Every Kind Of Writing Is Absolutist: An Interview With Mu’azu Maiwada By Haneefah Abdulrahman

Mu’azu Maiwada is from Zaria City and Lectures in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The former Chairman of ASUU, ABUZ., branch, is a writer/biographer and a committed Rights Activist with keen interest in antiquarian knowledge and its connections to post-modern reality.

LitVo: Good day, Sir. Thank you for granting LitVo an interview.

Mu’azu Maiwada: Right, you’re welcome!

LitVo: To begin with, how has the literary engagement been for you over the years as a Poet, a Critic and a Teacher of Creative writing?

Mu’azu Maiwada: …And hopefully as a human being? Well, it’s all part of the stations of multiple selves all of us are trying to unravel, extend or deepen in our ways; just being human, with varying degrees of contradictions here and there. It’s been an awesome experience.

LitVo: You have passionately dedicated your time to teaching Creative Writing. You even go as far as taking a class for 5-6 hours straight a time. I must commend you for your energy. For a man as old as you, how do you remain this energetic, what is in literature that drives you on?

Mu’azu Maiwada: Life! Any issue that there’s a passion for, there’s the energy or grace to accomplish the task. I’m not saying there’s a perfect rhyme or correlation between the task and the processes of its accomplishment, but somehow, we get to do it; partly because there’s a commitment to help the next generation transit through the grooves and whorls of civilization, to regenerate it, and or even transcend it. These are the prospects that drive me.

I discovered the best thing about literature is to understand the rules and then, well… go off tangent, perhaps that’s the best thing about literature. And yes, this singular capacity of literature to go raiding and marauding anywhere, and with apologies to Ngugi, even the vacuum; if it exists, literature can thrive therein or create it.

But aside these, I’ve benefited from many people who have taught me and from whom I’ve gleaned invaluable wisdom; people like Bonaventure Swai, who taught me History, especially African Historiography, Okello Oculi, who took us to Egypt and Africa, literarily and imaginatively, Patrick Wilmot, who encouraged us to read everything and learn how the other side is thinking, Mbulelo Mzamane, who ironically, showed me how to be an antiquarian, to get to the source of a matter. Of course, there was the general ambience of the old FASS and the arguments and debates that were always on-going beyond lectures and tutorials.

LitVo: For years, your call has been more on teaching poetry or creative writing and an activist of dissent than writing. Your book, State of the Anuscame out many years ago and nothing afterwards. Why have you not written anything afterwards?

Mu’azu Maiwada: As I keep telling my students, the act of creativity is beyond just writing, and it doesn’t take place in the classroom. What takes place in the classroom are just examples, teasers really, for students to go on and discover things for themselves. More directly to your question, whatever those other functions are, as you presume, I carry out; I’m always writing or thinking them out, even if it’s just a line, a word. After “The State of the Anus”, I’ve got another collection (Poems) “On the Receiving End of Hope”; a collection of Short Stories and a putative novel and drafts of ideas/thoughts seeking for a structure/form. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the place of Queen Amina in the ambit of Zazzau history, her obliteration by current redactive narrations as a footnote and sometimes her consignment into the realm of pure myth. I’m still researching it and possibly, a play may come out of it. I’ve not published these collections partly because of the challenges of Nigerian publishing, I may be wrong.

LitVo: “State of the Anus” is an amazing poetry collection which calls on readers even with just the title which is both humorous and satirical. What was your state of mind when you gave your collection the title? What was the biggest inspiration that made you write that book?

Mu’azu Maiwada: Normal, and I hope your pun was not intended! The English language, at least in the way we use it in Nigeria, makes the title look as if it’s something singular at best, or crude at worst. To see the title beyond the normal expressions we Africans are used to deploying in different contexts and circumstances, is to, in my opinion, carry the burden of some level of Victorian prudery. That’s not to say circumspection is absent in African languages, just that the location of State of the Anus aims at communicating some moral state that I’ve found difficult to express except in the diffident manner that it came out. Throughout The State of the Anus, the intention has been the proverbial and the axiomatic, in turns; in relation to the local experiences of Africans to the global manifestation in this millennium of what is called civilization and its contradictions. The book is also about my understanding of consciousness from a civilizational to basic human/individual levels.

