Abdulrasak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize Made Me Proud As One Of His Students: An Interview With Prof Saleh Abdu With Khalid Imam

Professor Saleh Abdu was born in 1956 in Kwami, Kwami LGA, Gombe State. He attended Primary School in Kwami and Secondary School in Gombe town. The multilingual young Saleh who fluently speaks Bole, Hausa, Arabic and English languages was in Maiduguri for tertiary education at NECAS, now the University of Maiduguri. He bagged his BA degree in BUK as one of the varsity’s pioneer set in 1977 – 1980 where he was taught by excellent British and other foreign lecturers among whom was Mr Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Laureate in Literature. He did his National Service in Lagos and accepted Professor Krishna Rayan’ invitation to join the BUK academic team of English Department in 1981. Prof. Krishna Rayan, the author of Suggestion and Statement in Poetry, was the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Islamic Studies (FAIS) and Head of the Department of English and European Languages. After teaching and rising through the ranks to Chair of English Language Department in 2005, and clocking 30 years in the same Department, Professor Saleh Abdu transferred his services to Federal University, Kashere, returning to his home state, Gombe, to contribute and nurture the new university in Kashere. He has taught courses mostly in Literature at various levels and held administrative positions such as HOD, Sub-Dean, Dean, DVC and Ag. VC in BUK and Kashere. Professor Saleh Abdu has travelled to the UK, Germany, the Saudi Kingdom and a couple of African countries. He has written books and journal essays and has examined and assessed many academic colleagues for promotion to the Professorial rank in other universities. Professor Saleh’s area of specialization is Poetry Analysis, among others. Prof Abdu is married to Maimuna S. Abdu and they have nine (9) children.

 LitVo: Sir, let me begin on a lighter note, when and where did you meet your wife- your faithful poetry wife-and could you tell us what striking beauty and fascination in her had wooed you to her eternal embrace? Was it love at first sight, or not? And could you precisely remember how long is this marriage with poetry now?

 Saleh Abdu: Incidentally, Khalid, my marriage to my literal (real) and literary wives – in your poetic allusion – (Maimuna and Poetry) was “love” at first sight and first sound, respectively: Maimuna, when I first saw her on the playground (dandali) and the sonorous captivating sound for the first time when my Arabic teacher in the secondary school read the lines of Umurul Qais, the pre-Islamic poet of Arabia.

My interest in poetry commenced in secondary school when Mr Mohammed Mohsen, the Egyptian Arabic teacher, started reading Arabic poetry in the class. Soon enough, this interest in word-manipulation was easily and, I would say, naturally, translated into Hausa and English, both being relatively new, and therefore foreign, languages to me at that period of my growth. It may interest you to know that Shata’s lyrical lines “Jikan Mairo Maimuna jikan Mairo, Minari” when I later came to start enjoying this maestro’s songs, became Sallah gift for my wife-to-be, then. In 1978, I composed a poem for ‘Minari’, using Shata’s tune, being my wife’s name then and even now in Kwami.

Before my enrolment into primary school, I knew and could speak three languages: Bole, Kwami Dialect of Bole, and Fulfulde. Hausa came in full force into my life in primary school, then English, followed by Arabic. Reciprocating knowledge of all these languages is enhanced and guided by an interest in words and their manipulation by man. This is how poets and poetry came into my life and how these mere tenants in my life subsequently became permanent residents.

LitVo: Who were the poets who first won your heart? Was your poetry fascination a spark influenced by English or Hausa poets, or both?

Saleh Abdu: Jahiliyya, Pre-Islamic Arabic poets sparked my interest, but Hausa poetry (Shata’s songs on the radio, later the written poems of Namangi, Muazu Hadejia, etc) took over before I got introduced to the English Romantic poets in my very first year in the Defunct North East College of Arts & Science (NECAS) in Maiduguri where I read Arabic, English & Islamic Studies. I should quickly add that Chaucer also came into my life in GSS Gombe where our British English teacher wouldn’t allow anybody else to read The Canterbury Tales whenever I was in the class. At NECAS, the late Reverend D.P. Daly made the lines of Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Keats and George Gordon Byron come to life in the class before us in the 70s. Later when I came to Kano as a student of English, the very first set of undergraduates of BUK, I met Professor Krishna Rayan who took over, as it were, from where Rev Daly stopped, in the process of my immersion into English poetry. Rayan it was, as Dean and HOD then of the Department, who facilitated my employment largely on grounds of my performance in his poetry classes.

