The Writer, Morality and Cultural Issues in Season of Crimson Blossoms by Paul Liam
Northern Nigerian writers are still confronted with the ugly challenges of gaining acceptance into the mainstream Nigerian literary culture. To be accepted into the national fold, the Northern Nigerian writer must work extra hard because he has been assumed to be of lesser wit by his southern compatriots because of their earlier contact with western civilisation and education, unlike the northern region which had already been immersed in Islamic ethos and Arabic cultural philosophy, prior to even the emergence of Europeans in the south. Therefore, appealing to the interests and consciousness of the southern lords for recognition is the burden of a northern writer.
Of course, many northerners are today well educated in western styles and some have even acquired the highest tastes of western ideals, regarded as modernity today. In other words, to be modern is to adopt a western life style. Yet, Northerners are still perceived by their kinsmen from the south of the Niger as uneducated and uncivilised. Understandably, of course, this is largely attributable to the region’s long history of acceptance and acculturation of Islamic virtues. This precarious supposition is akin to the European stereotyping of Africa as an uncivilised collection of jungle dwellers and beastly peoples. The North is looked upon with condescension by the south which prides itself as the master of western civilisation. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim corroborates the above assertion in his essay, “Nigerian Literature on Regional Pedestals,” in ANA Review (2011) where he vehemently discredits the idea of regionalisation in literature positing thus:
The insensitivity of some Nigerian novelists to the reality of Nigeria’s existence and their readers(‘) feelings is worthy of note. Nigeria as a country has had difficult periods that have affected all sections of the country. Nigerian writers must not retreat to tribal or regional forts and hurl out fiction-distorted-facts as novels. After all, the writer is an intellectual and should ideally be objective.” (66)
Because of this stereotyping, the Northern intellectual is often considered mediocre. This is not unconnected with Nigeria’s politics of regionalism and ethnicity hinged on the quest for power control. It is this type of denigration, of a certain race assuming superiority over another race, that gave rise to Nigeria’s first generation of writers who sought to correct and refute the blatant misrepresentation of Africa, which also influenced the emergence of literature of decolonization which strives to disabuse the minds of Africans from the European garbage they had been fed with and engineer a profound love and pride in Africa and its cultural heritage. The literary guru, Chinua Achebe describes this motif quoted by Charles Nnolim in his essay, Literature, the Arts, and Cultural Development (2000), thusly;
Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse…to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. I for one would not be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past…, with all its imperfections…was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. (34-35)
Northern Nigerian writers seem to have found themselves in that narrow prism of ethnic conjectures from which they must redeem and prove themselves worthy of respect and acceptance.
It is based on this premise that a deconstruction of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, shall be attempted in earnest. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim emerged on the literary scene with artistic energy that left no one in doubt of his potentials to ascend the league of Nigeria’s literary super stars. His debut collection of short stories, The Whispering Trees (2012), which made the shortlist of the 2012 Caine Prize for African writing, further consolidated his artistic ingenuity. In him therefore, the North found a literary knight who would redeem her and he indeed became an instant “demi-god” within the corpus of northern Nigerian literary discourse and a national literary figure. His short story collection was, and is, eagerly used as study texts by departments of English and literary studies in universities. He was an instant hit and his creative genius became a reference point for other emerging writers, including this writer. There had been other successful writers of northern extraction with international acclaim like Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Ahmed Maiwada, E. E. Sule, Elnathan John (Ibrahim’s direct contemporary) and others, his acceptance by the Northern literati was fundamentally unique. Then came his emergence as the winner of the 2016 NLNG Prize for Literature, which further concretised and affirmed his status as a literary icon.
The import of the above shall be justified in the course of this engagement with the novel as we shall soon see. Ibrahim stands out because his work reflects a certain northern aura that is perhaps rare in works by other writers of the region except perhaps in the case of Maiwada’s Musdoki, which shares some similarities with Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms, the quest to tell a northern story that functions as a counter narrative to southern stereotypes. Ibrahim’s work represents something that fundamentally massages the ego of northerners in a strange way. At this juncture, I would like to make a little comparison between Abubakar Gimba and Ibrahim to create an ideological contrast that buttresses Ibrahim’s uniqueness.
Season of Crimson Blossoms won the 2016 NNLG Prize for Literature.
