Razinat Mohammed: Portrait of a scholar, as a writer
Razinat Talatu Mohammed is an Associate Professor of Feminist Literary Criticism and Theoretical Approaches at the University of Maiduguri. She made her debut in Nigeria’s literary scene in 2005, when her first book, a collection of short stories, A love Like a Woman’s and other Stories won the maiden ANA/ Lantern Book Prize. Her novel, Habiba, was a finalist for the 2015 ANA Prize for prose. She is also the author of The Travails of a first Wife (2015). Her other works have appeared in some national and international anthologies like Camouflage: The Best of Contemporary Writings from Nigeria, The Gong Books, For Women Collective: A Tribute to Nina Simone (USA). She is the author of Intra-gender Relations between Women (Germany). She is the author of Female Representation in Nigerian Literature www.africanwriter.com among others. She was a Resident Writer in El-Gouna, Egypt May /July, 2011.
Who is Razinat Mohammed, and how did she find herself in the literary world?
RAZINAT is a simple person, an academic, and a researcher. She is interested in the development of humanity. While I found myself in the literary world, I think I started loving literature from my secondary school.
Which school was that?
Federal Government College, Idoani, Ondo State. I had an excellent literature teacher that even made those in sciences to love literature. We memorised spoken words and performed them in school when we had social gatherings where we often showcased our knowledge of literature. We dramatised plays such as, Ola Rotimi’s The God’s Are Not Blame and also did Incorruptible Judge by Olu Olagoke. We dramatised many of those plays then. So, I could say my love for literature started from my secondary school.
How did you find yourself in Ondo from Maiduguri, Borno State?
That was fate, first. I remember that I was 11 and in Primary five. The Federal Government was opening new schools that year (FGC Akure, Idoani and some other schools in other parts of the country but these two were in Ondo State). Some people came from the Federal Ministry of Education to Borno State to interview the students. It was my uncle who heard the news and told my father. My father was just saying, ‘This girl is small’. My uncle answered him, ‘let her try’. I was drafted from Primary five. So, I tried. They gave us a written examination and within two days, they published the results in Federal Government College, Maiduguri. So, my father said, ‘okay, if they had published the result, let him go and look’. I don’t know where he started looking from, he just came back home and said, ‘you didn’t pass’.
So, I took it in my stride and continued with my life. It was my uncle that came one day and said, ‘you mean this girl didn’t pass, why? Did you look at it?’ My father said he looked at it. So, my uncle went to check himself and my name was the first on the list. He came back home and asked my father, ‘why did you say she didn’t pass? Her name is the first on the list’. My father answered that he started looking from the middle. He didn’t expect it, so, I would say it’s a matter of fate. Thereafter, the excitement that I was top in my state and so on, my father started to prepare the list of things to buy and he accompanied me and brought me himself. The whole of my street, I’m talking about the late 1970s, everybody was asking, Alhaji Mohammed, how will you send this small girl to where you don’t know?’ My father kept insisting, ‘it is a Federal Government College that he had always wished his child went to a government college’, but the whole street was against it.
I still remember, my father still insisted. When he got everything that I needed, cutlass — and I have never cut grass before because we don have grasses in our place — bucket and so on. So, he accompanied me to Idoani and when we arrived, the opening of Federal Government schools was postponed for another week. We met a teacher, Mr. Angus Ike. Those who stayed around heard the news, so, they didn’t come. We that came from afar didn’t hear the news. The school was supposed to open on September 10, but we did not know about the changes, so, we came on that day, but the school opened on September 17. In the school, my registration number is 00001, I’m the first student ever registered in that school.
That’s a record for you.
Yes, it is, and they honoured me until I left the school. I loved to visit my principal.
Have you been communicating with him?
Yes, I have. We have a school platform.
So, what was your experience in Idoani and what do you think Nigeria has lost from that?
I think we have lost a lot. We ate Yoruba food. They used to serve us eko and moi-moi for dinner. I remember clearly when we from the northern part of the country said we didn’t know how to eat that sort of food. Our teacher told us, ‘you must eat. This is the food that people in this part of the country eat. Those people who travel to your own place would eat the food people eat there. You must eat’. We would eat the moi-moi and eko. We had fun. It was wonderful. My principal, Mr. Omotade, used to say that when you grow older, you’d discover that this is the best part of your life, and it was later in my life that I discovered that it was very good.
I’ll still go to your literature but at this point, were you able to pick Yoruba and how did you pick the Yoruba language or you were not interested in learning it?
Of course, I was interested. As a child, you pick a language without really knowing it. Up till form 3, I pretended I did not understand the language. I had stayed with them for three years. The Yoruba have this habit of abusing people. The moment they realised I could speak Yoruba, they were shocked, even my principal. I used to pretend to them. I find Yoruba very easy to understand. It is a very interesting language. If you socialise, you can easily pick Yoruba. We had social nights. We did everything together. It was only when the teacher was in the class that he taught in English. Yoruba people also like speaking their language, so, you pick the language easily, but leaving this terrain, going back to my place and not having enough Yoruba people to speak the language with , made me forget some things. Not to say that I don’t understand, but to speak would not be as fluent as I was in my form 5.
