Abubakar Adam Ibrahim might well be the richest award-winning novelist you have never heard of.
Winning the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature last month, for his debut novel Season of Crimson Blossoms, immediately made the first-time author US$100,000 (Dh367,290) wealthier. Not that it's likely to change this quiet, unassuming journalist and writer too much.
“Yes, I was delighted to win,” he says, almost in a whisper. “But honestly, I want as many people as possible to read about the north of Nigeria that is in my book. I’d love people to connect with my characters. Maybe this prize can do that.”
Ibrahim is certainly doing his part to spread the word – including an appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair tonight to talk about his debut novel. It should be a fascinating session. Set in a conservative society in northern Nigeria, Season of Crimson Blossoms tells the story of a devout Muslim grandmother's inappropriate relationship with a former criminal, 30 years her junior.
“Obviously the relationship doesn’t go down that well,” says Ibrahim. “I mean, Binta’s children are older than her lover.
“But I wanted to look at how close-knit communities deal with that situation. In this case it’s a Muslim community, but it could be anywhere. It’s interesting, the relationship in the book is actually two people’s private affair but it becomes a communal issue because of the way that society is structured. You share grief, joy, euphoria and happiness, but at the same time there are societal expectations.”
Binta has led a good life because it was the one prescribed for her. But the moment she decides to do something for herself, it becomes a problem – which makes Season of Crimson Blossoms a fascinating snapshot of northern Nigerian culture, one not often chronicled in print.
“That area of the country is huge but it’s not represented in the body of Nigerian literature,” he says. “So for me, the Nigerian story isn’t balanced. There’s a whole section of people who are socially and religiously distinct, and that has certainly impacted the approach to culture.”
Paradoxically, Ibrahim says northern Nigeria is also fertile ground for amazing stories, simply because the 700 different ethnic groups haven’t generally written them down. And it doesn’t worry him that exploring the intricacies of his culture might alienate readers from elsewhere.
“Regardless of cultural or religious identity we are all essentially human,” he says. “We love, we grieve – those feelings are vivid no matter the barrier.
“So, for example, in the West people might not see beyond the niqab. But behind it there is a human with basic needs and concerns. So though the characters might come from me because of my background in Nigeria, I’ve already got lots of reactions from people around the world telling me they could relate to the humanity in the book.”
In Binta, a book-loving widow who is devout and religious but full of human frailties, Ibrahim has certainly created a relatable character.
“For me, there’s no absolute purity and no absolute evil. Her lover is a criminal, but definitely has a positive side to him, too,” he says.
So, perhaps aptly as he comes to a different part of the world to talk about his book, Season of Crimson Blossoms celebrates diversity while asking for unity.
“It seems to me that we are so obsessed with finding the differences we can’t see our common humanity,” Ibrahim says. “I want my characters to underline that idea. So though it might initially seem like they are not like you, maybe they are – because they are human.”
• Abubakar Adam Ibrahim will appear at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Wednesday, November 2, at 7.15pm. For details, visit www.sharjahbookfair.com