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Literature in Northern Nigeria: Language and Popular Culture

English Language & Literature Project Topics & Materials

Literature in Northern Nigeria: Language and Popular Culture

Abstract

This essay delves into the study of literature in northern Nigeria. The study discusses the scope of literature, the region of Northern Nigeria and aspects of its popular culture, and finally goes ahead to examine the socio-political issues captured in Abubakar Gimba’s Inner Rumblings. It concludes that the literature of Northern Nigeria still needs to be explored to the fullest by the activities of Northern Nigerian writers so as to bring it to the fore of Nigeria and the world at large.
Keywords: Northern Nigeria, popular culture, literature.

1.0 Introduction

According to the online Encyclopædia Britannica (2015: 5), Literature is a form of human expression. But not everything expressed in words—even when organized and written down—is counted as literature. Those writings that are primarily informative—technical, scholarly, journalistic—would be excluded from the rank of literature by most, though not all, critics. Certain forms of writing, however, are universally regarded as belonging to literature as an art. Individual attempts within these forms are said to succeed if they possess something called artistic merit and to fail if they do not. The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. The writer need not even pursue it to attain it. On the contrary, a scientific exposition might be of great literary value and a pedestrian poem of none at all.
The essay was once written deliberately as a piece of literature; its subject matter was of comparatively minor importance. Today most essays are written as expository, informative journalism, although there are still essayists in the great tradition who think of themselves as artists. Now, as in the past, some of the greatest essayists are critics of literature, drama, and the arts. Some personal documents (autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and letters) rank among the world’s greatest literature. Some examples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind, others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer. Some are in a highly polished literary style; others, couched in a privately evolved language, win their standing as literature because of their cogency, insight, depth, and scope. One can conceive of Literature as a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.

Definitions of the word literature tend to be circular. The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2007:136) considers literature to be “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” The 19th-century critic, Walter Pater referred to “the matter of imaginative or artistic literature” as a “transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinitely varied forms.” But such definitions assume that the reader already knows what literature is. And indeed its central meaning, at least, is clear enough. Deriving from the Latin littera, a letter of the alphabet, literature is first and foremost humankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is an individual piece of writing. Thus, every group possesses a literature peculiar to them and which defines the individual writings that make up that group.

But already it is necessary to qualify these statements. To use the word “writing” when describing literature is itself misleading, for one may speak of “oral literature” or “the literature of preliterate peoples.” The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page; they are there solely because of the craft of writing. As an art, literature might be described as the organization of words to give pleasure. Yet through words literature elevates and transforms experience beyond mere pleasure. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter. Literature also functions more broadly in society as a means of both criticizing and affirming cultural values. This means that the literature of a people spells out the identity of such people. Literature in Northern Nigeria is hinged on the cultural heritage of the Hausa-Fulani people which in a sense is an offshoot of the Arab tradition.

This essay is about the literature of Northern Nigeria, popular culture and the language use. It is noteworthy that Northern Nigerian literature combines various art forms of drama, music, poetry, orature, etc. and such literature aims to communicate values to the audience as well as to entertain.

2.0 An Overview of Literature

The online Encyclopædia Britannica (2015:7) catalogues the development and the criteria of what constitutes literature from pre-literate to modern times noting that the content of literature is as limitless as the desire of human beings to communicate with one another. The thousands of years, perhaps hundreds of thousands, since the human species first developed speech have built up the almost infinite systems of relationships called languages. A language is not just a collection of words in an unabridged dictionary but the individual and social possession of living human beings, an inexhaustible system of equivalents, of sounds to objects and to one another. Its most primitive elements are those words that express direct experiences of objective reality, and its most sophisticated concepts on a high level of abstraction. Words are not only equivalent to things; they have varying degrees of equivalence to one another. A symbol, according to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2007:506), is something that stands for something else or a sign used to represent something, “as the lion is the symbol of courage, the cross the symbol of Christianity, the crescent and the star as a symbol of Islam.” In this sense all words can be called symbols, but the examples given—the lion, the cross and the crescent and star—are really metaphors: that is, symbols that represent a complex of other symbols, and which are generally negotiable in a given society (just as money is a symbol for goods or labour). Eventually a language comes to be, among other things, a huge sea of implicit metaphors, an endless web of interrelated symbols. As literature, especially poetry, grows more and more sophisticated, it begins to manipulate this field of suspended metaphors as a material in itself, often as an end in itself. Thus, there emerge forms of poetry (and prose, too) with endless ramifications of reference, as in Japanese waka and haiku, some ancient Irish and Norse verse, and much of the poetry written in Western Europe since the time of Baudelaire that is called modernist. It might be supposed that, at its most extreme, this development would be objective, constructive—aligning it with the critical theories stemming from Aristotle’s Poetics. On the contrary, it is romantic, subjective art, primarily because the writer handles such material instinctively and subjectively, approaches it as the “collective unconscious,” to use the term of the psychologist Carl Jung, rather than with deliberate rationality (online Encyclopædia Britannica, 2015:7).

