GLENNA GORDON is drawn to “alternative narratives, surprising subcultures,” and themes “outside of the realm of mainstream photojournalism.” So in 2012, when, in the conservative region of northern Nigeria, the documentary photographer encountered littattafan soyayya—a genre of romance literature penned by women—she knew she had stumbled upon her next project.
Littattafan soyayya consists of many types of works, including “morality tales and pulp fiction,” Gordon said, though most of the stories are about love and marriage. Composed in Hausa, the most dominant of the Chadic languages, these stories are usually handwritten in small composition notebooks by women in and around the northern Nigerian city of Kano. The stories are then typed up, mimeographed, assembled by hand, published and sold in markets across the Sahel region, just below the Sahara desert. Many of the places where the books are sold are also areas targeted by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is sinful.”
Given the social constrictions placed on women in northern Nigeria, and in part due to the sometimes subversive themes explored in the genre, Gordon was worried that the littattafan soyayya novelists would not want to be photographed. Yet, over multiple visits to Kano between 2013 and 2015, Gordon gained the trust of many of the authors, and eventually made striking portraits of them. Many of these appear in Gordon’s book Diagram of the Heart, published in 2016, which documents the world of the women who write littattafan soyayya.
The book captures the sometimes-conflicting nature of Gordon’s own gendered role in Kano. As a foreigner in a conservative Islamic city, she said, she “settled into the constraints” of limited mobility for women, often spending hours in her apartment. Yet being a woman also allowed her an intimacy with the authors. “I had access that no man ever could have. I could go to weddings with the novelists and sit on the floor with them and their friends and hang out for many hours,” Gordon said. “If a male photographer tried to do this, he’d likely be invited in and everyone would stand briefly for a formal portrait, but then he’d be expected to leave.”
Access to such women’s spaces was crucial for Gordon’s research, especially given how difficult it could be to interact with the novelists around men. “As I visited women in their homes, the presence of men and men’s power worked in different ways,” she said. “Some women wouldn’t let me and my male translator visit them without their husband’s presence or explicit permission. Often, if a husband was present during an interview, he would interject and answer questions for his wife, and it would be challenging to hear her version of things.”
Over the course of her work, Gordon found herself shifting focus from the novelists themselves to “moments, objects, and places that matter, to understand the ebb and flow of life.” Many of the images in Diagram of the Heart are devoid of people, and instead use objects and empty spaces to construct narratives. Images of empty bedrooms or meticulous handwriting in notebooks are used to “embrace ambiguity, the ability of images to refuse definitive interpretation.” The written word, Gordon said, “can accomplish this through an accumulation of meaning over the course of a text, but photographs do this in an instant.”
For authors of littattafan soyayya, the spectre of censorship looms large. Islamic censors in the region force all writers to register their stories with the morality police, or hisbah. As a result of this, Gordon said, many of the women end up practising self-censorship to avoid punishment or disapproval. At times, writing is just another source of income for these women, some of whom write stories about gendered submission intended to “advise women on how to best please their husbands.” Yet for other authors, Gordon said, writing is “a form of release,” and, because they tackle subversive subjects that challenge the status quo, they often receive threats.
Towards the end of her introduction to the book, Gordon writes that, in compiling the work, she attempted to discard traditional questions posed by journalism, and instead sought out “universal—but entirely different—questions: What does it mean to live your life without meeting the expectations of others, and what does it mean to live your life within those expectations?”
Glenna Gordon is a documentary photographer and photojournalist. She is also an adjunct professor at The New School in New York and an editor at Red Hook Editions—an independent photo-book publishing collective in Brooklyn.