Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: Of crimson blossoms and bloody taboos

“When the flame tree is in bloom, she collects the blossoms in a glass and lights a candle.”

  • Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Season of Crimson Blossoms, (p 228)

The writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim takes himself and the world seriously. He does not clown around and he certainly does not suffer the flighty reader gladly. Said reader might as well be a fool and that is just fine, I suspect, with Ibrahim. His new book, Season of Crimson Blossoms takes on his serious persona, in its deliberate, sometimes plodding (to the social media addict used to quick e-fixes) story line. It is as if Ibrahim is saying he is not going to be bound by the new rules of social media where 140 characters of text mark the boundaries beyond which the garrulous writer is banished to Facebook to wallow in long 140-word essays. In Ibrahim’s dogged insistence to be heard above the din of shallow tweets, there is at least one level in which he has written a successful book; he joins a feisty world-wide debate started by many other thinkers who are seriously concerned about the erosion of intellectual depth and serious scholarship by the new overlords of “retweets” and “likes.”

Who is Abubakar Adam Ibrahim? There is a good interview of him here that helps understand what drives his muse. Ibrahim was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2013 for his story “The Whispering Trees” which is part of his short story collection, The Whispering Trees published by Parresia Publishers. A Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow, he won the BBC African Performance Prize in 2007.  Here is an illuminating interview by Emma Shercliff. I recommend it highly because it helps the reader understand the book Season of Crimson Blossoms. And here is an affecting video clip of Ibrahim explaining his work on the book. A highly respected digital pioneer he deserves credit for helping to showcase African literature on social media and on his blog.

It is easy to sympathize with Ibrahim and those who still believe in the merits of long form writing and reading. The art of serious reading and writing needs to be restored in our classrooms and screens; what we are witnessing worldwide in terms of poor instruction among a generation of youths used to plastering their faces on to monitors is quite honestly a civil rights crisis and a failure of leadership. We need to talk about these things. It won’t be easy for millions of readers who have been afflicted with ADHD by social media; Reading Ibrahim’s book, Season of Crimson Blossoms required me to physically detach from social media and focus on the book. At some point, it was not clear to me, which was the distraction; the book, or Twitter. There is a problem, the reader and the writer need to meet somewhere, half way between the writer’s arrogance and the reader’s ignorance. Ibrahim is not having any of that; he wrote Season of Crimson Blossoms on his own terms. Read it or go horse around on social media. Good for him.

Well, it helps that Ibrahim wrote a good book. It Season of Crimson Blossoms is an unusual book; Ibrahim tees it off by ensuring that the first six sentences are spoilers; with a bang, they tell you exactly what is going to happen in the book:

Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like of miniscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart. She had woken up that morning assailed by the pungent smell of roaches and sensed that something inauspicious was about to happen. It was the same feeling she had had that day, long ago, when her father had stormed in to announce that she was going to be married off to a stranger. Or the day that stranger, Zubairu, her husband for many years, had been so brazenly consumed by communal ire when he was set upon by a mob of intoxicated zealots. Or the day her first son Yaro, who had the docile face and demure disposition of her mother, was shot dead by the police. Or even the day Hureira, her intemperate daughter, had come back home crying that she had been divorced by her good-for-nothing husband. (p3)

These six brisk, sweet, and pungent sentences are the opening salvo from blazing guns aimed squarely at the reader’s senses and consciousness. There is a hint of indigenous magic realism; the pungent smell of roaches always signals trouble, the dispatch rider of a galloping tragedy. Cyprian Ekwensi had the restlessness and the sokugo in Burning Grass. For Ibrahim it is the smell of roaches portending a restlessness and a confrontation and a tragedy over and over and over again.

After his spoiler alert, Ibrahim sets about methodically explaining to the reader why things are going to be the way things are. This he does with excellent prose; Ibrahim can string together sentences that deceive you with their simplicity and stun you with their richness. It is a good thing because, at first, like life, the story seems to be going nowhere, as if his editor gave him two pretty covers and said, “Please fill the empty spaces with pretty words!” This reader was patient; under Ibrahim’s guiding hands, this book turned out to be a pretty love story.

