Titled Diagram of the Heart – a reference to one of the novels of the same name – the photographs show another side to a region known to the outside world primarily for attacks from Islamist militants Boko Haram.

Posted on

Photographer Glenna Gordon spent months capturing female Muslim writers whose books are among the dozens of cheap, pamphlet-style novels popular across markets in northern Nigeria.


Known as “littattafan soyayya” – meaning “literature of love” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language - the plots all revolve around love and marriage. But not all the stories are Mills and Boons-style fantasies: some are subversive or political, tackling subjects like child marriage and trafficking.

The movement was born in the northern capital of Kano in 1990, when author Balaraba Ramat Yakubu published Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home. The novel was based on her experiences of being a child bride before being divorced and destitute by the time she was 19 years old.


Gender disparity is high across all of Nigeria, but particularly in the Muslim-majority north, and many of the authors struggled to get an education. A minority are encouraged to pursue writing by their families. But all face public censorship. In 2007, then-governor of Kano, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, publicly burned the novels, which he claimed were “pornographic” and out of line with northern Nigeria’s traditional values.


In her book titled Diagram of the Heart – named in the style of the pocket-sized novels – Gordon shows another side to a region known to the outside world primarily for attacks from Islamist militants Boko Haram.

Gordon, who has also tackled subjects such as the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, also documents the weddings and glamour that accompany life in northern Nigeria, which revolves around family ties.


Glenna Gordon

A bride at a wedding in Kano, Northern Nigeria, stands apart from the guests. Male guests and female guests seldom mix in the conservative Islamic norther part of Nigeria.

Glenna Gordon

Sani with his first wife, though his second wife is pictured in their family portrait. Many of the books are about struggles between co wives.

Glenna Gordon

Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria. 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.

Kate Bubacz is a Senior Photo Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Kate Bubacz at kate.bubacz@buzzfeed.com.

Monica Mark is the West Africa Correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Dakar, Senegal.

Contact Monica Mark at monica.mark@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.