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Season of Crimson Blossom: A literary criticism

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Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms has been reviewed and rated spectacularly in recent times. Who would have thought that a first time novelist would defeat over 173 well-rounded authors to win the prestigious Nigerian prize for Literature, also taking along the $100,000 prize money.

Ibrahim won by beating, Elnathan John’s ‘Born on a Tuesday’ and past winner Chika Unigwe ‘Night Dancer’.  Some of his many accolades include being shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing, a BBC African performance prize winner, and the Amatu Braide Prize.
Set in a conservative Hausa society, Season of Crimson Blossoms tells the story of a 55 year old widow who has an illicit affair with a street gang leader half her age. This Book got me wondering, how you paint a picture of lust and sexual desire between a 55year old widow and a man half her age, without making it feel offensive, incestuous, and repugnant to popular norms.
Ibrahim encapsulated this perfectly.

The novel explores the theme of love, heartbreak, hope, desire, the human condition and our collective humanity. It examines the moral rules we live by. In an intriguing and very colorful fashion, the novel dissects the fragile facade masking strict morality. It does a brilliant job telling a story that is both beautifully written and powerfully deconstructs stereotypes held by outsiders.
Set in conservative Northern Nigeria, the titillating affair between 55-year-old widow Binta Zubairu a 26 year-old political thug with the very unusual name Hassan ‘Reza’ is one story to reckon with.

Binta is a widow in her fifties who is respected for her adherence to the Islamic faith. Her son moved her to the outskirts of Abuja, because of the Clash which had begun in Jos where they had been living. In Abuja, she lived with her teenage niece Fa’iza and granddaughter Ummi who had just started going to school. The minors are staying with her as a result of the struggles that affect their part of the country. Beyond that, Binta still feels the desire to redeem herself for the loss of her first son, whose tragic death still haunts her.

Reza on the other hand is notorious thug. He is the lead thug at the San Siro, a local hideout for a bunch of not outstanding members of Nigerian society that specialize in all manner of frivolous acts like mugging and selling drugs. They are also on the payroll of a roguish local politician; Senator Buba Maikudi, who uses them whenever there, is the need for enforcers at political rallies. He also deploys them to carry out other dangerous and dubious activities behind the scenes.

The two meet while Reza tries to rob Binta in her home. She mistakenly walks in on him in the course of the robbery. On seeing her, he also steals more stuff from her and takes off into the late afternoon.

Eventually, Reza feels remorseful at stealing from the older lady, who incidentally reminds him of his mother. On the other side, Binta is reminded of her son Yaro who passed on a decade and half ago, who was also a thug. This eventually rekindles Binta’s passions and strikes an endless array of sexual indulgence between the pair.

As word of his unwholesome liaison with the widow, spreads and draws condemnation and social Ostracisation for Binta, things get to a head when her rich son confronts the thug with a disastrous consequence. Here Binta breaches societal and religious norms and the consequence must be felt.

The weird dynamic was that their escapades had a sort of incestuous look to it. She reminded him of the mother who abandoned him and he reminded her of her son who died in her arms; a child she was never able to call by his given name which was a tradition of not naming first children by their first name. There is indeed a thin line between chastity and sexuality.

Season of Crimson Blossoms is a complete debut of everything destroying a seemingly upright society. Binta is at the center of a complex commotion that trudges to a climax. Here she constantly battles her society and the laws that guide its beliefs. She craves for freedom and, in a bid to rise above the conventional she breaks free.

In Season of Crimson Blossoms there are many love stories. The author loves the people and the land of his ancestors and it shows. It is a mesmerizing work of fiction housing a love story. This book is written with respect and love slathered all over it. We are not talking the chocolates, cheesy poetry, flowers and impossible sex positions mimicry that is the staple of most African writers of romance fiction. This is a true love story of the heart, set among a people in Northern Nigeria who live simply under complex and challenging situations.

The dialogue between lovers is lovely and heartfelt, this reader’s loins and heart stirred. The burden of the book’s plot is the love story between Binta and Reza, the young thug. Love thaws both their hearts and the result is quite enchanting. It is more complex than your run of the mill love story; by the end of the book, you would have learned a lot about the human condition, life in Northern Nigeria, daily existence soaked in a religion (Islam. This is fiction the way it was intended, expertly written in the third person, not the pretend fiction or thinly veiled biographical mush of the first person, the staple of many African writers. As an added benefit, it is flush with well-researched history; many of today’s actors in Nigeria’s political scene feature in the book – and not in a good way (corruption, electoral violence, etc.).

Also, Hajiya Binta, the widow, is not presented as an object of vile, but as a person to be still respected; it is easy to understand and forgive her. Even the character of Reza, the rogue, tends to obtain compassion and understanding from the reader despite his brutality. This affirms Ibrahim’s brave creative dexterity, creating captivating characters that drive the plot through a well-portrayed setting.

