In advance of Africa Writes 2015, festival guest Abubakar Adam Ibrahim talks to AiW author Emma Shercliff about love, romance and the gendered nature of reading and writing in Northern Nigeria.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim will appear in two events during the festival: African Books to Inspire and Romance in the Digital Age. He will also feature in a discussion about the Valentine’s Day Anthology (Ankara Press) as part of the Africa in Translation event on Friday 3rd July.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the author of the short story collection The Whispering Trees (2012, Parrésia Publishers). His debut novel Season of Crimson Blossoms will be published by Parrésia Publishers in Nigeria in 2015 and by Cassava Republic Press (UK) in 2016.
“The North of Nigeria is severely under-represented in the body of Nigerian literature. You know, it’s a huge population and for this part not to have its story told, not to be represented in the canon of Nigerian literature, is atrocious. So I set out deliberately to address this issue. To write the kind of stories I want. And have the kind of characters I want to have in those stories, characters that have names like mine and speak like me and have similar beliefs and ideas like me, who would react to things the way I probably would.”
AAI: Mostly it’s been women who have been writing romance and I think that the men who do write sometimes do that under a pen name, because they don’t want to be identified as romance writers, as these emotional people, who are very sensitive to love and all that.
ES: Are you making a distinction there between romance and soyayya stories? [Littattafan soyayya (‘literature of love’) are romance stories written in Hausa, also known as Kano market literature. These cheaply produced pamphlets are widely circulated in the North of Nigeria, sometimes selling tens of thousands of copies.]
AAI: Oh, the soyayya stories, they are romance stories but they have more morals, you know…
ES: They have more morals?
AAI: Yeah, there’s more compliance to the social norms, you know. The woman is not expected to do anything that the woman is not expected to do in society, so she’s expected not to have sex before marriage, or outside marriage, no public display of affection and even when she’s defying her parents she has to do it in a very reasonable fashion. But the idea of a kiss in a soyayya novel, yeah, sometimes they sneak in a peck but…
ES: But it would be inside the house…
AAI: Definitely, definitely. I mean, you wouldn’t want to run the risk of having your protagonist being called a prostitute; that would be damaging for a work and whatever it is you set out to do.
ES: So there’s a clear distinction between what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘romance’ and what we’re talking about when we talk about the soyayya literature.
AAI: There are two different types of romance for two different types of people. I mean, the soyayya novels are written for predominantly the Hausa Fulani community and, you know, because of the effect that Islam has had on the community and the way people perceive Islam, it’s heavily reflected in the work they produce.
ES: Would you ever consider that you write romance?
ES: And why not?
AAI: Because I never set out to write romance. I don’t even know if I write love stories. Maybe I write stories about love.
ES: And that’s different?
AAI: Yeah, I think essentially it’s different from love stories.
AAI: Yeah, obviously. I couldn’t kill as many people as I wanted. [Laughs]. You know, I set out to write a story with a happy ending, I was conscious of the type of audience I was writing for at that time. So it’s a deliberate effort to tone down some of the things and some of the complexities that you usually bring into your other stories. And I was focused on love, romance, happy ending, people not dying [laughs].
ES: What you’re saying is very interesting there about the complexities, because romance has this reputation as being perhaps a formulaic, perhaps more simple…
AAI: Yeah, it is very formulaic. I mean, it’s usually guy meets babe, they dislike each other, then they start liking each other, then they fall in love, then they realise, wow, there’s a problem, it can’t work, then they part and then they realise, wow, we can’t live without each other so they compromise and end up together. Happy.
ES: And this is of course the reason for the commercial success. Because, lots of readers, that’s what they like. They like the fact that they know it’s going to be a happy ending.
AAI: Yeah, well for people who want something a bit more challenging, it became monotonous and boring and we had to dump it and move on to other things which are more challenging intellectually and more stimulating as well.
ES: I’m interested there you said when you were writing ‘Painted Love’ you were conscious of the audience. So, who did you have in your mind when you were writing ‘Painted Love’?
AAI: People who love romance stories.
ES: You did, you were really thinking that?
AAI: Yeah, in the background of my thoughts. I mean, you know, people who love romance stories may not be very fond of tragedies; that is why when they talk about the greatest romance story they never mention Romeo and Juliet. [Laughs]. But it is inherently a romance story, when you think about it.
ES: So, when you’re writing, do you usually have a reader in mind?
AAI: It depends on how the inspiration for the story comes, what I want to achieve with the story. Sometimes I have ideas for stories and I just write without thinking about the audience. Sometimes, because of the complexities involved in the story and the narration, especially when it explores issues that have to do with culture, you have to be conscious of what you are doing. Do you want to provoke people or provoke thoughts or provoke even a revolt or something against the norm or the culture? So you have to sort out your priorities and figure out exactly what you want to achieve with your story.
ES: You’ve got a new novel coming out, Season of Crimson Blossoms. So when you were writing that, were you trying to do something different? Were you trying to provoke? Did you have an audience in mind as you were writing it?
