Khalid Imam is author of fourteen books, the most recent being ‘Kundin Hirarrakin Bukar Usman’, a collection of Professor Bukar Usman’s interviews. Here, the bilingual teacher, poet, playwright and essayist talks about the advantages of writing in English and Hausa, his latest work, and more. Excerpts:
Bookshelf: You are a bilingual teacher, poet, playwright and essayist. How did all these begin for you?
Khalid Imam: My journey into the literary world began while I was running an NCE programme between 1998 and 2000. That was when I had my first contact with literature. I was a student of Hausa and English, and so was introduced to literature. During my secondary school days, I never had that experience. I was fascinated by the quality of teaching and the beauty of the text we were introduced to. A typical example is Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘The River Between’ and some other South African poets. At that time, we had a teacher who was encouraging one of us who produced a book. She celebrated him a great deal. I was motivated to write. That was how we joined the college’s press club and started experimenting with poetic pieces and covered happenings in the school. I was elected vice president of the association before I graduated. That was how it started.
But becoming a serious writer was as a result of some love poems I had written to celebrate my mum and then girlfriend, published by Ibrahim Sheme on the pages of Bookshelf around year 2000. That gave me a lot of push. I had doubted whether I had the talent, but seeing my piece published made me feel I was on the right track. I was looking for a teaching job at the time and when I introduced myself in a particular school, one of the directors recognised me and instantly said I was hired.
I started with poetry before I went into writing essays, especially newspaper articles. I then moved to learning how to write academic papers and published a lot, both within and outside the country. I also wrote plays. Generally, I can say I write in all literary genres. However, I don’t usually follow the crowd, but identify areas where there is paucity of writing and go into it. My first two poetry collections, ‘The Song of San Kano’ and ‘Emir Muhammad Sanusi II: The Toast of Kanawa’, are books on Hausa panegyric written in English, capturing the history, culture and tradition of Kano emirate. They are now studied by students at various universities.
There is paucity of Hausa plays. Most of those available were produced either in the 1930s or, at most, in the 1980s. So, I began to write plays, and one of them, ‘Sodangi’, won a prize. It is studied even in University of Hamburg, Germany. I also produce books,
Bookshelf: Your latest book, ‘Kundin Hirarrakin Bukar Usman’ (‘Collected Interviews of Bukar Usman’), is a collection of interviews of Professor Bukar Usman in Hausa. What triggered this move and how tasking was the experience?
Imam: I have never seen a collection of interviews written in Hausa. I met Professor Usman in Kano in 2013 when he invited me to his hotel room and we had a discussion. I advised him to put together his interviews and he asked me to go ahead with the project. That was how I started. We are now done with the Hausa version of the book and already seventy per cent through with the English version. It was really tasking, especially transcribing the audio interviews from BBC, VOA and other radio and television stations. We had to transcribe and then translate. So, it took me four years to produce ‘Hirarakin Bukar Usman’, and it’s now available for readers.
Bookshelf: In 2017, you were one of the ten Nigerian writers nominated by the Wole Soyinka Foundation for the Study Abroad in Lebanon Programme. What was the experience like?
Imam: It was fascinating and deeply enriching. I was, for the first time, in contact with Lebanese culture and the history of the world. The essence of the programme was to study the history of the world through Lebanon’s eyes. We were exposed to the riches of that history and the connection between that history and the other part of the world. Especially the relationship between Lebanon and Nigeria. That was why Soyinka was involved. The programme taught religious tolerance. Nigeria, like Lebanon, is a multireligious and multicultural country. But you would see a lot of peace and tolerance in Lebanon, which I believe Nigerians who were lucky to be selected were opportune to learn from the ten-day programme. I really thank the Wole Soyinka Foundation for that opportunity and believe such initiatives stand a good chance of promoting peace in Nigeria.
Bookshelf: How has the journey impacted your writing?
Imam: Since I returned, I relate much better with Nigerians of different creed or ethnic background. That was why I wrote poems to encourage that. Even recently I was with one of the facilitators, Professor Yusuf Rahami, whom I am still in contact with. He is not a Muslim. I not a Muslim. I am a Muslim. But we are one. That is what we need in this country. We cannot build a strong and viral nation when we are divided.
I came in contact with beautiful writings and inscriptions which made me believe I need to do more, because writers cannot grow if they are not researching and reading. Through this and the lectures we had, I believe I have significantly improved.
Bookshelf: How do you juggle being a bilingual teacher, poet, playwright and essayist?
Imam: It all depends on how you plan your time. During my NCE I was opportune to study Hausa and English at the same time and gave both prime importance. After my NCE I discovered that there are talented writers who can only write in Hausa and also poets who can only write in English. Very few were writing in the two languages. That is why I have been promoting that and run workshops with secondary school students in both Hausa and English. I realised, if you are blessed with that talent, you can have wider readership, much more than somebody who writes for only Hausa or English-speaking readers. As a teacher, I marry teaching with writing, because they cannot be separated. If you are a teacher, you have to produce something for students to read, especially as a teacher of language. So, I don’t see much difference between being a writer and a teacher.
I wouldn’t have been able to handle the ‘Kundin Hirarrakin Bukar Usman’ book project if I am just a Hausa writer. Most of the interviews are in English and we had to translate them. I usually create time for myself on a regular basis, either to read or write. With new technology, it’s easier for me now to write volumes of work using my phone, instead of moving around with a computer. Most of the writings I produce now, whether an academic paper, poetry, or play, I make use of my phone, especially between ten at night to one o’clock in the morning. Anytime inspiration comes, I make sure I jot it down, then transfer it to my computer for proper editing.
Bookshelf: What usually inspires you?
Imam: Inspiration comes from many things. It could be as a result of love, due to crises, or political reason. But my inspiration comes mostly from my immediate environment. For example, my next play, ‘Senator Hankaka’ is political and illustrates how the masses are being manipulated by politicians. So, they benefit from the people’s foolishness and inability to reason deeply.
Bookshelf: How many books have you written so far and which posed the greatest challenge?
Imam: I have written fourteen books, five in Hausa. I cannot remember any posing a great challenge for me because I gave my best to each. I can only say that some took a longer time for me to produce due to the volume. My recent book, ‘Kundin Hirarrakin Bukar Usman’ is however more challenging because we have been working on it for the last four years.
Bookshelf: How do you view the development of Hausa literature so far?
Imam: Hausa literature has attained the next level. In the 1990s, most of the books were of low quality, but now many writers have become more conscious of the need to produce high quality works. Now they pay attention to editing, unlike the past. So, there is progress, especially with more young writers now trying to write in Hausa, and marriage between writers and film producers.
Bookshelf: What are your future writing plans?
Imam: My goal is to produce a book each year. Sometimes I am able to produce two. My future plan is not just to write a work that will win a prize, but one that stands the test of time and is regarded as a masterpiece.