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© Glenna Gordon

The quiet violence of an arranged marriage – a bride is taken by her female relatives to her husband’s home on the outskirts of Kano on April 13, 2013.

Unfortunately, the majority of news stories coming out of Northern Nigeria in recent years have been about the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram (whose name translates as “western education is forbidden”) but of course there’s much more complexity and tolerance within the society than Boko Haram’s perverse and hardline view of earthly existence. Centered in the city of Kano, there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.

These women, their lives, aspirations and works are the focus of a new–and somewhat unorthodox–photobook by Glenna Gordon who met dozens of authors. They write in Hausa, a Chadic language spoken by 50 million people, but their work rarely gets beyond the regions borders. Some translations of the novels appear in English for the first time in Gordon’s book. It is called Diagram of the Heart, published by Red Hook Editions and hits the shelves on February 11th.

I reviewed the book for Time Lightbox in a piece titled Anatomy of a Photobook: Diagram of the Heart, by Glenna Gordon.

“What if a photo of a woman writing a book was as important as a photo of a man fighting a war?” asks Gordon. “What would our foreign policy objectives be? How would we understand and conceptualize places and people we haven’t personally encountered? It often seems to me that fear is one of the driving forces behind the way America interacts with the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world. What if we filled those blank spaces onto which we project stereotypes with visualizations of the specific textures, colors and nuances of a life that is lived on terms different than our own?”

Read the piece in full: Anatomy of a Photobook: Diagram of the Heart, by Glenna Gordon

© Glenna Gordon

Khadija Gudaji works on her novel while laying in bed at her home in Kano, Northern Nigeria on September 29, 2013.
© Glenna Gordon
Books are tied up and packaged at the local market in Kano, Northern Nigeria on October 4, 2013. While Northern Nigeria is best known for Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group whose name means ‘Western Education is sinful,’ there’s a small but significant contingent of hijab wearing ladies writing subversive romance novels.
© Glenna Gordon
Rabi Tale, a popular novelist, in the courtyard of her office at the Ministry of Information on October 3 in Kano, Northern Nigeria. She is one of the few novelists who has a “day job” in an office. Many men allow their wives to write because they can do so without leaving the house.
© Glenna Gordon
A woman reads a Hausa romance novel using the flashlight on her cell phone on a train crossing Nigeria on August 21, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
The wedding Fatiah, or party, of Maryan Nazifi, in Dawakin Tofa, another small town outside of Kano on November 8, 2014. Most of the time, men and women live very separate lives in Northern Nigeria and marriages are the main point of interaction.
© Glenna Gordon
Ahmed Adama, age 35, had wanted to marry Jamaila Lawan, 22, for more than a year when he heard about the mass wedding program organized by the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police in Northern Nigeria, who also censor the novels. They pose for a portrait at their home in Kano, Northern Nigeria, on October 7, 2013.
© Glenna Gordon
A woman poses for a portrait at the Office of Enlightenment at the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police, on August 17, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria on March 21, 2013. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often.
© Glenna Gordon
An officer of the Hisbah, the Islamic morality police, adjudicates a family dispute in Kano, Northern Nigeria, on August 17, 2015.
© Glenna Gordon
The diagram of a heart drawn on the outside of a school in Kano, Northern Nigeria on February 26, 2014.
© Glenna Gordon
Farida Ado, 27, is a romance novelist living in conflicted and rapidly Islamicizing Northern Nigeria. She’s one of a small but significant contingent of women in Northern Nigeria writing books called Littattafan soyayya, Hausa for “love literature.” She poses for a portrait at her home in Kano on April 15, 2013.


My call on Friday for more information on Civil War era prisons bore an unexpected rich harvest. A single reply but an absolutely riveting one.

Imagined Prisons responded with this:

These images are fascinating and haunting, and the idea of the modern prison as “a permanent abstraction of earlier jails” is a compelling one.

As for the carceral spaces – makeshift and otherwise – of the Civil War, some authorities have cited Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rights as a precedent for the Bush Administration’s policies in today’s war prisons. E.E. Hale’s classic short novella, “The Man without a Country,” written in response to Lincoln’s controversial move, tells the story of a man sentenced to spend the rest of his life aboard U.S. Navy ships, in the extralegal zone outside the boundaries of the nation-state.

You might also be interested in this poem by Herman Melville, from the 1866 volume “Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War”:

In the Prison Pen

Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
‘Tis barren as a pelican-beach–
But his world is ended there.

Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think–to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil’s shore–
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.

A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair–
A den that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,

Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead–
Dead in his meagreness.

Imagined Prisons is the accompanying website for the book The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith, which will appear from Yale University Press in September of 2009.

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Carr. Yale University Press, September 2009

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith. Yale University Press, September 2009

The book examines the history of the U.S. prison system and its imaginative life in nineteenth – and twentieth – century culture. Caleb Smith argues that the dehumanization inherent in captivity has always been at the heart of American civil society.

Imagined Prisons is a forum for conversation about the book and the questions it raises;

What is the history of incarceration in America? What roles do prisons and prisoners play in our political life and in our culture? How have artists and writers, both inside prisons and in the world at large, invited us to imagine the institutions of captivity? Visitors to this site might be interested in the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas. They may also wish to explore the long, sometimes tortured history of jails, penitentiaries, plantations, and other dark places that have haunted the new world, with its promise of liberty and justice for all.

What a significant new resource with which to reassess the prison within America’s cultural landscape. Prison Photography, too, is attempting (admittedly ham-handedly on occasion) to define the current representation/consumption of prison imagery within our society.

May I suggest that books such as Caleb Smith’s and sites such as mine exist because sites of incarceration – “dark places” – have been over-zealously operated by controlling minorities and not adequately discussed by the at-large majority?


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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