"Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-two when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of miniscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.”
This is the opening line of the book Season of Crimson Blossoms, by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. In 2016 he won the 2016 Nigerian Prize for Literature for the book, the largest book prize on the continent at $100,000, beating more experienced writers like Elnathan John and Chika Unigwe.
Ibrahim was at the Storymoja Festival held in Nairobi last month and spoke about writing his first novel.
“The book is a mirror for people to look at themselves,” he said, and took readers into the romantic escapade of Binti, a 55-year old Muslim widow from a conservative community, and Reza, a 25-year old weed seller and gang leader.
Unrequited grief sparked a mutual interest. Binta still mourns her dead son who would have been about Reza’s age. Reza never got over his mother abandoning their family. Their clandestine attraction keeps them playing a dangerous game.
“Somebody who read the first draft said this is not your place to write this kind of stuff,” said Ibrahim.
“But I wrote it anyway.”
Season of Crimson Blossoms interrogates intergenerational relationships, the sexuality of middle-aged women, conflicts, and the intense scrutiny of a society that strictly controls the behaviour of its people. It is a culture Ibrahim is familiar with, having grown up in a Muslim family in the city of Jos in north-central Nigeria.
Ibrahim said he struggled with writing a tale about sexuality, a taboo topic where he grew up.
“Nobody tells you that we are not supposed to write about sex. But you are brought up in this environment, and become aware of the censorship mechanisms and you see that everybody avoids it.
“People pretend they have never had sex and yet you have all these children popping out of somewhere.”
The story is written against the background of the 10-year sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Jos, which Ibrahim experienced first-hand.
In the book, Binta fled Jos when her husband was killed. Her granddaughter, a reclusive teenager with sometimes manic behaviour, exhibits post-traumatic stress but the family blames it on possession by evil spirits.
For Ibrahim, this kind of attitude mirrors that of a community in denial or unwilling to tackle what ails its people. “You have misguided leaders who loot public funds and do crazy things and people say, God willed that you be the president.”
The secret romance and family story is compelling enough that it could have stood on its own without the backdrop of the sectarian violence. But for Ibrahim, the conflict was an important influence on the story arc.
“I wanted it to be a personal story about people and their desires. You can not ignore issues in the background that influence the decisions that we make as individuals,” he said.
He is also concerned that the root cause of the Jos conflicts has not been fully addressed.
“There is no attempt to give justice, to punish those who deserve punishment, and address the fact that people are traumatised,” he said, adding violence could possibly flare up again.
Although the story is overtly about an illicit liaison, at its core it is about several relationships — between husbands and wives, mothers and children, widows and society, Christians and Muslims, and even criminal gangs and the political elite who use and discard them at will.
While it is generally accepted that older men will have relationships with much younger women, Ibrahim inverted the age difference “so people could see how hypocritical society is. It was not a forced relationship, but suddenly it becomes everybody’s business.”
Many northern Nigerian writers write in the Hausa language, but Ibrahim chose write in English in order to extend his readership to the rest of the world. The story’s context is very Nigerian, the characters and experiences unfamiliar to many people outside Nigeria, but the book has achieved global appeal.
He attributes the global appeal to the humanity of the story, his being able to focus on the commonalities between people. “I see humans first before I see the other factors that define them.”
From his home state, a region not considered educationally advanced, Ibrahim describes people as being “super-proud” that one of their own has written an acclaimed book.
But he is particularly touched by the response from women in northern Nigeria who, he says, have written to thank him for writing this book.
Male readers from Nigeria often express discomfort over the subject matter. “Some of them never considered the fact that their mothers who have been widowed could have other needs, that she has sexual needs,” Ibrahim said.