Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist who was described by Deutsche Welle, Germany, as a northern Nigerian “literary provocateur” from his award-winning novel Season of Crimson Blossoms. He was born in Jos, North-Central Nigeria, and holds a BA degree in Mass Communication from the University of Jos. His debut short-story collection The Whispering Trees was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014, with the title story shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writings. Ibrahim has won the BBC African Performance Prize and the ANA Plateau/Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. He is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow (2013), a Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2015) and a 2018 Art OMI Fellow. Ibrahim was the recipient of the 2016 Goethe-Institut & Sylt Foundation African Writer’s Residency Award. In 2014, he was selected for the Africa39 list of writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature, and was included in the anthology Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara (ed. Ellah Allfrey). He was a mentor on the 2013 Writivism programme and judged the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2014. He was chair of judges for the 2016 Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize.
His first novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, was published in 2015 by Parrésia Publishers in Nigeria and by Cassava Republic Press in the UK (2016) and won the Nigeria Prize for Literature, Africa’s largest literary prize in 2016 worth $100,000. Ibrahim is the Features Editor at the Daily Trust newspaper. In May 2018 he was announced as the winner of the Michael Elliot Award for Excellence in African Storytelling, awarded by the International Center for Journalists, for his report “All That Was Familiar”, published in Granta magazine in May 2017. Ibrahim was a 2018 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
LitVo: Hello Sir, it is a pleasure to have you here with us at Literature Voices (LitVo).
Abubakar Adam: Thank you. It is a pleasure.
LitVo: Journalism mandates that a journalist’s work must be accurate and factual but fiction writing allows beautiful and creative untruth. You are a journalist and a writer of fiction who has published three works of fiction that are terrifically wide and wild with imagination. How do you ensure that your imagination does not get in the way of your work as a journalist?
Abubakar Adam: To be a decent journalist requires some kind of imagination. The imagination to see a story where most people don’t and the imagination to follow that story and collect the facts of that story and the imagination to structure the report in a way that captures the readers’ attention. So in that sense, I don’t see any conflict between journalism and creative writing. In any case, journalism these days is moving towards creative non-fiction which takes the creative liberties of fiction except only with facts. In journalism is driven by facts whereas the basic contract between a creative writer and his reader is that of telling a convincing lie, as Steve Almond said. But in most instances, these untruths are only the vehicle for proper introspection, the tool to look into the soul of society, our existence and to deconstruct the essence of our existence. Whereas their methodology is often different, the result is always the same, that of uncovering, centring and analysing the uncomfortable truth about us.
LitVo: “Journalism is a part of literature. In as much as they have slight differences, they work hand in hand.” What is your take on this assertion?
Abubakar Adam: This sounds like one of those questions one would expect in an exam. [Laughs]. It is only a slight variation of the first. Who was it that said that journalism is literature written in a hurry? Whereas being a great journalist doesn’t always translate to being a fine writer, the intersectionality between literature and journalism is far too great. Again Achebe said the duty of the writer is not to compete with the newspaper for topicality but to document the human condition. That is vital because that is not something one often finds, especially in the type of journalism practised in Nigeria where victims of violence are reduced to numbers, data, specifics. Literature takes us past these numbers to see how these people live, what they dreamt of and how they lost these dreams. Literature humanizes people in a way journalism doesn’t. Even though it is fiction, it gives us a greater connection to these people. The writer has the luxury and perhaps the onerous task of looking at events more holistically while the journalist is constrained by the twin demons of deadline and space. But like I said, long-form journalism is growing and employs the techniques of creative writing and the marriage between journalism and creative writing is being cemented as we speak.
LitVo: There are times in life that we do not have a choice but to choose one thing over the other, especially things we love, if you are to choose between Journalism and literature which would you choose? Why?
Abubakar Adam: This would be like choosing between twins. I don’t see how the two cannot co-exist. I only imagine that long after I have retired from journalism, I could sit in my room and do creative writing and all will be well with the world.
LitVo: Your works are exceptionally poetic, starting from the titles (The Whispering Trees, Season of Crimson Blossom, Dreams and Assorted Nightmare.); your works are also the representation of emphasized emotions, solitude, spiritual and supernatural elements etc which are portrayed in the story ‘Cry of A Witch’ in Whispering Trees; also, in characters like Faiza, Binta, Reza etc, in Season of Crimson Blossom and in Dreams and Assorted Nightmares we still see those features in characters like Laminde, Abba and Mira, Naznine, Anisa, Talatu and Captain etc. Do you agree with the judgement of your works in the view of emotions or the view of Structure only? Why?
Abubakar Adam: It is not my place to agree or disagree with judgements on my work. My understanding of literature is that once it is published or presented to an audience, the author is dead. Dead in the sense that it is no longer his or her duty to try to defend or rationalize the motivation of his characters and fend off the harsh jibes or bask in the glowing acclaim of critics of the work or the judgement of readers. The work should speak for itself because some of us write not to centre ourselves but to centre the things we write about. Now, this may be a conservative approach to critique especially in the time of instant feedback and engagement that social media has allowed, but it lets me sleep at ease. It means that I am not affected by praise or criticism of my work, both of which can be detrimental to a writer and his ego.
