English here is the foreign language: A conversation with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, author of Season of Crimson Blossoms

Season of Crimson Blossoms
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Cassava Republic Press/Pan Macmillan South Africa 2016

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, winner of the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature, visited Johannesburg recently, and found time to sit down with The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec.

Listen: Exclusive to The JRB: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim reads from Season of Crimson Blossoms

The JRB: The thing that fascinates me most about this book is the central relationship between Binta and Reza. Their initial attraction comes about because he reminds her of her dead son and she reminds him of his absent mother. Described like that it sounds almost comic or verging on incestuous, and yet the relationship is tender, loving, and it feels right. I’m still trying to figure out how you did that.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: I’d like to take the credit, but maybe I should let the characters take the credit for that. It was a tricky balance, this play on the relationship being almost incestuous in a way that they remind each other of one, his mother and two, her son. But they were very clear that that relationship is something in their mind. And obviously he says this in the novel, he says ‘you are not my mother’, which in a way was his own way of clearly stating that, yes I may think of her as a mother figure, but she is not my mother, for sure. That line of thinking was really important because for her it is not about just sex, it is about redeeming herself for the loss of her own son, by redeeming him. That was really important because considering where she’s coming from, the background, and everything she’s been through, that need to make things right through him was crucial for her own, if you like, emotional cleansing. But then again the sexual aspect was something that provided immediate attraction, that held them together. And why I felt it was important to do all that is because I don’t want this to be a story about your typical cougar, who just wants to defile a very young, virile man and just get on with it. There has to be some level of emotional commitment, and the more complex it was, the better.

How has that aspect of the story been received in Nigeria?

It works different ways for different people. But, then again, in Nigeria, in the North, it is very, very common for cousins to marry. So it wasn’t that strange, because everyone is clear that there is no blood relationship between Binta and Reza, and because cousin marriage is accepted in Nigeria in the North, it wasn’t that much of a big deal. Some people felt a bit uncomfortable about that relationship, like, ‘How do you imagine someone you are having sex with as your mother or as your son?’ But it’s good to irk some people sometimes.

I think the other detail that made it more powerful than a typical cougar-toy boy relationship was that the novel as a whole can be described as a tragedy; it builds up and then people die in the end. But Binta’s sexual awakening and the awakening of her identity as a woman that she experiences with Reza also make it a much more meaningful relationship.

I think so too.

I love the way that English words in the novel are italicised. So as the characters are speaking Hausa the English phrases that they speak are italicised, just like the pidgin phrases or the Arabic phrases. Was that something you did as you were writing or was it something your editor suggested?

It was something I worked into the novel while I was writing it. Because for me when I think of these characters I think of them speaking in Hausa, so the phrases, the term of expression and everything was in Hausa. So English here is the foreign language, and it is not the norm, it is the exception. So I thought since it is not the language they actually speak, it should be italicised.

It’s a neat little subversion. In the world of the novel the characters are speaking Hausa, so as we exist reading the book we are living in a world of Hausa, despite the fact that we are reading in English. Did you try to infuse the language with Hausa rhythms or patterns of speech?

A lot of the proverbs have their origins and roots in the Hausa language.

Those proverbs are wonderful.

And the expressions also. But in terms of the language, it’s something I had to think carefully about. The word choices and all that. Hausa has a huge influence on the way the novel was written in terms of word usage, the language and the expressions. Especially the expressions and the way the characters express themselves. So it’s a huge thing. It’s something I fancy, thinking of your characters speaking a different language and then you as the medium subverting that and translating it into a foreign language.

Often you seem to allow yourself a burst of poetry at the end of a chapter, almost like a flourish at the end of a signature. Was that deliberate, or unconscious? It seems to fit in with what you’re saying about the lyricism of Hausa.

I like rich, lyrical language. I was trying very hard not to get it right in the middle of the story and the storyline so that it doesn’t distract from what is happening. For me, a novel or a story is about the plot and the language, and the two must be able to coexist without getting in the way of each other. So when the main gist is done, there’s space for a flourish, if you like.