The book explores some other themes. From complications vs implications, bond vs blood, widowhood and marriage in northern Nigeria as well as the importance of Information and education. The theme of political corruption and pollution cannot be discussed enough.
This book is highly informative as one is able to relate to the socio- political pollution of the immediate environment of the characters especially that of Reza, Gattuso and Joe. One can only agree with the author that there are political implications as well as historical consequences of the ignorance of the people in the Northern Nigeria.

The language used in the book is one that blows my mind. The language truly is one of my favorite aspects of this novel. The book is rich in proverbs from the northern region displaying the richness of the culture. Before I knew where the story was going, I was captivated by the language. The story opens thus:

“Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.”
Meanings are hidden and left to challenge the average mind. You will appreciate the poet city of his language here as well.
“ After growing wings through her descretion, Hajiya bInta, contrary to her expectation did not transform into an eagle, but an owl that thrived in the darkness in which she and Reza communed,”
(Pg 123)
Also the use of code mixing as a speech style of usage and even the coming together of two or more linguistic expressions was brilliant. People may also see it as a literary use aesthetics or emphasis. For example, “Oh trust me you won’t want your wife smelling of all the makamashi: all that burnt rubber and whatnot” (Pg 106)

The Author also combined lexicons and vernacular in a most laudable form. For example, “ you dey look me? No be good thing? No be him dismiss me from police, say I no competent. If to say I see am, I for shoot am to pieces myself (Pg. 50)

Furthermore, the entire novel reads in an authentic voice that would have been distorted if written from a different angle. The angle that the novel was written from was most obvious in several phrases and sentences scattered throughout the novel. These phrases were written in the characters’ native Hausa, sometimes several in every page. For people who do not speak Hausa and or who are unfamiliar with all aspects of Islam, some phrases might seem new and thus slow down your understanding of the story by a notch. It would be however an eye opener to new aspects of the conservative Hausa orientation.

On the other hand, the average Nigerian Muslim would have a much easier time reading through the story because much of it would be intimately familiar to their experience. Some readers may be turned off by how non-western the story and overall tone of this novel is. But they would be doing themselves a disservice by rejecting a story simply because it is foreign to their experience. I encourage westerners specifically to shift away from ethnocentrism because viewing the world through a familiar lens may hinder personal growth. We should all strive to expand our cognitive and intellectual boundaries beyond our areas of comfort.

Because of the pace, this book is not the type that would keep you up late night feverishly trying to get to the unlikely conclusion.
It is the kind of book I found myself pausing and doing other tasks even as it went to its climax. What the book does is show everyone going through varied situations like those portrayed in the book that they are not alone. The characters cry, they are have mental breakdowns, they indulge themselves sexually, and have petty jealousies. These are human beings in spite of what they dress in, be it the hijab or other clothing prescribed by their religion.
All in all, this is a great work of fiction. An excerpt from the novel is reproduced below:

Binta had noted Mallam Haruna’s unease right from when he offered to stand guard over her and wave away the midges tormenting her with the tail of his kaftan. He had backed down immediately when he saw the shocked expression on her face. Then he had spent five minutes trying to tell her how important it was for a man to protect the woman he loved from ‘all enemies’.

That was how he got talking about scorpions and how he had been stung three times in the past. He punctuated his gory tale of feverish nights fighting off the venom with little nervous chortles.

Then he had attempted to mount his cap on her head, right on top of her hijab. It was so unheralded that she had wanted to flee.
‘Is there something wrong with you this evening?’
‘Oh no, not at all. Just wondering what you would look like with my cap on you.’
She gaped at him, as if she had somehow contrived to see through his skull and discovered that his cranium was packed full of semi-deflated balloons.
He seemed oblivious to her stare. ‘You know I am the best cap washerman in this corner of the world, wallahi.’

He went into a fractured narrative about how he had learned how to wash caps in Maiduguri when he had been an almajiri and how he had married his first wife as ladan noma.
Binta’s mind drifted. She wondered what she could do to get rid of Hureira since her husband had refused to come for her. She contemplated several possibilities, none of them practical, and concluded that other than escorting Hureira back to her own house, she had no choice but to accept that her daughter might end up permanently stationed in Fa’iza’s room, while her matrimonial home in Jos collected the harmattan dust.

When her mind wandered back, Mallam Haruna was talking about his third or fourth son making a living driving a white man around Port Harcourt, and how he had been in an accident and now limped like a three-legged dog.

She felt his hand on her shoulder, a light slap at first and then the hand slid down just a bit.
‘Mosquito,’ he grinned.

The cat meowed, almost half-heartedly. It used its front paw to wipe its head, took several steps and then bounded off the fence, into Mama Efe’s side of the wall.

Mallam Haruna launched into yet another disjointed narrative on how best to deal with the pestilence of mosquitoes using dried orange rinds sprinkled on embers. Then he reached out and slapped another mosquito on her back and yet again, his hand tarried.

• Jennifer, an independent freelance writer based in Lagos. She can be reached through nagujennifer@gmail.com


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