In our latest tea with emerge85, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim discusses what led him to become a writer.
By Afshin Molavi | July 13, 2017
When Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was 18 years old, he got into a memorable spat with his older brother, who insisted Ibrahim enter a BBC contest for aspiring playwrights. But the young, hesitant writer refused. “When I said ‘no’ to the contest, he stopped talking to me entirely for a few days,” Ibrahim says.
He had been scribbling stories in his notebooks since he was 13 years old in his native Jos in northern Nigeria, and his brother clearly thought he had some talent. Eventually, he relented and entered the contest. He did not win but received some encouraging and constructive criticism of his play.
Over the next few years, Ibrahim continued writing stories, and almost 10 years later submitted a story to the BBC about domestic violence as told through the eyes of a child. “My brother did not like the story that I had sent,” he says, “so I didn’t tell him at the time.” A few months later, Ibrahim heard the good news: His story had won first prize. “Now, we have a joke,” Ibrahim laughs, “if my brother does not like a story, then it will be successful.”
It is hard to imagine his brother not appreciating the “Season of Crimson Blossoms”, Ibrahim’s debut novel that has shot him into the Nigerian and African literary firmament. The novel won the prestigious NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2016 and has received wide critical acclaim. Ibrahim can add the $100,000 NLNG prize to his growing mantle, including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship, among others.
The novel tells the story of an unlikely romance between a middle-aged widow with a sprawling, complicated family life and a much younger local thug and drug dealer abandoned by his mother. In one of the great opening sentences in contemporary literature today, Ibrahim writes: “Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.”
The populous West African nation has produced some significant literary figures over the years, from the elder generation of Nobel Prize-winning Wole Soyinka and the acclaimed late novelist Chinua Achebe to the more contemporary Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Most of Nigeria’s literary stars, however, hail from the south of the country, and the “Nigeria story” told in English has been decidedly of a southern flavour, largely ignoring the more heavily Muslim north of the country. Ibrahim writes with skill and empathy about the Muslim north, in all its myriad colour and complexity.
The rise of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and the north’s history of religious and tribal violence have overshadowed the lives of ordinary northern Nigerians. At one point towards the end of the novel, Zubairu looks at a painting made by her niece, a young girl traumatised by the violence she has seen, and is “astonished by how the girl had taken her fears and nightmares and made them into something beautiful”.
In one sense, Ibrahim has done the same with his novel, telling a story of beauty – even normalcy – amid the fears and nightmares.
Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café, a popular bookstore and café near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.
Abubakar: English Breakfast
Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café is both a Washington institution and a familiar space in today’s global metropolis: The independent urban bookstore showcasing fashionable and best-selling works alongside heavy biographies, weighty histories, and picture-filled art books. On the afternoon that I meet Abubakar Adam Ibrahim at Kramers, I glance through the front entrance novel stacks, with authors that would have been familiar to global literati anywhere: Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, and Arundhati Roy, alongside some of the more recent break-out stars who have made The New York Times best-seller list or been anointed by tastemakers in London or Frankfurt.
From the stack of awards and accolades Ibrahim has been receiving, it likely won’t be long before he takes his place amid the hot young writers gracing the most valuable real estate of global urban bookshops.
I make my way towards the café, past the books on how to live lives of meaning or the ones that remind us of the importance of kindness or organisation, and pull out my notebook. Earlier in the day, I had met Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the pioneering founder of Cassava Republic, the Abuja-based publishing house with a strong list of Nigerian authors, including Ibrahim. She told me Ibrahim “did not only bring northern Nigeria to the world, but also to southern Nigeria, where many do not know how the north lives”.
As I flip through notes from my conversation with Bakare-Yusuf, I look up and see a black and white keffiyeh-style scarf wrapped around the neck of one of Nigeria’s hottest young writers. “It’s good to meet you,” Ibrahim says, reaching out his hand, his angular eyes ticking upwards slightly as he smiles.