It was almost filmic, a scene of dialogue and then a pan away to a landscape or something beautiful.

It’s a highly visual novel, for me. When I was conceiving it I was actually seeing the scenes in my head, and translating it into words wasn’t always easy. Having this incongruity between the plot and the language is sometimes a tricky balance to negotiate. So I was conscious of that. But I like my scenes or chapters to end with some flourish.

I think another balance that you got spot on [here Ibrahim did a fist pump] was the balance between politics and the story. The novel wears its history and politics lightly. The upheaval, violence and corruption are there, but they are almost tangential to a very human story. That must have been something you worked on consciously.

Yes. I think a lot of novels that we have coming out that most people consider particularly African novels are expected to play on politics, on corruption, on all these things. I don’t want those to be at the forefront. They are there, obviously, and they are very dominant, like on the landscape and in the scenery. But despite all this, people carry on with their lives. They are little romances in hidden corners, they have their issues with their children, and all that. This corruption, this politics, this violence, in a way it kind of shapes certain things in the way we behave and the way we act, it is not necessary that every time you have to struggle with corrupt politicians and corrupt people, but the decisions they make somewhere, so far away from you, somehow have a resonance in the way you make your decisions and the choices you make in life. So for me it was important that these things are not entirely neglected, but that they form an important backdrop to the story. One of the most significant characters, I think, is the senator. But he is not that significant in the novel because he is not always there. He has two or three scenes or so.

He’s like a ghostly presence.

He’s like the puppeteer behind the scenes controlling Reza, to some extent. So that balance was really vital to me. The violence in Jos, and all of it. I wanted to talk about these things, but I didn’t want that to be at the forefront, I wanted it to inform how the characters got to where they are.

I think it’s effective because we feel the effects of the violence, but the novel does not become didactic, trying to teach us that violence is wrong. It’s showing, not telling. You’ve said that instead of bemoaning the lack of literature coming out of Northern Nigeria, you decided to write it yourself. What is it about the region you feel it is important to capture?

Everything. It’s the people, it’s the culture, it’s the language. It is the little decisions we make, it is how we live, it is how we are perceived. It is all those things that I wanted to capture. I have this mortal dread of being forgotten. I feel it is a great injustice if in the next hundred or two hundred years all people will see about us is newspaper clippings about the damage we did to ourselves through violence, through hate, through all those crazy things that are happening, without understanding the context, without understanding what informed and shaped the decisions we made. These are background issues, and I feel that as a writer, our duty, as Chinua Achebe clearly pointed out, is not to compete with the newspapers for topicality, but to capture the human experience. And capturing the human experience is documenting all those little incidences in the house – what dinner do we have today and how does that affect the little decisions we make and how does that affect how we vote for who we vote for and who we fall in love with, and so on. So these things are really significant, and it is important to capture them. So maybe that is why I inserted so much detail in the novel.

Would you call writing fiction like this almost like an act of resistance to the predominant narratives, or is it more complementary than counter?

I don’t know if resistance is the right word, because if you say resistance it’s like someone is imposing something on you and you are trying to fight back. What I think I’m doing is perhaps an uprising of sorts. If you expect someone to tell you a story they will tell it through their own lens, through their own eyes, through their own words. You may not like how you are represented. But if you tell your own story yourself, even if you don’t like the way you come off at the end of it, it is still your story, it is the way you see yourself, it is the way you understand yourself and your relationship with the people around you. So not necessarily an act of resistance but an attempt to exist, to assert yourself as a human, as an entity, as a people with ideas and culture and thoughts. They may not necessarily all be good, but we do have them and I think that they should be recognised.

I think that relates to what you have said about your argument with the publisher about whether or not to include a glossary. Telling our own stories and not making them obvious to a reader that comes from outside.