Unlike the late Gimba whose works are subtle counter narratives that seek to correct the erroneous misrepresentation by the south of the north as a backward enclave consisting of mostly religious fundamentalists and intellectual weaklings. Gimba in his works portrays an organised, civil, educated and religious society governed by Islamic ethics and morals. His characters are intelligent and humane; they also have their challenges like normal people elsewhere. Gimba creates a northern utopia through his works, he does not hammer on the shortcomings or negatives associated with the region. He dwells on the vulnerability of the individual and human tendencies to err. Gimba Scholar, Abdullahi Ismaila in an essay x-raying the ideological groundings behind Gimba’s works in Abubakar Gimba: Perspectives on his Writings and Philosophies (ed, 2008) reasons that, “Writers in this region will need to display to the outside world that they represent a cultured people, and that their mode of reasoning and world view is patently unique and different. This is the taste of what Gimba presents in his fiction writings.”(156)
Ibrahim is a sensitive writer that is conscious of the perception of others of his north, so through his novel he recreates the northern experience reflecting it in a way that is uncommon to many observers’ perception. He is both radical and subtle in his handling of his themes. Ibrahim in his essay cited earlier creates the impression of one conscious of his place and his region’s unfavourable position in other people’s narrative. In that same reactionary essay he submits:
“Whatever the case, this debate brings to the fore the fact that Nigeria’s regional sentiments are very much present within the literary circle. In certain circles, the opinion now is that every literature, or at least most, written by Nigerians of northern extraction has to be a response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.”
His reaction to the stereotypes is radical in nature, his, is a juxtaposition of the evil committed by us and the ones committed by them. In other words, everyone is guilty of the same charge. This assertion is evident in his novel and it can be deduced from this depiction below:
“Binta fiddled with her fingers. ‘My husband, God rest his soul, was killed by some Christian boys he employed. They were people he called by their birth names and did business with. My sister’s husband and her son were hacked to death by their Christian neighbours because a woman urged them to.'” (271)
In the passage above Ibrahim shows that evil is not a preserve of a single ethnic group or religion. This purports that hate and violence is a shared human experience. Although, the situation is dependent on who is doing the portrayal. It suffices to infer that the depiction of violence or hate narrative is situational. In a previous portrayal of violence in the novel, a more inhuman execution of hate-violence is portrayed through the murder of Faiza’s parents and younger brother by her own maths teacher, Jacob James, a Christian. The narrator recounts,
He always smiled at their jokes. But, that morning, he was not smiling. His face, made fierce by war paint, glistened with sweat and odium as he raised his machete and brought it down. Bright, red blood, warm and sticky, splashed across Faiza’s face and dotted, in a fine spray, the shell-pink nightdress that her father had bought her. (84)
The supposition of the above is that all human beings whether Christians or Muslims are liable to commit murder based on primordial objectives. The Jos religious crisis resulted in the brutal loss of lives of Christians and Muslims, in the novel, Ibrahim is only interested in reflecting the pains and trauma it inflicted on his sentiments, executing a single story agenda, where Muslims are portrayed as victims and Christians as predators. The question this subjective portrayal of a national tragedy posses is, to what extent can literary representations truly reflect a society’s realities? Perhaps, the Christians who also experienced the tragedy of the Jos quagmire should also write their own version of the trauma inflicted on them by the conflict. But, is this what Ibrahim set out to achieve with his debut? One cannot say for sure. What is the role of the writer to the society he seeks to reflect in fiction, and can fiction be relied upon as an element of history?
The great English Critic and novelist E.M. Forster, in his classical theorization of the novel in his book, Aspect of the Novel (1927), informs that “the historian records whereas the novelist must create.” The art of fiction is therefore the art of creation which implies that in creating fiction the writer must be weary of adopting the role of the historian otherwise his fiction becomes the effort of a pseudo-historian instead of that of a creative writer.
Season of Crimson Blossoms sometimes reads like a historic account rather than a fictional representation. The narrator recounts the Jos crisis quite often even though it does not have direct bearing to a lesser degree on the central idea of the novel neither does it have any consequential impact on the protagonist, Hajiya Binta who is more obsessed with her sexual fantasies with Reza. Fa’iza, a subordinate character, manifests the effects of the crisis as she is traumatised by the events responsible for her memory loss. However, the story is not about her but Hajiya Binta who is confronted with a cultural dilemma instead.
The narrator’s incursion into history could be deduced from two main perspectives. The first is that it corroborates the assertion that the novel functions as a counter narrative as already stated above. And the second is that the novelist is a practising journalist whose job is primary reporting events and happenings in the society hence the influence of journalistic reporting on his fiction.
