I was infected by Abubakar’s simplicity as we exchanged emails and spoke on phone. I recall my uncle speaking about simplicity being the hallmark of vast knowledge, and the depth of intellection. If that’s true, then Abubakar’s responses are measured anecdotes that display an understanding of his role as a Nigerian writer. What I perceived was that his convictions were deep-seated, irrevocable, even irrefutable. I have followed his work since 2007 when he won the BBC Play Writing Competition. An open secret is that we are being published by the same publisher this year – Parresia. That makes Abubakar and I brothers of some sort, although he is definitely the older one. Ibrahim is the author of The Quest for Nina, his first novel. He is also the winner of The BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition and the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. His poems and short fictions have been published locally and internationally.
Although the initial plan was to converse with writers who had not published any book, I made an exception with Abubakar because The Quest for Nina has not been widely circulated, neither is it widely regarded – and I couldn’t imagine notconversing with him.
Be sure to click the links to his stories on this page.
Click here to download a pdf of this interview.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Which characters have influenced you the most?
ABUBAKAR ADAM IBRAHIM: Character in books? Or you mean which books or writers?
IDUMA: Characters in books. Which are your best loved characters?
IBRAHIM: Well, I don’t know if they have influenced me. I would say I liked some of them, like Cash Daddy in Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance. He was quite similar to Calamatus Jumai in Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African. I almost fell in love with Nina while I was writing The Quest for Nina. I think I found Yambo in Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Laonaa bit intriguing.
IDUMA: Do you ever think there are too many writers out there? Do you have the fear of becoming obscure, glossed over by the astounding work of older, more accomplished writers? It’s James Blunt who sang – is this relevant? – “everything I am trying to say sounds like a worn-out cliché.”
IBRAHIM: I love James Blunt. His music is so emotive. Anyway, back to your question. I think every writer must have the belief in his story if that story is going to be successful. When you think of the older writers and all they have achieved, you are awed, but when you think of the younger writers breaking through, you are inspired. Every writer must find his story and his voice and his belief in these, and that determines how far he will go. Sometimes, the stories might even echo an older work and still be successful. When two raconteurs tell the same story, each will bring his flair and unique experience into it such that the stories come out completely different. Take for instance Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame, which is a pastiche of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Somehow, the two stories appealed to a lot of people across generations and continents.
The way I see it, there are seven billion people in the world and perhaps three times as much stories. A young writer just has to find his voice and believe in it.
IDUMA: If you didn’t write in English, which language would you have tried? Why?
IBRAHIM: Well, I have experimented with writing in Hausa. I had a manuscript in fact, which I have lost. But I am not thinking of writing in Hausa anymore, at least not in the nearest future.
There is something appealing about Arabic. It is a beautiful, poetic language and I have actually fancied myself writing in Arabic at some point. But that is just a fantasy for now. I will be sticking with English for the foreseeable future.
IDUMA: That’s interesting. The love for Arabic is shared. Have you considered taking lessons, or visiting Arab-speaking countries? That might help.
IBRAHIM: Yes, I studied Arabic for some years in Jos. I’m not as eloquent as I would like to be but I get by.
IDUMA: Given our underrepresentation, and the quest for validation from institutions that have defined modern literature, emerging African writers might give in to the need to have big breaks (winning a prize, for instance) before publishing their first books. Is this a dangerous need? What, in your opinion, is the most essential need of an emerging African writer?
IBRAHIM: Oh, certainly, it is not healthy for our literature. It is even more so when you consider that the few good publishing houses we have here are waiting for works to be published elsewhere before they take them on here. So we end up compromising our standards, telling our stories by borrowed standards, looking at our lives through rented lenses, which is not ideal.
But as a proverb here goes, if you consider the thief, you should also consider the person running after the thief. Writers here are too impatient to get published, which of course is understandable when you consider the urge of the muse. However, we have to accept that some of the works we rush to publish are simply not good enough. I think we will be better off if we are able to critic our own works and have the courage to dismiss them when they don’t meet up. We should be able to challenge ourselves as writers to constantly improve our art.
