Pain drove me to poetry, but love kept me – Hauwa Shafi’i Nuhu

Hauwa Shafii Nuhu is a promising poet whose works have appeared in The Kalahari Review, Brittlepaper, Praxis magazine and many other platforms. She is currently a Law student in Bayero University, Kano. In this interview with IBRAHIM RAMALAN, Hauwa discusses her parent’s influence on her writing, her life as a poet as well as why she is now more at home with poetry than prose. 

Who is Hauwa Shafii Nuhu?
Hauwa is a young writer resident in Minna. She is from Niger State but schools in Bayero University, Kano. A hopeless addict to home and family, as well as to good poetry and great prose who has works on online journals such as The Kalahari Review, Brittlepaper, Praxis magazine, and elsewhere. She publishes with only her first name. She was born on the 2nd day of June which means her birthday is a few months away. She loves to read, and thinks there is something about sand that the world is yet to discover. I am Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu.

At what stage did you start writing and what motivated you into it?
I have encountered this question a lot of times, but each time I do, it is with the same loss of words, the same blankness of mind. I cannot exactly pin point the time I started writing, if “The Wicked Stepmother” stories every child writes counts, then I have been writing for as long as I can remember. As cliche as this sounds, as a kid, my mom would promise to buy me “story books” if I came first in class. This enticing offer never failed to push me into meeting that condition. And she diligently fulfilled her promise each time the condition was met. Soon, the story books gift became more frequent and even unconditional. My friends were readers too, so there was this very vibrant relationship of exchanging books. I read novels with or without electricity. I read under candles, I read under the moonlight, I read while cooking – which inevitably led to my burning food, I read even when I had exams.

And it was for that last point that my mom threatened to burn all of my novels. She believed I was not studying enough for school, and banned me from reading at nights too, because she feared I was going to cause harm to my eyes, my Dad had the same fears too. But we overcame.
As every writer will tell you, the greatest sharpener of the gift of writing is reading. But at the time, I didn’t know this. I was subconsciously improving both my spoken and written language. When you meet someone who reads widely, it reflects in how well they speak. The very first time I met my friend, Rukayat Daba, we had talked for only about five minutes before I asked her, “You read, right?”. And the answer was yes. It was evident in her language.
The only difference I think, between myself and my friends who read during my primary school days was that while they read for entertainment, I read to satisfy a certain hunger. However, satisfying that hunger by reading a good book seemed to stoke another kind of hunger and set me on a part to quench it. I wanted to write my own stories.
During my junior secondary school days, at Federation Of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria, widely known as FOMWAN for short, my then Principal, Mallam Kamar Hamza, a writer and remarkable literary figure took special interest in me and took it upon himself to mentor me. He gave me classics such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and stipulated days on which I was supposed to finish reading and even write reviews on – never mind that I was about 13 or 14. He motivated me a great deal. It was he who introduced me to Hilltop Arts Center.

And which genre of writing is your forte?
Poetry. True, my first exposition to creative writing was Prose. But as Mario Puzo says in his book, ‘The Godfather’, many men start their journeys on false destinies. I wouldn’t say this applies to me on the whole though, because I still write prose, in fact, I have a short story up on One of my short stories was also long-listed for the AMAB-HBF Flash fiction competition last year. So, prose was not an entirely false road for me. I just feel more comfortable with poetry. Those who knew me pre-poetry usually find it hard to believe that not only do I now write poetry, but I also insist that it is life.This is because I never liked poetry from the onset and I made it clear. Why write something in a language that will not be easily deciphered when I could do otherwise? I would ask, with an air that dismissed poets.
Over time though, I began to read poetry, and it struck me that poets seemed to be some kind of – how do I “euphemise” this? – like some elevated category of humans, like prophets. Poetry began to look to me like a new and very acceptable religion that didn’t look very bad. Even then, I did not fancy myself becoming one. It was strange. It was superhuman and I was human.

Then life happened, as it is wont to. It is said that at the touch of love, we all become poets. But in truth, at the touch of pain, we also become poets. Pain is like a shovel, digging away all the layers inside us, seeking the depth of our beings, of our souls. It is a teenager determined to have her way. It takes over us, completely. In short, it just makes philosophers out of us. All these define poetry. Pain is poetry.
Pain drove me to poetry, but love kept me in it. The poetry of Pablo Neruda, of Amu-nnadi, who is my mentor, of Adonis, of Saddiq Dzukogi, and of very talented poet friends of mine, have also kept me in it.

