For Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, it is a season of alluring feathers as one more feather was recently added to his cap. Just last week, he won the prestigious NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature with his debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, making him 100,000 dollars richer. Ibrahim, who also edits the Arts pages of Daily Trust newspaper, Abuja, had his first collection of short stories, Whispering Trees, longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014 with the title story shortlisted for the Caine Prize same year. He has also won the BBC African Performance Prize and the ANA Plateau/Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. A fellow of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Civitella Ranieri, Ibrahim spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO on his journey from a young boy learning the ropes in Jos to his emergence as the 2016 NLNG laureate.
How was it like growing up?
I think ours was one of the last generations to grow up outdoors, not entirely enslaved by television in gated houses. We grew up playing in the sands, on the streets, and some of us learnt to swim in the river. I never managed to accomplish that feat, because mum caught me out once and forbade me to ever go to the river. I was a good boy so I obeyed. We played football barefooted and scoured the hills trying to hunt down birds with catapults; I was never good at that bit, anyway, and this business of killing animals for the fun of it never fascinated me. Growing up in Jos then was fun. It was peaceful then. We lived in a community were you had Muslims and Christians living harmoniously. We participated in each other’s feasts, fought with maize stalks and dust bombs and played together as children. Now things are different. The communities are now segregated into Muslim and Christian areas as a result of the violence that had happened.
So, for me, it was particularly painful not to recognise the city in which I had my first and most important memories. But all over the world, things are different. Children are too protected. From the age of two, we throw them in schools. They are driven to school and back and, then, we lock them indoors to watch cartoons or give them phones or iPads to play with. They grow up in the living room. They will probably never know what it was like to play in the rain. Children are being robbed of their childhood. The times have changed.
At what point did you take to creative writing? What was the motivation?
From about when I was 13. But, before then, I had been drawing comics and telling stories with pictures. Of course, what I wrote at 13 was juvenilia and, because I hardly threw away any scrap of paper, I had a stack of these writings done in exercise books or pieces of papers which I used to save in a metal box, the type people used to take to boarding schools back in the days. But, during one of the riots in Jos, the house was burnt down, and everything I had written from the beginning of my life up to that point was lost in the fire. But, by the time I was 13, I knew my obsession with writing was a seriously disturbing thing. By the time I turned 18, I was certain I wanted to do it all my life. And that resolve has always been reinforced by the joy of putting words on paper and how these words impact on the people who read them.
Your first offering was a collection of short stories, The Whispering Trees. What determines when you write shorter narratives and when you go for an extended prose narrative?
What determines the length of a story is the story itself. Some ideas come to you and you know that this story doesn’t have the capacity for expansion; it just wants to be a short story so I write it as a short story. A novel is a completely different beast entirely. It takes stamina, both on the part of the story and the writer, to write it and bringing it to term. I have always wanted to write a novel, right from the beginning, so all the short stories I was writing were not intended to go into a collection. They just happened. They were motivated by different reasons; they were written for different reasons. I remember there was one that was essentially a dream I had, and I woke up and wrote it, I made a few tweaks but it was essentially the dream I had. There are others I wrote because I had to write something for the reading group I used to belong to back in Jos. Yet others were inspirations I had, from sheer imagination. These were the stories that eventually went into The Whispering Trees.
What triggered the curiosity to explore the widow story in the award-winning novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms?
What triggered this curiosity was the persistent vision I had of Hassan Reza jumping over this poor widow’s fence in an attempt to rob her. I was curious about what would happen if the two, living in the same community but from very different social classes and generations, met. So, when the character of Binta Zubairu returned home, I was curious to see how, not only that encounter but their relationship would play out. Eventually, the story evolved and became an exploration of cultural, social and political idiosyncrasies that shape our society.
Of course, the common narrative has been that of older men dating younger women, and when it is the reverse and you have sugar mummies, it is often purely for sexual gratification. So I wondered what if the roles are reversed, if an older woman was in a relationship with a younger man, not just for sexual gratification but for something far more trenchant and emotional, how would the society react to it. I was also really curious about how we are one of the most religious societies in the world and at the same time one of the most sinful and how a person like Reza could be categorically bad but there is some good in him and how a character like Binta could be categorically good but there is some bad in her.
What was going on in your mind on the eve of the NLNG award announcement?
I don’t know. I guess I just wanted it to be over and done with. I had tried not to engage with the prize and the possibilities of winning or not. But the closer the date came the more difficult it was to not think about it, because everyone else wanted to talk about it the moment they see you. The money was mouth-watering, I have to admit, and even people who didn’t give a damn about literature were talking about the prize and the money. It was hard to get away from it.
How do you intend to spend the prize money?