What every emerging writer wants is to be published, what an emerging writer needs is patience and perseverance; the patience to allow your voice develop, and perfect your craft and the perseverance to deal with rejection. If J. K Rowling had given up after Harry Potter was turned down twelve times, she wouldn’t have been one of the richest writers alive today. If William Golding had given up on Lord of the Flies after publishers turned it down twenty times, we wouldn’t be talking about it today half a century since it was published.
IDUMA: Do you, then, by saying we must challenge ourselves, suppose that young writers must chart their literary destinies, define their own standards?
IBRAHIM: We live in a dynamic world and we must learn to keep up if we are not setting pace. I think emerging writers must have the courage to set a high standard for themselves and constantly push up the bar. Writing is a very challenging art and you must constantly push yourself to get the best out of yourself.
IDUMA: Speaking of validation, the internet does offer an interesting perspective to publishing (there’s some thought on this on Black Looks and OGOV). And if we are speculating correctly, the emerging African writer seems onslaughted by a new medium – onslaughted because danger and promise are equally offered in this new medium. Yes? No? What do you say? You have several ‘links’ to your name!
IBRAHIM: I think there is opportunity on the internet. I think it is revolutionising literature and publishing. It gives a platform for emerging writers to showcase their works, get feedbacks and improve their creativity. Yes, in most cases, you don’t get paid to be published online but for an emerging writer, being read and having a fan base is, I think, a more immediate need.
But now we have e-books as well and while some people may see that as a threat to conventional publishing, others see it differently. Amanda Hockings for instance self-published an e-book, after she had been turned down by conventional publishers and has made millions from it. Now she is going through the conventional publishing and editing process, which shows you that the two media; the old and the new, can co-exist and at the same time. Publishers won’t have taken notice is she hadn’t taken it into her hands. So, the internet creates greater opportunities for emerging writers to get noticed.
IDUMA: And you conceive that noticing as a precursor to what? What possibilities exist afterwards?
IBRAHIM: A million and one possibilities – the possibility of becoming a bestselling author, the possibility of being discovered by the right people, the possibility to achieving your dream, the possibility of having your work critiqued by some intelligent people who will help improve your craft. Endless possibilities.
IDUMA: The matter of literary-demographics will necessarily come into this conversation, seeing you are from the North of Nigeria. You will agree that there have been few writers from Northern Nigeria who attained monumental acclaim. Earlier on, there was Ahmed Yerima, Abubakar Gimba, Zaynab Alkali and Abubakar Imam, even though he wrote in Hausa. Last decade there was Helon Habila. Incidentally, in Nigerian literature there are incidences of romanticization of the North – recall Cyprian Ekwensi’s ‘Jagua Nana’ and ‘The Passport of Mallam Iliya.’ The point of this rambling is to ask if you see yourself in the forefront of putting Northern Nigerian literature in a place it scarcely occupied?
IBRAHIM: You really have to bring that up, didn’t you, Emmanuel? Well, I see myself as a Nigerian writer from the north. I don’t want to endorse this idea of a dichotomy of northern and southern Nigerian literature. Regardless, I am from the north and my stories reflect, to some extent, the peculiarities of the north of Nigeria, which is culturally and socially distinct from the south. I feel the north has wonderful stories that have not been adequately captured in the collective body of Nigerian literature, I feel it is important that a region as vast as the north is be adequately represented in literature and the idiosyncrasies of its peoples and their cultures be projected to the world. I think that is very important. But in contrast to the idea of romanticizing the north as has been done by the likes of Ekwensi, who I admire a lot, I think we stand to gain more by focusing on the human experience of the peoples of this region. I think that way; Nigerians will understand each other more and the world will take note. That is the direction my work is taking now.
I don’t know if I am at the forefront of putting writing from the north on a larger platform. I am doing my bit. But I know there are other young, vibrant and exciting voices from the north who will hit international limelight in the nearest future. There is so much promise from this side of the Niger and I am excited about the prospect.
IDUMA: Can you name some of these young voices?
IBRAHIM: There are a lot. Richard Ali, Gimba Kakanda shows so much promise, there is Awaal Gata, there is Hajo Isa the poet, there is Sage Hasson doing great things with spoken word poetry. Ahmed Maiwada isn’t as young as all these ones but he’s making waves. There are a lot of people.
IDUMA: Does writing make you feel responsible?