By the time literature appears in the development of a culture, the society has already come to share a whole system of stereotypes and archetypes: major symbols standing for the fundamental realities of the human condition, including the kind of symbolic realities that are enshrined in religion and myth. Literature may use such symbols directly, but all great works of literary art are, as it were, original and unique myths. The world’s great classics evoke and organize the archetypes of universal human experience. This does not mean, however, that all literature is an endless repetition of a few myths and motives, endlessly retelling the first stories of civilized man, repeating the Greek Epic of Odyssey or Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. The subject matter of literature is as wide as human experience itself. Myths, legends, and folktales lie at the beginning of literature, and their plots, situations, and allegorical (metaphorical narrative) judgments of life represent a constant source of literary inspiration that never fails. This is so because mankind is constant—people share a common physiology. Even social structures, after the development of cities, remain much alike. Whole civilizations have a life pattern that repeats itself through history.

As time goes on, literature tends to concern itself more and more with the interior meanings of its narrative, with problems of human personality and human relationships. Many novels are fictional, psychological biographies which tell of the slowly achieved integration of the hero’s personality or of his disintegration, of the conflict between self-realization and the flow of events and the demands of other people. This can be presented explicitly, where the characters talk about what is going on in their heads, either ambiguously and with reserve, as in the novels of Henry James, or overtly, as in those of Dostoyevsky. Alternatively, it can be presented by a careful arrangement of objective facts, where psychological development is described purely in terms of behaviour and where the reader’s subjective response is elicited by the minute descriptions of physical reality, as in the novels of Stendhal and the greatest Chinese novels like the Dream of the Red Chamber, which convinces the readers that through the novel it is seeing reality itself, rather than an artfully contrived semblance of reality.

Literature, however, is not solely concerned with the concrete, with objective reality, with individual psychology, or with subjective emotion. Some deal with abstract ideas or philosophical conceptions. Much purely abstract writing is considered literature only in the widest sense of the term, and the philosophical works that are ranked as great literature are usually presented with more or less of a sensuous garment. Thus, Plato’s Dialogues ranks as great literature because the philosophical material is presented in dramatic form, as the dialectical outcome of the interchange of ideas between clearly drawn, vital personalities, and because the descriptive passages are of great lyrical beauty. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867–95) approaches great literature in certain passages in which he expresses the social passion he shares with the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament. Euclid’s Elements (1883-85) and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1947) give literary, aesthetic satisfaction to some people because of their purity of style and beauty of architectonic construction. In short, most philosophical works that rank as great literature do so because they are intensely human. The reader responds to Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (1660), to Michel de Montaigne Essays (1580), and to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (1634) as he would to living men. Sometimes the pretence of purely abstract intellectual rigour is in fact a literary device. The writings of the 20th-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, owe much of their impact to this approach, while the poetry of Paul Valéry (1871-1945) borrows the language of philosophy and science for its rhetorical and evocative power.

In preliterate societies oral literature was widely shared; it saturated the society and was as much a part of living as food, clothing, shelter, or religion. Many tribal societies remained primarily oral cultures until the 19th century. In early societies the minstrel might be a courtier of the king or chieftain, and the poet who composed liturgies might be a priest. But the oral performance itself was accessible to the whole community. As society evolved its various social layers or classes, an “elite” literature began to be distinguishable from the “folk” literature of the people. With the invention of writing this separation was accelerated until finally literature was being experienced individually by the elite (reading a book), while folklore and folk song were experienced orally and more or less collectively by the non-literate common people. Elite literature continuously refreshes itself with materials drawn from the popular. Almost all poetic revivals, for instance, include in their programmes a new appreciation of folk song, together with a demand for greater objectivity. On the other hand folk literature borrows themes and, very rarely, patterns from elite literature. Many of the English and Scottish ballads that date from the end of the Middle Ages and have been preserved by oral tradition share plots and even turns of phrase with written literature. A very large percentage of these ballads contain elements that are common to folk ballads from all over Western Europe; central themes of folklore, indeed, are found all over the world. Whether these common elements are the result of diffusion is a matter for dispute. They do, however, represent great psychological constants, archetypes of experience common to the human species, and so these constants are used again and again by elite literature as it discovers them in folklore.