Having said that, I do not think “emphasized emotions” is the right phrase. There is nothing emphasized about the normal emotions that my characters’ experience. I guess people relate to them because they recognize these emotions and the validity of the characters experiencing them. It is that universal human concern that readers and characters and people all around the world share. It is that one thing that is most important to us irrespective of our differences.
LitVo: “Some texts are born literary; some achieve literariness and some have literariness thrust upon them.” As an award-winning writer, can you tell us how this assertion relates to your book Dreams and Assorted Nightmares alongside any other book of your choice?
Abubakar Adam: Again, I don’t think it is my place to speak of my work in this context. That is the place of readers and critics and teachers of literature and theorists. Of other works, I might have an opinion. I think every book finds its audience in the end. Or most books. Some find them instantly, others after a while. These are called sleepers. They wake up later and become bestsellers, like The Great Gatsby, that fantastic piece of literature. When it was published, not much was thought of it until years later, after the author’s death, that it became a sensation and is still widely regarded nearly a century after its publication. To Kill a Mocking Bird for instance by Harper Lee failed to win the Pulitzer Prize the year it was published but decades later, no one is talking about the book that won that year’s prize but everyone is talking about Harper Lee and her book. So books have a way of finding their audience. Except for the very few whose excellence is not in doubt but which just don’t end up in the right hands or are not seen or read by the right people.
LitVo: The romance between the past and present is unbreakable. The past and present sometimes do not agree but like lovers, sometimes they do. Taking Binta and Reza and the world that revolves around them in Seasons of Crimson Blossom as a case study, do you think the present will ever get tired of the past? Why?
Abubakar Adam: A case study? Again, this sounds very academic, doesn’t it? But to answer the question, I think the present is always tired of the past because the past is gilded in nostalgia and people always look to the past, most of it, with some fondness and the present with some discontent. But being tired of something doesn’t mean one can easily shake it off. The present is conditioned by the past and Binta and Reza, like the rest of us, are a product of the intersection of their history, identity and culture and their reaction to present agitations are often determined by this conditioning. So the present and the past are bound in an indissoluble marriage but it doesn’t mean they are not both tired of each other. But like yin and yang, they both need each other to exist.
LitVo: Dreams and Assorted Nightmares harbours irresponsible characters like Mororo and Anisa’s father. If these characters are to be Nigeria and its corrupt system, do you think it will be easier to rectify the flaws around and how? If it isn’t going to be easy, why?
Abubakar Adam: There is something funny about the perception of irresponsibility being thrust on certain characters and this is often conditioned by their sex—they are both males. And I always maintain that Mororo’s irresponsibility only coincides with the irresponsibility of the women he was having liaisons with. Whatever Mororo did was consensual. And so like Nigeria, irresponsibility cannot be thrust on a certain class, say the leadership while leaving out the followership. Both the leadership and the followership, those who choose, elect of select the leaders and those who justify their irresponsibility for marginal profit are all equally irresponsible. While the leaders loot billions from the treasury and run the country aground, the health workers are diverting the few drugs in the hospitals and selling them for profit, they are sabotaging services at public hospitals to drive people to their private practices, the policeman is lending weapons to criminals and the power worker is sabotaging transformers and selling it for scrap while the petty trader is cheating customers by tampering with scales and measures, while the thrift collector is making off with people’s savings. So we are united in being irresponsible and therefore responsible for the mess of a country we have but we always like to point the finger at others, like the proverbial person who stands on the pile of his misdeeds to points at others’. We are all either Abba Mororo or the mothers of his bastards. We are all culpable.
LitVo: In your words, “Zango is the reincarnation of Mazade.” Mazade is a mystical place in one of the stories titled CRY OF A WITCH in The Whispering Trees. Why did you decide to reincarnate Mazade when you can create a totally different world? Why the connection? Why the mystery?
Abubakar Adam: There is no great mystery there. Life is cyclical. Civilizations crumble and others rise to take their place. There was once a Persian Empire where Iran stands today, Babylon perished and Iraq rose. The same way Mazade expired and in its place, Zango rose. It is a reflection of the cyclical nature of life. There is death and rebirth, there is yin and yang. The concept of life is like the forces of good and evil trapped in a circle, constantly pushing against each other. The idea of a space that constantly springs up only to suffer some kind of apocalypse has always fascinated me and there was magic and myth in Mazade it was only fitting that a place like Zango would rise from it.
LitVo: Your stories usually seem to be more on the side of divine possession rather than literature derived from learning with characters like Malam Sadi Kankat who possess spiritual powers in Dreams and Assorted Nightmares. Are you always in the state of divine possession when you write and when you get your Eureka ideas? Also, do you always share your divine possession with your characters?