Tell me, what works have you done? How many books have you written?
I have written literary texts. I even have a text that was published in January 2019.
Can we have their names?
My PhD thesis, Intra Gender Relations Between Women: A Study of Nawal El- Saadawi and Buchi Emecheta’s Works, was published by Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany in January 2019. I have my first book, which won the ANA Prize in 2005; Love Like A Woman’s and other stories, then I have my second book, Habiba, a novel that was a finalist for the ANA Prize for Prose in 2014, then I have a third novel, The Travails Of A First Wife in 2015, that was published at a time. It had some editorial problems. So, I want to reissue it. It’s so difficult for us. We don’t have the time to sit down to write. I need to leave this country soon.
What has been the challenge for you as a writer, who is a scholar?
A big challenge. We are always overwhelmed by our regular teaching and to sit down, by the time you have to grade student essays, assignments, test scripts, you’re totally tired and exhausted, so, you do not have that frame of mind to sit down and do creative writing. I’ve had several short stories published, so many, all over the world. What I want now is to bring them together and publish.
Short stories or novellas?
No, short stories. I can write in two hours, if I’m inspired, and I can go for one more year and I’ve not written anything. The moment I’m inspired, it doesn’t take me time. The short story thrills me a lot. I like the fact that I compress ideas into a page and create tension in the reader, such that he or she wonders at the outcome of some unresolved conflicts.
So what inspires you to write?
The moment. I’d say the moment. I can encounter something right now and I bring out my computer and produce a story in two hours, then I leave it. I have many like that which need editing, so, if I have the time, I go back, sit down and edit it. I work best under pressure. If you now give me a challenge and say, ‘write a story’, I can produce that faster than the one I give myself.
How did the Boko Haram crisis in Borno affect your creative writing and how were you able to cope?
I have written an article, which has been published in the UK. The title, I think is, The Experiences Of The Creative Writers In Times Of Crisis, something like that. I think Professor Ernest Emenyonu sent me a copy of African Literature Today, and in the book, I saw an article on Love in times of Cholera by Gabriel Marquez, so, I wrote that article and you may want to read it, I think it should be on the Internet. Recently, Professor Tanure Ojaide, Abubakar Othman and I edited an anthology titled, The Markas.
Yes. That is the name of the Boko Haram then in Maiduguri. If you read, you’ll find a lot about Boko Haram. Everything there is about Boko Haram in the whole anthology. It’s the first of its kind. It is an outcome of literary writers’ reaction to the insurgency in the Northeast of Nigeria.
What’s the most challenging event that has happened to you as a writer and critic?
As a writer, the most crucial period has been when I lost a full-length manuscript to a computer mishap. I had not developed the habit of saving every document on discs. It was a very trying period for me because I had the mind to forget about computers altogether. You see, I had to take a decision to begin the book again and to persevere and master the use of computers.
Suddenly, you picked up feminism as an area of specialisation. Why feminism and not other studies?
Well, I think that in the course of my reading, the two female writers that appealed to me the most were Buchi Emecheta, who is late now, and Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian writer; she is 87 years now. Buchi always writes from the Igbo point of view, that’s the Niger Delta region. She writes about the challenges women face in that region, and I always loved that. Nawal writes about the challenges that the Arab women face in Egypt. The way that she projects it appeals to me. In my study, I compared these two female writers. My work can be said to be anti-feminist, as I actually looked at women as the oppressors of other women, because the common thing we see is men oppressing women, if you read my works, you will see that some of those incidences in the text, I will stand to pontificate that women actually were the reason for all women suffering. For instance, in female circumcision, it is women who carry out this. If the women stop this act, will the men tell them they must continue? No. It is women who continue to do these bad things to other women. That is how I found myself in feminist study. But my researches, as a University teacher, you do researches; my researches have been interested in theories about the feminine gender and then, creative writing,
The cultural inhibition that you mentioned
Whether it is South or North or anywhere, it is cultural. Starting with Zainab Alkali, she has projected in her writing, women becoming medical doctors. Check the Internet, you’ll see one article I presented in Lagos in 2007. The topic that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Lagos gave me to discuss on was the representation of women in Nigerian literature and I think I did an extensive work there. In the past, our earlier writers used to resent women. This is not just in the north. Look at Things Fall Apart, where is the big role that a woman plays there? There were only Okonkwo’s wives and when they do anything wrong, Okonkwo would pick his gun and would want to shoot or beat them. It is not only in the North. This is the misconception that we Nigerians have. It is the same thing in Igbo land. Women were not allowed to do anything. Look at Things Fall Apart, after all, it was not a Hausa person that wrote it, an Igbo man wrote it. Now, it started for us in the north to give women big roles, medical doctors, achievers, women who would go to colleges of education, graduate and come out while the man is lagging behind. She started that. In her descendant, that was when she gave a woman a role of a medical doctor who was now contributing her own bit to the society and from there, we picked up. There are so many women now from the north coming up as writers, mostly novelists. I’ve not seen a woman that is yet into drama but most of us are writing prose, novels and so on.