The biggest inspiration will be my own experiences and the environment in which I was brought up and matured. The goal has always been to be dissatisfied with the given, especially in so far as it is limiting; to strive to make it better, to extend the frontiers of possibilities and peoples’ basic rights to aspire to be better.

LitVo: You teach that Water, Earth and Air are elements that always come with Writing. What do you mean?

Mu’azu Maiwada: And I’d like to think that I also referenced fire, the sky, stars, heavens, human interiority and so on? But what you have mentioned are some key elements. The immediate perceptible environment with which the senses interact; if you like the  primary givens, for which we have to bring new resources to appropriate, to be able to engage the secondary worlds that can make existence greater than the mundane existential realities we are compelled to deal with, such as for example; why are we in a country that is so blessed and end up with the crummy politicians/leaders we have; where a simple glass of drinking water is not available for the majority of the people? I think, contending with similar kinds of realities and still being able to keep sane, demands a huge deployment of creativity in ways we don’t even perceive.

LitVo: Poetry is less patronized by citizens yet, it is the most widely written in Nigeria, today. What do you think is responsible for this? What attracts these thousands of young people to it?

Mu’azu Maiwada: It can be partly explained by the fact that reading to a large extent in Nigeria is perfunctory, to pass exams and accomplish other sundry basic needs. Under the circumstances, reading or engagement with culture for civilizational purposes is really circumscribed.

In relation to the other side of your poser, in Nigeria, in my opinion, the oral has not receded so drastically, the need to compose and disseminate to a living direct audience is always there. Sometimes the composition ends up in the kind of poetry you see. Secondly, on face value, poetry appears to many people easier to write; just put up some lines that are relatively shorter than the length of the line of a paper, do some stanzas, and across them, insert some ‘Oh something and something,’ and there, you have a poem. Don’t misconstrue me, some of these exertions are fetching, like some of the words fest performance poetry we see coming on the scene in Nigeria, and I guess that’s what attracts young people. Here, we may even add consequently, that some resurrection of the word may be taking place. But I also think that the poem as a compositional element that challenges the mind and sometimes operates in opaque and deep colours, is becoming seriously challenged in Nigeria. I dare say it’s the poetry genre alone; I find the same lack of depth and care in the exploration of the novel, drama and the occasional essay form. There’s a lack of artifice, diligence and boldness in taking the great social issues of the times/generation, the black race, Nigeria as a project. So much of what one comes across is superficial (and that includes the criticism of the literature as well), and yet the scope of what writers/critics have to say about contemporary Nigeria is so variegated and multiplex.

LitVo: Poetry was first oral before written. Your younger brother, Ahmed Maiwada, a staunch poet, has disdain for Spoken Word as poetry. As a teacher of creative writing, not as a poet, what is the difference between poetry and spoken word?

Mu’azu Maiwada: You may need to further probe Ahmed about his take against the ‘spoken word.’ But given his background, I don’t believe he’s absolutist about it, I guess his take is on the recent manifestations of the Spoken Word that you see in many literary meetings, some of its expressions/manifestations I have alluded to above. In my opinion, the problem with the spoken word derives from the generic crises of public speaking in Nigeria. It’s not about doing phonetics, or a thick African accent trying to wrap itself around English words (I’d like to assume presentations in Nigerian languages are fairly well delivered), it’s just that poor enunciations in the Spoken Word performances make the experience of listening generally a let-down. The few that I’ve listened to somehow could not differentiate drama and the demands of poetry as spoken, including its musicality, its chamber interiority…

To talk on the difference between poetry and the spoken word, to quote you, will demand a whole treatise, which this interview is too restricted to accommodate. In general terms, however, apart from the mode of delivery and consumption, it has to be the relative abstractness and density of poetry in the terms I suspect you presume it to be. Really, the difference between them is relative, a question of degree to which an element is delineated, made more expansive in one and made more undertow or suggestive in the other and the audience/reader experience of one or both compositions. Whilst huge careers could be made in either of them, both must be properly pursued to make them realizable and resonate as tools for communicating our humanity.

