Questions for the author of Season of Crimson Blossoms, a book that blew my mind.
EO: Recently in Nigeria, in a dramatic turn of events, an Igbo grandmother was caught having sex with a much younger man shortly after her husband’s death. The community shamed her by parading her on the street and banishing her after making her pay some fine. The internet was agog with the news, as people wondered how a bereaved grandmother could be engaged in sex with a younger man. The first thing that came to my mind was your novel and the fascinating way it deals with the sexuality of older citizens. Do you think the collective unconscious of Hausa people among whom the story is set, and by extension that of Nigerians, accommodate female sexuality outside marriage for older citizens? What does your response say about the way Nigeria is positioned in a global order of things?
AAI: I was made aware of that incident through social media when people drew my attention to it because—in a case of life imitating art—it echoed what Season is about. I think it was an unfortunate occurrence from all perspectives. The fact that in the 21st century, people could be subjected to public shaming in this manner for what effectively was a private act is symptomatic of all that is wrong with our society. I don’t think this woman was shamed for indiscretion. That was only an excuse. That woman was shamed for being old and for being poor. If she had been wealthy, that wouldn’t have happened. If she had been male, that wouldn’t have happened. What this shows, for me, is that people are often their worst enemies, and that society that shamed, the individual members of that community that participated in this primitive melodrama, are not without their own indiscretion.
If you change the names of the characters involved in this incident, and change the locale, it could fit perfectly into any place in Nigeria, irrespective of religious inclination. This is not about the unconscious mind of the Hausa people. This is about the prevalence of these practices across ethnic and religious lines on the continent. The suppression of female sexuality has been one of the greatest psychological accomplishments of all time, and both men and women played active roles in this tyranny. In some cases the females are the most active agents in perpetuating this culture, but that is a subject for another discourse.
With regards to our positioning, I think that has been determined by other factors such as our history and our race, among others. Practices like public shaming have helped to maintain this position when other cultures and people have evolved and continue to do so. I think it is important to retain certain aspects of our cultures and values, as these form our identity as a people, but this is certainly not one of them.
EO: In Freudian psychoanalysis, a clear distinction is made between the ego, the super ego and the id. In Freud’s formulation the id is the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires and impulses. Freud believed that the id acts according to the “pleasure principle”—the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse. It seems to me that in Season of Crimson Blossoms, Hajia Binta, the major character in this novel, struggles to impose her ego on the id to no avail. Are you suggesting that there are desires that cannot be tamed?
AAI: There are seeds that are, by the constitution of our personalities, implanted in the id. External circumstances, such as society, peer pressure or other forms of socialization may impair the growth of this seed, but some of them persist over a lifetime. Sometimes there are things we want to express or experience, but because of the nature of our upbringing we are forced to curtail those desires. For Binta, the notion of right and wrong was clear, had been clear all her life, up until the point she meets Reza and the opportunity that encounter brings along with it. He watered the seed that had been implanted in her from the very beginning. So to answer your question directly, I have long come to the conclusion that the only battle one is certain to lose is that one fights against himself. And sometimes when desire is innate, deeply implanted in one’s id, it is only the unavailability of opportunity that will prevent the expression of this desire. Not many people succeed in getting away with these things.
EO: Are you familiar with Freud’s theory of Oedipus complex? The character of Reza seems to be forever longing for reconciliation with a lost mother. Is it coincidental or are you aware of the psychoanalytical implication of the relationship between Reza and Hajia?
AAI: I am aware of the Oedipus Complex and the reverse, the Electra Complex. I find them both strange and intriguing. What I find even more intriguing is the circumstances that lead to the manifestation and expression of such complexes. For a writer that is the greatest point of interest, because that is where the story is.
In terms of Binta and Reza, I am, as they are, very conscious of the lines and the certainty that there is no blood relation between them, but then again, both of them acknowledge the strangeness of that relationship because it is a thought that occurs to both of them. At the same time, as if to reemphasize to himself and Binta, Reza says to Binta, “You are not my mother.” For me, that was something he had always had in his head, even when he thought about the strange borderlines of their relationship.
EO: Now to trauma. Hajia’s niece, Faiza, cannot stand the colour red. It is interesting how Hureira links this to genies. I have heard of this a lot. Nigerians, especially Hausas, seem to believe this so much. The trauma theory explains Faiza’s predicament, but seems to repudiate the seeming superstitious aspects of genies. I am afraid that we are explaining away aspects of our existence that are inexplicable, using Western philosophy to nullify some strong mythical aspects of our existence as Africans. Why, for example, do people frequent ritualists if they are completely ineffective? Don’t charms work at all? Are there no demons for real? Why do our people continue to pray about these things?
