Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: “Being a writer is hard work.”

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim recently attended the 2015 Africa Writes festival (read his conversation with Emma Shercliff, about ‘love, romance and the gendered nature of reading and writing in Northern Nigeria’ at Africa in Words). Ibrahim was kind enough to visit our virtual offices and talk a bit about himself and his work.

What are your 5 favourite novels?

There are many favourites, some for their aesthetic quality, some for their amazing storylines and others for their historical significance. But the more you read the more discoveries you make. At the moment, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden remains a favourite for its historical depth and the author’s ability, even as an outsider to capture a dying Japanese culture.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has a lulling appeal and captures really interesting characters in a difficult situation. The language and storytelling are masterfully handled.

I admire the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and for me the favourite is Love in the Time of Cholera. Amazing love story. A big book with very, very few lines of dialogue but the flow of the narrations makes one forget.

I like VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street. He did really crazy things with the English language and some great characters. I read it a long time ago but I still think about it.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is an amazing work. She is simply amazing that woman.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

Sometimes a writer flounders on the periphery of his literary niche until he gets permission to write the way he has always wanted to write. For Marquez he was struggling with writing until he read the first line of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In a way that work gave him “permission” to write the way he had always wanted to write. For me, that defining moment was reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. It simply expanded the scope of what I thought was possible in prose. I was young then, so it was a significant moment for me.

Marquez, I have always admired for his works and writing style. The panache and flourish with which he told his stories has rubbed off on me. It was an honour to visit his birthplace in Aracataca, Colombia and see all the places he had written about and feel this strange connection to this place, which were no longer foreign to me because I had read about the people who live there through his works. His works might be magical realist in nature, but they are strongly grounded on reality.

Cyprian Ekwensi is another writer whom I admire a lot. The fact that he, an Igbo man, wrote so convincingly about the understorified North, a region with very distinct character and culture and history and with amazing stories waiting to be told is a huge accomplishment.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I have been working on a new novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, which will be released this November in Nigeria by Parresia Publishers and in the UK in June 2016 by Cassava Republic. It took me a few years to get it to where it is now so it is a relief to have it ready for the readers. It has been a pleasure living with the characters of Binta Zubairu and Reza, and all the others in this book that have been in my head the last few years. I hope the world would find them as intriguing as I did. Now it is time for new residents to take up the space and I am already fiddling with a couple of ideas. I have a residency in Italy in October so I intend to start writing my next work there.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

Over the years, I have been involved with the Writivism Programme, an amazing initiative that has been creating a platform for upcoming writers to get the kind of mentorship we never got while learning the art of writing. It is great to see the programme grow from Uganda, once thought to be Africa’s literary desert, to cover the whole continent and involve writers in the diaspora.

This year, I will also be judging the Short Story Day Africa competition, which over the last couple of years has made enormous strides on the literary landscape of the continent.

I will also be judging the Etisalat Flash fiction prize this year also. So there is quite a lot going on, so many things lined up. I am excited that so much is happening on the continent and I am immensely happy to be a part of it.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It is an honour to be recognized. It is a validation. And looking at the list you can see the quality of writers on it. It is also a good thing to put your CV so that is useful enough. I don’t know what resources the Hay Festival is ready to commit to this project but I think it would be a good idea to continue to promote the list, maybe do another compendium in the next few years to see how these 39 writers have fared and what strides they have made. It would also be great if they can maybe use the project to run workshops in different countries for young writers. There is so much the Hay can do but I won’t presume to tell them what they need to do. I hope they have ideas and are working on exploring them.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Being a writer is hard work. Anyone who tells you anything else is misleading you. We know the challenges are many, key among them is the trouble of finding an outlet for the works produced in the rain and the darkness that the writing process is. For the African writer, because of the dearth of quality publishers on the continent, the West remains the beacon, the Eldorado of sorts. But sometimes they want African stories told a certain way. I don’t blame them for this because it is their business, their money and their tastes. To counter this, we need more publishing and distribution structures on the continent. We need government policies that will make it easier for publishers on the continent to produce cheaper, qualitative books, distribute these books and guarantee that they will get their money back. We don’t need the governments setting up publishing houses, we just need them to create the enabling environment.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read several of them. Some have had novels published, before or after Africa39. But the anthology was an avenue to discover some who we have not had access to their works. The stories are amazingly diverse, offering different slices of the continent each with its own unique flavor. I have read a few. I am reading more. And each time I come away with the sense that the list is a really strong one.
I have had discussions with the amazing Zukiswa Wanner about some project. She is so full of ideas and energy and I hope the talks we had would manifest into something concrete. It is too early though to reveal what we talked about but it is something we hope will have a huge impact on the literary scene on the continent.

Please describe your work with Writivism, which young writers you might have met that made an impression. What role do you see in future for events/organisations like Writivism across the continent? What hindrances do you see such organisations facing?

I was a judge for the 2014 Writivism contest and I read some amazing works. That year, the entries from West Africa, the traditional literary powerhouse of the continent was well below par and it was the submissions from the Southern Region that made the greatest impression.

I was impressed by the quality of the works of Saleeha Idrees Bamjee and her namesake Saleeha Bamjee, two different women, two South Africans, two amazing writers who can go places. There were remarkable entries from other countries in the Southern Region as well. All in all, it gave me hope for the future.
In previous years, I have been a mentor and have had the misfortune of being assigned mentees who do not seem to value the work involved in being a writer. It is an unfortunate situation. But overall it has been a great experience. I had the opportunity of teaching a writing workshop at the 2014 Writivism Festival and it is interesting to see how the model is constantly evolving and growing.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize, for his short story, ‘The Whispering Trees’(pdf) from his debut collection of short stories.

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