Abubakar Adam Ibrahim writes a weekly column entitled ‘Line of Sight’ for DailyTrust Newspaper. His books are Award Winning. In 2016, he won the Nigerian Prize for Literature with his debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms. In 2018, he was announced as the winner of the Michael Elliot Award for Excellence in African storytelling by the International Centre of Journalism for his report, ‘All that was Familiar.’ In 2014, his short story collection, ‘The Whispering Trees,’ was long-listed for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature. He won the 2014 BBC African Performance Prize.
In this brand new chat with The Moveee, Abubakar talks about his view on Black existence, his experience as a writer and journalist, and his thoughts about recent happenings in Nigeria.
Haneefah Abdulrahman: What does Black Existence mean to you? How do you define Black Existence?
Abubakar Adam: I don’t have a definition for that. And that is because I don’t think of people in terms of colour. Blackness is not something I occupy myself with as a writer. It’s an identity that’s being created. It’s a construct, and it’s been attached to people. That is unfortunate and I don’t think it should have existed in the first place because people are simply people.
When I wake up in the morning, I don’t think of myself as a Black person waking up from sleep, I don’t think that I am going to brush my teeth the way a Black person is supposed to brush his teeth, and when I sit down to write, I don’t think, “Oh, I want to do black or white things.” or “I’m going to write the same way a Black person is going to write.” These are constructs that I don’t necessarily take into consideration.
I think of stories and people with respect to how they exist in their environment. And, suppose they happen to be in a predominantly African environment, that again raises the question, “What do we mean when we say African environment?” because every African space, or space occupied by Africans, has its characteristics and essence. I don’t think it’s possible to lump everything into one and label it Black Existence. So, Black Existence, for me, is tricky to define, and it’s not something I’ve particularly been engaged with.
We tend to limit ourselves by labels. For instance, if we say February is Black History Month, many people focus on celebrating Blackness during that month, and that’s the end. Similarly, when you talk about Black history in terms of slavery, people have permanently associated slavery with Blackness because of the repetitive use of slavery and associating it with Blackness. And people tend to forget that there is a history before and after slavery. Slavery is a nasty interruption in the thousands of years of history and culture, both before and after that period. Unfortunately, this fact tends to get lost on a lot of people. So, definitely, those labellings are counterproductive, the same way that when you label somebody with some tag, there’s this pressure on them to conform to that tag or labelling. In as much as it’s vital to remember where we are and be proud of our history and our identity, we shouldn’t be confined by labels and things like that. Ultimately, I feel like celebrating who we are, our pride, and our identity should expand beyond labels, dates, and definitions.
You are a writer and a journalist. What was your journey like when you started out?
I’ve always been interested in storytelling, and I’m lucky to realise quite early that that is what I wanted to do with my life so I dedicated myself to that and developed myself. And here we are three books later, several translations and countless articles and publications in anthologies both at home and abroad. In that sense, I think the journey has been good.
I didn’t know what expectations I had when I began writing. I just knew that I wanted to write. And the fact is that writing for me is satisfying enough. First, it’s a pleasure to see that people are engaged with my writing and that they identify themselves with it and talk about it. It is also satisfying to see that my stories are starting conversations that people have always been eager to have. That is quite rewarding and I am very happy about that.
Could you remember what your first story was based on? And how did you find yourself picking a pen and writing the first time? What prompted it?
I’m not sure I can answer this because all of these happened a long, long time ago. I don’t have a specific recollection of the first thing I wrote. However I can remember the writings from my teenage days which were mostly fun stuff about fantasy-like supernatural beings who could travel across dimensions to outer space. One of the inspirations I had for writing as a teenager is my love and attraction for girls. I am sure I will be embarrassed by some poetry I did in those days. My teenage writings were inspired by imagination and people’s feelings and they became far more reflective in my late teens and early 20s.
I think that being a teenager has been very important in the lives of many writers and creatives. Even people who are not writers will confess that their teenage years were the best periods where they experienced attraction for the opposite sex and that it was a period of creative productivity in their lives. They wrote poems, fascinating love letters, and things like that. So I think that is pretty common. Some people don’t outgrow that creative period, and they remain in creative roles for the rest of their lives. Others get more practical and move on to other aspects of life. So in that sense, yes, the teenage period is quite significant for creative people.
So you’ve achieved so many things with your writing. You are an award-winning writer. How satisfied are you with your growth so far, and what keeps you going?
I’ve been lucky as a writer. But beyond that, I’ve been putting in the work. Many people think writing is just about sitting down one day and writing something random, and you are automatically a successful writer. It is not like that. You have to put in the work. You have to sit down and do the writing. That’s what most people find challenging. And, you know, writing is, you sit down somewhere and write and write and write, and four or five years later, maybe it comes out mainstream, maybe it doesn’t. I know people who have been writing a lot for ten years. Everyone thinks they just went into the room and did magic. The reality is that it’s hard, and it takes a lot of time.