As you can see Khalid, there was a space for both Hausa and Arabic poets in my journey to the English poetry kingdom.

LitVo: As a seasoned lecturer, spending all your years teaching in the Departments of English of various universities, did you care to study or listen to Hausa poets or singers such as Sa’adu Zungur or Mamman Shata and the likes or contemporary ones like Aminu Ladan Abubakar (Alan Waka) or are you simply a person who restricted yourself to the palace of poetry written in the English language?

Saleh Abdu: I enjoy Aminu Alan Waka a lot. I love Kannywood singers, especially Zango and co. I still have in my collection NEPU songs by Zungur; Wakokin Muazu Hadejia and I had many Shata songs on cassette. Until recently I had Gambu, Haruna Uji, Ali Dansaraki, etc, in disks to which I listened in my car. I still enjoy a variety of Hausa songs, such as Ali Jita, Ali Makaho. But my schedules and limited free time are deprivations which deny me the leisure of Hausa and indeed all poems. Arabic poetry has receded far into the background when I dropped Arabic.

LitVo: Many of your students and literary associates know you not as Wamban Kwami (an exalted eminent traditional title bestowed only on distinguished sons of the soil like you), what would you say attributed to this- was it because your glaring visibility is more in literary scholarship especially as an effective teacher of poetry, or what?

Saleh Abdu: I wouldn’t speak for my students and associates on what, from their angle, keeps us together. The Wambai title and poetry are two different things in my life. The latter has been an intimate, cherished companion, willingly cultivated by me. The former was a product of my late father-in-law’s appreciation for my role as a model for the youth and my active involvement in enhancing their career in Kwami. My love for poetry mostly manifests itself covertly, I think, whenever I teach or preside over sessions of creative writers’ workshops. This explains my students’ memory. I forgot to tell you that my surviving secondary classmates still call me Chaucer in their nostalgic recollection of my performance in poetry lessons in secondary school.

LitVo: To hundreds of your students across the world, you are their gateway to the marvellous province of poetry, what would you say are the reasons the poetry teacher in you seems to out-shine not only the traditional title holder in you but even your other academic cum administrative positions? I mean not many could identify you as a former HOD or DVC, but everyone you taught could swiftly remember you as his or her door to the world of poetry, what would you attribute as responsible for this?

Saleh Abdu: Khalid, I may not be able to know precisely. But, one thing is clear in me: I love words and word manipulation. Combined with this, I love to teach, to impart knowledge, especially when I could see students’ curious eyes and imagine their hunger to know more. The attributes come into full force when my subject is poetry. I believe my passion and zest for expounding poetry must account for my students’ attitude in this regard.

LitVo: Who were your contemporaries as a student of poetry and teacher. Also, could you name a few of your old students?

Saleh Abdu: Professor A. A. Rasheed, Mr Bilya Bala, Dr Iro Anda, Dr Zakia Farhat were some of my mates in UG and MA class when we were taught poetry.

My memorable students were many but I can readily remember those who excelled: Profs IBK, Bala Muhammad, M. O. Bhadmus, M. Yakasai, Sadiya Mohammed, Moses Ochonu, Farook Kperogi; Alh Ibrahim Sheme, Dr Aliagan, Mr Ali M. Ali, etc.

LitVo: What makes poetry your oasis or a garden you are very much at home with? Why do you think some other literary scholars are avoiding poetry like an island infested with crocodiles? As a colleague to many, why do you think some prefer not to touch poetry even with a long stick? Is the insinuation – rightly or wrongly-that says poetry is difficult to teach one of the possible reasons? Is poetry difficult?

Saleh Abdu: Poetry is difficult for all readers economical with their faculty of imagination and intellectual creativity/curiosity. Listeners, but particularly readers of poetry need only to have a tiny space in their mind for the unusual, surprise and, therefore delight in new, unprecedented signification. But, Alas! Most readers, including language teachers, approach the poetry text with a mind for known, predictable meaning. Yes, there is always such a meaning, the literal, drab, denotative, as the commonplace meaning. But, because poets are more concerned with the other, higher, connotative, meaning, the flow of such surface meaning is invariably disrupted and its expectation frustrated by all repeated readings. Prof Rayan, in his Cambridge University Press book, Suggestion and Statement in Poetry (1977), advises emphasis on suggestion as opposed to statement both of which are necessarily there in a poem.

