Literature in the North: A review of Mujahid Ameen Lilo’s City of Smoke
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Mujahid Ameen Lilo’s City of Smoke, a collection of stirring short stories, shows that the future of Nigeria’s literary foray is in the North, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews
There can be no doubt about it; the future of Nigerian literature is in the north! Early Nigerian English literature had Cyprian Ekwensi standing in for the North with novellas like ‘An African Night’s Entertainment’ and ‘The Passport of Mallam Ilia’ just as Amos Tutola and Wole Soyinka stood in for the South and Chinua Achebe held the fort for South East. I remember being thrilled by the tales of knife fights, love, revenge, and magic spells told by Cyprain Ekwensi in ‘An African Night’s Entertainment’ and ‘The Passport of Mallam Ilia’! Those were wonderful times I wish life would once more relinquish to me—all I have of them now are but fond memories.
While it is true that northern Nigeria is perhaps the earliest place to have produced written literature in Nigeria (using Arabic alphabet); and there exists quite a number of writings today in Hausa using a varying form of Latinised alphabet; one can actually say that the north has been a bit slow in watering the seeds of its literature in English language.
At a time, Abubakar Gimba dominated the scene with novels like Trails of Sacrifice and Witnesses to Tears which are preoccupied with the themes of nationhood, morality, discipline, and corruption. Soon came Ahmed Yerima with his historical plays like Ameh Oboni: The Great and Attahiru. Perhaps, the story may not be complete without mentioning the Gombe born writer, Helon Habila. However in contrast to these writers, the backdrops of Habila’s best novels (Waiting for an Angel and Oil on Water) are big southern urban cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt which may be a bit remote to capture the daily existence of northerners.
However, it appears a great turn in northern Nigeria literature was marked by the entry of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim into the literary scene. His debut collection of short stories, The Whispering Trees, shows a writer who is prepared to experiment with new styles and bring us in direct contact with the everyday realities of northern Nigeria. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim courageously went on to point out the many ills in his society and brought us to the realisation that we need to address these things. Among the issues discussed by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim are forced marriage (especially of young girls), religious violence, political thuggery, drug abuse, the almajiri caste system, clash of values in a seemingly conservative north among several other issues. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was to attain literary maturity with the publication of his novel Season of Crimson Blossom, a novel which I reckon the best to ever emerge from northern Nigeria.
With Abubakar Adam Ibrahim broaching topics which were tacitly agreed to be taboo topics, he had lit the torch for the younger crop of northern Nigeria writers who would also touch upon these themes and jostle to snatch the baton from him. I have read quite a few of these emerging young writers on various platforms on Facebook and print media and they show promising signs that could make one safely assert that the future of Nigerian literature is in the north.
Aside from this, we must know that the north is brimming with stories waiting to be told. There exist lots of virgin and untapped stories in the north and the younger crop of northern Nigerian writers are now hurriedly digging them up. Indeed, Northern Nigeria is a fertile soil with trees bearing fruits of stories waiting to be plucked. These stories may emerge from history which the north is rich in, there may also be built around the almajiri caste system, or be stories of drug abuse, clash of modern culture against conservative cultural and religious views, role and position of women in the society, forced child marriage, love, and even sad phenomena as farmers and herdsmen clashes, banditry, and the Boko Haram terrorism. Great literature has always emerged from places with issues as these and the younger generations of northern writers see writing as an avenue to analyse, identify, and discuss the many ills in their society in order to bring about solutions.
Mention must also be made of some of the many literary foundations, among which the Hilltop Arts Centre Minna and Kaduna Literary and Arts Festival (Kabafest) are prominent, encouraging literary outputs in northern Nigeria. These literary organisations, using mass media platforms especially, have created a huge awareness and interest in writing and literature in northern Nigeria. Let’s just hope they continue to keep up the pace, even if they are unable to increase the tempo.
Now, to the main part that has brought me to this topic. Surely, you do not expect that I was just going to talk about the sudden upsurge of northern literature without a mention of the writer who provoked my thought in this direction. Do you?
I have just finished eating a collection of short stories titled City of Smoke by one of the young writers from northern Nigeria, Mujahid Ameen Lilo, and his palatable, thought provoking and scintillating stories inspired my sojourn into northern Nigeria’s literature.
Mujahid Ameen Lilo’s short stories are in tandem with the realities of our present existence. They talk about forced child marriage, unrequited love, polygamy, and of course, the Boko Haram menace.
While we may say that there is nothing unique in the style in which Mujahid tells his stories, his themes are captivating and at the same time saddening. The first story in the collection titled ‘Questions to the Mirror’ talks about a loveless child marriage and divorce. But I think the story reads more as a poem than as a narrative. It merely tells and forgets to show, albeit it discusses an important issue. Hence, I think it should either be reworked to read as a poem, or a short story.
However, what ‘Questions to the Mirror’ took away from the writer, ‘Love’ did return as the next story redeemed the writer’s image. ‘Love’ is a story of teenage love, a story of unrequited first love, a story of betrayal; it is a story of a young girl who would have the man she wants despite her mother’s headstrong refusal. It all ends up in an awry situation as she finds herself in the family way, and the one she loves—nowhere to be found.
‘Leaving Borno’ captures parental disappointment as the son the parents thought would succeed in life turns out to be the black sheep of the family. Worse still, he goes on to become a member of the Boko Haram terrorist group and puts his family on the run for fear that they might be his first victims, a test to embolden him and unleash his evil nature.
‘Dear Husband’ captures marital conflict and the role played by close relatives in it. A young wife decides to cut off the life of her mother-in-law to deter her husband from getting a new wife because she is unable to conceive, yet it appears her problems were just beginning for like William Shakespeare’s eponymous character, Macbeth, she finds no rest and is at the edge of suicide herself.
‘Wingless Bird’ talks of forced marriage and the young bride’s near attempt at committing murder until she is finally ordered to leave by the man who enticed her parents with money to force her into marriage with him.
Mujahid’s stories are a quick read and do not take much of your time, you could even finish them over a hot cup of coffee, but I can assure you that they will remain ringing in your mind for a long while.
However, I should say I detest the consistent use of the second person pronoun for narration, it is quite popular these days with the younger crop of writers, and I think it is overused as to become a cliché even. Not all readers want to empathise with the characters at all times, readers sometimes prefer the old way of sitting behind the screen and watching the story play out, or listening to a character tells it all; Mujahid deprives us of this opportunity in this collection.
In as much as I want to see this writer’s uniqueness, I am also conversant with the fact that most budding literary writers begin by imitating others before graduating into literary maturity. Perhaps, we should let time tell if Mujahid has more long-reaching arrows in his quiver, or if he can only shoot with a weakened bow.
I also think the story ought to be reworked to eliminate its many grammatical inconsistencies so as not to hamper the reader’s enjoyment of the stories.
All in all, one can aptly say that Mujahid Ameen Lilo is a promising writer; one of whom I believe will leave a mark in the literature of northern Nigeria. We can only hope he keeps defiling virgin papers with stories in the colours of ink.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2020