SUCCESS IN WRITING IS NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE. IT IS A PRODUCT OF CRAFT AND CHANCE” | A CONVERSATION WITH ABUBAKAR ADAM IBRAHIM

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Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. His short-story collection “The Whispering Trees” was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014, with the title story shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Ibrahim has won the BBC African Performance Prize and the ANA Plateau/Amatu Braide Prize for Prose and in 2014, he was selected for the Africa 39 list of writers aged under 40 with potential and talent to define future trends in African literature.

His first novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, won the Nigerian Prize for Literature, Africa’s largest literary prize in 2016.

Ibrahim’s reporting from North-East Nigeria has won particular critical acclaim. In May 2018 he was announced as the winner of the Michael Elliot Award for Excellence in African Storytelling, awarded by the International Center for Journalists, for his report “All That Was Familiar”, published in Granta magazine. He has a novel forthcoming in March 2023.

Hello, Abubakar. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here and I wish Libretto continued success. It is a delight to see new platforms to perpetuate literature sprouting and creating content for lovers of what we do. So, thank you for that.

What prompted you to become a writer? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?

I suppose it is an inherent love for storytelling in all its various iterations. I love stories and loved listening to them and watching stories come to life in various forms, be it in literature, play or film. Ever since I was a child. In my early teens, I realized writing would be my preferred form of storytelling because of the serenity it gives me in a way that one feels a part of everything, in an intimate way, and yet feels apart from it, in a way that allows for the introspection that allows the documentation and detailing of such things—life, love, loss, conflicts, be it of civilization or of a temporal nature, of time, and relationships between people, things and ideas. So, I guess quite early on I knew what I wanted to do with my life and it is to write and I have dedicated myself to that journey, through its ups and downs, through the straight and narrow path that it takes to produce a work of literature and share it with readers.

Working towards the dream is the fascinating and challenging thing. And it entails a lot of sacrifice, of knowing what is important, which in this case is my craft, and the fact that it takes time to be any good at it, time that I could have spent doing other things, like being with friends or having fun. Don’t get me wrong, I had as balanced an adolescence as the next person, I just made the extra effort to dedicate significant time to writing and to reading and to expanding my worldview quite early on. Being a writer actually means sitting down to do the writing, right?

What was the process of writing your first book like for you and has there been any radical changes between how you wrote your first book and how you write now?

I think every book is different in the sense of its writing, even if the author is the same. The Whispering Trees, my first book, which happens to be a collection of short stories was written over about 10 years. I wrote different bits at different times while doing other things with my life so I can’t really say there was a strategy to it. It just happened. But with Seasons of Crimson Blossoms, it was completely different. That took about four years or so from start to publication. I have started and finished a manuscript in three months, and others have taken years. As a writer, I think the important thing is to make yourself available for the process, no matter how it comes because I have discovered that the process often changes because sometimes it is dictated by the story.

How important is research to you when writing, and in what specific instances has it been a defining factor?

Crucial. Research is vital to everything, not just to writing. Even in your social engagement, it always helps to speak from a position of knowledge or information. There are various types of research but the best one comes, I have discovered, from being still and observing. One learns a lot from just doing that. And if one has the opportunity to then ask questions, the questions will have greater resonance because they are already coming from a position of some knowledge. But storytelling is not just research and sometimes you see authors harming their craft by making the research so obvious that when you read their work, it reads like a research paper. Nobody wants to read research papers, not even those who have to. I had made the mistake once, when I was younger, and had done this fascinating research on cockroaches for a story I was writing because the character was obsessed with them. I discovered so many incredible things about them that I felt were too good not to share in the story. Long story short, it didn’t work because the story was overtaken by roaches in the end. So it is always great to know more than you put in the book but the story should always take precedence.

What do you think makes a good writer succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic troupes you believe has impacted the thematic essence of the modern novel the most?

Success in writing is not an exact science. It is a product of craft and chance. You have to have the right kind of story for the right kind of publishers and that is often challenging. Sometimes you see incredible stories not finding the right publishers and therefore not making the kind of impact they should and that is just sad. Sometimes you see average stories finding incredible publishers and resonating. What I know for certain is that as a writer, one has to put in the work, and have the manuscript ready to seize whatever opportunity life presents. What is the point of meeting the right editor, or agent and not having the material ready? Success in writing is not just about working hard, it is about working smart and having luck on your side.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your writing? What personal experiences have influenced your writing the most and do you believe there are any therapeutic benefits to fictionizing your own lived experiences?