There are decisions that have to be made, and I will sit down with my family and decide what best to do. I think the wise thing to do will be to invest it. But we will see what happens when the money eventually comes.
Do you feel more burden as a writer now that you have won this coveted literature prize?
I have always refused to be burdened by others, as much as I can, because I prefer to carry the burden I choose to carry. The burden I have always felt is the one I have placed on myself: that of constantly improving my craft. I am pretty hard on myself when it comes to looking at my own work and critiquing it, and am hardly ever satisfied with what I have written. So, no; I don’t necessarily feel any additional pressure other than the one I have already placed on myself, and I think it is a lot of pressure already. I have set the bar quite high for myself, and I am always striving to push it further.
What’s your writing regimen like, considering that you also function as a journalist?
I envy writers who have a regimen for writing because I can’t. I am a non-conformist and have refused to enslave myself to any regimen or ritual. I write when the muse visits and as long as she endures with me. But because I work, I mostly write at nights and over the weekends. Fortunately, because I am not particular about when and where I write, it is easy to start writing when I am inspired and happen to have the time to.
Are there some challenges Nigerian writers writing in Nigeria face more than those abroad?
Writers everywhere have challenges. The fact is that it is hard for writers, not only in Nigeria, but all over the world to live completely off their writing. Not many writers are able to pull this off even in advanced countries. So even writers in the diaspora have to take up teaching appointments or work elsewhere, except if they’ve managed to write a bestseller and are always being invited to speaking engagements where they are paid appearance fees or if they have their books adapted into a blockbuster movie. This is yet to happen in Nigeria. Filmmakers and writers have been going on two completely different trajectories, but we are hoping that, with the quality of literature being produced in the country and the quality of films being produced in what has been called “the new Nollywood”, I don’t think it is too long before we see a major adaptation of a Nigerian novel.
I have spoken with many writers in many countries and, for some, it is as difficult to make a living on full time writing as it is here in Nigeria, except for a lucky few. Where the difference is lies is in the fact that it is far more conducive to be a writer elsewhere than here because there are residency opportunities for writers there. We have only a handful of residencies here; we have only a handful of decent literary prizes, and we have no university offering creative writing as a substantive course. To top this, we have a shortage of publishing houses.
Three or four traditional publishing houses to service a population of 170 million is almost suicidal. Apart from problems of distributions that they have to deal with because the structure is not there, these publishing houses have to scour the field looking for very good editors for the titles they have decided to publish and, when they can’t find them, they have to look for them abroad. Now that the exchange rate is the way it is, I can’t imagine many publishers being able to afford the services of these quality editors. Invariably, this affects the quality of the books that will be produced. It is hard to be a writer anywhere in the world; it is harder being a writer in Nigeria.
Denja Abdullahi: Despite recession, ANA convention must go on
Mallam Denja Abdullahi will be marking his first year as the president of Africa’s largest writers’ guild, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) at the forthcoming annual convention of the association holding in Abuja. The president, who has brought some innovations since taking over, spoke to Henry Akubuiro on the changes made so far in the association. In the lead up to the annual convention, Mallam Abdullahi promised that this year’s confab will mark a departure in terms of organisation and programmes.
One year into your tenure as ANA president, what do you consider your little beginnings?
I have put in place some schemes which will ultimately entrench some best practices in the association. The most fundamental of these measures is the Strategic Planning Workshop we had in July which culminated in the development of a strategic plan for ANA from 2017-2022 that will be unveiled in the forthcoming convention. I have also attempted to document the history, achievements and prospects of the association through a documentary film project which will premiere during the convention. These two projects were thought out by me as I contemplated gunning for the Presidency. They are my legacy projects coming early during my tenure of office. I am also building a digital database for the association to enable us harness greatly the potentials of our membership. This project is also going to be unveiled soon and put to use henceforth in managing our operations. I have sustained all the good projects and programmes I met on ground but I have given them better orientations and perspectives. More new things will still unfold as we enter into the second year.
Recently, ANA held its first teen authorship conference in Awommama, Imo State, under your watch. What’s the essence of this conference when teen authors rarely produce masterpieces?
ANA is developmental in its approach to most literary issues. We do not embark on showy projects to hog the limelight like most other literary associations that came after ANA do. ANA works silently to build people and schemes that are enduring and those who have benefited from ANA’s silent labour and who become literary greats today know themselves, and some of us know them. The Awomamma Teen Authorship conference is purely a mentorship project to bridge the gap among generations that writers always complain about. Teen authors are not expected to write masterpieces, but they must be helped to begin well so that they can write that masterpieces early in their writing career. All of us who are writers know that the best works which defines our life-long career are usually written early in our writing lives. ANA, as it is, has developed core competence in mentoring the young ones to read and write well.
