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.