AiW Guests: Yasmine Arasteh, Skye Frewin & Sally Wright.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a prominent Nigerian writer and journalist. He is the author of the short story collection The Whispering Trees (2012), the novel Season of Crimson Blossoms (2015), and his latest collection, Dreams and Assorted Nightmares (2020). As well as being a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow (2013) and a Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2015), Abubakar has been nominated for various awards, including the Caine Prize (2013) and Etisalat Prize for Literature (2014). He won the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition (2007), The Amatu Braide Prize for Prose (2008) and the Nigeria Prize for Literature (2016). He was also included in the Hay Festival Africa 39 (list of the most promising sub-Saharan African writers under 40).
Yasmine Arasteh, Skye Frewin & Sally Wright for AiW: Hello Abubakar, it’s very nice to meet you. We wanted to thank you for putting aside the time to speak with us. We are very excited to talk to you about all your writing, as we really enjoyed reading your new collection of short stories, Dreams and Assorted Nightmares. We all flew through them.
The setting of Zango across this collection, seems to be imbued with its own sense of agency, becoming both location and adopting sensibility in the lives of characters. Why have you chosen to create narratives that are acutely rooted in a sense of place?
It’s important for me to have this idea of space as a character in a story, and the idea of how much space influences people. I’ve always been fascinated by how the culture of a place develops and evolves. A space like London for instance has its own peculiarities. People from London, who have never actually met, have a set of shared codes that they can use to interact. They might meet somewhere else, such as Japan, but they instantly recognise that commonality. So how this notion, code and sense of place develops and takes ownership of people and their behaviors and interactions has always fascinated me. Zango isn’t just a space, it takes ownership and takes possession of people, of their lives, and deaths as well. I attempt to weave stories around the space in a way that they become profiles of those occupying it, and how the space influences the outcome of their lives. That was the idea of the collection as a whole.
What a compelling idea! Similar to ‘place’, the characters from Zango not only appear in your new collection, but in areas of your previous writing. Both place and characters are recurrent within your texts, is there any particular reason your new collection interacts with your previous narratives?
Yes, that’s the thing with characters. Some of them come and they leave, others come and they stay. It’s somehow like they live rent free in your mind, and occupy the space for a period of time, and then when you are done with them—or they’re done with you—they move on. Some of these characters leave a back door through which they can return at another point in time, through which they can make an appearance. With some of these characters you feel a connection and a point you want to make with them and their lives, and you see the point of convergence between one story and another in a different book so it’s easy to bring them in.
This fascination with how people come into your life and walk through, having a greater resonance than they even realise or know, that’s the idea. This interconnectivity between people in the world as a whole is what I’m trying to refer to through interconnectivity between characters in my stories.
That’s fascinating. Similarly, there are many references to dreaming and altered states, kinds of liminal spaces. The blurring is central throughout so many of your stories and even features in the title of your new work. What is it that draws you to the idea of a multifaceted reality and how are dreams useful for you in exploring this?
What draws me is this grey area between reality and the fantastical: there’s a huge grey area often unacknowledged. For most people it’s black or white, it’s either real or it’s not. But for people like me who live here—on the verge of the magical and fantastical—it’s different. People are always inspired or influenced by what they believe in. Whether or not the magical and fantastical actually exists doesn’t interest me; how it makes people behave is hugely significant. For most people there are blurred lines between dreams and reality, between the real and the magical, the fantastical and the tangible—and that’s a huge area in which anyone with an imagination can play.
There’s so much published online, on social media especially, that doesn’t make any kind of sense. I recall this incident where an old woman was mugged by a group of people who believed she was a witch, and that she had been flying as a bird above this church one morning. The church members were praying, and the power of their prayers broke her magic and she fell from the sky. Upon impact, she became human, and was beaten and mugged. Somehow she was rescued, and eventually someone came and said ‘that’s my mum you’re attacking’. People actually believe that a bird could fall down and become human—that’s the story for me. And these are rational people, living in the twenty-first century in Lagos. Not in a village somewhere, it’s in Lagos! Things like this influence people, making them do completely irrational things. I’m not trying to prove or disprove something, I’m exploring how belief influences behaviour.
We wanted to ask about an interview you had with UbuntuFM, in which you said that colonialism created a flawed political structure in Nigeria, setting it up “not as a country but as a business enterprise for Britain”. The theme of business and negotiation seems to permeate many of your stories, and though this may seem perhaps obvious, does this relate to the history of Nigeria as a whole?
Everything relates to the history of Nigeria as a whole. Everything. I write because I’m interested in the history of my people and myself – this history is very important to me. Four or five hundred years ago, we on this continent had a system of literacy and knowledge. We had a body of literature, most of it oral, some of it written. Then some day somebody comes with a gun and flag and plants this flag. These people say ‘your system of literacy is rubbish, you guys are all illiterate now. You have to learn our way of writing, you have to tell stories our way’. Centuries of religious studies, poetry, all kinds of literature, are suddenly compared to rubbish. All the scholars who were masters of literature, writing, reading and interacting with these texts, suddenly declared illiterate. That’s an important part of our history, that we need to negotiate. Because these people came with their own ideas of stories and literature, in which we do not exist; it seems as if prior to that we were wildlings, thrashing about, doing crazy things like cavemen, which is not the case.
The recreation of our history by declaring us illiterate needs to be addressed. This ‘new’ system of literacy has been imposed on us. There was already a literacy system in Northern Nigeria, so there’s a reluctance to let go of the past. Now we have to find a way of writing ourselves into existence. We have to establish that we exist, think, have influences, share the same universal concern as everyone else, and that we are human. So maybe I have unintentionally set out to say I’m a Black human Nigerian male and my characters are Black Muslims, whatever they are. Even though I write about the present in most instances, I am conscious that I’m writing history, because I’ve always been concerned by this sense of immortality. If you write, you live forever in some way. Maybe 200 years, 500 years from now somebody will read your writing and be interested in understanding how your people lived. Maybe I’m writing about the present, but I’m also writing the history of the present.