Ibrahim creates a fictional idol out of General Murtala Muhammad to serve as a military might and model of gallantry for the younger generation in the same fashion that General Ojukwu symbolises for Biafra. Even though Ibrahim in that essay condemns a writer attaining relevance on the basis of regional sentiments, it could be said that in this novel he unconsciously indulges in the same vices he derided in that infamous essay. Although he opines that “It is absolutely unnecessary to stand on the pedestal of regional sentiments to triumph in literature.”(66) It is safe to say that the triumph of Ibrahim’s novel relies heavily on its regional gratification as evidenced by the depictions in the novel. This is quite glaring in the novel as Zubairu goes into hysteria over the news of Murtala’s death, even picking a fight with Dindam over his celebration of the General’s demise. Murtala, like many Nigerian military dictators came to power through a coup. The passage below paints a better picture:
But na Murtala o. Murtala! That man no fit die like that. (Zubairu), Nnamdi, too, had heard legends of General Murtala Mohammed’s invi(s)cibility during the civil war. He had been in Abba, having fled the North, when Murtala’s Second Division was devastating rebel lines in the Mid-west. From the stories he heard, Murtala walked through rains of bullets and swarm across rivers of blood, emerging unscathed. (49-50)
This is the most heightened use of hyperbole in the novel and it achieves its objective of elevating Murtala’s personage into the class of demigods. Murtala, a military dictator becomes a subject of artistic gratification, an idol and a symbol of strength to the region. In order to concretise Murtala’s significance, Zubairu, Hajiya Binta’s husband christens his son ‘Murtala’ as a mark of honour to the late soldier’s gallantry.
It is pertinent at this juncture to shift focus a bit to the other salient issues in the novel, having established that the novel is an attempt to recreate the northern Nigerian narratives and represent it as the victim and not the perpetrator of the ills hitherto associated with it.
Another striking incongruity in the text is the compromising position in which Islam and the cultural epistemology of the region has been subverted for the artistic gratification of the author.
Society is known for its ideals and values and when such ideals and values are considered obsolete, it is to be expected that an alternative benchmark is provided because a people not united by a concrete ideological grounding of their own cannot be regarded as an organically unified entity. In other words, such a society can best be regarded as an entity without a soul, since the culture and religious belief system of the society is regarded as its identity and it is the truest means by which an individual is perceived as a refined and distinctive being. It therefore behoves on the writer speaking on behalf of and about the rest of the society to portray the beauty and ugliness inherent in the culture of the people with the hope of achieving a balance both in condemning the ills and elevating the positive aspects in furtherance of a better human society. The writer is after all a cultural ambassador and the eye of the society to the larger world.
Theorizing the role of the intellectual to the society, the renowned scholar Edward W. Said, tells us in his 1993 Reith Lectures collected in the book Representations of the Intellectual that although the intellectual is a natural dissenter and nonconformist and is not one who panders to dogmatism, they cannot totally alienate their self from the overriding influence of the society as their very humanity is tied to the larger society to which he/she belongs. He puts it thus:
Always, however, the intellectual is beset and remorselessly challenged by the problem of loyalty. All of us without exception belong to some sort of national, religious or ethnic community: no one, no matter the volume of protestations, is above the organic ties that bind the individual to family, community, and of course nationality.
Charles Nnolim recognizes the very crucial role of the writer in mending the broken fence of the society by ensuring through his/her representations that the soul of humanity is held together by upholding the morals and values that engineer sanity and progressive attitudes in the citizenry, when he opines that:
Since the content of literature affects us, whether we like to be affected by it or not, it becomes imperative that in this times when our society is in a state of anomy and our youths are vulgarized, that our creative writers should concern themselves with moral and ethical issues in their works and produce good literature that refines and uplifts us instead of bad one that vulgarizes and debases us.
This is the burden of the African writer as exemplified by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. The writer’s role as a “cultural nationalist” cannot be over emphasised especially the African writer whose peculiar place in history requires him to do more in elevating and projecting the consciousness of his people through positive re-enactment of the wisdom and moral values in his cultural environment. The writer, who collects artistic materials from his culture but refuses to portray its positives sides while hammering on the negatives alone succeeds only in self-mockery and denies the future generation the opportunity of experiencing the unique wisdom of his forebears. Mnguember Vicky Sylvester in her article, Self-Criticism: Abubakar Gimba and His Transformative Ideals of Nationhood (2016), captures the egalitarian role of the writer and literature to the society succinctly when she posits that:
Literature plays a powerful role in the socio-cultural practice of which the writer is rooted. It is the writer’s responsibility to be awake to the happenings around him and serve as a cultural ambassador. The conscionable writer will no doubt create awareness sensitising and advocating cultural issues, the environment and other values being subsumed in the name of modernity. A good population of African writers have gone through some cultural enculturation of western traditional modes and are in a position to creatively buy and sell a mix of values that enhance integrity, pride and human development. This is where self-criticism matters to the writer to show how culture advances social, political and economic challenges of the country they inhabit.
