‘The thing about writing sex is that it is as complicated as humans are’: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
An interview with the Nigerian author of ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’, a searing novel about a taboo relationship set in a conservative Muslim community.
When Nigerian writer Abubakar Dam Ibrahim published his first novel in 2015, he was prepared for a fatwa against it. The Season of Crimson Blossoms, featuring a 55-year-old Muslim widow’s romantic and sexual relationship with a 25-year-old criminal, was unlike anything that had come out of Nigerian writing in English until then. Set in the conservative Hausa community of Northern Nigeria, the novel is a searing tale of love, sex and the complications of family and religion, with the political violence and machinations that have rocked the region forming the backdrop for the story.
The book has, instead, garnered 39-year-old Ibrahim acclaim within Nigeria and beyond – he won the $100,000 Nigeria Prize For Literature and the novel has found publishers across the globe, including in India in 2017.
The Season of Crimson Blossoms is a deftly-woven story, inherently political, not just in its milieu but in the probing questions it raises about societal expectations. The already taboo relationship between 55-year-old Binta Zubairu and her young lover is made more complicated by the memories he evokes in her of her dead son. The young man, Reza, in turn, yearns for a loving relationship, deprived of one with his parents. Yet the story retains an astounding degree of empathy for its lead characters throughout, enriched by Ibrahim’s play with language. Hausa proverbs and expressions unapologetically infuse the prose and whenever a character speaks in English, the dialogue is italicised. It’s a clever choice that tells the English-speaking reader that they are immersed in the Hausa world of the novel while also questioning their position as an outsider.
Nigerian literature, of course, has a long legacy of widely-read and loved authors including stalwarts like Chinua Achibe and Wole Soyinka who have transcended the country’s borders. But Ibrahim joins a growing new wave of trailblazing, homegrown Nigerian writers – not even taking into account Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who first gained popularity in the US instead of Nigeria – breaking away from the expectation of the “epic novel” and writing more intimately and personally about the stories of individuals, not entire communities.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim spoke to Scroll.in at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, where he was a speaker. Excerpts from the interview:
Apart from being a fiction writer, you are also a journalist and have written about culture and conflict in Northern Nigeria. How did that help in the writing of this novel and shape the story you wanted to tell?
There is a lot of literature in Northern Nigeria but a lot of it is written in Hausa, so it’s essentially the North having a conversation with itself. A lot of that literature doesn’t necessarily engage with the human condition of the people in the region. So you have a lot of romance novels and love stories and you have fantasy. But stories that convey the human experience of the people in the North haven’t been written to the extent that it deserves. You have a very vast, colourful, dynamic region with a very rich history and culture that is misunderstood outside that region. And very unfortunately, because of the activities of groups like Boko Haram, the communal crisis in the region gets the most attention.
When I was writing this story, I wasn’t thinking of countering this narrative. I was concerned about telling a good story. But I’ve always been conscious that my stories are going to reflect the environment I’m very, very familiar with. There’s so much you can tell from that region, based on the social and cultural context, based on the people that inhabit that space. In my travels across the world, I see how the story has resonated with people who are totally unfamiliar with the culture but have had similar experiences. And for me that is what the novel should do – to capture the universal human experience. This is what we tend to forget a lot – that fiction and writing, generally go beyond physical boundaries and political spaces directly into the minds of readers and by virtue of that, writers are saddled with responsibility, whether we like it or not.
You spoke about fiction transcending physical boundaries. The book has found publishers around the world and in India as well. What do you think it is about your novel that speaks universally, not just to Nigerian or more specifically, Hausa people?
For me, the novel is principally about the complexity of relationships, not only with our lovers but with our children, our parents, our neighbours, with the people who have authority over us. Sometimes this complexity affects us directly, sometimes there are subtle divisions on a higher level that somehow have an impact on the people down below.
Personal decisions such as who you decide to have a sexual relationship with have wider ramifications for communities, and this is something we tend to underestimate a lot. If you look at the choice of who you marry, who you have a relationship with, who you essentially end up in love with, or not, it has shaped the world the way it is now. If you look at the history of crises in the world, deep down there is some kind of love and some kind of hate. Sometimes that affects political decisions – which country goes into alliance with another and who they decide to fight and exterminate. That’s why the relationship between Reza and his political godfather was really important in the novel. The decisions this politician made were not public pronouncements, they were personal decisions made to advance his own political career, but it had implications on another relationship taking someplace else.
You knew when you wrote this novel that it would be considered provocative. What was your intention when you started out writing it? Did you want to write something that shook traditional storytelling that was coming out of the region and the community?