I also read on one certain time that you were into writing to ‘expose the ills in the society’. What are these ills that you have identified and how do you intend to achieve your aim?
Hmmn. This question is quite complicated. The society is riddled with ills, sadly, from citizens who think the law is in their hands, and so they can punish or even execute those whom their minds tag as “offenders”, to men who think having a wife is synonymous to owning a punching bag, to a woman who is scared to mention the word “sex” because she fears people around will think her promiscuous, or ask her husband to do certain things in bed that please her because of shame and the fear of being judged. I intend to write these things into poetry in the most subtle way possible, because Poetry is after all, Subtlety. I want to lend my voice to the world so she can cry out whenever and wherever she aches.
The particular poem of mine published on is a response to the destruction of Baga. I have poems seeking for the sexual liberation of women, on the plight of my country, Nigeria, but now that I think of it, it feels like I write for myself.  I see poetry as an escape, a chimney on the kitchen of life.
I have learned over time however, that even though it feels like I write for myself, there’s an underlying quest to be heard. And in that quest, is an even greater quest – to echo the cries of the society.

Your poem, ‘Combustion’ is one of my favourites, is it your favourite too and why?
(laughs) “combustion” is one of my earliest poems, and yes, it is one of my favourites too, because it aptly captured how I felt at the time. I had been full of dreams to make and unmake, at the time, (I still am), I had so many aspirations that I was determined to see too. The energy was there, and while I made plans for my life, it never occurred to me that anything could stop me. And then my very close friend died. It was totally unexpected, but then again who expects death? She had been just like me, bubbling with dreams, she was already in the university, studying what she wanted. Then she got ill and just died. She died. Her death hit me so hard and for a long time I was very angry at the universe, I wrote Fatyma poem upon poem. Then the anger lifted off me and fear came in its wake. What if i just died too? What if I just woke up one morning and everything had turned upside down? And so I wrote “combustion”.

You are currently A Law student. How do you juggle writing with your studies?
Being a writer is a plus to me, as a Law student. Because as one of my brilliant lecturers would say, “Three things make a lawyer: Confidence, Knowledge of the law, and language”. The fact that I write helps very much with the language.
The time constraint is crazy. I study both Common and Islamic law, so you can imagine how bulky the courses are,( but then again I love what I’m studying because it’s what I’ve always wanted. It therefore doesn’t feel so stressful). So sometimes, I go off writing for a while, partly because of school, partly because I just want a little sanity and normalcy and mostly because poetry deserts me whenever it feels like. This last reason used to ruffle me up, each time I found that the words were not coming, I’d worry. Until a mentor of mine, Nasir Yammama, told me once that every minute I spend away from poetry or writing is actually a plus to my writing. Because I go out into the world and I see life happen all the time, so it all subconsciously improves my pattern of thoughts which in turn reflects on my writing whenever I come back to it.

You are one of mentees of Hilltop Art Centre, Minna. How could you describe its role in promotion of literature and literary activities in Minna and the country as a whole?
Like I mentioned earlier, Mallam Kamar Hamza introduced me to the Hilltop Arts Center, and I remain grateful for it because of many things. I had the opportunity to encounter the amazing and brutally blunt mind of Paul Liam who was and still is a mentor there. It was there that my entire foundation for writing was laid. There is a well stocked library there, and we are allowed to borrow books. It was in that library that I encountered James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, Michael Crichton, Maya Angelou and a lot others.
The Arts Center features a writer every month during a program called Teen Authors Flash. This has helped in flashing the young writers at the society, to make them heard regardless of their age. It organises programs for the mentees in a quest to improve their craft. Workshops, meetings (every Saturday), readings and a lot more. Recently, it hosted the amazing writer, Chuma Nwokolo. The Hilltop Arts Center is a home.

What are you currently working on?
I am working on my poetry. I am seeking growth and improvement, like every artist does, by reading and working diligently. Harnessing the courage to say things in my poetry that society which ultimately points to you and I and them and everyone may scoff at because poetry is after all, a form of rebellion.
My poems are gradually developing into a poetry collection, I am working on that, putting them together.

Who do you look up to as a mentor?
Oh, I have one helluva (forgive my French) mentor in the amazing poet, Amu-Nnadi. He mentors me, as his books do me. I find inspiration in his books especially “through the window of a sandcastle”, and I’m looking forward to his new books. There are other mentors such as Paul Liam.

What are your favorite books and writers?
My favourite book is “The fault in our stars” by John Green. Favourite writers include John Green (of course), Ocean Vuoung, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Khaled Housseini, and of course Amu-nnadi.