There are insinuations that ANA convention may not hold next week as slated. What’s the position of things?
Whoever is fuelling those insinuations must be out of tune of what is on ground. I, as President of ANA, whose primary duty is to ensure conventions are delivered to the delight of members of the association, is telling you now that the convention will hold as scheduled and will be well organised. All plans have been laid out, gone over again and again, and execution of all is 70 percent gone. We are only awaiting the arrivals of delegates and guests.
What concrete plans have been made so far to receive Nigerian writers in Abuja? How many writers are being expected?
All the venues of activities have been booked and paid for. We are using a one-stop venue which is the Women Development Centre, Abuja, for all the major activities beyond the excursion to ANA land in Mpape and the arrival Festival of Life at Thought Pyramid Art Centre in Wuse. We have planned the convention so well to eliminate logistics nightmare. 90 percent of delegates will be lodged at a hotel which is a two-minute walk to the main activities centre. We are expecting about 300 writers from home and abroad, including our counterparts from Ghana and other African countries. All the usual things that accompany ANA convention and, much more, have been commissioned, and are being produced. Convention play is undergoing rehearsals and every other plan is on-going. Pre-registration is on going, and a lot of chapters have paid their money. So, whoever is making any negative insinuation about this convention, which is our 35th and special to us, may be among those praying for us to fail and God will certainly not answer that kind of prayer.
Being the capital city of Nigeria, the association may likely witness a record number of participants as was the case in 2011. How do you forestall accommodation challenges you experienced last time?
Our accommodation sub-committee in the main Organisation Committee has turned Abuja upside down assessing hotels and checking their rates. This plan started around March this year, and they have turned in their reports. Personally, I have also visited all the hotels to ensure standard is maintained and to compare the rates to our affordability. Some of the hotels have been booked, with money paid. I can tell you that the 2011 experience where delegates were held hostages in hotels after the convention for unpaid hotel bills will not happen in 2016. ANA National Executive Council, since the 2012 convention in Uyo, has put a stop to such mindless lack of plan and profligate expenditures that leaves mountain of debts behind after every convention. Even in this period of recession and in which the overall government is demanding for strict accountability and efficiency in all undertakings is not the time we will allow anyone to sweet-talk us into wastage and patronage of excesses and recklessness. Members attending the convention must register before hand, and no one will enjoy requisite services without having paid for them. We are cultivating responsible membership so we can have a very responsible association.
Some are complaining that the way ANA convention is organised has to be changed to make it look like a writers’ festival. They argue that workshops, readings, book signings should form a major part of the convention than intellectual discourses. What do you think?
I agree with that opinion to a certain extent, and that is why I have in my manifesto as I sought for this office, the need to unbundle ANA conventions. The unbundling process will start with this convention. All the programmes you mentioned will happen at this convention. We are going to have book chats by university students drawn from tertiary institutions in and around FCT, book signings by renowned authors, new books outings, book fair and exhibitions, master class on adapting literary texts to films screenplay to be conducted by experts in the field and other such light writerly programmes. We have already removed the seminar series aspect from the convention which will be independently done in partnership with a university in the first quarter of next year. Next year, more things will be pulled out from the convention to allow us have the desired atmosphere of a writers’ festival. But, even in doing all these, we should remember that ANA is an association, and we must still have our AGM and other activities defining us as an association, and which must mark us as different from other groups. ANA is not there to do an event and forget it; we do a lot of silent and grueling follow-ups.
ANA prizes used to be the numero uno form of literary validation in Nigeria. But other organisations and companies have come in, raising the bar in prize money. Are you thinking of going the same; what do you consider the real value of ANA prizes?
I have said several times that ANA prizes are developmental in nature; they help in birthing new voices and giving encouragement to writers when they are still unsure of the impact they will make on the reading society. A lot of later-day literary heavy weights won ANA prizes first before going on to win other prizes across the continent or the world, sometimes with even the same books. ANA prizes are well adjudicated with sincerity and objectivity. Many other groups that came up with their own prizes took a cue from ANA that has developed expertise in literary prizes administration through the 35 years of its existence. Some organisations even consulted ANA before embarking on developing their own template of literary prizes. The value of winning an ANA prize is inestimable as it stamps your literary ingenuity and marks you out for further acclaim. Nonetheless, we are soon going to increase the accompany sum to ANA prizes, and it is going to be substantial. We are talking with some interested corporate organisations and potential sponsors.
How has ANA contributed to the growth of Nigerian literature?
It has several ways –by promoting the interest of writers, building a reading society and showcasing Nigerian literature for world acclamation. ANA has kept generations of Nigerian writers in continuous and unceasing dialogues and has continually watered the field of literary creativity and ensuring the germination and growth of new voices all the time.