Cheating on Science: Abdulrahim Hussani’s award-winning literary journey

I came across the brilliant Nigerian writer Hussani Abdulrahim, and I think I have found a treasure. Hussani has what it takes to contribute greatly to the development of African literature. He has a river of stories to tell.

With a background in science, Hussani has a degree in Chemistry, but he has even more appeal in the arts as an award-winning writer. He is a finalist for the 2022 Gerald Kraak Award and the 2021 Albert Jungers Poetry Prize. He is the winner of the 2019 Poetically Written Prose Contest and ANA Kano/Peace Panel Poetry Prize; he was a semifinalist for the Boston Review 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, a 2018 Africa Book Club short story contest finalist, and was shortlisted for the 2019 ACT Award. He also won the 2016 Green Author Prize.

He lives in Northern Nigeria, working on his debut collection of short stories.

I love how prose stretches and lingers. But I also love the abruptness of poetry.

It’s been a long time coming, Hussani. In 2016, you won the WRR Green Author Prize. After that, you never looked back. You have been nominated and shortlisted for several literary awards. How did you find literature? What developed your interest in it?

Thank you very much. I’ve not thought much about when it all began. Yes, reading triggered it. I was in Primary 5 when I got my first real encounter with literature. It was a rude one. Cyprian Ekwensi’s classic tragedy, An African Night’s Entertainment.

I would eventually read it again as a prescribed text during my junior secondary school years. I was more aware this time. The book haunted me. I pondered the intricacies of love and how people suffer because of it. Then there was The Passport of Mallam Illia by the same author. I still have the scene where Zahra dies in the hands of Illia, his name unfinished, trapped in her lungs, stuck in my head. These tragedies my young mind struggled with.

But it didn’t occur to me that I could write until I discovered the joy of reading newspapers. My mum had a shop back then, and I was mostly the one acting as the shopkeeper. There was this man who sold old newspapers. We bought from him and sold them to women who sold snacks by the roadside. I was marvelled by the columnists I discovered and the ideas they shared. That was when I began to write my thoughts, poems that were mostly good words strung together.

Interesting start. Unlike you, who started writing poems, I started with a short story and didn’t know it was a short story. Looking at your literary journey so far, I figured out that aside from the poems you started with, you also write beautiful short stories because I’ve read them. Are you more of a poet or a short story writer? Or, would you say you hold the two genres equally?

It’s difficult when I’m made to choose between poetry and prose. It’s more of a deadlock. Come to think of it. I didn’t start with poetry. I once wrote a piece after we read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in class; somehow, my classmates laid their hands on it, and I was ridiculed.

What I thought was a reasonable attempt at writing a story became a joke, and I felt like melting away. It was then I began to write poems. I was engrossed by the ones I found in my English textbooks and the art sections of newspapers. But, I read more prose works. I still do.

However, when I’m faced with the decision of making either a prose or poetry submission, I, more often than not, choose prose. I’ve no explanation for this. I love how prose stretches and lingers. But I also love the abruptness of poetry. I just can’t seem to make an outright choice.

I know writers who switch between poetry and prose complain, especially the ones that have immersed themselves in poetry, about finding it difficult to navigate through the genres—they find themselves wanting to write prose but end up with a poetry-like narrative—what’s your lucky charm in making sure you don’t find yourself amidst the basket of the complainants?

I have heard such complaints from writer friends too. I don’t think I’ve found much trouble transitioning from poetry to prose. That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth for me. I have those moments when my ideas aren’t just clicking when I try to put them down. It’s natural. However, I think writers sometimes find it difficult to cross from poetry to prose because of unnecessary persistence. Writing shouldn’t be forced. It should flow naturally. You and the words, plots, and characters have to become one. And when this happens, I know. I feel it deep down inside me.

I can go weeks, even months, without writing anything, but that’s not what is happening in the background. My mind is alert, processing thoughts and images until the story is ready to be written.

Essentially, I’m trying to say that I approach prose writing with a different kind of patience. When the writing isn’t working, I let it be. Writers, especially younger ones, need to learn not to force it. They need to understand that prose requires a different approach. One can write a batch of poems within a short period, but that isn’t how it works with prose. If you end up with a good short story, you must be at it for weeks and months, depending on your writing routine. The prose is a different kettle of fish. Once you understand this as a poet, you won’t find crossing from the other side of the divide a too difficult task to accomplish.