So for me, winning prizes, and all of that. It’s great. It’s fantastic. And I’m happy that I have won some prizes. But I’ve always maintained that winning readers’ hearts is the most important prize any writer could wish for. That your writing would impact the life of somebody, make that person think about things and recognise themselves in your writing, in your story. For me, that’s of greater significance than anything else. And in that sense, I think I’m quite happy. Regardless of anything else, writing has always been satisfying for me. Sitting down, crafting stories, creating roles, experiencing my characters’ experiences, and sharing these experiences with readers has always been satisfying. So just writing is satisfying enough for me. If it leads to success, financial or otherwise, that will be an added advantage.
We’ve talked about your writing. Now let’s talk about your journalism. Tell me about Abubakar Adam Ibrahim as a journalist.
Journalism was a choice I made, and I’m excited that I made that choice. I was studying journalism instead of creative writing because I realised that I wanted to write quite early. So instead of studying creative writing, English literature, or something similar, I decided to study journalism because that is an important way of having an impact, accessing people’s stories, and using those stories for social transmission. The last 15 years in journalism have been exciting and rewarding. I found myself enjoying it and growing in my career, winning awards. Also, some of my stories have impacted people who were previously considered mere statistics and data numbers. So this is significant progress for me.
Practising journalism in Nigeria is problematic, as with everything else. It’s problematic because journalists are badly treated, saying that Nigerians are badly treated. The remuneration is bad in most cases.
The most beautiful aspect of journalism practice in Nigeria is the lack of impact because you put your life on the line to research and write stories that are supposed to be earth-shaking. This story reveals something significant and is expected to cause people to realise, “We have been misgoverned, mistreated, restricted, and we need to change our orientation about certain things and behave differently.” And then you realise that people are just reading it and shrugging. That’s sad feedback for people who go into journalism with passion, hoping that something will change once you get a story that causes some tremor, but often there is not enough tremor to create change to move the country forward. That’s problematic. It’s hard and quite an experience.
On the other hand, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people in different sectors of society and getting unique insights about issues, people, and places. That has been quite an experience too. I enjoyed it a lot.
Journalism, as you said, is one of the most difficult jobs in Nigeria and the world as a whole because journalists get harassed and arrested unnecessarily for trying to tell the truth. As a journalist, what is your most daring story?
Of course, it’s challenging, but we can’t discount the culpability of journalists and the problems they face. But there’s also corruption in journalism. We all know about the brown envelope. It has become a reputation for journalists, unfortunately. Not all journalists do that, but many do, and it’s a problem. As the Hausas will say, ‘if you consider the thief, you should also consider the persons chasing the thief.’ So that’s an issue that we have to acknowledge.
In terms of challenging stories that I’ve done, there have been a few. I wouldn’t want to go specifically into details, but my reporting trip to Maiduguri on people displaced by Boko Haram stands out. There were instances of things happening and things that I came across, for example, the issue of religious crisis. Those were challenges that I had to face, and they were really difficult. Coming from a place like Jos and witnessing things like that and having to watch and report it objectively is difficult. It’s an occupational hazard journalists have to face. Fortunately for me, I had to work on things that didn’t exactly put me out there most of the time.
In terms of other stories that have been difficult to do, I remember doing a story on this Nigerian guy who was killed during the attack on Kajuru Castle. Ultimately, there have been many challenging stories, and there have been a lot of difficult ones. It comes with the job, and we have to do it.
What is your greatest fear? As a human and then as a journalist and writer?
Right now, my greatest fear is Nigeria. My country scares me, which is a great tragedy for someone who loves the country the way I do. I am scared of Nigeria. I hope there will be a turnaround because of my love for this country.
The country is indeed scary. With everything happening, it seems that nothing is getting better. Finally, what words of encouragement do you have to give to Nigerians and everybody out there?
Words? Is that really what Nigerians need? We’ve given each other words ever since we’ve been in these problems. Our dreams started falling apart ever since we realised that Nigeria would not be the country that we hoped it would be. If giving each other words would work, we have taken words from the Bible, the Quran, and various other religious sources and religious leaders. We’ve taken words from politicians who promise and tell us everything will be alright soon. We’ve taken words from all these people. We’ve taken words from conmen, and criminals, and hypocrites, and people who tell you, ‘oh, you know, it’s a passing phase.’ Suppose this is a passing phase, then it’s lasting too long. We’ve taken words from Arts, from our creativity, we’ve used our imaginations to reframe, rephrase, and reconstruct our idea of what Nigeria should be. We’ve taken words to make our pains and agony palatable. And we have reached this point where we have to ask ourselves, “Are words enough? Are they the things that will give us the string of hope, the courage to survive this country?”
Now is not the time for words. Now is the time for people to act and for Nigerians to realise that our fate lies in our hands. Now is the time to get it right: we need to go out there and get the right candidates for elections. We need to go out there and vote for the right people, not those who give us noodles or soaps or salt. We need to get out there and do the right thing. Put our selfish desires aside for one day, one week, one month, or for however long it takes to get back on track with things.