Even in Nigeria, a country that is as diverse as they come, people in the South, when they read this book it was an entirely new world to them. There are people from the South who had lived in the North, who had grown up in the North, and they said, ‘We don’t understand this context. We never thought of these things, even though we grew up in the North.’ And I said, it’s because you don’t belong to this culture or this people, so there are things that you are not privy to. It’s like me, as a foreigner, walking down the streets of Joburg and seeing all the houses and thinking, wow these houses are lovely. And the natural assumption is that, lovely houses, everyone inside should be happy, right? But the people inside the house know that they are not happy, or they know they are, and they know why. As Tolstoy said, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Those families know why they are unhappy; you may not necessarily see this. I think it is up to us to protect these things so that people don’t have a single story about us.

It’s not only the phrases and words that are not explained. There are a number or rituals and habits that belong to Hausa culture that you leave open. For example, women of Binta’s generation are not allowed to acknowledge their firstborn child, which I tried to look up on the internet but I couldn’t find any information on. So you’ve embedded the cultural practice without explaining it.

It’s interesting because that is a practise that is going out of fashion. People of my generation now, and maybe this is a general statement, but we would hardly practice this.

Are you the firstborn?

No, I am the third.

Did your mum follow that practice?

No, she didn’t. Thank god for that, she didn’t. There is a photo of me hugging my mum in public, and you wouldn’t normally see that with other people. They won’t hug their mum in public, they won’t do that in private. It is inconceivable. There are changes now, but this practice has done a lot of damage to people. People in Binta’s generation and the children they raised. Because it is going out of practice not many people acknowledge that this thing has done that much damage.

The way you describe it in the novel, it sounds very traumatising.

It is very traumatising. I couldn’t understand it.

Do you know why it is done?

You see, that is the problem. No one exactly knows how this practice came into being. I have to do some more research on it, but I can’t find any resources on it. It’s the firstborn child, some people extend it to the first, second and third. I remember when I was growing up there was this girl who was her mother’s firstborn daughter, and she was never called by her name. She was called, and this is really funny, if her mother wanted to address her, in Hausa she would say ‘come here’, and that is it. And in Hausa ‘come here’ sounds very similar to the word for war. And stupidly we made fun of this poor girl. But when I grew up, I thought about how the lack of affection between mother and child is damaging, and to be bullied because of some cultural practice that nobody really understands is unfortunate.

You say it has to do with the sexuality of the mother?

It has to do with the sexuality of the female, I think. The female in the Hausa, Muslim context is supposed to be a very modest being. She is not supposed to be sexually expressive, which was what Binta’s husband tried to emphasis in the novel. So acknowledging your first child is acknowledging that you’ve had sex, even if it is within the context of marriage. So you pretend that this child is just there, it just morphed out of the darkness or something, you don’t know what happened. You pretend you don’t have affection for that child because if you do it means that you are acknowledging that you enjoyed the experience of producing that child. Which sometimes you do but you don’t want to acknowledge that, right? And then some extend it to the second and the third child. By the fourth child it’s okay, it’s normal, you’ve been there, you’ve done all that, so it’s fine. I wanted to dig deeper to have a proper understanding of where this practice came from and exactly what the motivation is. There’s a professor of Hausa studies at the Bayero University in Kano, and he said there might be a text and he would look for it for me. I haven’t heard from him in months.

It’s something so ubiquitous and no one knows where it comes from.

I think it’s the problem that we have with documenting things. It would be untrue to say the Hausa don’t have a history of writing, they do, and it goes back centuries. But it is the choices of what you write about that are fascinating. Some things are just glossed over and not acknowledged that much.

We are not our own anthropologists. I don’t write down my own behaviours for future generations to examine. I might, however, diarise what I had for breakfast.

Well, you know, the funny thing is this. In a way we are becoming our own anthropologists because we may not sit down to write these things but we document them on social media. We may not be conscious of the grand idea behind what we are doing, but …

Another writing question. Often writers say they can’t write down dialogue as it’s spoken because in reality people’s speech doesn’t make grammatical sense. You have Reza repeating the phrase ‘you understand, you understand’, which struck me as something realistic that I think many writers or editors would want to cut for being too repetitive. But it seemed to make his speech come alive. Did you have any doubts about putting in so many ‘you understands’?