LitVo: Sir, you have been enjoying a distinguished career as a lecturer who taught dozens of brilliant minds and poets, but one would be stating the obvious saying you have given birth to dozens of poets, but you are not yourself a poet, are you? If this assumption is right, why do you restrict yourself to literary scholarship alone instead of marrying the two like the Niyi Osundares and the Abubakar Othmans who are both scholars and writers? Is it a deliberate choice, or are you simply one of such “poets” who opt to plant their poetic creations between the prose lines of their literary articles? Do you have published poetry books?

Saleh Abdu: No, I don’t have a poetry book and there are few published compositions to my credit. I belong to the category of Ayi Kwei Armah’s concept of the Chichi du du. As a student and junior academic, I composed poems which were presented at workshops and a couple were published in student magazines. But, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the critic-cat and the poet-rat could not cohabit my room. Guess who chased away the other of the two!

LitVo: There are as many definitions of poetry as there are plenty poets and/or literary scholars, of all the apt definitions of poetry you are familiar with, which ones were/are the most striking to you?

Saleh Abdu: For many years early in my career, I was a fan of Willian Wordsworth’s explanation in his Preface (to the second edition of his publication with William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge titled Lyrical Ballads) of the gestation process of poetry which has been adopted by many authors as a definition of the subject, emotion recollected in tranquillity. Subsequently, I became a long-time admirer of Ezra Pound’s words stretched in meaning to the utmost possible degree. Later, I came to admire the definition published in Lazaar (1990) that as great literature, poetry is the question minus the answer. Now, I am more comfortable with Osundare’s man meaning to man.  

LitVo: If the seemingly simple, but not simplistic question: what is poetry is to be posed to you, what would be your most immediate response?

Saleh Abdu: I have come to understand that what is called and studied as poetry emanated from man’s attempt to re-present his lived experience for the purpose of recollection, retrieval, edification and self-entertainment, consolation and sanity and safety in life. In this regard, the word, and so, language (spoken and written) came into being. I have come to understand that all words/names are actually metaphors, no word is a one-to-one equivalent of its referent. The closest to this ideal are the onomatopoeic words. So, language and all instances of language use constitute poetic/metaphoric use. A poem is merely raised higher in a degree of the same representation phenomenon by its consistent, repeated deployment of words, this cardinal metaphoric sign.

So, in an attempt at answering the question ‘what is poetry?’ I would draw my student/examiner’s attention to the above features of words, language and communication details.

LitVo: What makes a poem, poetic? In other words, must a poem have heart, skin and tongue or have eyes and ears to stand?  Put differently, what makes a poem endearing or delightful to the eyes or thrilling to the ears: is it the for more message, rhythm, musicality or simply its bravura?

Sale Abdu: What makes poetry poetic? Obviously, a seamless symbiosis of significations is enhanced by the reciprocating juxtaposition of morpho-phonetic features of its language of expression. These target features are best realized when verbalized. Thus, the importance of poetry reading/recitation.

LitVo: Is poetry a “spontaneous flow of emotions recollected in tranquillity” or an unconscious outpouring of a poet’s haunting grief and arresting despair or untamed rage, or a mixture of all?

 A mixture of all, if you like.

LitVo: Is asking a poet to comment on any of his poems, as Randall Jerrell puts it is akin “to asking a pig to judge the bacon competition”? How correct or instructive is this supposition?

Saleh Abdu: You may ask a poet or any writer to comment on his composition. But don’t expect from the composer anything other than an attempt to justify, rationalize, apologize for compositions. In many cases, the apologetics are so unacceptable as they are contentious in the face of the author’s creative works. Refer to Soyinka’s Myth Literature and the African World, Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day vis-à-vis the two writers’ volumes.

LitVo: Should the preoccupation of a poet be about putting things in the society right, or just be its mirror? What, in your opinion, should be the task or calling of a poet to his society or should “arts for art’s sake “be the stream a poet simply cares to bath in?

Saleh Abdu: Between Sembene Ousmane’s dictum that, Do you want to be a writer? Then you must champion a cause, and Plato’s imitation credo for the writer, I would preach “responsible intervention” for all writers. A writer’s composition is his intervention into the life of readers with an intention to make a difference, to alter or change or reinforce the status quo. No writing is done without a purpose. My call is for the writer’s purpose or ultimate effect to bring about a better world.