Leading on from this, your work certainly celebrates different forms of narrative such as the oral tradition of storytelling, and your short story collections break away from the traditional structure of stories that provide conclusion or redemption. What were you hoping to achieve by providing non-satisfactory endings?
I try and achieve reality, even though my writing plays in the field of the fantastical. Reality is not always the happy ending that people wish for. If it’s a happy ending it’s only temporary, because it’s inevitably going to end: you fall in love, you marry, you live ‘happily ever after’, then suddenly there’s a divorce or you have cancer, and that’s the reality. My endings may not be entirely satisfactory, but it is also a reflection of real life. As a writer I’m not trying to put ideas in peoples’ minds, I’m trying to project their own reflections back at them.
Sometimes we love to believe that these troubling aspects of reality don’t happen but it’s necessary to confront them, so I put them in front of you so that you see. I have had people who have tried to physically assault me because they have grown to love certain characters and these characters don’t end up in a good way, or a way that they anticipated. I’m fine with that as long as it makes you reflect upon your own reality and what that means for you.
A recurring theme in your work is a recognition of the interconnectedness of people, animals, and plants. In particular, trees and life are deeply entangled metaphors in Dreams and Assorted Nightmares. How has your understanding of humans’ relationships with the natural world informed your writing?
When I write about nature claiming spaces, such as in Dreams and Assorted Nightmares, it’s my way of saying that nature has a way of fighting back, of reasserting itself, and taking control. This nature that we think is powerless and just there for the taking somehow has this huge control or influence over you.
It’s also a reflection of my understanding of love, in the sense that most ‘normal’ people love nature, they think it’s beautiful, but somehow they always end up destroying it. I think it is part of human nature that you love something and somehow, you find ways of damaging that thing or person that you love.
Moving slightly away from the writing itself, both of your previous books (The Whispering Trees and Season of Crimson Blossoms) were published with Cassava Republic, is there any reason that you chose to publish this new collection with Masobe Books?
It’s a combination of a number of factors. I started publishing with Parrésia Publishers in Lagos, and then I moved onto Cassava Republic. At some point they were both publishing the same book in different territories. Eventually Cassava Republic acquired the Nigerian rights, so that made them the sole publishers in Nigeria. But with Dreams and Assorted Nightmares, I mean it was a nightmare (laughs). Cassava Republic was supposed to publish The Whispering Trees sometime in 2019. They had issues and delays, then we got into 2020 and there was COVID and all of that. Because of the delays with publishing The Whispering Trees, there would have been a delay with Dreams and Assorted Nightmares, if they chose to publish it.
Then there was this publisher called Masobe Books, who were really interested. They wouldn’t let me rest: they kept hounding me, knocking on my door, buzzing my phone, and making all sorts of offers. I wasn’t particularly keen to publish it at that point, because my agent didn’t think that it was a great idea. But Masobe kept harassing me for this collection, which had been ready since 2018, so my agent agreed as long as we only give them Nigerian rights for the book. She doesn’t want to publish another short story collection outside Nigeria, until after I’ve published another novel. If I tell you that I understand the rationale of it, I would be lying, but I trust my agent knows what she’s doing.
In an interview for the Johannesburg Review of Books, you talked about how Hausa expressions and phrases influenced your wording in Season of Crimson Blossoms, as in this book English is the foreign language. Would you consider publishing something in Hausa?
No, I probably wouldn’t. I don’t know, I don’t want to say no to something because you don’t know how your thinking might change. Interestingly, at some point I did write a book in Hausa. It’s a complete manuscript actually. I was maybe seventeen or eighteen at the time but as I wasn’t published then, it’s fortunately never ever going to be published. My thinking has changed since then.
There’s a rich tradition of storytelling in Hausa, but I don’t feel like it’s a conversation. It’s sort of like having a conversation in your own bedroom, whereas you should be having a conversation with other people too. When you write in Hausa, you make that literature available only to people who speak Hausa. The people who don’t write much in English are removing themselves from the general conversation that should be going on about literature. It’s also important to write these stories in English so that more people can read and access them. It’s important for other people to see that though they may be different, there’s a lot we have in common.
Since Dreams and Assorted Nightmares was published, do you have any projects in motion at the moment that you are hoping to push forward soon? If so, is there anything you can tell us about these?
This is a trick question; I shall not be tricked! Dreams and Assorted Nightmares was only published in December. I have a novel manuscript completed, it’s with my agent. Afterwards we will see.
I came into writing with this notion that writers are not published until they’re dead. So I was just writing as though when I die someone might publish this. That means that I write without pressure of satisfying a desire to be published. So I have a couple of manuscripts here and there, maybe three, and some of them I’ve never shown anyone. Some I’ve shown one or two people. Some of them I might consider sending off; some of them I might never go back to again. The one my agent has now, she seems to be interested in.
How exciting! Thank you so much. We really appreciate all the time you’ve given us.
Sally Wright is a final-year Swiss-British undergraduate at the University of Exeter. She is studying English literature and hopes to go on to work in the publishing industry, with a focus on works in translation.
Yasmine Arasteh is a final-year British-Iranian undergraduate of English and Spanish at the University of Exeter.
Skye Frewin is a final-year English and Sustainability undergraduate at the University of Exeter who hopes to use her degree to communicate environmental justice issues. She is an advocate for community building as part of her work with Earth Protector Communities.