Like I said earlier, I just wanted to tell a good story and every story has a context – it may be social, political or cultural. Because I wanted to tell a good story it had to have a relationship with the space that it is set in. It had to draw on the culture and history of the people. But I didn’t set out to be an ambassador or spokesman for that region and people have asked me in several instances, “as a representative of the North….” and I have to clarify that I’m not a representative, I’m just a writer.
I was really curious about the dynamics of relationships and where I come from, you know, the standards of a relationship are that the man is supposed to be older and the woman is supposed to be younger. Sometimes the man could be seventy and the woman could be twenty and it would be fine. People might say, “Oh, he’s too old for her” but it’s said in private, it’s perfectly normal. But if the woman is older, even if the man is 20 and she’s 25, they’ll say, “What’s wrong with these people”. So I wanted to explore what happens when a woman who is 55 has a relationship with a man who is 25. How does society react to the private decision of two individuals old enough to make these decisions for themselves.
Your novel deeply explores the nuanced dynamics of a sexual relationship and the nature of desire. What should writers keep in mind while writing about sex so it isn’t clunky or forced? How do you avoid winning the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards?
The thing about writing sex is that it is as complicated as humans are. People have sex in many different ways, they relate to sex in many different ways. It is important to remember that your experience of sex is not necessarily the most “genuine” because my preferences and tastes might be different than yours. My approach to writing sex is the same as my approach to writing characters – there are certain details that are not necessary at all. The fact that these characters have sex is important and if the way in which the act takes place has a relevance to the development of the characters or the relationship, then it is important to present that.
For me it was even more complicated because I was writing about a woman who is considered “respectable”, a matron in the community –a mother, a grandmother. I really didn’t want her to come across as a “floozy” or as a “cool girl”, she’s a very complex character so the depiction of the sex had to be relevant to her experiences and character. I may say this character is beautiful and end up giving you a description of his eyes, his nose, his lips and to you…that is not your taste of beauty and you look at this character and say “what’s beautiful about this person?” So I’ll let you imagine what a beautiful person is to you. If I give you the basics of the character, I think that’s fine enough. It’s the same with writing sex.
You’ve spoken in the past about the “Greats” to come out of Nigeria – writers like Chinua Achebe. What are you – as part of a new and very different wave of Nigerian novelists – writing about now that they didn’t or couldn’t imagine writing about, or perhaps just weren’t interested in?
I have absolute reverence for writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi even though, like with all literature, there are points of divergence. Regardless, their books are classics because they were so relevant for the objective with which they were written. Before Achebe, for instance, the African experience hadn’t been properly chronicled in the way that he did. You know how certain writers influence generations that come after them, Achebe is one of those writers. People see the feat he has accomplished through his works and they feel “I can do this, my story is relevant”. For me Achebe’s greatness comes from the fact that he gave people the confidence to tell their own stories. And that is very important. I have been to countries where you have writers who are so huge that they cast a shadow over a country, over a generation of writers that come after them. And if anybody writes anything they’re compared to that person. But Achebe kind of threw the door open for Nigerians.
These writers set off writing about colonialism, about justifying our rights to be called humans in a way, because they were cracking back at the portrayal of Africans in colonial literature and had to spend 20, 30, 40 years arguing that we have a story worth telling. These were the issues they were preoccupied with. But with us, we feel that it is time to move away from those debates because we feel we don’t need to justify our existence to anybody. We exist, we’re humans and you just have to deal with that. I don’t think you deserve any condensation from me explaining to you why I’m human. So our society is different now from when they wrote and it is one that is becoming crazily individualistic and this is being reflected in our novels. People are writing about smaller communities, about individual relations, but all in all, there is this vibrancy that you have in Nigerian novels – vibrancy, drama, colour. This is common to both this generation and theirs, even though the issues are slightly different.
Did a lot of these Nigerian authors form a part of your reading while growing up? Or were you reading literature from Western authors in English, as very often tends to happen in a post-colonial environment?
I grew up reading both. I remember reading Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died at the age of 12 and it is a very complex book for a 12-year-old to read. I’m not sure I understood all of it but I did read it (laughs).
I read Chinua Achebe much later but I think one of the most defining books for me was Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda which motivated me to say, yes, I want to write like that. The most influential writer I would mention however, is Marquez, who was South American, he didn’t even write in English. I don’t think I’ve been influenced in that sense by a Nigerian writer. Of course you have to mention Ben Okri, you kind of have to, but only to an extent. But the richness of the work of Marquez and his confidence in projecting his own story is really, really important for me. Saying “this is my story, this is how I want to tell it”. If it talks to you, it talks to you if. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And that is very empowering for me.