I suppose some writers find writing therapeutic and that is great. Writing is not therapy for me. It is living. So I don’t go to writing to find a cure, I go to writing to exist, to live, to soar and to just be. I try to keep my personal life out of my fiction because there are far more exciting stories to tell that don’t need my personal experience weighing them down. The one thing that has affected me and has been reflected in my works is the crisis in Jos. But other intimate experiences I leave out of my fiction because fiction is fiction and should remain so.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly? How much emphasis do you place on emotion when developing a character or plot?

I suppose some people could try. But I have always known, and I guess I don’t know any other way of writing, without emotions. For your characters to feel real, there has to be emotions involved and for that emotion to be real, it has to be experienced or shared with your characters. That means the writer will have to make himself available to feel that emotion to be able to capture it. But I don’t know if this is the case for every writer. I just know that this is true for me.

You have written almost a dozen books. Did you approach the writing of each book with the aim of wanting them to stand on their own, or are you conscious of building a vast body of work with connections between each book that gives the reader a sense that these stories are all set in the same literary universe?

I have not written a dozen books yet. So maybe when I get to that number, you could ask me that, I guess.

You have written countless number of stories, and as a result, a lot of scenes as well. Pound for pound, what has been your hardest scene to write and why was it hard in the first place? You can also share the scene you enjoyed writing the most.

Off the top of my head, I can’t say which scene has been the hardest. Some are obviously more painful to write, I don’t know. But I can think of the scene in Season of Crimson Blossoms where Fai’za and her family were attacked. It is painful to write of something that disturbing while trying to balance the beauty of the text and the need to not go over the top with details and descriptions that could emotionally harm readers and the writer as well. There are several others but I can’t recall all of them at the moment.

In “Dreams and Assorted Nightmares” some critics found the dialogue too dark and hypnotic which might causes the readers to panic. How does this make you feel and do you think there should be more nuance in the approach to modern literary criticism?

Did you find them too ‘dark and hypnotic?’ And in what context did the critic say that? The truth is, I don’t feel any particular way about it. My duty is to write. The critic’s duty is to find something bad to say about it. It is not my duty to tell them to be more nuanced about anything. I will be the first to admit that Dreams and Assorted Nightmares is dark. It is a dark book with dark stories that reflect our social realities and there is no way to sugarcoat it. The good thing is that I haven’t seen any reader panicking as your critic suggests, so I guess it is not as grim as is suggested. Or then again, it might be. I don’t know.

Still on the subject of your published book “Season of Crimson Blossoms”. How did you feel when you found out it won for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature? And do you think you can win again with your recent published book “Dreams and Assorted Nightmares”?

It is a great feeling to win and for the book to get such recognition. But this was in 2016 and a lot has happened since then. Dreams and Assorted Nightmares? I haven’t thought of it in relation to the NLNG Prize so I can’t say. I have never considered entering it for the prize. Of course, winning literary prizes is great, but I don’t think writers should be obsessing about it. The best prize to win is the readers’ heart.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and how do you develop both in a manner that is consistent and coherent?

There is no right way to answer this question because it works either way. Every story is different. In others, the story comes first. With others it is the characters. You just have to learn to roll with it whichever way it comes.

A lot of people regard you as one of the most successful Nigerian writers of this generation. What do the words “literary success” mean to you and how would you define it in relation to your writing career so far?

I am grateful people think that of my work. I don’t feel qualified to discuss my work and its success. I feel like that would be navel gazing and I am not inclined to that. I am much happier writing and leaving others better positioned, like the readers, to qualify what literary success means and what its parameters should be.

Almost every author now writes with the screen in mind. Do you think this hinders the writing process and is there any chance we might be seeing any of your works at a cinema or streaming service within the next few years?

I don’t necessarily agree that every writer is thinking like that. There are writers I know of who are particular about writing what will defy the screen, be impossible to film. Some writers are sceptical about the screen interpretation of their works so we have to take them into consideration as well. With regards to my work, there are conversations ongoing. When there is news to share, we shall do so.

What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing and do you see yourself owning a publishing house in the future?

Publishing is challenging and I see my publishers and others struggling to retrieve money from booksellers. It is heart breaking to watch them go through that. I don’t know if I will own a publishing house in the future but I am really passionate about helping the many Nigerian writers, the young talents coming through, finding platforms for their works, so I can’t rule that out. It might be something to explore.

Finally, about your forthcoming book “When We Were Fireflies” can you tell us about the book and what your expectations are?

Yes! I am really excited about When We Are Fireflies coming out in March 2023. I can’t wait for readers to have access to it. It is a story I wrote under very unusual circumstances and I hope readers will see how it connects with our realities as a people. I like to see the juxtaposition of love and hate, forgiveness and redemption plays out in real life and that is the focus of this book. It is the story of a troubled artist trying to find the truth of what happened to him but at the same time it is the story of Nigeria and the vicious love and hate circle we exist in.

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