Gambit (The Art of Creating) No. 2 - Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
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.
EMMANUEL 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?
ABUBAKAR ADAM IBRAHIM: I think every writer must believe 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 many stories. A young writer just has to find his voice and believe in it.
EI: Which characters in books have influenced you the most?
AI: Well, I don’t know if they have influenced me. I would say I liked some of them, like Cash Daddy in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance. He was quite similar to Calamatus Jumai in Chuma Nwokolo’s Diaries of a Dead African. I almost fell in love with Nina while I was writing my first book The Quest for Nina. I think I found Yambo in Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana a bit intriguing.
EI: If you didn’t write in English, which language would you have tried? Why?
AI: 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 near 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.
EI: That’s interesting. The love for Arabic is shared. Have you considered taking lessons, or visiting Arab-speaking countries? That might help.
AI: Yes, I studied Arabic for some years in Jos. I’m not as eloquent as I would like to be, but I get by.
EI: Given our underrepresentation, and the quest for validation from institutions that define contemporary 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?
AI: 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 borrowing stories, looking at our lives through rented lenses, which is not ideal.
But as a proverb 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 critique 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 to develop, to 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.
EI: By saying we must challenge ourselves, do you suppose that young writers must chart their literary destinies, define their own standards?
AI: 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 raise the bar. Writing is a very challenging art and you must constantly push yourself to get the best out of yourself.
EI: Speaking of validation, the Internet does offer an interesting perspective to publishing. And if we are speculating correctly, the emerging African writer seems overwhelmed by a new medium—overwhelmed because danger and promise are equally offered in this new medium. What do you say? You have several “links” to your name!
AI: I think there is opportunity on the Internet. I think it is revolutionizing literature and publishing. It gives a platform for emerging writers to showcase their works, get feedback, 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. Publishers wouldn’t have taken notice if she hadn’t taken it into her own hands. So the Internet creates greater opportunities for emerging writers to get noticed.
EI: And you conceive that noticing as a precursor to what? What possibilities exist afterward?
AI: A million and one possibilities—the possibility of becoming a bestselling author, the possibility of being discovered by the right people, the possibility of achieving your dream, the possibility of having your work critiqued by some intelligent people who will help improve your craft. Endless possibilities.
EI: The matter of literary demographics will necessarily come into this conversation, seeing you are from northern Nigeria. You will agree that there have been few writers from northern Nigeria who attained monumental acclaim. Early 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 occurrences of romanticizing the north—recall Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana and The Passport of Mallam Ilia. 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.
AI: You really had 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 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 the international limelight in the nearest future. There is so much promise from this side of the Niger and I am excited about the prospect.
EI: Can you name some of these young voices?
AI: 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 writers, but he’s making waves. There are a lot of people.
EI: Does writing make you feel responsible?
AI: 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 writers are obliged to consider the social implications of what they write. This is what American writer Frank Norris argues in his essay, “The Responsibilities of the Novelist,” which I think is an excellent piece. He says 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 demoralize or vilify them simply because you have the talent to write. I think it is an abuse of one’s responsibility as a writer.
EI: Let’s return to the question of demographics. There’s a curious term, ELDS, which is Educationally Less Developed States. The argument is that prospective undergraduates from states in Nigeria with this tag have less-stringent requirements 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?
AI: 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 some of “your people” have been taught to believe. 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.
EI: Suppose African writers are powerlessly deadlocked. Suppose that we cannot stay aloof to the subtleties of national life, the ineptitude around us. What do you think this will do to an expectation to tell stories that are “just stories”?
AI: 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 folklore, besides entertaining they serve to affect thinking and behavior. 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 confront reality.
EI: What is the writer’s purpose?
AI: 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.
EI: What was growing up like? Do you recall anything from your childhood that helped you decide to become a writer, a user of language?
AI: 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 Soyinka’s 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 my brother and I heard this call for entries for a radio play and he said “Come on, you’ve got to enter.” I suppose that was the moment I decided that, yes, I want to take writing more seriously.
EI: What was the first story you wrote?
AI: 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.
EI: How did you feel when you lost them?
AI: Your writing becomes a part of you, essentially, and when, for some reason, you lose any of it—especially a whole lot of it, as I did—it is demoralizing. It is a loss 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.
EI: As a writer, is it dangerous to feel capable?
AI: Well, it is important to have confidence and belief in yourself, but it is also wise to realize 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 realize there is a lot missing, and because they are not open to criticism and suggestions, their work 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.
EI: Which authors do you love most?
AI: 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 favorite. There is Helon Habila too, Isabelle Allende, Toni Morrison. Lots of them.
EI: Your story “Closure” 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 the character Sadiya we are unwilling to part with our hopes even when those hopes are being bashed irreverently.
AI: 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 precedence.
EI: Does tragedy fascinate you? Does ill-fate confer believability on a story? There’s, for instance, Santi’s failure to exonerate himself in your story “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?
AI: There is this line from a movie where one character says, “Tragedy, every good movie must have one.” I love that line. But basically, I have 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 humor can be as shocking. They say humor is a rubber sword by which you make a point without drawing blood.
EI: Let’s examine the question of genre fiction. The Quest for Nina traverses a thin line between a thriller novel and literary fiction. 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 or Africa, if you might wish to predict?
AI: 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 unraveling all those long buried secrets, if it’s good or bad for us.
Having said that, I don’t think writers should be straight-jacketed into compliance. I prefer to allow my stories to take on a life of their own instead of boxing them into convention. 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.
EI: 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 the Boko Haram insurgency?
AI: I have lived most of my life in Jos. It was a wonderful place until the politicians came and spread bad blood. The violence began in 2001 and has gone on for over 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 fear 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 this behind us and move on.
And like Chinua Achebe said, literature should reflect situations on the ground and yes, once in a while you think about how you can use your writing to capture some of these things that are happening.
And now with the Boko Haram situation, it is quite unfortunate that it has put people like me 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 condition 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.
EI: You lost some writing in Jos?
AI: Yes, I did. I was away in Abuja when yet another crisis 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.
EI: 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.
AI: Being a journalist was a conscious effort. I actually studied sciences in secondary school, but fortunately I realized 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, intellectuals, the aloof trader by the roadside, and security operatives. 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 but continued to write fiction with 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.
EI: Would you consider becoming a full-time writer? That’s if journalism doesn’t happen to provide continued exposure and access.
AI: Journalism will always give access and exposure. But yes, someday I would like to wake up and have nothing to do but to write the stories I like writing. Perhaps someday.
EI: 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?
AI: 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.
February 1, 2012
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
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Closure (here and here)
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A Shadow's Quandry
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With Uche Peter Umez
BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition