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.


Spotlight on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “My family says to me, ‘Oh, you’re such a man!’”

Image credit: Akintude Akinleye, Vogue UK.

  • In an interview with Erica Wagner, Adichie talks about fashion, film, food, and feminism:

The oppression of women, she says, “Makes me angry. I can’t not be angry. I don’t know how you can just be calm. My family says to me, ‘Oh, you’re such a man!’ – you know, very lovingly… But of course I’m not, I just don’t see why I shouldn’t speak my mind.” She got into trouble for speaking her mind in Nigeria: when an interviewer addressed her as Mrs Chimamanda Adichie, she corrected him, saying she wished to be known as “Ms”, which the journalist reported as “Miss”. Her insistence on her own family name was all over the news here last spring. She should be happy to be addressed as “Mrs”, she was told, since she was, after all, married. She laughs now, but it’s clear the story still disturbs her. “It was the lack of gratitude on my part for having a husband. And yet I didn’t want to proclaim it: I wanted to claim my own name.” (source: Vogue UK)

  • About her recent story, Apollo, Adichie says:

I am drawn as a reader to stories of childhood told in an adult voice, stories full of the melancholy beauty of retrospect. I am interested in the regrets we carry from our childhoods, in the idea of “what if” and “if only.” A novel I love, “The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley, does this very well.

I’m also drawn to brave endings that stun you and make you reconsider the beginning, and I’ve just read the recent novel “Hausfrau,” which does that very well. I think of Okenwa’s attraction to Raphael as a certain kind of first love, childhood first love, that early confusing emotional pull, that thing filled with an exquisite uncertainty because it does not know itself and cannot even name itself. (source: This Week in Fiction, The New Yorker)

  • In January 2015, Adichie published the short story, “Olikoye”, described by Ainehi Edoro as a story “about immunization [that] will warm your heart,” and about which Katy Waldman wrote that:

The graceful and moving “Olikoye,” which goes on to praise the official for treating people “like human beings,” for refusing gifts, and for being the “best health minister this country has ever had,” is propaganda. It is a story raised in captivity rather than in the wild. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned Adichie, along with more than 30 other international writers and artists – including Geraldine Brooks, Mia Farrow, and Lang Lang—to participate in a project called The Art of Saving a Life, which sets out to educate people about the power and value of vaccines. According to Jacque Seaman, who represents the campaign, Adichie was provided with “2-4 storylines to choose from,” based on the Foundation’s judgements of what “would resonate most with the artist.” Her task: To fashion a narrative that might “break into new audiences who may otherwise not be paying attention to the issue” of vaccination. As for how it ended up online, the Foundation reached out to Matter, the longform arm of Medium, with the story. “I leapt at the chance,” Matter’s Mark Lotto wrote in an email, “to publish such a gorgeous, moving, illuminating piece of fiction—our first!—from a writer we admire hugely.” (Source: Slate)

Spotlight on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently acquired one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the U.S., the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award. Over the past decade she has become perhaps the most popularly and critically acclaimed living African author. Below are highlights from essays and interviews by her over the past year.

I want the president to stop issuing limp, belated announcements through public officials, to insist on a televised apology from whoever is responsible for lying to Nigerians about the girls having been rescued.
I want President Jonathan to ignore his opponents, to remember that it is the nature of politics, to refuse to respond with defensiveness or guardedness, and to remember that Nigerians are understandably cynical about their government.
I want President Jonathan to seek glory and a place in history, instead of longevity in office.
I want him to put aside the forthcoming 2015 elections, and focus today on being the kind of leader Nigeria has never had.
I do not care where the president of Nigeria comes from. Even those Nigerians who focus on ‘where the president is from’ will be won over if they are confronted with good leadership that makes all Nigerians feel included.

  • “Hiding from our past” (The New Yorker, May 2014), in which she contextualises the censorship of the film based on her novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, in Nigeria.