AAI: The belief in the supernatural is pervasive and universal. It is not the preserve of African societies, as some people want to believe. The belief in Djinns spreads across parts of Africa and the Orient. The myths of genies, for instance, are prevalent in Africa, the Arab world and in India. In other cultures and climes they are called by other names, like shadow people, or shape-shifters. But closer examination will show that these entities share similar characteristics, regardless of what names they are called or in what part of the world they are thought to manifest. I have said before that my point of interest is not necessarily in the proof of their existence, not of djinns or other supernatural beings, but in interrogation of peoples’ belief in their existence and how they act and behave as a result of these beliefs. I am not trying to prove or disprove their existence. I am only trying to mirror how people behave because of the belief they have or don’t have about these things. Are there logical explanations for strange occurrences? Yes, sometimes there are. Sometimes there aren’t. And that makes them all the more intriguing. Is trauma real? Does it affect people in these parts of the world? Does the constant stream of assorted violence that people here are subjected to have an impact on their psyche? Yes. They may be mentally stronger but they do suffer, a lot, and the sooner we acknowledge this the better.
EO: To what extent should we call to question the morality that traps women like Hajia Binta? And to what extent should we allow our questioning instincts make us transgress the unwritten codes of culture?
AAI: It is our ability, as humans, to ask questions of existence, reality and morality that makes us a higher class of animals. It is not because we are stronger physically or faster than other animals, it is this ability to ask questions that distinguishes us. And, throughout human history, the greatest moments of change have been motivated by periods of intense questioning of morality and values. Today we find ourselves in that place once again, where tough questions are being asked of morality as humans seek to redefine themselves, their identities and what is acceptable or not. And that is why today we have people who twenty, thirty years ago, would be considered pariahs, assertively, in some cases belligerently, hurling questions that make the established order uncomfortable. So today we are reconsidering definitions of sexuality and gender roles, religion and generally what is considered right and wrong. Christianity and Islam were entrenched because men like Jesus and Muhammad (PBUH) questioned the norms of the day. This is how societies have evolved. In as much as society must evolve, however, there must be a certain level of stability, and I think people who are in a hurry for society to be more open or liberal take it for granted that the absence of any kind of moral fibre by which society is defined is as dangerous as the values they are battling to overthrow.
EO: At the end of the novel, I felt so bad for Reza, and for Hajia’s son, and for Hajia. The catharsis was too much for Hajia. I kept on telling myself, it is just a story, it is just a story. But do you think our realities are any better than the stories we tell? How do you see the relationship between the Nigerian society and fiction?
AAI: For me this is a reflection of how I see society, especially the Nigerian society, in which one gives a lot to be compliant, to flow with the norm and then at the point of divergence, and I think we all feel the urge to stray occasionally, how viciously intolerant our society could be. The Nigerian society is one that is governed by some strict codes and these codes have a way of reasserting themselves through the agency of people who often don’t realise the impact of what they are doing. Fiction is a tool that could and has been used to interrogate our relationship with society and how various little individual acts serve to preserve the pervading powers of society. In this instance, Binta and Reza were the tools I chose to explore this phenomenon.
EO: I would like to refer to an article I just read on Literary Hub about the need for authors to protect the inner life. You can read it here: http://lithub.com/writers-protect-your-inner-life. What is your idea of an inner life and how have you fared since winning the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) prize for literature?
AAI: I have always been a private person and have always wanted to keep my private life private. Today, reality shows are the norms where public figures bare it all on TV shows. And the non-public figures have social media to showcase the daily dramas in their lives. The consequences are that, in order to have greater appeal, some people go an extra length to fabricate dramas in their lives and showcase them to the public to remain relevant. This is not something I particularly fancy. And since I started writing, there have been all sorts of intrusions in one’s life. There are strangers who genuinely want guidance or advice or just someone to look at their manuscripts. After the NLNG Prize, things have escalated significantly, to the point where people who don’t even read have seen one’s face in the papers and on TV. In a way that has hampered the liberties one enjoys. There are instances when it is nice, like when you go to the airport and the officers recognise you and don’t hassle you, or when people who have connected with the characters in your books, and thank you for writing the story as if you had done them a personal favour. But there are also instances where one just wants to walk quietly into a public space and enjoy some kind of normalcy, coffee with friends or just a normal conversation. Those days are increasingly hard to come by now. Sometimes you go to do normal things and someone shouts, I know you. It all means I have to be careful what I do in public, because I never know who is watching. And so I guard my private space a lot because that is where I am free to be myself.
Elizabeth Olaoye, independent researcher currently based in Nigeria. She has taught at universities in Nigeria including Ajayi Crowther University in Oyo
Season of the Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Cassava Republic Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-911115-00-7, 320p.
This book interview was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2018