IBRAHIM: It does. It most certainly does. I think knowing that you have a voice and that people are willing to read what you have written comes with an enormous sense of responsibility. Perhaps because of my background in the media which suggests that one should be socially responsible, I find that it is expedient on writers to consider the social implications of what they write. This is what American writer Frank Norris argues in his essay, The Responsibility of a Novelist, which I think is an excellent piece. He says that the fact that your writing can influence a number of people places upon you the responsibility of not misguiding such people who have placed their trust in you by reading what you have written. And that is why stereotyping puts me off. Yes, people may have a general trait but that doesn’t mean they are all the same and it doesn’t help if you demoralise or vilify them simply because you have the talent to write. I think it is an abuse of ones responsibility as a writer.
IDUMA: Let’s return to the question of demographics. There’s a curious term, ELDS, which is Educational Less Developed States. And the argument is that prospective undergraduates from states in Nigeria with this tag will have a less-stringent requirement for entry into universities. And there are several Northern States tagged ELDS. Does this bother you? To be a writer from/in a region with many uneducated people?
IBRAHIM: It is a constant worry, not necessarily for me as a writer. It is a social problem, because you have an army of people who do not even understand basic social concepts and so are easily bamboozled into irrational acts by politicians with dubious intents. This affects the way people elsewhere perceive you and relate with you, it puts you on the defensive for whatever prejudice the antecedents of some people who are considered ‘your people’ have foisted on them. There was a person I met who thought I must have attended an elite school to have turned out the way I did because ‘my people’ are not usually like that. That is why I think it is important to succeed as a writer, so that people can say, oh yes, he is a writer, I want to be like him and they will read and broaden their horizons.
But in truth, the ELDS are a product of social and cultural misadventure and a failure of the system. Children now don’t repeat classes in private schools because the proprietors don’t want parents thinking their wards are not being well taught. In public schools, students fail because the teachers want to be bribed.
IDUMA: Supposing African writers are powerlessly deadlocked – supposing that we cannot stay aloof to the subtleties of national life, the ineptitude around us – what do you think this will do to our expectation to tell stories that are ‘just stories’?
IBRAHIM: I think that will make us romantics and how will that benefit anyone? I think literature should serve a higher purpose than just entertainment. When you consider our folklores, aside from entertaining they serve to affect thinking and behaviour. To expect a writer to tell stories that are ‘just stories’ is to strip the writer of his purpose and reduce him to escapism. Eventually, the reader will have to put the book down and eventually, he will have to confront reality.
IDUMA: What is the writer’s purpose?
IBRAHIM: Is there a universal accord for the purpose of the writer? I think it is relative. It depends on the time, on the situation on individuals. Essentially, I think the purpose of the writer is to cast light on the dark side of things, of feelings and thoughts and actions that define the way we live and the way we perceive things. I think the writer is the chronicler of the human experience against the backdrop of change, which in itself is constant.
IDUMA: What was growing up like? Do you recall anything from your childhood that helped you decide to become a writer, a user of language?
IBRAHIM: Not particularly. I just found myself in love with stories and the business of creating them. I grew up reading the books available to me and I grew up trying to create my own stories. I remember reading The Man Died when I was twelve. And I suppose reading Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda all those years ago sparked the interest in writing. The defining moment, however, came when I was an adolescent, when I and my brother heard this call for entries for a radio play and he said common, you’ve got to enter. I suppose that was the moment I decided that yes, I want to take writing more seriously.
IDUMA: What was the first story you wrote?
IBRAHIM: Wow! My first story? I can’t really remember. My earliest writings were in the form of graphic novellas. I drew the pictures and wrote the dialogue. I wrote fragments of stories that came to my head, bits and pieces like that. I had quite a stack of these juvenilia until I lost them recently.
IDUMA: How did you feel when you lost them?
IBRAHIM: Your writing becomes a part of you essentially and when, for some reason, you lost any of it, especially a whole lot of it as I did, it is demoralising. It is a lost that cannot be replenished. And you grieve in isolation because not many people understand the gravity of your loss. It took me a while to recover and I am not sure I can completely get over it.
IDUMA: Is it dangerous, as a writer, to feel capable? One writer suggests that our greatest responsibility as writers is to have the capacity and skill because our job as writers is to write and write well.