LitVo: Most times, people assume writers must be activists. What does activism mean to you? Why are writers perceived as activists? What should be the role of writers in the community using Northern Nigeria as that community?

Mu’azu Maiwada: I don’t prescribe what people should be, but I’d like to assume that some level of engagement with life, the human condition, is fundamental to writing. Some writers may be predisposed to this or that variant or tendency, and we may not agree, but they should be free to live out their own realities, which anyway, to a degree will refract the conditions of their times, generations. For me, activism is just another kind of expression of humanity. My writing will have no depth without my engagement with life. Writers’ great capacity to engage with the reality around them make people categorise them as activists. Writers like Ngugi, Soyinka, Marechera and, recently Serpel, have exemplified and continued the great African continent’s example for engaged, activist writing that has also given them some kind of notoriety. But I’ve also seen none-seemingly-obvious-activists writers resonate with great depth the human condition. Josef Skvorecky sounds to me one of the most underrated writers I’ve come across. Recently I’ve rediscovered Bernard Henri Levy, the French writer who has giving activism and writing a whole new name, identity and structure.

Specific to Northern Nigeria, writers can draw from the shared experience of the rich culture of writing/knowledge in the area. See for example, Maghili’s “The Obligation of Princes”, a book commissioned to be written by Sarkin Kano, Muhammadu Rumfa, recently identified by some French scholars as the precursor to Machiavelli’s The Prince; Adamu Kyuka’s novels and many others have spoken not only about the specifics of Northern Nigeria but of the human condition.

LitVo: You have been in Ahmadu Bello University for decades as a teacher and an activist. I have heard of your encounters with the management in the past which led to purported suspensions and dismissals only to be reinstated. Tell us about those incidents and how they have shaped and reshaped your life in service of the community?

Mu’azu Maiwada: The first activism took place at home; we were enjoined to always and respectfully say the truth too. But too often, people and Institutions as we have them in Nigeria do not accept the truth and can go to great costs to silence it. For any lecturer who has been in the University system in Nigeria from the eighties to the early part of the 21st century, I think one’s official files will be filled with such letters of queries/suspension/termination of appointment. It’s part of the collateral rewards for being involved in ASUU activities/strikes.

In the one regard where Professor Dafwang and I had our appointments terminated, you can see it as ample proof that fascism doesn’t need to wear a military uniform. The intention of the then university administration was to obliterate any opposition, a sad but typical African response to contrary opinion. I will skirt the particularities of the events.

I think my life, with regards to service, though not the normative service I presume you mean, has been shaped from childhood. I could have been expelled from school, etcetera, for contending against what I perceive to be oppression. Of course, each challenge against forms or roots of oppression will have their peculiar impact or effect. I don’t imagine that anyone in his right senses in the ABU community would say I was just a trouble maker. I recollect leading the in-house unions in the university to successfully advocate for the government to correct the Salary short-fall for ABU, and from that template, other universities benefited. That was when Masari, the current Governor of Katsina State, was the Speaker of the House of Assembly and Lawan, the current President of the Senate, was the Chairman House Committee on Education; once we proved our case, they obliged the Minister of Finance then, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to make good the shortfall. See, lack of capacities is compounded by institutions that are becoming increasingly impervious to reasoning and constructive engagement.

LitVo: Do you think every kind of writing should be allowed without consideration to the fundamental configurations that make the environment and its different actors and their sensibilities? What constitutes restriction, censorship, limitation in writing on the part of the writer and his diverse readers?

