The literary enclave is indeed full of cynics who parade themselves as critics. When an unknown writer scores a literary success, these avowed cynics would quickly dismiss it with a snobbish wave of the hand as a stroke of luck. Let us see how he or she will repeat this performance. When Chinua Achebe stormed the whole world with his Things Fall Apart in 1958, the cynic-critics called it a flash in the pan. Luckily enough, Achebe made them swallow their phlegm a few years later with his groundbreaking Arrow of God. Zaynab Alkali is not an exception. In 1984 when her first novel The Stillborn came out, while the world was still gripped with euphoria, these wet-blanket critics capitalized on trivial issue such as the length of the novel. It is too slim, yet it is lengthier than Mariama Ba’s NOMA Award-winning So Long A Letter! The dust of the celebration was yet to settle down when these literary philistines were busy bidding their time like kingfishers, poised to pounce on her next work.
In 1986, Alkali baited her detractors with The Virtuous Woman. One could still hear the snarling sound and fury of these critics as they snatched at it with the ferocity of mad dogs. They compared and contrasted it with her first work and passed their final judgment why the new work is a dismal failure. To this parochial clan of critics, criticism begins and ends with the comparison of a writer’s latest work with his widely accepted magnum opus. The only mistake these critics made was that they failed to identify Alkali’s target audience when she set down to write The Virtuous Woman. It is very obvious that she had young readers in mind and not adults, the same way Achebe fondly called his Chike and the River as ‘a novel for the boys’. The Virtuous Woman is certainly a novel for the girls and should not be subjected to the same criteria of The Stillborn. In fact, it would not be wrong not to class it as her second novel.
In her third book Cobwebs and Other Stories (1997), Alkali proved herself as a craftswoman of the more difficult art of short storytelling. However, what irked her critics most was not the quality of the stories in this collection but the title story ‘Cobwebs’. No, unlike Li, her major character Mama in this long short story is a radical feminist. This of course, did not go down well with her egoistic male readers in the North. They cursed and raged fire and brimstone in their ignorance, for ‘Cobwebs’ is a story that many readers misconstrue the writer’s attitude to her major character Mama. As a benign feminist, Alkali lampoons her fellow women like Mama who wreck homes in the name of radical feminism as championed by Doris Lessing, Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa. She portrays Mama as an anti-social, despicable woman who abuses the opportunity offered her to go for further education. Instead of using this knowledge to develop her home, she is estranged from her husband, children and society like a fish out of water, panting for air on the hot beach sand. The title is not only symbolic of the obnoxious trappings in our traditions and religion that hinder the woman from attaining her full potentials in life, but also the pitiable mind of a social pervert like Mama. Alkali seems to be telling us that women like that are confused beings and are destructive elements in our midst. Little wonder then, that Mama is the most inarticulate female character ever created by Alkali! In a word,’Cobwebs’ is a sharp criticism of the evil called radical feminism in our society and should be applauded as a sisterly admonition from a home-builder of a writer to her wayward sisters and not vilified. Other stories include ‘House of Dust’ (perhaps the best in the collection), ‘Saltless Ash’, ‘Footloose’, etc.
Alkali followed this up with her latest novel The Descendants (2005), unarguably her most ambitious work till date and a well-deserved successor to The Stillborn. In this work, Alkali places herself the more difficult task of handling several characters spanning many generations with the spellbinding power of a literary matriarch. She tells the epic story of the descendants of the famous Lawani Duna and Magira Milli, the greatest female creation of Alkali. After losing her husband and four sons to Azreel, the Angel of Death, she decides it is enough and leaves the land of her ancestors to settle at Ramta with her only surviving son and grandchildren. A magnificent woman, Magira Milli is a he-woman who bestrides the Ramta dynasty with the formidability of a woman-warrior, comparable to Achebe’s Ezeulu. She rules the family of her son Aji and her grandchildren with iron hand. Though without any Western education, she is a visionary like her creator Alkali who believes fervently in the education of the girl-child, for ‘…without a sound Western education, a woman has very little chance to make a success of her life’ (p. 189) Thus, unlike other old women of her generation, she opposes early child-marriages and openly encourages the dissolution of her granddaughter Peni’s marriage to the village butcher. She is indeed a woman ahead of her time. As it would come to pass, her dream finds fulfillment in her granddaughter Seytu who was twice married and divorced (‘was married at 13, hurt and abandoned by an old village head at 15’) yet proceeds to qualify as a Consultant Paediatrician. At the end of the novel, Magira Milli dies a fulfilled woman, an unforgettable heroine in recent Nigerian fiction.