IBRAHIM: Well, it is important to have confidence and belief in yourself but it is also wise to realise there are always avenues where you can improve. I have seen writers who think they are the ultimate, they have mastered the art but when you read what they put out you realise there is a lot missing and because they are not open to criticism and suggestions, their works suffers. That is why as a writer you can’t live in a cocoon. Your writer friends and colleagues should feel free to comment honestly on your works and you should be open to suggestions about your work before you even think of going public with it.
IDUMA: Which authors do you love most? Let’s say your list consists of modern, postmodern, contemporary, the present, the past, the living and the dead.
IBRAHIM: There are lots of writers whose works fascinate me and every day I discover more. I admire Flaubert for daring to expand the boundaries of literature with Madame Bovary. I admire Racine for the elegance of his works. Gabriel Garcia Marquez remains a favourite. There is Helon Habila too, Isabelle Allende, Toni Morrison. Lots of them.
IDUMA: Habila is a shared love. In ‘Closure’ you write: “That night, while Barira slept, Sadiya rose and locked all the doors and windows. She then drenched the furniture and curtains with fuel from the generator and set the house ablaze.” Clearly, these words, the story as a whole conveys how difficult it is to let go, how memory haunts even the most inconspicuous of persons. Is this what you had in mind? Is there an overarching political slant we can bring to this? Perhaps that as Nigerians we will never forget our past glory, that just like Sadiya we are unwilling to part with our hopes even when those hopes are being bashed irreverently?
IBRAHIM: If there is a political slant in that it is that there is a breaking point for everyone, there is a limit to tolerance, as we have seen with the recent protests in the country. There is a point in life you reach and you know you can sacrifice your little comforts for something more profound. Nigerians showed that they could sacrifice their differences for the collective good; they were willing to sleep on the streets, to defy the marauding police, to say enough of these exploitations, enough of this corruption. Now we know the taste of people power, we know what we can achieve when we speak with the same voice, we have a precedence.
IDUMA: That’s quite inspiring. Would you write something along that line? The precedence of people power?
IBRAHIM: I don’t know. I have not thought of it. But I think it will be wise to see how things unfold first.
IDUMA: Does tragedy fascinate you? Does ill-fate confer believability on a story? There’s, for instance, Santi’s failure to exonerate himself in ‘Night Calls’, even the capitulation of the Mayaki family in The Quest for Nina. And to speak the truth, tragedy can be fascinating, perhaps even instructive and compellingly introspective. What do you think?
IBRAHIM: There is this line from a movie where one character says, “Tragedy, every good movie must have one.” I love that line and we always laugh about it with my other brother. But basically, I have for long been fascinated by tragedy, it is such a moving phenomenon. It is shocking and sometimes shock is necessary to bring someone to face reality and that is what I want to achieve. Tragedies are unforgettable. We are still talking about the Greek tragedies after all these years because of the lasting impression they have made. I want my stories to linger in the mind of the reader. But I don’t see myself as a tragedian. Sometimes humour can be as shocking. They say humour is a rubber sword by which you make a point without drawing blood.
IDUMA: Let’s examine the question of genre fiction. The Quest for Nina traverses a thin line between a thriller novel and literary fiction. Not few people have found that distinction between genre and literary fiction curious, even dubious. What’s your take? Is there a way, as your book seemed to seek, to hybridize those forms? And what’s the future of genre fiction in Nigeria/Africa, if you might wish to predict?
IBRAHIM: Well, while The Quest for Nina was largely experimental - I did write it quite early on, I don’t think there was a conscious effort to hybridize genres. I just felt at the time that that was the best way the story could be told. I probably wouldn’t have taken that approach if I were writing it now because my writing is moving in a different direction. It may not be so obvious but the book is a sort of social critique, inspired by the revelations of the Oputa panel, it seeks to explore the impact of unravelling all those long buried secrets, if it’s good or bad for us.
Having said that, I don’t think writers should be straightjacketed into compliance. I prefer to allow my stories take on a life of their own instead of boxing them into straits of conventions. I am not too big a fan of genre fiction, I think they merely offer temporary escape from reality and I have noted with delight the growing appeal of literary fiction, more and more young writers are tilting in this direction and I think that is very good.
IDUMA: But there is a growing interest in genre. Consider Myne Whitman.