Mu’azu Maiwada: “Every kind of writing” may appear absolutist. How do you define the environment or sensibilities? Well, it’s a tricky issue and there’s no easy answer. History has shown that restricting writing or the writer has produced loads of junks of official thought processes that seek to destroy the human spirit, which in any case has proved to be a futile exercise. So, what is the point of the restrictions beyond the puny egos of the gatekeepers? To write, or better still, to create (mathematical/scientific propositions, painting/sculpture, music, etcetera) is a Divine gift to humanity. Of course, I’m not advocating that one writes anything just for the satisfaction of the writer. The goal should be those eternal truths and the various stations they may appear in our different civilizational challenges. We’ve had situations where writers/thinkers have been rejected, hounded, even killed, only for the truths they have espoused to refuse to go away. Take for example, how Alfed Wegener’s theory of tectonics was ridiculed as balderdash, with some people enhancing their reputation as thoroughbred scientist for helping the world see the ‘lies’ of Wegener; now tectonics is de rigueur in the study of the earth’s plate. Of course, there are more famous examples of rejecting truths and there are so many lies we are currently living today as truths. The more you come to study and understand the world, the little knowledge you acquire therefrom, the more you know that most of what we hold to be true are really fiction at best. So, the first challenge is what circumscribed reality is the writer facing in his/her time and to what extent is the writer willing to explore those truths and live with the society’s response to his/her explorations. I think for me, that’s where the first restriction starts and it’s up to the writer to make his/her choice.

LitVo: As a teacher of Creative writing and poetry and having encountered many students who are now some of the leading writers in Nigeria. What is your take on art being inborn or taught?

Mu’azu Maiwada: I try to proceed from the idea that every human being is creative; the creative bent may not be in writing. But the idea of an institution like the University teaching creative writing is the goal to establish key precepts and principles on just about anything and to progressively, incrementally, improve on the knowledge of the subject and further provide a break-down and possible strategies to disseminate same in admissible doses/classes/lectures/workshops. Of course, learning the principles is not the same thing as reproducing a piece of creativity simply because one has mastered the principles, that’s where the innate talent comes in. In some rare instances, a talent that is exceptional or has attained a high level of realization comes through that was not coached or taught. But no matter the talent unless there’s assiduity in application, the talent dissipates or doesn’t attain a high level of resolution. So, for me the idea of inborn or taught need not be mutually exclusive terms; what is innate can be polished, and the polishing (teaching) process can make the average improve and acquire a relatively better or even higher level of resolution.

LitVo: How proud are you to have been a great mentor to these students whether as literature students or not? Could you mention some?

Mu’azu Maiwada: I hesitate to answer this question as frontally as you may expect. I’ve had conversations over the years with many students, some of them under pedagogy, and many have been brilliant in their own ways. For me, the idea of impact should be mutual as well. I’d like to believe whatever little they have learnt from me validates ultimately our common search for excellence. In this expansive regard, I’d like to believe they’re living great creative lives, which was the aim of the course and my engagement with them in the first place.

In the restricted sense of literary activity, I’m not interested in the tag ‘leading writers’ because in my opinion, and I may be wrong, there’s been scarcity of boldness to fix the creative finger on the pulse of Nigeria as a nation; also, I don’t see much transcendent philosophy in recent Nigerian writing. Interestingly, many of the students/persons I remember, were just members of the Creative Writers’ Club, staff/students from and without the University, and they’re doing some excellent draft work, which with some reasonable polishing could be great works in their own right. We await to celebrate them as time goes.

LitVo: The Literary World is gradually turning into a political battlefield with instances like the divided leadership in ANA and the roaring quarrels in APNET (All Poets Network), a poetry platform. What can you say about the divisions in the Nigerian literary space vis-a-vis the place of politics in literature?

Mu’azu Maiwada: The more the merrier would be my first response to the mushrooming of literary organisations. But what you have mentioned isn’t really about the panning out, seeking for elbow room to grow; its more about seizing the soul of what is on the ground. The happenings at ANA are unnecessary and uncalled for; I hesitate to comment in detail, because my brother is the President of ANA and the matter is before the court. This is the time for the likes of those who have midwifed and ministered the affairs of ANA to step in and dispassionately resolve irredentist tendencies in the organisation. Overall, I think, it should be a straight forward issue to transit from one Executive tenure to another through simple democratic elections. If this isn’t possible, it would mean that contrary stakes have been inserted into organisations of common weal that should harness everyone’s interest.