Ibrahim is a serious thinker-writer but he can be subversively funny. His characters are not idiots and Africa is not a fly-ridden place. He creates thinking characters who actually read. In an African novel. Wow. There is a quiet and reassuring dignity to his sentences. San Siro, the setting in Northern Nigeria is a place where school “was no more than a couple of raffia mats spread out under the ancient tamarind, on which a black board leaned.” And yet, it doesn’t conjure grinding poverty. The reader falls in love with San Siro is about the mysterious bonds of family and friendship, a clan with all its strengths, joys, anxieties and dysfunctions. It is a Spartan world where fast food are revered as fancy places. Poetry breathes here. It is as if he is saying, welcome to the music of the North, the women of the North, the men of the North, the food of the North. As a near-aside, I am not quite sure I understand why the Pidgin English is in italics, but it is pretty good. I was also fascinated by the considerable influence of American colloquial English in the dialogue; it seems to be a commentary of sorts about how the detritus of the West is impacting indigenous cultures in Africa.

Ibrahim is a good storyteller, he can tell a story deftly in quick paragraphs with a confident, assured style. He quotes with apparent fondness, indigenous writers and artists as well as dead white writers. His strength (and sometimes weakness) is his attention to detail, his eyes scooping up mostly interesting things to titillate the reader. This creates awesome ambience in the book’s pages, you can almost see and smell the markets of Northern Nigeria as modernity and Tom and Jerry episodes and tradition waltz around, somnolent, sometimes violently. This he does, using simple sentences that are rich with the wealth of his craft and life experiences.

Major kudos to Parresia Publishers and their collaborator, Cassava Republic, for an impressive outing in Season of Crimson Blooms. It is not a perfect book, some of the chapters should have been pruned, my review copy had about eight minor editorial issues (yes, I counted) but overall, I was impressed with the quality of editing and publication. There might be hope for Africa’s struggling publishing industry after all.

You should read Season of Crimson Blossoms. Many rivers run through this river. Ainehi Edoro of BrittlePaper has a steamy excerpt here on her blog. There are many love stories in this book. Ibrahim loves the people and the land of his ancestors and it shows. This book is written with respect and love slathered all over it, you will not find caricatures here. It is a lovely work of fiction housing a charming love story. We are not talking the chocolates, cheesy poetry, flowers and impossible sex positions mimicry that is the staple of most African writers of romance fiction. This is a true love story of the heart, set among a people in Northern Nigeria who live simply under complex and challenging circumstances. The dialogue between lovers is lovely and heartfelt, this reader’s loins and heart stirred. The burden of the book’s plot is the love story between Hajiya Zubairu, a fifty-something year old widow and Reza, a young thug, bad boy from hell. Love thaws both their hearts and the result is quite enchanting. It is more complex than your run of the mill love story; by the end of the book, you would have learned a lot about the human condition, life in Northern Nigeria, daily existence soaked in a religion (Islam) that doubles as the social fabric of a people and pretty good writing from inside the heart of Nigeria. This is fiction the way it was intended, expertly written in the third person, not the pretend fiction or thinly veiled biographical mush of the first person, the staple of many African writers. As an added benefit, it is flush with well-researched history; many of today’s actors in Nigeria’s political scene feature in the book – and not in a good way (corruption, electoral violence, etc.).

Things are looking good, reading new writing from Elnathan John, A. Igoni Barrett, etc., one detects an emerging sense of self-confidence among many African writers; they are just doing their thing and not pandering to any perceived market necessarily. Ibrahim joins that group; he is not one for exaggeration, in this book, nothing is overstated, not the violence, not the sex, not the poverty, no dysfunction overwhelms the central story, which is the love between two complex souls trying to eke out joy in a society that is fueled by rivers of judgmental adults, hypocrisy and patriarchy. There has to be a creative way to lure young adults everywhere to read books like this, perhaps making it required reading in tertiary institutions, not only in literature but in cultural studies.

