Much Ado About Eba: On Ibrahim's Win and Obioma's Protest Against Provincialism

Wednesday 12th October 2016, the day before Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, upending the literary world and placing lovers of books in Nigeria into opposing camps for and against Dylan’s win, the Nigerian literati unanimously celebrated the win of one of the world’s most moneyed literary prizes by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. Abubakar’s first novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, was praised by the judges of the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature for its "very skillful and sympathetic narrative…."

Two days after Abubakar’s win, Chigozie Obioma, whose debut novel, The Fishermen, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, published an essay in The Guardian, asking whom he should write for. This essay went viral, because where two or three "African" writers are gathered to discuss publishing, there they will talk about how their work will be received in the west. Conversation, however, moved on quickly, a little too quickly, from Abubakar’s win and his book. This inability to inspire interest in its winners and their work has always been one of the failings of the NLNG prize, so it is useful to take a moment to examine Season of Crimson Blossoms, with a focus on its language and style.

Abubakar’s book, from the title, to the first sentence, is written like a refutation of the Iceberg Theory: nothing that could be included was omitted. The language of the book has been described by many as colourful, an acknowledgement of its fully rendered detail of places and people. Indeed, it starts with a beautiful sentence:

Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five 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. 

The rest of the novel continues in this manner, every part of the body given an adjective, every action slowed down as in The Matrix. This can be wonderful in small doses, but also tedious when overdone, as it almost is in Season of Crimson Blossoms. Abubakar treats Northern Nigeria like an alien planet, deploying every world-building skill available in hopes that the reader might gain an appreciation for Jos, the setting of the novel.

Obioma has always been a defender of flowery prose, as evident in a previous essay of his published in The Millions. There he considers it "necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose." But when he departs from this defense of style to an offensive on provincialism, he reveals his defense of artful prose and language to be nothing but an excuse for his own idiosyncrasies.

In his essay in The Guardian, Obioma quotes Soyinka’s defense of his own choice of words in translating Fagunwa: 

A translator must select equivalents for mere auxiliaries where these serve the essential purpose better than the precise original. In what I mentally refer to as the “enthusiastic” passages of his writing, the essence of Fagunwa is the fusion of sound and action. To preserve the movement and fluidity of this association seems to be the best approach for keeping faith with the author’s style and sensibility. 

And Soyinka is right. But Obioma, in comparing the above to Eghosa Imasuen’s frustration at people who feel the compunction to explain every detail of their work for the benefit of a global audience, arrives at this conclusion: 

Writers who are most concerned with provincialism – with pleasing a particular base of readers – are probably not concerned with conveying "the vivid sense of event". Such a writer will almost always falter in his writing, and yield, more often than not, to telling rather than showing. 

This is where his essay becomes problematic.

Any reader of books from a country like Nigeria, before the advent of Google, knows the struggle of visualising words like lasagna. No writer of the English language, not even the great users of audacious prose that Obioma cites in his Millions essay, would consider detailing lasagna for the benefit of the audience, or even to further the prose. Perhaps if the protagonist is going to be poisoned by food, and options are being considered, then we might get a brief description of a word many of us simply used our imaginations to colour in our minds. Every writer who is serious about story-telling also knows that one of the first rules to break is show don’t tell. There are a few horrors a writer can inflict on the reader worse than an insistence on showing everything.  There is providing context for a global audience, and there is finding an excuse for writing prose so purple it would pass for a Prince cosplay in a costume party of books. To attempt to describe eba as "yellow globular mashed potato clone made from Cassava chippings" falls firmly in the latter.

Obioma’s choice of elaborate prose, and defense of the same, is admirable in its audacity, but his most recent essay reveals this choice of style as nothing but a reach for accessibility, the kind alluded to by Tope Folarin in his review of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. Junot Díaz’s use of Spanglish and refusal to dilute it for the sake of an international audience is a good defense for provincialism, as is Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man Booker in the year Obioma’s novel was nominated. The business of making a straw man out of Eghosa’s frustration in order to paint provincialism as the concern of lesser writers is only topped in its wrongness by Obioma’s claim that "Activist intrusion into the writer’s imagination always interferes with literary truth." James Baldwin, duh.

It is sad enough that non-western writers, especially Africans, have to bend to a certain style and sensibility in order to find success in the west, but when this pandering is passed off as best practice, we have to pause and ponder the lingering effects of this thing called colonialism. For all it’s shortcomings, the NLNG prize for literature is one of the few around the world that can be won by a writer like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, born and raised in Nigeria, and practicing his craft in this country that often stifles the creative spirit. Abubakar, even in his purple prose tedencies, does not commit this sin of turning a novel into an anthropological text on Northern Nigeria. He leaves words like "Yar Iska" and "Madrasa" for the reader to either understand in context or search out their descriptions if they so desire. Now he has the funds to continue to write without thinking of the New Yorker who can’t google eba.

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Featured Image via Flickr by Eugene Kim

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