It is the belief of this writer that Islam as the progenitor of the moral values which largely informs the culture exploited in the text in discussion is silent. The cultural precept from which the context of this narration was taken has been underappreciated by the author by his penchant to tilt towards the prescriptive ideals of western epistemology in his quest for universal appeal and acceptance. The author places a higher premium on Binta’s individualistic quest for material pleasure nay sexual independence albeit immorally, against her spiritual upliftment as a Muslim woman thereby jettisoning the moral values propagated by Islam and her culture which holds the society together. The moral implication for this kind of depiction is that morality is regarded as an obsolete virtue whereas promiscuity and secularism are elevated as the new norm. This is the unfortunate gain of modernisation; Binta by inference is to be regarded as a modern Muslim woman, a primary school teacher therefore she is an educated 21st century Muslim woman attuned to the evolving world around her. Binta refuses to remarry after the death of her husband so as to have the freedom to pursue a carefree life becoming a negative role model to her immediate family and the larger society.
Season of Crimson Blossoms
The disservice done to the Islamic value system is such that Islam is portrayed as being anti-women and is not given the chance to intervene or redeem itself, even the actions of the women at the Madrasa in the novel who chides Binta’s deviant position are presented as being judgemental and collaborators in the subjugation of a fellow woman. There isn’t any deliberate attempt by the author to justify Islam’s position on the conduct of a true Muslim woman, such as ensuring a morally sound society. The inimical import of this is that a woman’s drive for sexual independence supersedes her imman and the functionality of her society. Perhaps the most disastrous downturn is that Binta shows no remorse for her actions neither does she realise her error in setting a negative precedent for other women in the society. If society begins to operate on the precedent set by Binta, then an amorous revolution will emerge and consume humanity in its entirety.
Literature is supposed to reflect, expose and chart a course of positive action to be taken but this does not appear to have been considered by the author. He only succeeds in highlighting a perceived anomaly perpetuated by a culture without justification. This portrayal is lopsided in the sense that it only centres on buttressing the ills without showing the positive sides of the culture, whereas no culture is totally bereft of good intentions. In contemporary Nigerian fiction writing, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie exemplifies the true spirit of a cultural exponent in her most important book yet by this writer’s estimation; her loyalty to culture and African values in Purple Hibiscus is sterling and unmatched by her peers. In that book, Adichie juxtaposes the ideals of westernization with the ideals of the African culture and through the conflict of interest seen through Eugene, expounds the values of tradition. Papa Nnukwu through whom tradition is perceived in the text embodies the wisdom of old. His portrayal highlights the victimization African cultures undergo in the face of modernization. This is a subtle way of working on the consciousness of the society through a juxtaposition of variables.
Nnolim, to quote that great scholar for the umpteenth time, informs us that: “The writer must definitely tell us where he stands. He must, in his works, confront the problem of good and evil in his society, differentiate them and take sides; and in taking sides, he must tell us and the masses of this country where he stands.” Perhaps, Ibrahim needs to tell us where he stands; we need to know whether he is for us or against us since his work does not appear to be certain of its loyalty.
This writer, having attempted to discuss the place of the writer, morality and culture in the text as evidenced above wishes to also look at the other equally cogent issues in the work. Ibrahim seems unsure on whose side he is in his own narration, at one point he is the anti-culture critic making a case for the independence of the woman condemning society and culture for repressing women’s right to self-actualization and at other times he appears to be wearing his moral lenses against the same woman is supposed to be liberating. For example, in several instances in the novel, the narrator condemns Hajiya Binta’s affair with Reza, describing same with repugnant adjectives, the narrator describes Hajiya Binta’s affairs with Reza as a “sin,” “abomination,” “an indiscretion” etc. This view is corroborated by this passage below:
But the unmistakeable miasma of sin still prevailed. So she lit two more sticks (of incense) and then headed to the bathroom to wash away her indiscretions. (65)
By lighting the incense, the intelligent reader already understands that Hajiya Binta feels guilty and is hiding something away from the knowledge of her niece and granddaughter. It is out of place for the author through the narrator to chastise her. Also, Hajiya Binta’s sexual encounters with Reza are often explained by the narrator rather than being shown practically. This sometimes happens so fast that the reader only puts his imagination to use in creating the picture of them mating. The work of the writer, it has been proclaimed, is to show the reader the experience being portrayed and not to tell. The narrator is hypocritical by being diplomatic with the details of the escapades for a novel of this nature.