Like all feminists, Alkali’s theme in this novel cannot be said to be original. But is there anything like original theme in modern literature? We must hasten to answer this question in the negative. For what distinguishes a work of art from another is not necessarily the theme but the treatment, the approach to the theme. The ability to strike a correlation between theme and plot or content and form is the hallmark of a great writer. Thence lies the greatness of Alkali’s latest work. As a social crusader, Alkali is preoccupied with the plight of women in our male-dominated society and feels that the only way forward is through the medium of Western education as only this way guarantees a woman’s economic independence and the awareness of her fundamental human rights. She effectively tells us this by contrasting Seytu and Peni. While the former is self-sufficient owing to her education, the latter is illiterate and primitive who only thinks of consulting soothsayers with a view to gaining undue favours from the former! As a great writer, Alkali does not flaunt her themes at the readers like Abubakar Gimba and Chukwuemeka Ike but challenges her reader to read between the lines and puzzle them out for himself. This brings us to another important quality of Alkali as a writer, a quality which works so well in her short stories as in this novel. Alkali deserves to be commended for her cryptic manner of narration which is more suspenseful than the mindless sensationalism of lesser writers with penchant for melodramatic surprises. For example, the reader is aware of Hassan’s unexpressed love for the child-mother Seytu in the first part of the novel. Nothing is heard about this budding love affair even when the former later becomes a Consultant Paediatrician. On page 107, the reader is told of the clandestine hospitalization of a colonel and a General at the State Specialist Hospital Garpella. A friend of the colonel accosts Seytu during a symposium and a rendezvous is arranged. We learn that the stranger in spite of his scar is a ghost from Seytu’s past. Who is he? We are not told.However, in a friendly chat with her bosom friend Glo Medina, the name of Hassan resurfaces. Where is he? Alkali keeps quiet. Then on page 224, we are told of Seytu’s new husband who is a colonel. Could it be the injured colonel? We hold our breath. On page 228, Alkali tells us cryptically in a sentence: ‘Colonel Hassan Sulay, his wife Dr. Seytu Ilia’. We are later told that the other colonel hospitalized is Colonel Samba Batancha on page 229 who loses his sight in an attempted coup. Similarly, the reader must have found Professor Zaki, Seytu’s philanthropist boss an enigma when he always steals into his room to look at the picture of his family. On page 226, we are told that he loses his family in a plane crash and adopts a son Adam Zaki whom he trains to be the Chief Community Officer with the hospital.
The beautiful front-cover of the book shows a strong-willed, middle-aged woman, attired in Islamic traditional mode of dressing (our Magira Milli) in a goddess-like posture and a young woman in a doctor’s outfit (Seytu), with a stethoscope draped over her neck. Underneath are locally-thatched mud-houses in an African village. A quick, curious turn of the back-cover rewards the quixotic eyes with a smiling Alkali holding her conference bag. Then the unavoidable question: why would a big name like Alkali choose to publish her much-awaited book with unknown publishers like Zaria-based Tamaza and not her mega-publishers Longman or Malthouse? Well, she made the fortune of a midget publishing house, though not without a heavy price. A few typographical errors such as’all these misery’ (p.37), ‘…was reining abuses on him’ (p.28), ‘just one more number greater that his’ (p.115), ‘One of the hospital’s senior medical officer’ (p.132), ‘Its sharpness lent him a kind of seriousness that belie his age’ (p.141), ‘to follow his instructions to the latter’ (p.163), etc, sicken the eyes. One wonders that if an ungrateful publishing house could do this to a famous writer like Alkali, where lies the fate of an obscure writer?
Apart from these few errors and the rather over-crowdedness of her characters, The Descendants is a well-made novel that takes one back to the golden age of Nigerian literature (the bygone Soyinka-Achebe age of excellence). In a bid to evade the likely question of comparison-critics, The Stillborn and The Descendants are both good works of art with their ‘peculiar attractiveness’. However, to plagiarize Achebe a little, The Descendants is the only novel of Alkali which I am most likely to be caught sitting down to read again!