A Slow-burning Fire: A Conversation with Hussani Abdurahim, Winner of the 2022 Toyin Falola Prize

The day I met the writer Hussani Abdurahim was like every other ordinary day at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. The lecture hall air was stale and desert dry. Skin-searing sun beams sneaked through the glass windows. Waiting for the Mat 204 lecturer, the class broke into loud chatter, and somewhere in this clamor was Hussani, arguing with two of his course mates about writing. The specifics of this argument are foggy in my head, but it revolves around the idea that books matter. At the time, he had just emerged as the joint winner of the Green Author Prize. A few days later, I shuffled up to him and introduced myself as a writer and we sat down to write poems. Afterwards, we traded poems and read. Our friendship was sealed at that moment, and I would always see him clutching a small jotter with poems-scribbled pages.  

In February 2023, Hussani emerged as the winner of the Toyin Falola Prize, organized by Lunaris Review. The prize was for Arewa Boys, his short story about Hausa boys’ migration from the north to Lagos and their hustle to make something out of their lives. The story is told in the first-person plural “we.’  

He and I met on WhatsApp to talk about his award-winning story and other writing-related topics. Arewa Boys came to him while reading a newspaper article about a ban on motorcycles and tricycles in many parts of Lagos. His further research revealed there have been such prohibitions in the past and those who depended on these means of transportation as their source of livelihood were northerners, known as Arewa in Hausa. Their reality without jobs bothered him. 

“Luckily for me, I had already come across Tochuku Okafor’s SSDA prize-winning story ‘All Our Lives’ which led me to Laleh Khadivi’s ‘Wanderlust’ published in The Sun Magazine in 2014. It was with Khadivi’s ‘Wanderlust’ I found a kind of kinship, one that allowed a writer to feel connected with another across time and place. I found a line that stayed with me: “We learned that we were a people without a guide in a dark time.”

Hussani started writing at thirteen or fourteen. But to him, it seems he had been writing forever. “It began with reading and daydreaming,” he told me. From newspapers to novels, he read everything his hands touched. “The things I read sowed a seed in me, the feeling that I too can write something meaningful, something that can be read and appreciated, this feeling was insidious, a slow-burning fire”. The books that etched greatness in him at that age were Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, Ekwensi’s ‘An African Night’s Entertainment’, Gabriel Okara’s ‘The Voice’, Alan Paton’s ‘Cry The Beloved Country’, Agatha Christie’s ‘Poirot Investigates’, and Efua Sutherland’s ‘Edufa. Over the years, his influences have broadened. They include but are not limited to Khaled Hosseini, Leslie Nneka Arimah, Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo, and Paulo Coelho.

On the surface, Arewa Boys is about migration but it’s also themed with societal pressure and expectations, survival, and hustle. About society’s pressure on him personally, he told me that life is a conflict, because for many Nigerian writers, writing is more like a gamble. “First, you have to earn a living. Can writing give you that? Can it sustain you and others who may depend on you? This is where the high expectations come in. But will the prodigious writer persevere until their work becomes profitable? So, the more I think about the possibility of being a full-time writer, the more anxious I become. However, I’m glad that there are more and more avenues/structures springing up to help today’s writers find their footing.”

While reading Arewa boys, the plural first-person POV “we” hauled me in. From the beginning, “we” share a single desire—to go to Lagos. Later, “we” would realise that not everyone who comes to Lagos is handed the gold they have heard of. “We” are a horde of uneducated Hausa boys in Lagos, hustling. Hussani’s language here is simple, unlike his usual flowery language in his other stories. This simple prose is due to his characters’ language limitations. “This can be seen in the innocence my characters displayed both in thoughts and actions. They had no clear understanding of how the world worked, which I think a proper education would’ve mitigated. One cannot often rely on experience to learn. As much as possible, I tried to make the prose lean and simple to keep faith with the kind of characters involved.”

 Arewa Boys ended with these boys contemplating suicide, and some went ahead to do so because they didn’t achieve their dreams. According to him, his characters weren’t well equipped enough to thrive. “I feel that if you go to battle without a good weapon, the chances of survival are dismal. In Arewa Boys, my characters relied heavily on luck without a viable strategy to actualize their dreams. They mostly didn’t have adequate intellect or skill that would’ve given them a better fighting chance.”

Lastly, he talked about his advice for young writers;  “Aside from the usual, being an avid reader and writing your heart out, young writers, especially the teenage ones shouldn’t be in a hurry to get their books published. What use is a novel if no one picks it up from a shelf? Hone your craft, submit to online mags, and apply to workshops. Gain as much audience as possible so that when you finally publish that full-length work, you’ll have people waiting to devour your offering.”

Samuel Oladele is a writer and virtual designer. His short stories have appeared in Brittle paper, 2021 Alitfest Anthology, Bewildering Stories, Virtual Zine Mag, The Shallow Tale Review, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere. His short story, “Two in One”, was one of the 2020 Mariner Awards winning stories (Bewildering Stories)

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