As we sip tea, Ibrahim tells me he hopes to one day write a story set in a tea shop. “They are very common in northern Nigeria, so imagine you have a tea shop, and all of these different characters coming in, their lives intersecting, and everything happens in that tea shop,” he says.
As he tells me about a particular tea shop in his native city of Jos, we start with why he became a writer.
“Writing appropriated me”
I hope I can answer that question some day. Sometimes when I think about it, I think writing appropriated me or abducted me [laughs] and has held me captive ever since. I always wanted to tell stories. When I could write, I simply started to write. It was kind of subconscious. I wasn’t really sure it was a conscious decision.
The first defining moment for me was when I was 13, and I read a book and I thought: Why don’t I write something like this? I was fascinated by the style of the writing, by the narration, by the story itself. So, I started writing.
When I was younger, I would have intense visions and if I didn’t write it, I would have headaches. That still happens sometimes but less so.
I want to tell stories. It’s the only thing I have ever wanted to do. I also have this obsession with us as a people [northern Nigerians] being immortalised through literature. Maybe 100 or 200 years from now, someone will pick up this book and read it and have a different view of northern Nigeria than the one seen in the newspapers. Apart from the narrative in the newspapers, they might see there were people who lived a kind of normal life in a way. I am not trying to hide the reality. Violence is a part of life and it’s in my stories, but it is not the only story.
When I write, I don’t entangle myself with rituals. I prefer to make myself available to the muse when it comes. Like yesterday, I was supposed to go to the museums but I felt this intense urge to write and kept writing until 4:00am.
A sibling spat and a BBC prize
The second defining moment in my writing was when I turned 18. Prior to that, I had been writing for my own benefit. I wasn’t desperate for anyone to read the writing. I wasn’t inviting people to read my work. By the time I was 18, my brother said there was a call for entries from the BBC, and he urged me to submit a story. I said I didn’t want to do it, and he got angry with me, and we had a stand-off for a couple of days. He stopped talking to me entirely for a few days. So, eventually, I relented and wrote the story. I did not win, but I got a strong encouraging letter from the judges. They said: “We think your story is fantastic, but it’s not up to the format and that sort of thing.” So, they sent me a guidebook and I took off from there.
I entered the competition a couple more times, but eventually I stopped. Several years down the line, I had a story that I was sitting on, and I sent it, and that was the story that won [in 2007]. My brother didn’t like that story, so I didn’t tell him I was sending it at the time and I was surprised when they called me and said that I had won.
When I called my brother and told him, he was surprised and said he did not know I was entering. He asked: “Which story?” When I told him which one, he said: “Are you serious?” [laughs] and so we have a running joke that anything that I write and he doesn’t like will be successful [laughs].
A writer “exposed” and the rise of the internet
In between that first story and the one that won, I had written several short stories that I had not sent out to publishers. I was very reclusive. I preferred to keep to myself and my work to myself.
So, after that, and winning that prize, several writers came to me and said: So, you are there; you are hiding [laughs] … Now, that you won the prize, you have been exposed, and you must come out. So I was forced out of my shell. After that, I sent out another short story and it was accepted for publication, and then it went from there.
It was an interesting period. It coincided with a lot of things: The internet, the renewed optimism in literary circles in Nigeria, because prior to 2000 there was a dearth of known writers coming out of Nigeria. For almost 20 years with the exception of Ben Okri, who won the Booker Prize in 1991, there weren’t people who were saying this is a writer of this generation who had emerged. We, of course, had figures like Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe, but the new generation had yet to arrive.
In 2001, Nigerian writer Helon Habila [from north-eastern Nigeria] won the Caine Prize for African writing. He sort of came out of nowhere. That kind of reinvigorated my generation. We thought: “Ok, we can do something too.” Then, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the David T. Wong International Short Story Prize a year later, and she had great publishing success. Then, we had this convergence of euphoria with the internet, so now people had access to writings that were only in magazines, and writers had access to new audiences and publishing opportunities.
