‘I wanted to write about Jos in a way it has not been written about’
Winner of the 2016 edition of The Nigerian Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), Mr. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, has a lot to be thankful for. Besides having won a BBC African Performance Prize and an ANA Plateau/Amatu Braide Prize for Prose, he is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow (2013) and a Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2015).
On October 12, 2016, Abubakar, out of the 172 entrants for the competition, emerged winner of the handsome USD$100,000, for his novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms. While speaking with The Guardian in Abuja after the win, Abubakar, in his usual humble disposition and calm demeanor, said the prize is a triumph for Nigerian literature and that he didn’t see himself as the sole winner of the prize.
According to him, “I like to see it in the sense that it is a triumph for Nigerian literature; it is a triumph for publishing in Nigeria. It is a triumph for people, who love good literature in the country.”
Abubakar explained the combination of factors that led to the writing of the book thus: “Sometimes, you start to write a story, it may be just a flash of a scene that comes to your head. From there, other things evolve. I wanted to write about relationships between people, different kinds of relationship between different kinds of people. I wanted to write about Jos in a way Jos has not been written about. I didn’t want to talk about the conflict, the killings. I mean, everybody knows that. I wanted to talk about how these things happened, how people are still living with it and how it is affecting their lives now, years after they happened.
“I wanted to capture the unacknowledged trauma we are facing in this country because technically speaking, almost every Nigerian is traumatised. We have witnessed violence; we have seen it happen, and it has happened to us in different forms but there is no systematic way of addressing these issues.”
He said there are no plans or mechanisms whatsoever to address people suffering from trauma in the country, which is what he tried to do through the book, through the characters, who have all these issues and how society responds to them.
He described the characters in the book as completely fictitious and the events mostly fictitious. However, the background, which is the backdrop of the story, is not fiction. It happened, but everything else is fiction.
His other book, Whispering Trees, a collection of short stories, was nominated for the Caine Prize and the Etisalat Prize in 2014. The author and journalist disclosed to The Guardian that he is working on his next book but that it was, of course, too early to say what it is about or how it is evolving.
For Abubakar, readers come to books in different ways and in very different moods. There are people who feel they are gripped by the book from the very first page. He spoke on the varying levels of perception and reception of books, stating that people aren’t expected to approach books the same way.
As he put it, “It is possible that some people didn’t get into the book until later on while some people felt engaged from the very beginning. But I’m conscious that most readers are not familiar with the culture and background issues, where the story is set. So, it was important to make a clear setting so that people can have a guided view of the environment the characters are living.”
Having won the cash prize of USD100,000, the cliché would be: What is he going to do with the money? Buy a house? Go to the moon? The particular question would be no more peculiar to an Abuja resident. With the inflation crisis and fluctuating exchange value of the naira to the dollar, the value at conversion may be dependent on the state of the economy when he receives the money.
So, he simply said, “I don’t know how much it will be when it eventually gets to me because the rates keep going up and down. I guess we will see. Buy a house? Well, maybe. I mean, paying rent here is crazy, isn’t it? So that would be a good idea!”
When put to him that it would be the most likely choice of action, he laughed mildly, akin to his ever calm nature: “Probably, yeah! I mean, it is important. For a writer, you know, one of the things you have to contend with is paying bills, rent, etc. The rent in Abuja is absurd, completely, and should be unacceptable. So, if you get an opportunity to own a house and not have to pay rent, it would bring peace of mind.”
SO, what sets a winning book apart from the lot that enters into a contest like The Nigerian Prize for Literature?“Speaking generally, what sets a winning book apart is that if it is a good story, then it stands better chances of winning,” he said. “A story written well stands better chances. I don’t know if there is a formula for winning other than to write a very good book, which is really what the younger generation writers don’t have the patience to do.
“We are too much in a hurry; we want to write a book fast and publish it. Of course, I understand the desperation; it is hard not to understand the desperation to get your book published. But it is an art, something you have to carve with love, care and affection and with due consideration of what you want to do.
“What message you want to project, what kind of art you want to portray must be considered? It has to go through processes; it has to be properly edited. If necessary, you have to do a second, third or fourth draft or no matter how many drafts necessary.
Abubakar blamed the challenges of publishing good books in Nigeria on several factors, including lack of structure and enabling environment for publishers, availability of good editors and quality of efforts put into writing by young writers.
According to Abubakar, if there are good and sufficient publishing houses, they would put the writer through the process and ensure a good editor would be provided to make sure the book is up to standard before it is published and the publication would have quality.
He, however, stressed that there aren’t enough publishing houses to help meet these standards: “The publishing houses are supposed to ensure that quality works are the ones that come out of the process. They are the gatekeepers; they determine the standard in a way.
“The way of writing, the mannerism, the kind of story is dependent on the writer. We don’t have this process. That is why we keep having books that are mediocre, and to be honest, we have a lot of mediocre books. What usually happens is that you print those books, give them to your friends and, of course, they will tell you it is a lovely book even if it is not up to standard.”
While he insisted there aren’t enough quality publishing houses, Abubakar added that there are a lot of challenges in this regard. While giving credit to a few publishing houses that have been striving to make things work, he noted that it was really difficult to break even as a publisher, long before the recession set in. He also maintained that the few publishing houses that have been producing books have been doing so only because they are very passionate about books and not because of profit.
Abubakar explained that publishing is a very difficult terrain and lamented the absence of enabling environment, which further worsens the position publishers find themselves. He added that publishers face a lot of challenges, like the absence of infrastructure and that, like most Nigerian businesses, it is heavily import-dependent. He also noted that when they get these books published, the distribution channels are not available. So, they have to create them to get books to readers.
“They get the books out to the market and the bookshops don’t want to pay them back,” Abubakar lamented. “It is like throwing money down the drain constantly. It is very difficult for publishers to work here. But they have been doing it. So in a way, I feel this triumph is for all Nigerian publishers and people who say: ‘Look, no matter what, we are going to stick to our guns; we are going to make this work and we are going to produce good books.’”
He further noted that technically, there are very few publishing houses, the ones that do traditional publishing, which he described as ‘how publishing should be done,’ are only about three or four companies, adding, “when you look at the manpower invested in these publishing houses, it is very little. Probably the owner and a couple of staff. They have to outsource everything; they have to outsource printing, editing, etc.”
Part of the challenges of publishing in the country, Abubakar noted, is that editors are very few in the country to do justice to the volume of books being written in the country. He said if a writer needs to find good editors, he would have to go outside the country, “which would definitely make things more expensive, considering the exchange rates now. It is absolutely crazy to even attempt to edit books outside the country. So, it is a very difficult situation for publishers in Nigeria.”
However, the prizewinner writer blamed the challenges of availability of good editors in Nigeria to lack of demand. He noted that if the demand were high, people would have trained themselves to meet the requirement. But because publishing houses collapsed in the 1980s and had been redundant throughout the 1990s and were only coming up now, there has been a gap.
According to Abubakar, “If the good editors of the 1980s, who are available now to train younger editors, we would have had the bar maintained. Because of the collapse of the publishing industry in the 1980s, the few editors who had skills then went out of business and didn’t train anyone to take up from where they left.”