, non-Ibo speakers from understanding the text? The answer is no. So, also Chimamanda’s works. You infer and understand. In most cases, the meaning is implied in the context of the narrative. Besides these things are sparsely used and cannot obstruct the reader’s comprehension. So, all readers will do just fine reading Naja, if they are able to read and understand the works of Achebe and Chimamanda and even Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.
What then is the idea behind code-mixing and switchings in the novel? Is it deliberate?
Well, as I said above, it did not just start with me, and I am not just doing it because I’m copying others. It is simply a stylistic device common in Nigerian prose fiction and not peculiar to me. You see, these things have a way manifesting subconsciously. You cannot run away from who you are. Besides, it serves to remind the reader of the cultural background of the writer and the story (though that idea did not come to me while writing).
Who were you influenced by as a writer?
Well, honestly speaking, I didn’t have any mentor as far as writing is concerned. As I mentioned earlier, I was greatly inspired by the novels of Agatha Christie and James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter. I read other books too at a much younger age, like Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five. All these beautifully written books led to my solemn resolve to become a writer one day.
There is the issue of a dwindling reading culture across Nigeria due to the incursion of social media and what have you. With North in particular, how do you think this trend could be reversed?
It is indeed a fact that social media, to an extent, has further stunted the already dwindling reader culture among youth. One way to get people, especially the youth, to fall in love with reading once again is to get really interesting and educative novels on the JAMB/WAEC syllabus. If students discover that novels prescribed to them in school are interesting, they will go out of their way to look for more of such books to read. Like they say, first impression matters. So, if your child’s first encounter with a book happens to be unpalatable, then be rest assured that that is the end of his/her interest in reading.
You are a civil servant, housewife, mother and a writer. How do you juggle between these three ‘callings’?
You will always find your way around anything if you are dedicated and if you know what you want. So I find a way to navigate between my wifely and motherly responsibilities, my career, and my writing.
Who says success does not come with a price tag? The price for my own success is hard work, devotion, hard work, prayer, hard work and belief in myself and my ability to succeed. I do not listen when people tell me “this is not possible” or “you cannot do this,” In fact, such utterances motivate me to work harder. Doing all these are not a piece of cake, I tell you.
Where do you see yourself in the nearest future, as far as writing is concerned?
Well, I’m not a diviner, so of course, I cannot see into the ‘nearest future’. But I am ready to go wherever God decides to take me, in good faith. I only know that wherever that may be, will be better than where I am today.