By the mid-2000s, a number of my short stories were published online by magazines and that is how I found my publisher in Nigeria. They read one of my stories online and they reached out to me.
Writing English and connecting north and south
I chose to write in English because I did not want to limit myself to the north or Hausa-speaking people. I didn’t want to limit my stories. Yes, it’s important for northern Nigerians to have a Hausa literature, but English allowed me to to connect to the universality of concerns, and reach a global audience, but it also allowed me to reach audiences within my own country.
It is striking the level of ignorance that people have even in southern Nigeria about northern Nigeria. I was conscious of the fact that northern Nigeria is not represented wholly in the body of Nigerian literature and this is a disturbing fact for a country as divisive as Nigeria along ethnic and tribal lines. So, one way to bridge that gap is for people to understand each other through literature, which can give us the opportunity of looking into the window and seeing how the other lives.
I have a friend born in Lagos in the south, and she told me she was surprised at her own ignorance of the people of the north of the country. She said it was like stepping into an entirely new universe. Another friend who was a travel writer told me people in northern Nigeria are far removed from her. This seemed strange coming from a travel writer who knows many worlds.
A Jos childhood and the Boko Haram carnage
Jos is a beautiful city. It is hilly. It was cosmopolitan, people from different backgrounds, different religions. Growing up in Jos shaped the kind of person I have become, and who I am: I was exposed to different aspects of religion, culture and people of different backgrounds. On a personal level, it was difficult because my parents had split when I was 13.
It’s very easy for people to remember the explosive nature of north Nigeria and easily forget the nuance and subtleties that make it a beautiful place. The narrative coming out of northern Nigeria has been predominantly one of violence. The last seven years or so and the Boko Haram insurgency has put us in a very bad light. Prior to Boko Haram, there had also been religious clashes between Muslims and Christians. It is hard to escape that.
And it should be noted that Boko Haram has done great damage to our society. A generation of children has seen terrible violence and they are not receiving any therapy, and this will resurface in very damaging ways for people. Because of the failings of the system and the security services, vigilantes fought Boko Haram, many of them young, armed, and on drugs, and they may be heroes now, but what do they do next? They can possibly be used by corrupt politicians as thugs for hire.
In my stories, I am conscious not to perpetuate a stereotype of violence by writing about the violence alone, but I will not try to hide it either. The important thing to note is that in spite of the violence there is a life: People are falling in love, falling out of love, having divorces, getting married, dreaming of a better life, rising and falling. So that was important for me to capture. And that’s what I grew up seeing in Jos.
What the West wants from an African writer
There has been this debate about the kind of literature that the West expects of African writers. If it doesn’t perpetuate the narrative that is running in the news, if it is not a story about a child soldier, they think something is wrong. There is more to us than child soldiers or kidnapped children. Someone in Canada who had read my book told me: Why are there no issues of female genital mutilation? Female genital mutilation doesn’t exist in northern Nigeria. We don’t think about it much because we don’t practice it.
My primary responsibility is to my craft, my story. Whatever else follows, just follows. When I sit down to write, I do not think of myself as an African but as a human within a particular social and cultural context. Sometimes the social and cultural context can have a strong bearing on the story and sometimes not. The primary responsibility is to the story.
A ‘Global South’ kinship
I feel that people in the ‘Global South’ are far more connected to the spiritual aspect of existence. Magical realism appears, for example, in South American literature because of this spirituality, and so I feel a kinship with other writers of the ‘Global South’, in a way. When I went to Colombia as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fellow, it was not just a fellowship, it was a pilgrimage. First, I was seeing all of these places I had read about in his novels, and then I could relate in a way because there are similarities to what I have seen and lived. We are all transitioning, divides need to be breached. We are facing tradition and modernity. We can see these things happening.
There are also similarities in family issues. I remember a conversation with my cousin and he said “You are my brother”, and I replied “No, you are my cousin”, and he insisted “No, you are my brother”.
Family relationships are vital but also complicated. Your private decisions are not just private. They belong to the family. They affect the family as a whole.