Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home, by Nigerian Hausa novelist Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, is just one example of the flourishing genre of Hausa popular literature known as littattafan soyyaya, or “love literature”. As the term suggests, littattafan soyyaya is primarily concerned with love and romance, although like many definitions for genre literature this is a reductive one: Hausa popular literature generally depict situations that involve family and communal strife and resolution amidst the bounds and strictures of politics, religion, and social and cultural norms. Its focus on how traditional mores or values rub up against newly-defined values or boundaries brought about by the invasion of capital, or “globalisation”, is a theme that strikes a chord among its younger readers, in particular. Littattafan soyyaya has also come to be known by its academic term, Kano market literature, primarily because Kano is the city where the majority of the literature is written and sold.
Hausa popular media, including film and music, has a long history of being inspired and influenced by Hindi films—most of which were introduced to the Hausa public sometime around the ’50s. As Abdalla Uba Adamu describes in his essay, “Transglobal Media Flows and African Popular Culture”, one of the key revolutions in the “globalization of Hausa popular culture” occurred with the introduction of the cinema in large urban areas including Kano, Kaduna, and Jos in northern Nigeria. While still colonised by the British, the Hausa public had—occasionally, despite restrictions arising from strict spatial segregation—the opportunity to watch movies in the cinema on selected days, although their options were limited to British or European films. After independence from the British in 1960, however, the mainly Lebanese distributors began importing Hindi films—and found them to be a massive hit.
It seems fitting, then, that Chennai-based Blaft Publications has released what Hausa popular literature scholar Carmen McCain refers to as “the first international publication in translation of a contemporary Hausa novel”. This version of Sin is a Puppy, originally published in 1990 as Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, is translated by Aliyu Kamal. “We like the idea of South-South literary exchange, and we wish this sort of thing would happen more often”, write the editors of Blaft on their blog, and it is a sort of homecoming of sorts for littattafan soyyaya to be published in India, considering just how much it’s been influenced by the cultural products that came out of it. Brian Larkin, in “Bollywood Comes to Nigeria”, offers a few reasons as to why this might be the case:
“In a strict Muslim culture that still practices a form of purdah, Indian movies are praised because (until recently) they showed “respect” toward women. The problem with Hollywood movies, many of my friends complained, is that they have “no shame.” In Indian movies, they said, women are modestly dressed, men and women rarely kiss, and you never see women naked. Because of this, Indian movies are said to “have culture” in a way that Hollywood films seem to lack. The fact is that Indian films fit in with Hausa society. This is realized by Lebanese film distributors, and Indian video importers as well as Hausa fans. Major themes of Hindi films, such as the tension between arranged and love marriages, do not appear in Hollywood movies but are agonizing problems for Nigerian and Indian youth.”
It would be interesting, though, to consider how contemporary mainstream, big-budget Hindi movies—decidedly less “respectful” in terms of how it requires its women to present themselves—are received among the more religious sections of the Hausa community. Indeed, Yakubu has apparently revealed in an interview that although she would like to see her novel adapted into a Hindi film, she doesn’t much like contemporary Hindi films because they’re much “too Westernised”.
Blaft refers to Sin is a Puppy as a kind of “Islamic soap opera”, and that isn’t far off the mark. Balarama Ramat Yakubu’s slim, fast-paced novel centres on Rabi, the long-suffering wife of one adulterous and wayward Alhaji Abdu. Rabi and Alhaji Abdu’s elder daughter, Saudatu, of marriageable age and excellent, virtuous disposition, is a central character in a secondary story line that converges with the main. Although one does not want to give away the plot, suffice it to say that the trajectory of the novel’s narrative will be familiar to those who have watched Hindi romance films, just with a twist. As the majority of the Hausa population is Muslim, Hausa popular literature tends to focus on the ways in which patriarchy is enabled by religion, as well as the permissive codes of conduct granted to men in matters of sexuality and marriage, and Sin is a Puppy is one example.
“In this book, I tell the story about a type of man found commonly in Nigeria who regards a married woman with children as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace. These men think they may treat such a woman as poorly as they like, since they believe her to be completely worthless,” writes Yakubu in her preface to Sin is a Puppy, and as the novel shows us, a woman’s worth is defined by her relations to men. In the case of Rabi and Saudatu, who are pious, good and resourceful and independent women, a (somewhat) happy ending is possible.
What I found interesting is that for Rabi in particular, who basically starts from scratch after her husband throws her and her children out onto the street, this intelligence and resourcefulness doesn’t necessarily result in a neat happy ending or an ending that’s particularly satisfactory for her. At the end of the day, when Alhaji Abdu is down on his luck and abandoned by his new wife after the loss of his business and source of income, it falls on Rabi (upon the good advice of the men in her community) to take her husband back and give him a roof over his head.