You’re a science student. You graduated from the University of Usmanu Danfodio with a degree in Pure Chemistry. My curiosity won’t forgive me if I do not ask how you juggle life as a chemist and a creative writer? And of what importance is your course of study to your literary prowess? How’s it contributed to your journey as a creative?

People usually wonder how that works. They always find it weird to learn what I studied at the university. But we all know that not every creative writer studied creative writing in school.

Sadly enough, Chemistry has nothing to do with my writing. Those two are far apart. I never really loved Chemistry. You know how the Nigerian education system works; you sometimes study what you never bargained for. The part of me occupied by Chemistry is rather negligible compared to how dearly I cling to creative writing. This may come as a surprise to many, but it is what it is.

During my undergraduate years, I’ll spend time in class writing poems, reading stories, or discussing writing stuff with Samuel Oladele, another fine writer whom I was lucky to encounter in my department. There’s no competition between Chemistry and creative writing in my heart. If ever I’m faced with choosing between the two, I won’t hesitate to go with writing. Therefore, I don’t find it difficult to manage both.

From Rumi to Neruda— these poets and some other poets have a lot of their works centred around the theme of love. I believe, as long you are a human, there’s always something to love, something that loves you. It may be platonic, romantic, family love, or other relationships between two subjects/objects. Love is an inevitable element we experience as humans—putting this feeling together creatively is following in the footsteps of these poets, as you have done in a poem of yours, I Do Not Know How to Love More, which won you the BPPC July 2019 edition. I particularly love this poem, and I do not know how to love it more, except if you tell me what inspired it?

I have always seen myself as a hopeless romantic. And I did suffer for it (laughs). There was a time when all I wanted to do was write love poems; it even earned me the nickname Neruda. I read Rumi too, but his works had a philosophical leaning that I couldn’t match up with for some reasons. So, it was Pablo Neruda all the way. Even in that BPPC poem, I felt like I was Neruda himself.

The truth is that I fell in love, and a poet does not know how best to express his feelings if not in words. I was love drunk, and I’ve heard that it’s the potion one needs to write love poems that would move others. And to prove that theory right, I’ve tried to write other poems since then, but none has looked half as decent and sacred. Love does more to the heart and head than we can ever know.

That poem is a warm memory, a reminder that I once bared my heart for someone for whom I would catch a grenade.

I guess we have all been there. As I said, love is an inevitable feeling. For the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, Alheri, a short story you wrote made you a semifinalist. Alheri is a Hausa word. What does it mean, and what’s its relevance to the story?

Alheri readily translates to grace and kindness. There wasn’t anything special about my choice of the name, except that I’ve always desired my work to look different.

What you did with its storyline was staggering. I observed that the setting is in Northern Nigeria. Alheri, the central character of the story, who’s also a widow, afraid of not finding a husband, seeks the help of Baba to help her revive her husband. When Baba asks why she wants her husband back, she says, “I love him. And here, where men do not look the way of widows, one is filled with desires,” Now, I want to ask, is this something that happens only in the North, and why did you think it is important to explore this topic?

There are many issues in the North concerning women. Widowhood is something that isn’t much talked about. Women, especially those in rural areas, where education and modernisation remain rare commodities, go through a lot when they lose their men. Fending for children and themselves can be difficult.

And what about the emotional aspect? It’s something we don’t get to hear about. This is what I tried to do with the story, shed more light on a salient aspect of widowhood that is usually neglected. And I don’t think it’s something peculiar to the north; it’s universal.

Still on Alheri. The power in your narrative lies in the big picture you paint with your words, how your words become a city where characters come to live in a reader’s mind. You know, speculative fiction or fantasy is of various types. There are fairy tales, magical realism, epic fantasy, and so on. Alheri is low fantasy — set in the real world with a magical character in the person of Hakuri. Why did you think fantasy is the best way to give life to this story?

I’ve always loved speculative fiction because of the boundless possibilities it provokes. I have this obsession with wanting my work to look different. I didn’t want to write another story about a young woman who has lost her husband. Those that say everything has been written before aren’t far from the truth. Therefore, the new writer is left with two options: write what has been written without much change, or write what has been written uniquely. I picked the latter. And I discovered that only speculative fiction or fantasy could allow me to express my thoughts uniquely. That’s why writers like Lesley Nneka Arimah, Chikodili Emelumadu, and Pemi Aguda will always occupy a special place in my heart. These brilliant writers ensure that their stories stand away from the crowd.