In this book Northern Nigeria comes calling, you can almost taste the moody chill of the Harmattan winds and if you close your eyes, the streets of places like Jos, Kano, and Kaduna come calling, in the food, in the energy of young men and women flirting with each other, and in the dialogue. All through, Ibrahim performs a powerful trick, not once did this reader think of poverty. These were beautiful lives with dreams and lust and longing. In his robust character sketches Ibrahim pulled off an ambitious project – and using the third person also. I loved how he made the radio come alive as a character; the radio as BBC the parrot, the towncrier, entertainer and historical marker of a nation’s anxieties. Brilliant. And yes, the radio’s robust presence in this book is consistent with findings that even in the digital age, the radio is in great health. Ibrahim has spent a lifetime reading enough for an army of inquisitive and voracious readers. And it shows. It could have been tighter, more disciplined. But then that wouldn’t be life, would it? The book’s pace was laconic in the beginning, but it picks up. Good writing is here. Read well-crafted prose and be happy.

My favorite chapter is Chapter 9. It could have been a lovely short story by itself. It contains the most passionate, most beautiful passage I have read in a long time:

He came that night, Mallam Haruna, in a starched kaftan with a transistor radio pressed to his ear, and a cap that caught the light of the bare yellow bulb on the wall. He had a long history with radios running back some forty-two years. He was sixteen when his father had died in 1969 and bequeathed his son his prized possession–a black Silver radio with dual bands, a type they don’t make anymore. He had listened to the world unfold around him, an endless river of tales streaming into his ears. He listened when the civil war ended in ‘70, listened when Murtala toppled General Gowon in ’76, listened when Murtala himself was assassinated months later, listened when General Obasanjo handed over to Shagari in ’79 and listened when Obasanjo returned in ’99. Neither of his two wives had been a closer companion than the string of radios he had had over the years – and he had told them that in no uncertain terms. He was an honestly blunt man, Mallam Haruna. p110

Ibrahim uses the English language, as if it is Hausa, just like Achebe did in his early books. Still, he struggles with the use of the English language and the translation of indigenous words and sayings and provides fodder for scholars as they continue the conversation about language and things that get lost in the translation (see my essay on the subject here). It is about insularity, about the new medium and opportunities for deepening the conversation, for sharing our stories and the literary consciousness of a generation of readers weaning themselves of the traditional book. Every day a generation of African writers rises with increasing confidence to tell stories that are facing inwards, not facing the outside. These writers are telling stories, just like others are telling theirs, they are being just as insular as the other. In the process, they are forcing the other to look at Africa with genuine interest, and respect, not with the curiosity with which Jane Goodall would observe a primate wielding a twig to capture termites from tree logs. It is counter-intuitive, but this new insularity is the primary driver of the renaissance that the new African writing is enjoying. Ibrahim’s book helps advance that progress – one page at a time. It is a great time to be a reader.

Finally Ibrahim seems to use this book to offer a handshake of sorts and a respectful nod to the literature of yesterday. In the book’s first chapter a lover departs:

He took her things and left, having sown in her the seed of awakening that would eventually sprout into a corpse flower, the stench of which would resonate far beyond her imagining. (p9)

It is interesting; the sentence is a haunting reminder of Dambudzo Marechera’s famous first sentence in his book, House of Hunger: “I got my things and left.” This is perhaps a touching nod and wave to Marechera’s genius and demons (Helon Habila has a great piece on Marechera here). It is as if the new writers like Ibrahim are saying no to narcissistic navel gazing and welcoming the reader to true fiction. And in the third person too. I love it.

 Season of Crimson Blossoms will be published in the UK by Cassava Republic Press, and is available in Nigeria from Paressia