Abubakar speaks on the Caine shortlist and more in an interview with the Nation Newspaper.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees made the shortlist of Caine prize for African writing for this year. Abubakar, who is published by Parresia books, in this online interview with Edozie Udeze and Hannah Ojo, bares his mind on African fiction, the idea behind the Caine Prize and lots more
You made the shortlist for the Caine Prize this year. How would you describe the event leading to the shortlist?
Well, I don’t know where to start. I suppose you could say it started with me writing the story and that was a long time back. Almost 10 years ago, actually when I was an undergraduate. I forgot about it thereafter until a friend, several years down the line, asked me to do something about the story because he read it and couldn’t forget it. So I picked it up and dusted it and added it to my collection of short stories. I was fortunate to find publishers who are absolutely passionate about publishing and who believed in local talents, if you like, and we worked on publishing my collection of short stories. We thought it would be nice to enter it for the Caine Prize and that was what happened. And now here we are.
The Whispering Trees sounds arresting. How did you come to that title?
Well, the first time I wrote the story, I titled it ‘Redyscovery’, with a ‘Y’ in the middle just as in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. I was just being stylish, of course. But when I decided to pick it up and work on it several years later, I thought the original title was ridiculous so I changed it to The Whispering Trees because that is where the main character Salim goes and discovers himself; it is the special place where he goes to find his life’s purpose and I think all of us have that special place where we find our purpose in life, perhaps in our hearts or elsewhere, and I thought that would resonate with people. I would like to think we all have The Whispering Trees inside of us, waiting to be discovered, if we haven’t discovered it yet. Eventually, when my short story collection was going to be published by Parresia, it seemed like an appropriate title for the book, it was a special story to me for some sentimental reasons. So we went with it.
If you win the prize, what will you do with it?
Well, I really don’t know because I haven’t allowed myself to think that far ahead. The way things are, four other people have a very good chance of winning it, including my good friend, Elnathan John, who has tried hard and has never won anything. And that is kind of depressing, I am sure, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for him.
In any case, it would be akin to counting ones chicks before they are hatched. What happens if you make plans for when you win and you end up not winning? I think the disappointment would be two-folds. For now, I am keeping my head down and facing the reality, which to me includes doing my job, finishing my novel, which I have been working on for some time, and living my life.
Parresia almost opened her doors with your book. What is your debt of gratitude to them?
They didn’t almost open the door with me; they opened the door with me. When they approached me they had not published anything at all so I was a bit skeptical. But I thought it was bold on their part to reach out and say ok, this is what we want to do and we want to start with you. Azafi and Richard have so much passion for books, they have so much faith in my work and I have faith in them. I am happy that this story has been shortlisted; it is a vindication of their faith and their passion in what they do. We have so much potential in this country and I think what we need is to believe in ourselves. So yes, of course, I am grateful Parresia and I found each other and I am very pleased that we have come this far. The fact that this is the only story on the shortlist published in Africa also makes it special.
With four Nigerians on the shortlist, what do you think it says about Nigerian writers?
I think it says what we’ve always known, perhaps a little more vivaciously, that there is so much talent in this country; that there is hope for us as a people, that there is a future for Nigerian literature that with the right structures in place, this country and its citizens can excel. But then again, such things are not always easy to determine. In 2011, there wasn’t a single Nigerian on the shortlist and many people felt it heralded a bleak period in our literary growth. But then a year later, a Nigerian wins it and the year after there are four Nigerians on the shortlist. For me, personally, it is quite remarkable to put the country in the news for the right reasons, to give Nigerians reasons to believe in this country, in themselves. I am quite pleased to be part of that.
When do we expect your next work of fiction?
My next work? Well, I have been working on a novel for some time and it is almost ready. My publishers, Parresia, are looking forward to bringing it out early next year, first quarter of 2014, so possibly it will be out by then. But then when it comes to books and publishing, there are so many dynamics involved which makes it difficult to say for certain. But in any case, my part is to write the novel, which I have done. The rest depends on the dynamics of publishing, but for now, I would say early next year, as Parresia would want it.
Is fiction writing really interesting to you?
That is a curious question. I suppose you could say it is my life, essentially. I do a lot of non-fiction writing in my day job, which is characterised by long, irregular hours. I get home, sometimes quite late, and I sit down and write fiction late into the night, I imprison myself over weekends to write fiction, when I am not travelling or engaged in other activities. So for one willing to sacrifice his sleep and his weekends to write fiction, I think it is quite clear that fiction does not only interest him but drives him. So at the risk of sounding like a freak, I would say fiction writing does not only interest me, it is this wild, raging passion that defines who and what I am.