LitVo: How does the critic read the mind of a poem for the right perspective that matches the author’s intention? Or, could a poem’s mind be different to a reader from that of the author and still be a functional piece?

Saleh Abdu: For the mind of the reader and writer to coincide is a delightful coincidence. But the two don’t have to. They rarely do. And that is for the better. The notion of the death of the author and the theory of Reader Response and others emerging from Formalism and Linguistics all scuttle any idea tying down the reader to the author.

LitVo: People find it difficult to understand how poets are solid locks for nation-building, briefly appraise the contribution of poets (and poetry) in addressing the turbulent journey of Nigeria’s nationhood? Are you satisfied with the way and manner Nigerian poets have been participating in the making or marring of Nigeria as a nation?

Saleh Abdu: Poets and Poetry have borne the brunt of modern society’s thoughtless underestimation of the potentials of the Humanities. This is more so in the so-called Third World countries. This is where a country is often mistaken for a nation and all, all resources, are considered wasted if they are not expended in construction and imports. In these countries the almighty STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) reign supreme. Here infrastructure is prioritized over the human subject and attendant welfare. Roads, electricity grids, factories, substitute developed human minds. Lessons from the parable of the fate of the Chinese wall is lost for the architects of the nation.

Like all literary genres, Poetry has a huge role, side by side with History, Religious Studies, Language/Communication and Arts and Philosophy in nation-building. The Humanities control the pulse of the human community and it is laughable for countries to dream of building democracy as a bridge to nationalism without these veritable mind-builders.

LitVo: There is a flood of poets parading the literary landscape of Nigeria, a development some believe have eroded the quality of poetry churned out to daily?  Isn’t the surge especially by young minds a positive transformation considering the innovative shapes poetry has been taking? Why is poetry less patronized by the populace yet the most widely written in Nigeria?

Saleh Abdu: The current poetry deluge is a healthy development. That poetry is largely shunned by readers is sad. This is a raging malaise of a sick materialist society. Low reading culture is matched by a profit-hungry population haunted by the spectre of poverty and misery. On the one hand, the elites have little time to read poetry because they are busy maximizing profit and on the other, the common citizen is struggling to fight off poverty unleashed by the capitalist taste of the elite.

LitVo: In 2008, during the maiden edition of the Northern Nigeria Writers Summit where you delivered a keynote, you dismissed or “cursed” the new writers in Nigeria, especially the North that we (Nigerians) may never win the Nobel Prize again. Seeing the new blistering exploits of new Nigerian writers around the world, are you still on that assertion?

Saleh Abdu: I am afraid I did not make such a prognosis about the Nigerian writer and the Nobel Prize. I did lament the disjuncture between the writers and critics and called for greater reciprocity. I stand by this assertion today and still call for further closer ties between writers and readers.

LitVo: Do you subscribe to Ben Okri’s assertion that the future of world literature is in Africa which he narrowed down to Nigeria? What concise overview of writings will you give to Nigerian literature from the 90s to the present day?

Saleh Abdu: World literature as conceived by Goethe is not likely to be birthed in Nigeria. It can gain easy acceptance and manifestation in Nigerian literature. I, however, see an immediate stumbling block in the predicted literature in Nigeria or anywhere for that matter: the exponential rise of the digital culture which inhibits literature and exacerbates the already low reading culture, and obsession with material profit in the society. Agreeably, more writers are coming from a growing number of creative writers’ fora across the country. Diaspora writers like Okri, Habila, Attah, etc are also contributing and, but for the rising digital culture and low reading, I would readily agree with Okri.

LitVo: Each year, African writers think Ngugi would win the Nobel prize for literature but the more they think so, the farther it goes, why? Is it his anti-colonial stance in his written text that is stopping it? Has literature been immune from world politics?

Saleh Abdu: World politics and anticolonialism? Both can factor into Ngugi’s fate as regards the coveted Nobel Prize. We should not forget that Ngugi’s early inspiration, his subject matter, characters and themes are eternally linked to the Mau Mau revolution in colonial Kenya as much as they are to his adopted ideology of Marxism. Is the democratic world of today inclined to easily accept an unmodified freedom fighter of Marxist inclination? Has Ngugi changed or made concessions, despite his long exile years in the West? Does he now think and write like Pablo Neruda? I will rejoice with my fellow Africans when Ngugi is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

LitVo: How do you feel on hearing that your teacher, Abdulrasak Gurnah won the Nobel prize for literature, 2021?