There is a twist here, of course—the economic power has shifted, and Rabi emerges the breadwinner. As the novel ends at this point, it’s hard to say if economic power translates to greater power in the traditional patriarchal structure of the marriage, which so often valorises the male to the point of ridiculousness. This absurdity is sketched out quite roughly in Sin is a Puppy due to its brevity, but it’s there, nevertheless, and lingers on every page. Husbands and wives get into a fight, sometimes because of money and familial obligations, but mainly because these husbands are often very keen on taking on a second or third wife after “falling in love” with a comely face in the street or in a restaurant. When the fights get nasty, husbands are at liberty to dispose of their wives (and children) quite easily if they want to, while wives are necessarily caught in a bind: many of them don’t have an independent income and have to turn to resources outside, be it a kind parent or family member or neighbour to help them get back on their feet again.
The close-knit community is central in Sin is a Puppy and, one would imagine, Hausa society in general. This community is where Rabi gets support after her husband throws her out, but it’s also the community that pushes her to accept her husband back when he is down on his luck and without a (second) wife and home. It’s clear that Rabi isn’t happy about feeling “like a young girl in a forced marriage” yet again, particularly at a stage in her life where she’s carved out some measure of independence and strength. In that respect, Sin is a Puppy is explicit about who the usual losers are—although Alhaji Abdu gets what’s coming to him, he does also find his family to be a reliable one; they do, after all, take him in even after he had kicked them out in the past. But the women in this book often have to negotiate extremely rigid spaces, and it’s hard to think of any one of the women here considering themselves a winner.
Rabi’s daughter, Saudatu, has a good life with a good husband and a baby on the way, but all this is dependent on Saudatu performing a particularly circumscribed version of pious, good-natured womanhood. Saudatu and Rabi are both religious, and they both abide by the cultural norms as to what makes a good woman—as such, the book seems to imply, society rewards them for toeing the line. As a result, the women are often made to see other women as the enemy, and very often the enemy lives under the same roof as the second or third wife.
In the case of Rabi’s usurper, Delu, a former prostitute, she’s portrayed as having absolutely no sense of respect for anything or anyone other than her desire for both sex and money—a caricature, sure, but the text, either consciously or unconsciously, reveals how a caricature of evil femininity becomes an easy target for scorn and hatred by others in the community, and particularly as a way for “upstanding” women to mark themselves out as superior and worthy of the social status accorded to a good wife and mother. This isn’t to say that all wives in a polygamous arrangement exist in mutual antagonism; surely there are stories to be told about how women help and conspire with each other against patriarchal boundaries, so it’s worthwhile to remember that Sin is a Puppy is just but one novel in a vast genre, and drama and excitement is no doubt a central factor for profits and marketability where littattafan soyyaya is concerned.
That littattafan soyyaya is largely produced and consumed by women doesn’t come as a surprise, then, and what also doesn’t surprise is the fact that this form of popular literature has been subject to censure and censorship because it is seen to pose a threat to patriarchal cultural and religious norms. The essay, “Censorship and contemporary Hausa literature” published on Muslimah Media Watch, explains how the usual reasons are trotted out (particularly familiar to those of us in Malaysia) about the effects of littattafan soyyaya on the minds of young girls and women, and it also describes in greater detail some of the restrictions placed on other forms of popular culture. Abdalla Uba Adamu, both in the essay referred to at the start of this review and in the essay, “Loud Bubbles from a Silent Brook: Trends and Tendencies in Contemporary Hausa Prose Writing”, describes how women became the main consumers of Hindi films after the state-owned television networks started airing these films on TV channels—women who were previously barred from the cinema (wives and mothers observing purdah, in particular) could watch these films from within the comfort and safety of their own homes.
As Yakubu’s comments shows, Hausa consumers of Hindi film don’t necessarily agree with or adore every aspect of Hindi film culture that saturates Hausa popular culture, but as is common with imported trends, they pick and choose different strains and themes that make the most sense to their lived reality, and incorporate these elements into their cultural products. Scholars like Graham Furniss point out that Hausa popular literature owes much of its early development to the attention and encouragement of the university academics, particularly in Kano, and Sin is a Puppy depicts characters from what appears to be the general Hausa middle-class. One then wonders about the reach of these stories in terms of the expanse of the term “popular”, and whether resistance or opposition to it can also be analysed along class lines.
Because of all these concerns and more, Blaft’s foray into Nigerian popular literature with Sin is a Puppy is an intriguing, exciting project, and one can only hope for more of a South-South literary exchange. As for the story itself in Sin is a Puppy, lingering questions remain. Mostly, I imagine a different happy ending, where a community of strong-willed women prevents Rabi’s husband from crawling back home and invites Delu, the scorned second wife and former prostitute, to be a part of their lives. Sisters doing it for themselves, without having to put the needs of men ahead of their own. The men, one is quite sure, will do just fine.