There is a marked difference between true popular literature, that of folklore and folk song, and the popular literature of modern times. According to the online Encyclopædia Britannica (2015:9), Popular literature today is produced either to be read by a literate audience or to be enacted on television or in the cinema; it is produced by writers who are members, however lowly, of an elite corps of professional literates. Thus, popular literature no longer springs from the people; it is handed to them. Their role is passive. At best they are permitted a limited selectivity as consumers. Certain theorists once believed that folk songs and even long, narrative ballads were produced collectively, as has been said in mockery “by the tribe sitting around the fire and grunting in unison.” This idea is very much out of date. The Encyclopædia Britannica notes that folk songs and folk tales began somewhere in one human mind. They were developed and shaped into the forms in which they are now found by hundreds of other minds as they were passed down through the centuries. Only in this sense were they “collectively” produced. During the 20th century, folklore and folk speech had a great influence on elite literature—on writers as different as Franz Kafka and Carl Sandburg, Selma Lagerlöf and Kawabata Yasunari, Martin Buber and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Folk song has always been popular with bohemian intellectuals, especially political radicals (who certainly are the elite). Since World War II the influence of folk song upon popular song has not just been great; it has been determinative. Almost all “hit” songs since the mid-20th century have been imitation of folk songs; and some authentic folk singers attract immense audiences.

Popular fiction and drama, westerns and detective stories, films and television serials, all deal with the same great archetypal themes as folktales and ballads, though this is seldom due to direct influence; these are simply the limits within which the human mind works. The number of people who have elevated the formulas of popular fiction to a higher literacy level is surprisingly small. Examples are H.G. Wells’s early science fiction, the western stories of Gordon Young and Ernest Haycox, the detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Georges Simenon, and Raymond Chandler.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed an even greater change in popular literature. Writing is a static medium: that is to say, a book is read by one person at a time; it permits recollection and anticipation; the reader can go back to check a point or move ahead to find out how the story ends. In radio, television, and the cinema the medium is fluent; the audience is a collectivity and is at the mercy of time. It cannot pause to reflect or to understand more fully without missing another part of the action, nor can it go back or forward. Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media (1964) became famous for erecting a whole structure of aesthetic, sociological, and philosophical theory upon this fact. But it remains to be seen whether the new, fluent materials of communication are going to make so very many changes in civilization, let alone in the human mind—mankind has, after all, been influenced for thousands of years by the popular, fluent arts of music and drama. Even the most transitory television serial was written down before it was performed, and the script can be consulted in the files. Before the invention of writing, all literature was fluent because it was contained in people’s memory. In a sense it was more fluent than music, because it was harder to remember. Man in mass society becomes increasingly a creature of the moment, but the reasons for this are undoubtedly more fundamental than his forms of entertainment.

Literature, like all other human activities, necessarily reflects current social and economic conditions. Class stratification was reflected in literature as soon as it had appeared in life. Among the American Indians, for instance, the chants of the shaman, or medicine man, differ from the secret, personal songs of the individual, and these likewise differ from the group songs of ritual or entertainment sung in the community. In the Heroic Age, the epic tales of kings and chiefs that were sung or told in their barbaric courts differed from the folktales that were told in peasant cottages. The more cohesive a society, the more the elements—and even attitudes—evolved in the different class strata are interchangeable at all levels. In the tight clan organization that existed in late medieval times at the Scottish border, for example, heroic ballads telling of the deeds of lords and ladies were preserved in the songs of the common people. But where class divisions are unbridgeable, elite literature is liable to be totally separated from popular culture. An extreme example is the Classical literature of the Roman Empire. Its forms and its sources were largely Greek—it even adopted its laws of verse patterning from Greek models, even though these were antagonistic to the natural patterns of the Latin language—and most of the sophisticated works of the major Latin authors were completely closed to the overwhelming majority of people of the Roman Empire. At first, changes in literary values are appreciated only at the upper levels of the literary elite itself, but often, within a generation, works once thought esoteric are being taught as part of a school syllabus. Most cultivated people once thought James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) incomprehensible or, where it was not, obscene. Today, his methods and subject matter are commonplace in the commercial fiction of the mass culture. A few writers remain confined to the elite. Mallarmé is a good example—but he would have been just as ethereal had he written in the simplest French of direct communication. His subtleties are ultimately grounded in his personality.

According to Ali (2014:2), literature in Northern Nigeria draws heavily from the socio-political situations of the region and the country at large. Abubakar Gimbar and the writings of Helon Habila exemplify this. It also features prominent aspects of folklores like the works of Usman Bukar that have been written in English and Hausa languages. Such works as The Hyena and the Squirrel, Tsunade, Dan Agwai Da Kura, Dan Kutang Ayya, Dankucaka, etc. are among the many of such literatures.

Hausa drama generally has a popular appeal and owes much to the dramatic style of traditional storytelling; it has focused on social problems, particularly those involving the Hausa family, with its tradition of polygamy. This practice has been criticized in many plays—for example, Tabarmar Kunya (1969; “Matter of Shame”) by Adamu dan Gogo and Dauda Kano. Some plays satirize the dependence of uneducated people on Muslim scholars and some—for example, Umaru Balarme Ahmed’s Buleke (1970)—depicts characters who lead a hectic modern life but are nevertheless still rooted in tradition. Hausa Plays are performed often in schools and are featured frequently on radio and television.

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