The novel also lacks psychological depth. It does not induce a concrete sense of sympathy in the readers’ mind. Fai’za’s battle with trauma, a most adventurous attempt at establishing a psychological grounding in the novel fails as a result of too much attention wasted on the historicity of trauma rather than its direct consequence on the character. One expects to see Fai’za believably live the traumatic experience of the murder of her parents as suggested by the narrator but this is not the case in the novel, only faint flashes of her case is depicted. Some psychologically induced novels include, Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy, Danbudzo Marachera’s House of Hunger, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Teju Cole’s Open City, etc, the characters in these books are traumatic in themselves, through their travails the reader encounters genuine human hopelessness even to the point of tears. These authors capture the imbalances characteristics of human conditions and how these conditions shape the life of society. Other examples include E.M Forster’s A Passage to India, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, to mention but a few classical examples. The aforementioned are realistic portrayals of human conditions.
Some of the most outstanding novels in history are those that capture the sublime and mundane realities of human experiences. Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe and Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart exemplify the functionality of the novel through the portrayal of human realities. Through their works, we learn that no matter how great a hero is he is liable to falter or encounter an experience that humbles him. However the same human condition that embodies the aforementioned texts is not attributable to Hajiya Binta in Season of Crimson Blossoms whose life does not hold any profundity other than its being a novel of cultural renunciation.
Hajiya Binta goes against her society’s moral precepts to attain sexual gratification which culminates into the death of her son, and she becomes lost between showing grief for the loss of a son and the unfortunate fate of her lover. While Reza is murdered at the end, Binta does not directly bear the consequences of her defiance which is a major shortfall on the part of her creator. And indeed this development weakens the plot as the death of her son and the loss of a lover is not enough retribution for her supposed act of breaking the moral code of the society, perhaps a more direct punishment would have been more appropriate. For daring the supposed Islamic moral code of conduct, a graver punishment such as one prescribed in the Holy Quran would have been more appropriate and this would not have reduced the import of the story but would have further accentuated the author’s attempt to expose how religion, culture and the society conspire to deny the woman’s right to self-attainment.
Still, Season of Crimson Blossoms, in spite of its shortcomings, is a commendable debut deserving of attention. If only because it is a novel that speaks, as most good novels do, to certain people’s sentiments.
Ibrahim, A.A (2011) “Nigerian Literature on Regional Pedestal” in ANA Review vol. 2, No 2, Lagos, Association of Nigerian Authors. Nigeria.
Ibrahim, A.A (2015) Season of Crimson Blossom, Lagos, Cassava Press Ltd
Nnolim C. (2000) “Literature, the Arts, and Cultural Development”, in literature, Literary Criticism, and National Development, University of Port Harcourt Press, 2012, Port Harcourt.
Ismaila A. (2008) “Typologies of Gimba’s Fiction Writings and the Prospects of Northern Nigerian Literature,” in Abubakar Gimba: Perspectives on his Writings and Philosophies, (ed) Abdullahi Ismaila and Ezekiel Fajenyo. Ibadan, Kraft Books Limited.
Forster, E. M (1927) Aspect of the Novel, electronic edition published 2002 by Rosetta Books LLC, New York.
Sylvester, M. V (2016) Self-Criticism: Abubakar Gimba and His Transformative Ideals of Nationhood, in Lapai Research in Humanities, Volume 3 No 2, Special Edition on the Writings of Abubakar Gimba, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Niger State, Nigeria
Defoe, D (1719) Robinson Crusoe.
Achebe, C. (1958) Things Fall Apart, William Heinemann Ltd.
Paul Liam is studying for a B.Ed, Counselling Psychology as an English Language major degree at the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University Lapai, Nigeria. He is a Poet, Essayist, Literary Columnist and Critiquer; he is co-editor of the Ebedi Review, journal of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Nigeria. He is the author of two poetry works; Indefinite Cravings (2012) and Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014). His essays are widely published in the national dailies and online. He is also a creative writing mentor and former Assistant Secretary, Association of Nigerian Authors, Niger State Chapter. He lives in Minna. firstname.lastname@example.org