Abubakar Adam: A possession, divine or otherwise, entails ceding control and being compelled often against one’s will to do certain things, be they inspired or disingenuous. My stories are inspired but there is a great deal of control involved in the crafting and execution. Sometimes the stories come from a special place within and yes, they take up space in your mind, take up residence and drive you to want to put them to paper, only after which one experiences peace. However, other times they are carefully thought out and structured. Sometimes I am afraid propagating this idea of divine possession may be an excuse for creatives to justify substance abuse in the name of being in the zone. It may work for some people but in the end, I think every writer, even when you feel you a merely a vessel for telling the story of your characters, has significant agency in the storytelling and the writing.
LitVo: Post-colonial disillusionment has been a menace in society for a long and as we see that in “Sajah” and “Daughters of Bappa Avenue” in Dreams and Assorted Nightmares. Do you think the post-colonial disillusionment is born to be immortal like the issue of Racism?
Abubakar Adam: Disillusionment, post-colonial or otherwise, is always a part of life. It is a fact of life that every euphoric event, such as colonialism, independence, revolutions and the likes, has been followed by disillusionment because human emotions and expectations are not meant to plateau, they can only crescendo and fall. If you look at the history of every revolution in world history, it has always been followed by disillusionment I suppose as long as there are humans, there will be expectations and as long as there are expectations there will be disillusionment. Those too are the yin and yang of existence. Racism on the other hand is a product of prejudice and economic power. The two are intertwined. Racists did not become racist without the existence of prejudice and greed. It is a prejudice that makes you discriminate against people and it is the greed, the desire to have it all, to cease their wealth or prevent them from accessing wealth, to subjugate others that push people to act on it in most instances. In the end, these are things that we will have to live with. In Sajah, the euphoria was the father getting a car for the first time in his life, in “Daughters of Bappa Avenue” it was the promise of leaving Magajiya’s house. In the nature of life, these expectations reset themselves. So yes, I suppose we are stuck with these things.
LitVo: As a writer who panders to the divine and para-mystery, when one closes his eyes, there is a world inside of it. What if you are given the chance to stay there for a while, what will you start writing about when you open them?
Abubakar Adam: I don’t know. It depends on what world opens up in my mind. Sometimes space determines how one acts on inspiration. Sometimes the space you are in, mentally or physically, determines what kind of inspiration one gets. For instance, if I am abroad, the inspiration has a different vibe. So often I would rather export my inspiration abroad and make use of the space and time to write than the other way round.
LitVo: Writers are seers. Considering all the ills in the world today and the many vices that we battle with every day coupled with the corona pandemic that has no intention of going away, where do you see the world moving to now, in terms of general stability? What do you think is our fate in the face of such uncontrollable circumstances, especially in Africa?
Writers are writers. That is the fact. Anything else is conjecture. I am wary of ascribing these powers to writers. They are observers, they see parallels and intersections and convergences and divergences as well. Sometimes they are right, other times they are not. Anyone with a good sense of analysis could see things and recognize patterns in the grand scheme of things. I suppose writers have an advantage because they can document their analysis in a storied and relatable way that makes it more dramatic when it happens. You don’t need a seer to tell you the world is moving towards chaos and anarchy. Even with the pandemic, you have vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. Two years ago, not many people imagined that a tiny virus would turn the world upside down, yet here we are. And then you look at the sheer chaos everywhere, the increasing violence amongst people because violence has been incentivized by power-hungry people. The leadership of this country has especially debased hope to the extent that the idea of stability in the nearest future will take extraordinary effort. Not impossible but it must be something we are deliberate about. Yet, if you look at the horizon, who among those aspiring to govern has the understanding that the foundations of this country have been so corroded and has the will to work towards fixing it? We live in such a time that the more we advance as humans, technologically, the more frightening we become to ourselves and that is just sad.
LitVo: Writers get into some characters in their books, if you have to be a character in your book, ‘Dreams and Assorted Nightmates’ which character will you be and why?
Abubakar Adam: I would rather remain the puppet master. The one who gets to pull the plug on any character he fancies without being afraid of being written out or off or being murdered in a horrible way by a writer.
LitVo: Thank you.
Abubakar Adam: Thank you too.
Haneefah Abdulrahman is a writer, poet, spoken poetry artiste, interviewer and a podcaster. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State. She is a fellow of Ebedi International Writers’Residency. She is the Chairperson of Kaduna Branch, Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation, 2020/2021 Financial Secretary and editor of the Creative Writers Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria – Nigeria, and an Assistant Editor of Literature Voices (LitVo). Haneefah has been published on Daily Trust, Nigerian Review, Wisprout Project and in many other journals (Both international and national).She was shortlisted as one of the 30 Contemporary Women Poets to read by Poetry Column-NND in Nigerian News Direct. She is YELF ARTIST OF THE MONTH. November Edition 2020. Email: email@example.com, IG: neefahwords, Facebook: Haneefah Abdulrahman, Twitter: neefahwords_, Tiktok: neefahwords, Blog: trendyneefah.blogspot.com