AAI: You know, sometimes people think that writers have this grand philosophy to put across to the world. Most times, it’s actually not like that. For me it was basically about telling a good story. That was how it started. And then as I was telling this story a lot of these complexities came up. What if this situation of an older woman dating a younger guy happens in a Muslim community with its conservative views about life? How would the society react to this thing? What would be the issues involved, considering her age and the time period from which she’s coming? So you have all these issues about how she relates with her children, for instance. All those things form a background to the story that become necessary to interrogate and explore in a way that will provoke thoughts and debates because a lot of times in relation to northern Nigeria these things have not been addressed.
Let me give you an instance. My step-mom had a similar relationship with her mom [to that of Binta, the main character in the novel] who, because of culture and tradition, is not supposed to acknowledge her daughter. So she treated her like a stranger, she never mentioned her name, she never talked to her directly and that, that was the norm. And in some societies, it’s still the practice. And it really affected her because sometimes there were things she wanted to talk to her mother about but she never had the opportunity of doing that. And when her first husband died, and she travelled back to the village, there was this yearning to be comforted by her mother but her mother was supposed to stay aloof. And she could see her mother was hurting because she wanted to comfort her, but she wasn’t allowed to do that. So all these things sort of resonated when I was writing this thing. And I thought, you know, it’s doing a lot of damage to people and to the way they relate with their children and nobody’s even acknowledging that.
And, with my step-mom, she made a conscious effort that, look, I’m not going to allow my children to go through what I’m going through. So the moment she gave birth to her first son, she called him by his name, publicly, and said, I’m calling my son by his name and I don’t give a damn what you people think. And she was very defiant. And I love her for that, she’s a very defiant woman, you know. And I think that worked out well for her. Now she relates with her children very well and they talk a lot.
ES: And the way that experience plays out in the story is a very powerful part of the book. Going back to the romance and the reading: the female characters in the book spend a lot of time reading.
AAI: Do they?
ES: They do. So we have Binta reading – she’s reading Hemingway, she’s reading The Major Sins, she’s reading Priscilla Cogan’s Compass of the Heart, and we have Leila talking about Life of Pi, the girls are reading soyayya literature – that’s quite a sub-theme in the book, this whole circulation of soyayya literature. Were you conscious of that?
AAI: I was conscious of the girls reading soyayya novels, I mean, it’s what teenagers would do, of their age. With Binta, for a woman who is kind of confined to the home, she doesn’t go out, she doesn’t do anything and who is literate, I mean it’s natural that she would have an interest in reading. Because of the purdah system that goes on here, where women stay at home basically, they have to find ways to utilise their time and, prior to the proliferation of movies, reading was the main thing. So you have a lot of Hausa literature to read, and for those who could read in English, they could read a lot of stuff in English also. So, the part about Fa’iza and the Short Ones reading a lot of novellas was definitely deliberate, it was definitely planned. With Binta reading Hemingway I wanted to make a connection to a struggle between age and desire and all those things.
ES: And Binta is very disapproving, of the soyayya literature that the young girls are reading.
AAI: A lot of parents are [laughs]. I think a lot of adults think it’s something that is just pumping false notions into the heads of girls and teenagers who read them.
ES: Even though it’s not that salacious?
AAI: No, it’s not. But, the idea is that you could be doing something better with your time instead of reading these stories that may or may not happen. You know, unfortunately, many of our parents didn’t have the opportunity to experience life the way we did so for them there was nothing like dating or courtship, it was just ‘You are old enough, we are going to marry you off to that person.’ So they didn’t have the opportunity of experiencing love and relationships and all those things that my generation and the subsequent generations are enjoying.
ES: But the male characters in your book don’t read – and in fact at one point Reza says actively ‘I’ve little patience for reading novels.’ Was that conscious?
AAI: Yeah, it’s because of the kind of character he is.
ES: So you were trying to say something about his character. Were you trying to say anything broader than that? That, really, none of the male characters in the book, even the mallam who courts Binta and his friend who sits under the umbrella all day, they don’t read, they listen to the radio.
AAI: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of listening to the radios here, you know. It would surprise you the amount of enlightenment that’s going on in the North. People think that people are very ignorant in the North and it’s wrong. I mean, the people in the North are the most up to date among the Nigerian citizenry because they listen to the news all the time. They are very current, you know. And for people in the generation of Binta’s courter, it’s the norm to be carrying a radio around.
ES: And it wouldn’t be the norm for him to read?
AAI: No. Not really. Yeah, he may read a weekly Hausa newspaper but to read a book…maybe a religious text. But, with Reza, it’s conscious he doesn’t read. It’s the kind of life he lives.
ES: So, you’re also going to be on a panel at Africa Writes entitled ‘African Books to Inspire’, where you’re going to be talking about your favourite titles of African literature. I don’t want to go into that because I don’t want to spoil what you’re going to say at the panel. But I wondered within the body of Hausa literature, who are your other influences?
AAI: Hausa? Um, obviously Abubakar Imam. That’s obvious of course. I mean, he wrote Magana Jari Ce and it’s an amazing collection of stories, you know. Really amazing stuff. I was reading it and I’m thinking, how could someone think of all these stories?
ES: Is this the ‘Arabian Nights’ one?