Nope, absolutely not. It’s also a common expression in Hausa among people of his ilk.

Did you spend a lot of time listening to how people spoke?

No. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. I could hear them in my head, I mean they lived there for all the years it took me to write the book.

What’s the literary scene like in Abuja and Jos? Did you write in a context of a lot of support from your peers, or was it you against the world?

With this book, it was me against the world, against my characters who were constantly drumming in my head for four bloody years. I was born and bred and grew up in Jos, my life is Jos. That’s why the book is dedicated to Jos, it’s a very important city to me. I’ve always been a very reclusive person, a hermit – maybe some people won’t think so now – and I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember. My elder brother developed an interest in writing because I wrote, and he went to university to study English, for whatever bloody reason I don’t know. He joined this literary society in Jos, and every two weeks they would have readings, and he would invite me, and I would be like, no, I don’t want to go. And every two weeks he kept inviting me and I kept saying no. Then in 2007 when I won the BBC African Performance Prize that put my name out there. And they said, how can you exist in Jos and be hiding in your room and writing? You have to come out! As if that was some kind of crime or sin or something. So I was dragged out and pulled to this literary society to come and perhaps acknowledge myself as a writer who had won a major prize. So that was my first encounter with the writing community, in that sense, and that was in 2007. I liked the vibe, the camaraderie, so I started attending more regularly, and it gave me reason to challenge myself to write pieces that I would read at these gatherings every two weeks, when there was no violent disruption to the lives in Jos. Because every time there was a riot, you put off the reading for a month or two months until things calm down and you resume, and people come out with new stories about how people were attacked and hurt and killed, it was terrible. But anyway, a lot of those stories went into my first collection of short stories. When I got to Abuja in 2009 I didn’t feel the same vibe so I went back to my default mode of being a hermit. But there are several literary societies in Abuja, and it is hard for a weekend to go by without something happening. You have poetry slams, you have critique sessions, you have guest author sessions.

You mention that the BBC African Performance Prize put your name on the map. How much more significant is it to win the Nigeria Prize for Literature, basically Africa’s largest literary prize? What does that mean for you as a person who is part of the literary scene in Nigeria?

What does it mean to me? More cash in the bank. [laughs]

That’s always very useful. Does it change anything, or not?

It changes everything.

Here, winning the Sunday Times Fiction Prize is a big deal, you get more cash in the bank, but I wouldn’t say it changes much for you as a writer. Whereas the Nigeria Prize for Literature seems to put writers on the map.

I suppose the competition last year was really keen. It was intense. It was a unique moment, we had really fabulous books on the shortlist, and on the longlist as well, so there was a coincidence of good books being produced within the last four years. The fact that this was a book from the North, which hadn’t been heard of previously, and in fact there were two books from the North on the shortlist, and that was a significant thing. Being the first Northerner to win the prize for prose had some local significance, to the region, to the people who write from that region, who are struggling to write. The North has been educationally less advanced than the rest of the country, so that is significant. The money is cool, but you know what they say, to whom much is given, much is expected. In Nigeria, in the North, hardly anything is individual. Everything is communal. So mourning is communal, if you lose your dad everyone comes and mourns with you. You win a prize, everyone comes and shares it with you. So you have instances of people who have never heard of you before writing you letters that read ‘congratulations’, with bank account details at the bottom. So there have been a lot of demands, a lot of pressure, from people you know and people you don’t know. You have you relatives and your family, of course, who you have to assist, that is expected. But then you have people you haven’t been in touch with for five, ten years, suddenly popping up with demands.

So is it a burden, winning this prize?

Everything is a burden. It just depends on your outlook. Sometimes I do feel like an ATM machine. But maybe it’s a good problem to have, rather than being broke.

One thought on “English here is the foreign language: A conversation with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, author of Season of Crimson Blossoms”

  1. Loved your interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim #Season of Crimson Blossoms – you asked all the questions I wanted answers to 🙂

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