Congratulations on your recent win in the recently concluded Gerald Kraak Prize. How did you feel when you were announced as one of the shortlisted writers?

When I received a congratulatory email from the prize organisers, I lived in a dreamland. I never expected my work would be considered for such a prestigious award.

Seeing the likes of Ukamaka Olisakwe, Kanyinsola, Chisom, and other exceptional writers on the shortlist made me feel good about myself. It’s not easy to get your work out there these days, especially for the average Nigerian writer who has many demons to combat in a complex society.

The shortlisting paved the way for a mentorship opportunity with writer Shaun De Waal. I’m also grateful to chief judge Otosirieze Obi-Young, who made vital inputs to prepare my story for publication. It was a great experience. The feeling remains surreal.

Mama, what happened to Habeeba?’

‘She went to a faraway place where there is peace.’

‘When will she come back?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why did she go away?’

‘She had to.’

‘Who took her?’

‘Allah took her.’

‘Why did he take her?’

‘Because he loves her.’

‘But I love her, too!’

‘Of course, you do. But Allah takes whomever he wants, whenever he wants.’ 

‘I want him to take me too so I can be with Habeeba and so that we can play together again. Will Allah take me?’

‘Yes, Allah will take you.’

‘When will He?’

‘When the time comes.’

‘When is that?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But will you tell him to take me?’

‘Of course, I will.’

‘When will you?’

‘When I pray to him later.’

‘Will you tell him to hurry?’

‘Yes, I will.’

The powerful conversation above ensues between a boy character and his mother, Zaitouna, in Twilight, which earned you a spot amongst the shortlisted writers. Reading this conversation makes me remember books like Houseboy. Toundi as a child character. Baba, in African Child. Ege boom boom, in Boom Boom. All the aforementioned have something in common with your story, Twilight, and that’s the usage of a child character. The infusion of children’s innocence makes literature powerful. Twilight affirms that once again. What do you think about the infusion of child character or, better still, a child narrative technique in literature, considering the conversation as mentioned earlier in your story?

The child character narrative technique brings a different dimension to a story. What you get is the truth unveiled, even though clouded by innocence. And that is where the beauty lies. Innocence hits us differently. A child’s way of seeing things is easily dismissed, but when employed in narration, we see that it holds power and is as pure as a sunflower opening to the incursions of sunlight at dawn.

Uwem Akpan did it perfectly in his famous New Yorker story Our Parents’ Bedroom. Using a child narrator makes the story as bare as possible. I’ve always wanted to explore it, and I’m glad it paid off in Twilight. There’s no better way the story would’ve been told.

Why is the second narrative technique used in Twilight compared to the third narrative technique used in Alheri? Or is the technique more suited when addressing the issue of insurgency, as you’ve done with Twilight?

I like fancy writing (laughs). If I can’t do that, I look for an aspect of work that can stand out. The second-person POV is rare and often frowned on, probably because it is hard to pull off and restrains how a narrative flows. But if done right, then you reap the benefits. Whenever I want to write a story, I usually follow this sequence in my head: the idea, then the main character, and the writing technique.

My reason for using the second-person POV in Twilight is to put the reader in the thick of the story. One may say the first-person POV does that better. True, but this second-person POV simply clicked for me.

In Alheri, I didn’t think too much of the POV. Being it fantasy, I already had the opportunity to make the work tick regardless of the POV. When I write and discover that the work isn’t flowing well, I contemplate changing the POV to see if that solves it. That’s how it works for me.

Finally! I truly appreciate your work. Thank you for speaking with me. Are you working on a short story collection or a poetry collection? How soon is it going to be out there?

The pleasure is mine Kayode. Thanks for having me.

Yes, I’m currently working on my debut collection of short stories. I have no idea when that will be ready (smiles). I also have a couple of short stories coming up in some reputable online magazines. I have a poetry chapbook manuscript in consideration somewhere. However, I’m hoping in a few years. I’ll have a substantial body of work sitting pretty on bookshelves around the globe.

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