Littattafan Soyayya —roughly translated into “books of love”—is the pride and joy of contemporary Nigerian fiction. It refers to a large body of romance pulp-fiction produced and read in Northern Nigeria.
Glenna Gordon who spent two years documenting life in northern Nigeria captured the lives of the brilliant and entrepreneurial women behind the Soyayya literary phenomenon. Many of these photographs, including others of day-to-day life in the north was recently published in a book titled Diagram of the Heart.
Soyayya literature is one of the few existing literary movements carried out entirely in an African language. Written in Hausa, these novels are consumed by a vast community of readers.
It all started in the 1980s—a whole decade before Nollywood—with the publication of romance stories by writers such as Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. Today, these stories can be bought everywhere in the north, from Kano to Zaria.
There is so much that is amazing about Soyayya novels. Like Nollywood, the success of these writings has depended solely on informal book markets and grassroots support. Without the backing of established publishing houses, these writers have been able to build a vibrant literary industry. Of course, it matters that the leaders of this decades-long literary movement are mostly women. Kwara State University professor Carmen McCain is the go-to person for those interested in learning more about Soyayya novels [see here]. Dr. McCain also illustrated the soyayya passages excerpted in Gordon’s book. Soyayya stories are hard to find in English, so kudos to Dr. McCain for collaborating with Gordon on that front.
Gordon’s images are hauntingly beautiful. But they are also so refreshingly real. They show a different side of life as an African writer—a side that is often lost in the global obsession over celebrity African authors. These are the writers down there in the trenches, working hard to open up new avenues for producing, circulating, and consuming African fiction.
Kudos to the writers and to Gordon for telling their stories so beautifully.
Image by Glenna Gordon via Wired.com