Abukakar Adam Ibrahim is the author the short story collection The Whispering Trees, the title story earning a shortlist on the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2014.
He followed through with his debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, which won him the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2016, Africa’s richest literary prize.
Abukakar Adam Ibrahim gave the Saturday Nation an exclusive interview when he spent time in Nairobi a few weeks ago.
What are you doing in Nairobi?
I am here for the Goethe Institut Literary Crossroads event, which features two writers from two different countries, in this case, Nigeria and Kenya, myself and Abdul Adan, to discuss about literature and writing on the continent. I am also here for the Storymoja Festival.
You first came to prominence as a playwright when you won the BBC African Performance Prize in 2007 with the play A Bull Man’s Story, which spoke about domestic violence. Did you see this as a natural home and why didn’t you follow through on this route of writing plays?
I have written a number of plays since then. I have been one of the writers for a popular radio series airing in Nigeria.
But I haven’t written anything for stage since my university days. The popularity of plays has suffered significantly and the theatre culture has been the greatest victims.
Theatre producers have had to struggle to get plays going and only a few have been hits.
There have been a few exceptional plays though. Perhaps someday I will go back to writing plays but for now I am revelling in the freedom prose affords me.
You then went on to start writing short stories which were also very well received, even getting a Caine Prize nomination. For some, short stories are an end it itself while others see them as building towards getting to the novel. What school of thought does your writing subscribe?
For me, they were place holders, something I did before the novel. Publishing a short story collection wasn’t an idea that had occurred to me because I was obsessed with writing novels, have always been.
And a lot of the short stories I read at the time weren’t ones I would go back to, they left an aftertaste in the mouth, and sometimes they weren’t good aftertaste, so I just thought of writing the sort of short stories I would like to read without thinking of publishing them in a book.
Eventually, the opportunity presented itself for the short stories to be published and I agreed to. So for me, they weren’t a build-up towards a novel.
I wasn’t working up my novel writing stamina with them because the novel had always been the ideal and my aspiration and the short stories were just breathers.
You have been writer in residence in Germany with the Sylt Foundation. More African writers are being seen taking residencies around the world. How important are these sojourns away from their lives to a writer?
For me, Sylt was a really important residency because it came at a really crucial time. Since the publication of my novel (Seasons of Crimsons Blossoms), in 2015, I have been on an endless book tour. And winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature last year has meant I have had so much distraction it was hard to find time to write.
And I have been stuck in the middle of a novel I started writing just before the publication of Season and I was itching to get back to it with little success. So the timing of the residency was perfect for me.
And I was able to accomplish something significant there. I started this novel in a residency, at Civitella in Italy, and finished it at another residency.
I think residencies are really important for writers, especially for writers who have to deal with distractions like the necessity of daily living or a regular job.
For a disciplined writer, the chance to go away and just focus on writing is really important, and I would like to see more of these residencies on the continent.
In East Africa, many writers don’t have many positive things to say about their publishing industry. Does the same apply in Nigeria? How have you navigated the ‘publisher minefield’ locally and abroad?
At some point it was the same in Nigeria. There was a collapse of the publishing industry in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that a whole generation of Nigerian writers lost their voice and were never published traditionally or at least very few of them were. But things have picked up.
More people found the courage to venture into publishing and the result has been a chorus of new literary voices bursting onto the scene.
Regardless, it is still an industry that is struggling to find its feet and there have been challenges. Many writers have been burned by publishers, but I suppose that happens everywhere.
I have been lucky to find publishers who are genuinely passionate about my book and I feel that the reception the book has had is a justification of their faith in the book.
You then went onto write your debut novel, Seasons of Crimson Blossoms, which was well received by all lovers of Africa literature. What was the motivation for this book?
The principal motivation was to tell a good story. I was really interested in how older men dating younger women, or even marrying them, is considered the norm.
And when the woman happens to be older, a whole lot of factors come into play. I wanted to write about this and the factors that often shape the outcome of a relationship like this.
And it became even more interesting when the young man involved in this instance happens to be a man of questionable reputation.
Of course I didn’t want the story to be stereotypical, so it wasn’t just about sex but about something more substantial, more complex.
There had to be a lot of emotion involved. It also happened to be an opportunity to talk about trauma and our attitude to it, to talk about Jos and what happened there. But all of these were subjective to the idea of a just telling a good story, which was my principal motivation in the first place.
You won the Nigerian prize for literature. Does this mean anything for you (and conversely other writers) besides the $100,000 (Sh13 million) prize money that accompanies it?
Of course it does. It is a huge prize. In monetary terms, it is one of the biggest prizes in the world.
That, of course, comes with its own baggage, not necessarily pleasant ones. It did make life a lot more complicated because it meant that even people who did not read now recognised you on the street and all they think about is there goes the guy who got all that money. For a lot of people, it was very significant.
That someone from my part of Nigeria, from the north that has always been perceived as educationally less advanced than the rest of the country, could write a book that would be so widely accepted, that could win a prize like this, was a huge motivation.
And since we are largely still communal, it was a success that everyone felt they shared, as much as they felt entitled to the prize money.
Most importantly, it is also a validation for the book. Before the prize, the reception had been amazing and for a lot of readers, the prize was a validation of their taste, if you like.
It has brought a lot more people to the book. People who would not normally read it wanted to read it and find out why it is being talked about so much, why it won a prize like that. What it does mean to me is that the years I spent working on the book were not completely wasted.
Who are you reading that you can recommend to fellow readers?
I try to read literature from different parts of the world just to have a feel of what is going on and to remind myself that humans across the world do share certain universal concerns.
I have enjoyed reading Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me. I found it really engaging. I have enjoyed Colson Whitehead’s haunting slavery novel, The Underground Railroad.
It was a gutting but necessary read and I found his writing beautiful. My recent discovery has been Angola’s Jose Eduardo Agualusa. I have read his book, Creole. And I am currently reading A General Theory of Oblivion. Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door was also a good read. I would recommend those.