So how much of a feminist are you?
Feminist, not in a derogatory term. Feminist, not in the western sense of it. Feminist, if because I write my fiction about the suffering and problems that women face, then, indeed, I am a feminist, but if it is the men-hating feminist, I am not. Challenging the structure of society, I am not. The structure of society I am referring to is that one that says, ‘this is the role of a man’. Man has his role. Gender construction, I believe, is done by society. Man has his role. I cannot go and fell a tree when a man is there. He is supposed to be stronger than me, he should go and do it. I can chop the firewood and bring them home. That is the gender role that I want to play. If my supporting this makes me a feminist, then in that case, I am a feminist. I’m not a men-beating feminist or anything.
You said something about gender construction. Is your gender construction now not created by your submission to God’s will or do we say that gender construction is about somebody trying to subvert? Like, when you said Nawal was a revolutionist, then Buchi is subtle in her approach to feminism. In your case now, looking at somebody from the North who has had a freer interaction, gone far and wide and has understood the basis of every religion. So, will you say your gender construction now is still determined by your relationship with God?
Yes. Islam divides the roles; man does this, a woman does that. You know, people misconstrue certain cultural traits to Islam. It is not true. Islam does not distinguish between a male and a female when it comes to learning. Islam believer whether you are male for female, go to the last part of the world, which in those days was believed to be China, go there and seek knowledge. If it is for you to seek knowledge, Islam permits you. It is our culture that keeps our Northern women at home but those of our men, our fathers, that are broad-minded, that have read, that have travelled, that have understood the true meaning of the Quran, do not interpret the Quran that way. They do not inhibit their daughters from gaining knowledge. If you go to our schools now, you will see, side by side, a western education running with Islamic knowledge. Yes, they are doing it. They do Western in the morning, from 3:00pm to 4:00pm; they start the Islamic one till 6:00pm. That is how all the children now are, today, growing up.
Your creative writing, you said something about feminism, from these two women’s point of view, but looking at the role religion and culture play, we discover that their societies are what they really are, but looking at the contemporary society, how will you say that the feminist writers or feminists are reacting to the issues created by religion and culture with makes it possible for them to say, ‘yes, we should be on this platform’?
For Buchi Emecheta, the culture of a woman who gives birth to a female child consistently, say five daughters in a row, is not considered complete yet by the Igbo society which she projects. That is it. Now, she writes to question this sort of belief. Why will a woman who has gone consistently five times to the labour room and has suffered nine months each time to carry the pregnancy to its course and then goes through the labour. At the end of the day, you say, because she did not give birth to a male child, she is still half-a-woman. She is not complete. Why do you hang the man’s fate on this woman? That is the kind of thing that her culture and her religion. And the culture of the Igbo that prefers male children to female. That is what this society has imposed in her mind to write about, and for Nawal El Saadawi, she is from a largely Muslim environment, and being that, the Arab culture is different from what Emecheta writes about.
Now, their culture is not much different from this. They too prefer male children. Maybe it’s an African weakness or problem. The Arab societies equally want to have a son in the family, if a female child cannot project the family name to great heights. Nawal El Saadawi is a revolutionary feminist, because hers is not as peaceful as that of Emecheta. She hunts and attacks the authority and the culture that determines what the fate of a woman is. She says, these cultural laws are not made by God, they are made by man. So, it is the man that she sees physically that is oppressing the woman. Both religion and African culture, they prefer the male child. If you go to Rwanda today, they prefer a male child. If you go to South Africa, they will tell you they prefer a male child.
In Ghana, among the Ashanti’s, they prefer the female child. Is it not the same Africa?
It’s the same Africa. They have a reason. Their own is, they feel because only a mother can tell the real father of the child. I don’t know the genesis of this. I was in Cape Coast some months ago and somebody asked that question. The answer I got from them was that the woman can say, ‘yes, this is my child’ and the child can say ‘this is my mother’. People witness you coming out. But the father cannot say ‘this is my son’, ‘this is my daughter’, not 100 per cent. Then I asked, ‘what if the child comes out looking exactly like the father?’ they said, ‘ how many persons do you have like that?’ there are some that will come out not looking like the father or the mother. Perhaps the father is somewhere and that child is looking like him. So, the case with Ghana, it’s a bit different society because they take after their mothers. That is a drop of water in the ocean.