But the Biafran war is still wrapped in a formal silence. There are no major memorials, and it is hardly taught in schools. This week, Nigerian government censors delayed the release of the film adaptation of “Half of a Yellow Sun” because, according to them, it might incite violence in the country; at issue in particular is a scene based on a historically documented massacre at a northern Nigerian airport. It is now up to the State Security Service to make a decision. The distributors, keen to release the film before it is engulfed in piracy, are hoping that the final arbiters of Nigerian security will approve its release. I find this absurd—security operatives, uniformed and alert, gathered in a room watching a romantic film—but the censors’ action is more disappointing than surprising, because it is part of a larger Nigerian political culture that is steeped in denial, in looking away.

Partly the result of an unexamined past and partly of the trauma of years of military dictatorship, a sustained and often unnecessary sense of secrecy is the norm in Nigerian public life. We talk often of the “sensitivity” of issues as a justification for a lack of transparency. Conspiracy theories thrive. Soldiers are hostile to video cameras in public. Officials who were yesterday known as thieves are widely celebrated today. It is not unusual to hear Nigerians speak of “moving forward,” as though it might be possible merely to wish away the unpleasant past.

The censors’ action is a knee-jerk political response, yet there is a sense in which it is not entirely unreasonable. Nigeria is on edge, with upcoming elections that will be fiercely contested, religion and ethnicity increasingly politicized, and Boko Haram committing mass murders and abductions. In a political culture already averse to openness, this might seem a particularly appropriate time for censorship.

As a teenager, I searched her trunks for crochet tops from the 1970s. I took a pair of her old jeans to a seamstress who turned them into a miniskirt. I once wore my brother’s tie, knotted like a man’s, to a party. For my 17th birthday, I designed a halter maxidress, low in the back, the collar lined with plastic pearls. My tailor, a gentle man sitting in his market stall, looked baffled while I explained it to him. My mother did not always approve of these clothing choices, but what mattered to her was that I made an effort. Ours was a relatively privileged life, but to pay attention to appearance—and to look as though one did—was a trait that cut across class in Nigeria.

Americanah, cover art

In July 2013, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about her latest novel, Americanah, romantic fiction, her life in Nigeria and America, the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, the Caine Prize for African Literature, and pan-Africanism.

AB: I’m particularly curious if there were any female writers that were particularly important to you.

CA: I don’t know if I have a relationship with them [laughs]. I’m not part of a secret society of African writers that meets in some dark basement. But the women who matter to me— Buchi Emecheta matters to me. I read Flora Nwapa when I was quite young. There’s a magic that Chinua Achebe had—Arrow of God, in particular, for me—that I don’t think any other novel did when I was growing up. Flora Nwapa didn’t have that, but there was something about her that was very familiar, the sorts of stories that I heard in my hometown. So that I identified with, but at the same time, I feel as though I carry Arrow of God with me, but I don’t carry Flora Nwapa’s work. But anyway, she was important to me—she is important to me—and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood is a beautiful novel. I think it really captures that sense of working-class Lagos under colonial rule. Ama Ata Aidoo I adore. Absolutely adore her. I just think she’s marvelous in so many ways. I remember when I first read Our Sister Killjoy, and I just thought ‘this is very strange,’ because it was this thing that didn’t quite fit […]

African women—women from Africa, women expected to speak for and as Africa, women invited to events to be African—face the daunting burden of speaking, but not too well; understanding, but not too fluently; responding, but not too abrasively; knowing, but not too comprehensively. And always, always, upholding their dignity as African women. U.S.-based institutions invite African women to be African women: we want colorful head dressings so we can ooh and aah, appropriately chunky jewelry that socially conscious students can emulate, and down-home wisdom rendered in proverbs and riddles, references to ancient wisdom and secret knowledge.

Chimamanda Adichie visited the University of Maryland to participate in the Dean’s Lecture Series, and she said “fuck, fuck.”

It happened early during her session. And here’s the context. She described walking near her ancestral home, on the way to visit a favorite uncle. A woman who was walking ahead of her slipped and fell and said, “fuck, fuck.” And so Chimamanda repeated, “fuck, fuck,” several times as she told the story. In fact, the story became the words, “fuck, fuck.” […]