Saleh Abdu: Prof. Gurnah’s 2021 Nobel Prize award made me quite happy and proud as one of his students. It is an award well deserved.

LitVo: Who was he back at Bayero University Kano in 1980? What did he teach you and what was the literary tradition in BUK like at the time?

Saleh Abdu: He taught me in 1980 early in his career, in fact before he wrote his first novel in 1987. He taught me Literary Stylistics. The dominant literary-critical tradition was Liberal Humanism and later an American, Dr Broderick, introduced us to Formalism at the MA level. The teaching back in those years was very rigorous, with sessions of tutorials where students made presentations in each course.

LitVo: You are a leading African critic of literature, why is there a scarcity of critics today?

Saleh Abdu: Simple answer – Does criticism pay? People are all out for profit today. Capitalism! You would say.

LitVo: What is your opinion about the uproar ignited by two of your former students (Faruk Kperogi and Moses Ochonu) on research by Nigerian academics at home?

Saleh Abdu: I’m afraid I did not follow and read that debate with consistency.

LitVo: As one of the active members on the All-Poets Network Initiative WhatsApp platform, you were a witness to the illuminating debate that lasted for days on “Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism and the Future of African Literature, between Professor IBK and Professor Al-Bishak, is the future of African Literature pure in Afrocentrism or Eurocentrism or at the confluence they met?

Saleh Abdu: The fine edges of the two extremist standpoints, Afrocentricism and Eurocentrism, are daily being blunted by forces of globalization today and very soon little space will be left for either.

LitVo: Sir, as an outstanding academic and literary scholar, did you publish any critical works in books? If yes, what are their titles and in what other genres have you published?

Saleh Abdu: This is a disguised request for my CV. Or, at least, a request for a copy of the Publication pages column. I have published several essays in learned journals, chapters in peer-reviewed books and have edited journals in Universities in BUK Kano, and lately in Kashere, Gombe and Gadau. I have also co-authored books and my substantial book-length publication to date is Poets of the People’s Republic which is an analysis of the poetry of Niyi Osundare.

LitVo: Let us now go down a bit personal, is reading a hobby or life to you?

Saleh Abdu: Reading is a hobby and reading and studying various texts is my number one duty as a lecturer/researcher.

LitVo: Do you have any daily structured reading or writing routine or regime? How often do you read books not strictly related to your core area of literature, your discipline?

Saleh Abdu: I read the Quran every blessed night and read other books: books of literary criticism and creative compositions most of the time the need arises. Sadly, because of the frequency in the need for reading prescribed texts, I hardly have time for leisure reading.

LitVo: What pushes you to readily buy a book: the title, the blurb, recommendation, or what?

Saleh Abdu: The title and author. Often the need to read and consult books predetermine the range of which/what book to buy and read. Occasionally, I buy books of neutral interest.

LitVo: If you are not reading or writing, in what else do you invest your precious time? I mean, how do you relax?

Saleh Abdu: Time with the family; documentaries on the TV and News.

LitVo: Sir, one would be stating the obvious describing you as a young-looking old man, did you spare some quality time to exercise your body? What exactly is the secret of your young-looking age: dieting, exercise, or what?

Saleh Abdu: Thank you for the compliment. I take a walk every morning at least three days of the week.

LitVo: Sir, thank you very much for your time.

Saleh Abdu: Thank you, Khalid.



Khalid Imam a bilingual poet, playwright, editor, translator and literary columnist, is the founder and curator of All Poets Network Initiative. He is a teacher and award-winning writer of over a dozen books in all genres. He was among the ten finest Nigerian writers selected by the Wole Soyinka Foundation in 2017 to participate at the Study Abroad In Lebanon (SAIL). Some of his books include: “The Song of San Kano,” “Letter to my Students,” “Sodangi,” “Emir Muhammad Sanusi II the Toast of Kanawa, etc. and co-authored, “A Clan of Madmen” with late Ibrahim Shu’aibu.  He is reputed as the pioneer editor and notable promoter of ‘Teen Authorship Scheme’ in Kano as he singlehandedly edited three secondary school teen authors anthologies: “A Citadel of Excellence,” “The Bird’s Evidence” and “A Wise Whisper.” He also edited “Hawayen Alhini,” an Hausa poetry anthology contributed by the undergraduate Hausa students of Bayero University, Kano in 2008