The in-house politics of contending interests in a literary organisation, apart from the occasional canvassing for a candidate to assume an office would question the literary credentials of the contenders. Such vaulting ambitions demean the literary enterprise as a vocation that transcends petty and divisive cleavages.

LitVo: What is the state of writing in Nigeria today, in terms of content and publishing. What is your guess for it in the future?

Mu’azu Maiwada: There’s so much activity taking place beyond the circles of writing and publishing. I can reasonably comment only on what comes through certain organized structures or fora like Association of Nigerian Authors, literary meetings, book shops and what generally makes the syllabi of some Institutions. My take generally is that both the writing (content) and the publishing is to some extent poor. In spite of that, sometimes, important pieces of writings manage to come through. For publishing, I think Steve Shaba’s Kraft books and Bibi Bakare’s Cassava Republic have been exemplary. Up North, Ibrahim Sheme’s Infotech has published some culturally relevant texts, but is yet to be as consistent in maintaining quality on a regular basis.

LitVo: I often hear the past students of Creative Writers Club (CWC) of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, speak about her past, mostly in nostalgic tone. You have seen its past and present, why do you think the old members become nostalgic about it? What happened in the past that the present isn’t doing?

Mu’azu Maiwada: I would not be overly worried by that; the past and nostalgia it could also be mordant commentary of stagnation or refusal to move on. I guess the past members of the CWC might have looked at the current generation of CWC members and might have asked how many excursions they had undertaken, how many staff members attended CWC workshops and what were the robust conversations that took place, did the CWC manage to bring say, an Achebe, Osundare, Ojaide, Achonolu or Gimba to their meetings? Well, the times are different and more challenging; the serial insecurity in the country may not allow what was more or less a given in those earlier days. I think, what the current generation of members of the CWC would be missing is the yearly excursion of the CWC which attracted members from all over the university, even outside the CWC. Those excursions were fun and it allowed all those who participated to get a vista of Nigeria and great possibilities they never thought of or knew existed. It’s in this area that I’d say, yes, the previous CWC have one up on them. But this should give the present crop of members of the CWC new ways to explore and etch their own peculiarities and achievements. Use it to up the ante for coming generations to emulate or supersede.

LitVo: You must be sixty years plus, what is your grouse with Nigerians and Nigeria, today?

Mu’azu Maiwada: The criminal mix of the great blessings of Nigeria as a nation and the abysmal quality of leadership we have had. Docility and misdirected energies.

LitVo: You are a teacher. What is the state of primary, secondary and tertiary education in Nigeria, today?

Mu’azu Maiwada: For a modern state not to have a philosophy of education rooted in its’ history, race and humanity, is not to have education at all. We seem to be caught in a Chomskian mix of conspiracies, merely producing and recycling consumables; which, owing to the intrinsic genius of the country, some accidental discharges like Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, Chike Obi, Tutuola, Abubakar Imam, Kasimu Yero, Nelly Uchendu, still manage to happen but cannot be systematically replicated.

LitVo: Thanks for the time, Sir.

Mu’azu Maiwada: You’re welcome.

Haneefah Abdulrahman is a Writer, an Interviewer, Spoken Poetry Artiste and a Podcaster from Nigeria who is the author of a collection of short story book titled Shades of Becoming. Her works have appeared on The Nigeria Review (TNR), Wisprout Project, Arts MuseFair, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency and a Columnist at DailyTrust Newspaper. She is the 2021 Winner of The Arewa Rising Literary Star. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State studying Literature-in-English at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she is the current Chairperson of the University’s Creative Writers Club. She is the Chairperson of Kaduna Branch, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation. Haneefah was shortlisted as one of the 30 Contemporary Women Poets to read, by Poetry Column-NND in Nigerian News Direct. She is a YELF ARTIST OF THE MONTH for November 2020 edition.