Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the winner of the 2016 NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature for his debut novel ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’. In this interview, the award-winning journalist speaks on his literary success and future plans. Excerpts:
YOU won the NLNG Nigerian prize for literature last year. How did you feel when you got the award?
I wished my father was here to witness this, and I got really emotional. He died on March 7, 2016. People live for moments like this to make their parents proud and he was not around to celebrate my achievement. I tried calling my mother, but she didn’t pick, so I called my brother. The news came as I was home trying to power up my laptop to do some work and then one of the journalists at the announcement in Lagos texted me. I was a bit perplexed and confused, but elated. All of a sudden, it hit me that something major had happened, and processing that was also quite a challenge.
Did you foresee your win?
I’m not a prophet or anything. You never can tell with literary prizes and where it’s going to swing once the works have been shortlisted. There are many factors that could determine who wins. I was very practical about it and tried to not engage with how it’s going to end up. Prior to the announcement, I completely disengaged with the topic, but as the day drew closer, there was a lot of conversation and inevitably you start thinking about it a lot more. The thoughts kept coming, and what I wanted to do was just sleep through it. I had plans to switch off my phone and just sleep. I stayed up really late till about 4.a.m so I would sleep through to about 12 noon or 1 pm on the day of the award. But it didn’t work. I woke up at about 8am and tried to go back to sleep in vain. So I felt I might as well get up and do some work. And that was when the news came.
In the event filmmakers come knocking, how open are you to movie adaptations of the story?
We have talked about filmmakers adapting works by Nigerian writers and the need for collaborations between writers and filmmakers. There are issues that need to be considered. Who is asking for the rights to adapt? I don’t think that is necessarily true.
You want the best for your work, so you want someone who is really capable of interpreting it the way you feel suits your taste or people that have good taste in the arts. So, yes, if a filmmaker comes and is someone whose work I respect and admire, I think I will be open to that. I think filmmakers need to engage more with the work of Nigerian writers.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’?
Uppermost, I wanted to tell a really good story, a really convincing story. And even though the premise is what one may consider, not traditional, considering the environment in which the story is set, I wanted it to be believable, to show respect and regard to the culture of the people. I wasn’t keen on being provocative for provocation sake. I wasn’t trying to titillate. I wanted to put across a message that there’s something happening in this society that we are not acknowledging, that there are cultural practices that we don’t even recognise or talk about that are not really helpful. Also, issues of trauma and abuse. I wanted all these things to come out in the book.
Northern Nigeria is a very conservative part of the country and you have a 50-year-old woman in an affair with a youth. Did you at any point wonder whether your work would be well-received?
I thought it would be appreciated first as a work of art, not an attempt to provoke, or denigrate a culture or a people. In fact, what I wanted to do was to in a way drag this part of the country that has been absent in the body of Nigerian literature into the mainstream. That was my major goal. Because there’s no way you can tell the Nigerian story if it is not balanced and hasn’t been for decades. We have had stories from the South about the South and nothing about the North, so the narrative isn’t balanced. So something has to be done instead of sitting down and complaining, oh we are not in the Nigerian story. We need to tell our stories, not in a way that will seem we are doing propaganda, but in a way we too should look and understand ourselves so people will understand how we think, why we think the way we think and why we do the things we do.
How did the idea for the story come to you?
I was sitting down, minding my business and suddenly I saw this guy with spiky hair and crazy shoes jump over a woman’s fence and that was how it started. I was curious about the guy and the house he jumped into and wondered what happened. I essentially just followed my thoughts, and the story evolved.
What challenges did you face bringing the story to reality?
They are challenges all Nigerian writers face, especially Nigerian writers writing in Nigeria. There’s the problem of time, competing needs. Do you favour family, relationships, or getting the writing done? It’s one thing to say you are a writer and another to actually sit down and write. I think a lot of young people now are distracted by the realities of life. I mean, you have to put food on the table and pay the bills. But as a writer you have to produce a book and inevitably, if you’re going to be judged as a writer, in the next ten to twenty years, nobody is going to care how many Facebook or twitter posts you have made, perhaps, but they will want to look at your work and its quality.
Is there any time when journalism informs the way you write, or does the way you write inform your practice of journalism?
Ever since I was a kid and when I turned 18, I had always known for certain I would be a writer. Being a journalist was a means to an end. So I always knew what I wanted to do and set out to do it and I am always clear about the boundaries and limitations imposed on both. So yes, I will like to think my writing style is different from my journalism style. But one influences the other inevitably because they are in a way compatible.
You have won other prizes, like the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition in 2007 and the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose in 2008, among other. Were the feelings the same?
Definitely not. Obviously some prizes are more lucrative than others. But all the prizes I have won have had significance to my development as a writer. Winning the BBC Prize in 2007 was a vindication that, yes, I have a future in this chosen path. It encouraged me and opened doors for me. Being shortlisted for the Caine Prize too was good. It put me in the consciousness of readers across Africa and the world. But there are life-changing prizes, and I think the Nigerian Prize for Literature is one of those.