IBRAHIM: Of course, it has its appeal, I suppose it always will. Myne Whitman writes romance and it is good she is being appreciated. I suppose she is the most obvious of contemporary Nigerian writers in this genre. I don’t seem to recall others. Do you?
IDUMA: Not with specificity. Naijastories is a good hub for Genre fiction, anyway.
You’ve lived in Jos. What has changed, if anything? Has this affected your writing in any way? Maybe it’s better to ask: what has changed since Boko Haram?
IBRAHIM: I have lived most of life in Jos. It was a wonderful place until the politicians came and spread bad blood. Since the violence began in 2001 and has gone on for a decade now, things haven’t been the same. You can’t move around freely. There are all these wonderful folks you talk literature with and exchange books with, now you can’t visit their homes without fears simply because they are on the ‘other side’ of town. It is quite unfortunate. But Jos will always remain special to me, even though I lost most of my early writings there. It has a special place in my heart and I hope that someday we can put all these behind us and move on.
And like Chinua Achebe said, literature should reflect situations on ground and yes, once in a while you think how can you use your writing to capture some of these things that are happening. And now with the Boko Haram situation, it is quite unfortunate that is has put people like myself on the defensive because of the name we bear and the faith we profess. I am thinking of starting a project on this, on stories that reflect the human conditions in these troubling times. I hope we can use literature to affect perceptions and inspire change in the way our society is governed, in the way we think and behave.
IDUMA: You lost some writing in Jos?
IBRAHIM: Yes, I did. I was away in Abuja when yet another crises broke out and my house was razed to the ground. I lost everything in that unfortunate incident. My entire stack of juvenilia was lost, manuscripts dating as far back as I can recall not to mention all my documents, all the books I read growing up, mementos of my ever being young once.
IDUMA: That’s quite sad, very sad.
Is there anything being a journalist adds to you as a writer of fiction? That’s considering the fact that journalism is an art inscribed in the public space, more or less a rendition of sensational, sometimes tawdry, facts. And that fiction requires, as you say, countless hours of solitude?
IBRAHIM: Being a journalist was a conscious effort. I actually studied sciences in secondary school but fortunately I realised early enough that my future was in writing and instead of veering to study English or literature in the university I decided to study journalism because I wanted the exposure and access this would give me. Now I have met all sorts of people – junkies, seers, ordinary folks in extraordinary situations, politicians and their antics, intellects and the aloof trader by the road side, security operative. I have had cause to interact with them and ask them questions and these experiences are benefiting my writing in terms of creating more believable characters, more believable stories. The problem is working as a journalist has made it quite difficult to find time to write as much one would have wanted.
I know some journalists have lost their flourish as writers because of the demand of the trade and when they struggle to bring out something it is too stripped of emotion and reads like journalese. I have met such writers. I also know of the likes of Marquez, who was a journalist and still writes fiction with a flourish. My being a journalist was to further my goal of being a better writer and I think it is playing out well so far.
IDUMA: Would you consider becoming a full time writer? That’s if journalism doesn’t happen to provide continued exposure and access.
IBRAHIM: Journalism will always give access and exposure. But yes, perhaps someday, I would like to wake up and have nothing to do but to write the stories I like writing. Perhaps someday.
IDUMA: Faulkner says a writer’s only responsibility is to his art – if he has to rob his mother he will. What’s the worth of your art? Family? Perhaps money? This might not be a great question, but supposing it comes close, what are you willing to sacrifice?
IBRAHIM: This is a difficult question, Emmanuel. Writing has given me a lot, it has taken me places physically and emotionally, writing is a part of me. Without my family I have no idea what life would have been like, we appreciate each other and fortunately they know how important writing is for me. I hope it never comes to that, choosing between my family and my writing.
IDUMA: Has there been any writer or editor in our generation of writers that have helped shaped your career? Your sense of craft? Or are there friends?
IBRAHIM: There are many. People I have talked with, people who have taken time to comment on my works, people who have believed in me and encouraged me. Helon Habila has been an inspiration. He is such a gentleman. Richard Ali has made himself available to me as a soundboard for my writing. He is such a wonderful person and an honest critic. Uche Umez has been great, he is always encouraging me. Professor Kanchana Ugbabe, Bose Tsevende, all wonderful people. There many more to whom I am grateful.
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