Seeing and believing: Casting a deep gaze into the ugly underbelly of society
Society is a complex, living being that takes on a life of its own at every given generation. How man grapples with this complexity as he journeys along and make meaning of it is the ultimate triumph of civilization. It is this complexity that Odafe Atogun (author of Taduno’s Song) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (author of Season of Crimson Blossom), two writers from different socio-cultural backgrounds, tried in their own ways, to wrestle with in their recent novels. At the maiden edition of Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST 2017), the two writers shared Seeing and Believing ‘Booklogue’ platform to speak about the trajectory of their works and how they both mirror the two societies they project. It had a professor of Literature, E.E Sule, moderating.
While Atogun’s novel takes contemporary society to task for failing to realise the need for a non-violent revolutionary ferment to break free from the yoke of oppression as inimitable music maverick, Fela Kuti, so peacefully, but insistently advocates in his music, Ibrahim also seeks freedom for Northern Nigerian women, whose right to personal liberties have been taken away in the guise of culture and tradition insufferably dressed as religion. The two writers provide provocative impetus for society to realise the chains in which it is collectively and individually yoked and canvas the need to retrace such anti-social steps for a better society to emerge.
Atogun admitted to Taduno’s Song being an allegory of society, whose time for action to liberate itself has come and a metaphor for the people to resist bad leadership, whether military (where it is set in the 1990s) and civil rule that aborts the enjoyment of the good life for the majority. For this writer, society is failing because it has yet to explore the power of the arts for its liberating and healing powers.
According to him, “What I wrote is a fable. I’m a dreamer and I developed this style over the years to use allegory to tell my stories. You see, we are not exploring the power of the arts enough. It can be used to do unbelievable things. I’m a fan of Fela Kuti and all the things he said have come true today in the life of our country and I felt I should use his music to freshen our minds to how we have failed to listen to him and act appropriately.
“There is Fela the man and Fela the musician. I took Fela the musician and used it to develop a story about violence and the struggle for resistance, which he stood for while he lived and sang. It occurred to me that tyrants want the people demonstrating on the streets to feed their ego and power so they can mow them down (with their guns). So, in spite of the strong vibe of his music, Fela was a man of peace. I tried to explore his music and for us to use the arts more to heal society.”
Atogun does not advocate the use of violence to solve society’s problems, saying when the people respond with violence, the tyrant gets more power to unleash mayhem, adding, “My novel brings a message of hope that the dictator cannot win the war of resistance if the people bind together.”
But Ibrahim argued that in order to be free, “the people need mental revolution: the way we think needs to change. Unless society has a mental revolution, we won’t go far.” For Ibrahim, all forms of behaviours, like condoning and even hailing illegal wealth like those acquired by politicians, without asking for its source and other forms of corrupt and nepotistic tendencies, negate society’s progress. These cannot stop unless the people rise up against them, with a questioning attitude towards all forms of easy lucre, especially among those who lead them.
On why he decided to explore such a rather taboo subject like the sexuality of an older, Northern Nigeria, Muslim woman (for whom her society has written off as having no right any more to sexual enjoyment), Ibrahim said it was precisely why he chose it, noting that women in the North have the rules skewed against them in matters of the heart, as they are at the mercy of a society that imposes strict moral rules on them while the men have unmerited freedoms to do as they please.
He said, “I was interested in relationships between people – between mother and son, mother and daughter, all sorts and to explore all of them. I was interested in correlation among age groups: when the woman is older and the man is younger (and they fall in love), it is because she is immoral, promiscuous and so she becomes dangerous being to society; that is how (Northern) society sees it, but when the man is older and the woman much younger, it is normal. Binta (the lead character in the novel) had lived a life that was compliant to society, but one moment when she decides to satisfy herself, society places judgment on her. It’s the hypocrisy of society. Why the double standard?
“We need to engage. A 70-year old man, with all his four wives and more, still goes ahead to rape a boy of 12! We have a facade that the North is very religious and pious, but these sexual perversions and rape of the young happen. So, the important thing for Binta was that she wanted to redeem Reza (through whom she sees her dead first son, whom she wasn’t able to relate with as a mother while he was alive) by also redeeming herself, but Reza always reminds her that she wasn’t her mother.”
Ibrahim said writing his female character was challenging and blamed current religious extremism in the North on the Islamic revivalism of the 1970s, adding, “I felt very uncomfortable writing the female character. Binta came fully formed. The only research I needed to conduct was to converse with Binta – with all the emotions of her being. I was just a vessel carrying this character.
“The North wasn’t always like this. We’ve had Islamic religious revivalism since the 1970s, with people making it their business to judge other people, especially the women. So, in Season of Crimson Blossom, I wanted to hold up a mirror for the North to see itself for what it is. I wanted to create a window for people to see us with our colourful aspects (and also our not-so colourful aspects).”
Both writers are agreed that Nigerians and its history have suffered violence in many forms and that the time for healing has come. “There is a need to revisit history as a way of recreating a better future for our people,” Atogun suggested. “Fela was a strong character, who thrived at a harsh period. Now, we live in a post-traumatic experience after military rule that messed us up.”
Ibrahim, on the hand, elevated the trauma to a national scale, saying, “Every Nigerian has been traumatised, not even by (physical) violence. The corruption on a national scale is violence. There’s communal violence and the violence of our culture, what it does to us!”
ATOGUN and Ibrahim said their creative perspectives are shaped by their relationships with their respective parents. Atogun had a curious relationship with his father, who sent him to live with an uncle, who made him a child labourer, where he hawked things at Niger Bridge at Lokoja. It was from there, under the scorching sun, that his imagination took flight from his harsh circumstances to a dream world where he let himself loose. So that when he eventually reunited with his father, he could only communicate with him through the agency of letters; a yawning gap having been created between them. This would unknowingly prepare him for his writerly role later in life. Taduno’s Song is based on a series of letters between a revolutionary musician and his lover and how his activism role shaped this love relationship.
“I can say I was lucky, as I would sell off quickly and use the spare time to escape into unreality,” he said. “Unknowingly, I was writing my own story at that time.”
Ibrahim, on the other hand, has a close relationship with his mother and his many aunts, with whom he has long conversations about women’s issues. These relationships afforded him access to his lead character’s emotional well of misery. As he recalled, “I’m very close to my mother and we talk a lot about everything. I also have a lot of aunts and we talk a lot. The story started where it started, a vision I had and decided to follow the character – the love, the violence.”
Season of Crimson Blossom is set against the backdrop of the infamous Jos crisis and Ibrahim argued that the many violent flashpoints of Nigeria’s history has induced trauma in the people and wondered how the thousands currently being traumatised in the North-East as a result of Boko Haram would fare years from now, with little or no care being given to them.
“I went through that period of violence in 2011 in Jos,” he recalled, “we had a reading group and we usually had to shelve our meetings after it happened. And when we meet again, we would share the stories of the violence, but that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted more about what happened to those who survived. Today in the North-East, you have thousands of hungry children not being taken care of. In years to come, what would become of these children? So, I’m concerned about trauma, violence and what we can do to avoid them.”
After the reading session, Ibrahim confessed in his Facebook page how he had his ears pulled by an older woman in the audience. Clearly in writing about Binta’s experience, Ibrahim had, unwittingly written about the festering lives of so many women weighed down by an emotion they cannot allow to erupt like Binta’s. For Ibrahim it is the ultimate triumph of art, of literature!