AAI: Yeah, recreating the Arabian Nights in Hausa. But the stories were all very local, I mean they had this very local flavour.
ES: Where are they set?
AAI: There are mentions of cities like Kano and other significant Hausa places, but a lot of them are fictional. The premise of the story was that there was a plot to overthrow the king and the kingdom, a fictitious kingdom of course, and this very intelligent parrot now intervened and started telling stories to distract from the conspiracy that was going on. So it’s fictional but it’s obviously Hausaland. So every single person could relate to what is happening. It was exploring the culture, the language and everything that people were used to.
ES: I want to finish by asking you about the Valentine’s Day Anthology. One of the distinctive things about the Anthology was that the stories were translated into other languages. And you ended up translating your own story into Hausa. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience for you? What was it like to translate your own story?
AAI: To be honest, at first it felt incestuous. I was like, you know, this is not supposed to happen. But it did. [Laughs a lot]. But in the end it was satisfying. I felt that the story came out the way I wanted it to come out in Hausa, which wouldn’t have been the case if someone else had translated it.
ES: We have talked before about the difference between translating and recreating. What was the process for you? Were you going through it line-by-line and translating or did you take a paragraph and make that into Hausa?
AAI: I tried to be as faithful to the original story as possible, so I basically went line by line, and where that would get in the way of the comprehension of the Hausa reader, you know, it became necessary for me to take the whole paragraph and just work on it. But I was very conscious of the structure of the story in English, and then I tried to be as faithful as possible to that.
ES: And am I right in thinking this is the first time you’ve had something published in Hausa?
AAI: Yes, it is, yes.
ES: And how did that feel? Was it significant for you?
AAI: Um, not really.
ES: Really? Why not?
AAI: I don’t know, it’s just, I never thought about it, really. It’s just one more published story, I think. [Laughs]
ES: And have you thought more about writing in Hausa yourself?
AAI: No. No I haven’t.
ES: And why not?
AAI: I think that one, there’s a lot of people writing in Hausa anyway, for different reasons. And, two, I think, for me, it would be sort of an inbreeding.
ES: In what way?
AAI: In the sense of just re-circling stuff for the Hausa people. The North of Nigeria is severely under-represented in the body of Nigerian literature. When people talk of Nigerian literature, nobody thinks of the North of Nigeria, and when you consider the size of the land and the population, it’s a huge population, significant population, and then for this part not to have its story told, not to be represented in the canon of Nigerian literature, is atrocious. So I set out deliberately to address this issue. To write the kind of stories I want. And have the kind of characters I want to have in those stories, characters that have names like mine and speak like me and have similar beliefs and ideas like me, who would react to things the way I probably would, depending on the situation. So, it’s very, very important for me to reach out to not the Hausa audience now but to create an awareness and put the North of Nigeria in the global reckoning of Nigerian literature.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a Nigerian writer and journalist. His debut short story collection The Whispering Trees was long-listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014, with the title story shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Abubakar has won the BBC African Performance Prize and the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. He is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow (2013), a Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2015) and was included in the Africa39 anthology of the most promising sub-Saharan African writers under the age of 40. His first novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, will be published in 2015 by Parrésia Publishers. Abubakar is the Arts Editor of the Daily Trust newspaper and lives in Abuja, Nigeria. He tweets @Moonchild509.
Africa Writes is the UK’s largest festival and celebration of African literature and is organised by the Royal African Society. The festival will run from Friday 3rd July – Sunday 5th July at the British Library. Africa Writes 2015 will bring together over 70 authors, publishers and critics including Ellah Allfrey, A. Igoni Barrett, Petina Gappah, Jackie Kay and E. C. Osondu.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim will appear as part of:
African Books To Inspire
Friday 3 July, 18.30 – 20.30
£10 /£8/ £5 BOOK NOW
Journalist Hannah Pool presents an evening of books and inspiration as she invites a selection of Africa39 writers to share their favourite African literature titles – from classics to new work. With Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ndinda Kioko, Chibundu Onuzo and Nii Ayikwei Parkes. In collaboration with Hay Festival.
Romance in the Digital Age
Saturday 4 July, 12.15 – 13.15
How does one define a romance novel? What is ‘African romance’? Our panel discusses the changing nature of romance publishing, examining how current modes of digital distribution are opening up new possibilities for authors and publishers across Africa. With publishers Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic Press and Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo of Digitalback Books, and Africa39 writers, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Ndinda Kioko. Chaired by Emma Shercliff.
Africa in Translation: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Friday 3 July, 10.00 – 13.00
Three-panel symposium curated by Wangui wa Goro & Mbuguah Bekisizwe Goro of SIDENSI with support from Afrikult. (Marcelle Akita, Henry Brefo & Zaahida Mariam Nalumoso) aims to dispel myths about Africans and romance, and explore the impact of translation and its cross-cultural constructs of love on contemporary African literature. With Nwando Achebe, Phoebe Boswell, Louisa Uchum Egbunike, Chege Githiora, Henriette Gunkel, Jessica Horn, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Billy Kahora, Kara Keeling, Chioma Yvonne Mbanefo, Mpalive Msiska, Peggy Piesche, Emma Shercliff & Tomi Adeaga.