by Beverly Ochieng’
I found it interesting that the excerpt in Brittle Paper chosen to announce the release of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s debut was a sex scene, a provocative one at that. The scene plays out the predictability of sex between a married couple, how a wife becomes familiar with her husband’s rhythms to a point where she anticipates them. When the wife attempts to make sex more spontaneous, she is met with hostility:
‘What the hell are you doing?’ The words, half-barked, half-whispered, struck her like a blow. He pinned her down, and without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.
I have often wondered about the necessity of sex scenes in stories: whether they do something to develop the plot or are simply thrown in to provoke reaction. Do they portray sex as just one of the occurrences of daily life or do they tell the reader something intimate about the characters? Are they used to explore (not necessarily clinically or anthropologically) an aspect of contemporary sexual culture?
Good sex (writing), according to a recent article on Literary Hub I read and strongly agree with, is a close observation of intimacy between people that goes on to reveal something about them, their insecurities, desires and emotions, something Ibrahim achieves effortlessly through the delicate portrayal of his characters.
Season of Crimson Blossoms is centred on the budding relationship between fifty-five year old Hajiya Binta Zubairu and Hassan ‘Reza’ Babale, the San Siro gang leader and for-hire thug about half her age. On many occasions, cross-generational relationships in literary fiction tend to be about older men and much younger women: the senior Chief Nanga and the young Elsie (while betrothed to the even younger Edna) in Achebe’s A Man of the People, the middle-aged David Lurie and his twenty-something year-old Literature student in Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, where the ageing college professor Coleman has an affair with a subordinate member of staff half his age, come to mind. Season of Crimson Blossoms not only changes this dynamic; it provokes the conservative notions of the Hausa community the characters are a part of and our own expectations of such a relationship.
The novel begins with the “second awakening” of Binta, following an encounter with Reza who comes to burgle her house, taking her money, phone and jewellery. He returns later to apologise and bring back her phone and their affair begins from this point. Reza reawakens feeling in her where she thought there was none left, feelings that “would resonate far beyond her imagining.” Being with Reza allows Binta rediscovery and renewal of herself.
When Reza slipped his hand under her wrapper, he discovered, much to his surprise, that the clump of ancient hair he had encountered the first time was gone. She was amused by his startled expression and offered only the faintest resistance when he undid the wrapper and looked at her.
Reza’s removal of Binta’s wrapper is mimetic of her unbudding, albeit at mature stage in her life. She is rid of her “ancient” self and is willing to allow him to discover her. In Reza, Binta finds a self that was never allowed to come out when with her husband who she repeatedly says is the only man she had ever known. Unlike her husband who embarrassed her for her initiative, Reza indulges and even teases her. In their intimate scenes we are not offended or disgusted by her desires; if anything, they convey her sensitivity and vulnerability. They make her endearing and encourage us to encourage her. At the same time, we fear for her with each encounter. We are afraid of people finding out about their relationship and worse still, afraid of their reaction and judgement.
(At the risk of sounding clinical or, dare I say it, academic, there is something about Binta that evokes youthfulness especially in context with the Swahili word “binti” used in reference to an unmarried woman.)
Their relationship allows them to confront their individual loses and guilt. Binta sees in Reza her late son, Yaro and her failure to form a meaningful relationship with him and set him on the right path. So she attempts to do these things with Reza, encouraging him to return to school, save money, and open a bank account. Reza thinks he has found in Binta his mother who abandoned him. Ibrahim gives Reza’s mother and Binta a striking physical symmetry that makes Reza obliged to Binta, although he resists much of her guidance about the direction of his life.
In their effort to build each other, they also understand that their relationship is transitory. They never talk about the long term, and the narrative does not idealise their circumstances or gloss their affair. They get into fights because they cannot fulfil the expectations they have of each other. The expectations and occurrences of daily life also put pressure on the time they have with each other. Binta’s daughter, Hadiza comes to stay with her indefinitely after getting into a fight with her husband; Reza has to attend to his ailing father, while micromanaging his boys in San Siro. These put a strain on their relationship and lead them to make hurtful assumptions about one another. Ultimately, they punish each other by withdrawing their desires.
She noticed he wasn’t responding as passionately as he usually did… He lowered his eyes to her sagging breasts and for the first time wondered what he was doing with her.
Even before they get here, we get the sense that theirs is a doomed relationship. We know this from their first encounter when Reza puts a dagger to Binta’s neck. We know this from the differences between them, differences that stem from the boundaries and impositions of age and culture.
In the desperation and haste to constantly see each other, Reza and Binta become careless and people begin to notice. Binta’s peers from the madrasa she attends make snide remarks and by the end of the story, she pays a heavy price for her involvement with Reza.
Ibrahim’s characters evoke strong emotional responses. Although Binta and Reza are central to the narrative, the rest of the cast is just as psychologically compelling, and through them Ibrahim is able to explore the political and social landscape of Northern Nigeria. One of my favourite characters is Binta’s niece Fa’iza and her soyayya novellas, which offer her solace as she deals with the trauma of losing her family members to the perennial violence that plagues the North. There is also the cat that plays sentinel to Binta’s meetings with her more “age-appropriate” suitor, Mullam Haruna.
In Season, Ibrahim’s prose soars to create some of the most touching moments, like when Binta goes through their family album:
She opened the lowest drawer on her dressing table. Tenderly, she brushed away the film of dust and pressed the album to her bosom. The dust of memory stirred and she could almost smell the times gone by. She could, she imagined, taste the briny teas and visualise the smiles, the cryptic winks and the little fragments of daily life that coalesced into treasured memories.
And the sex scenes are not just sex; they are captivating and intimate portraits of the body in youth and in age, of the universal nature of desire and vulnerability, of lust and betrayal.
Season of Crimson Blossoms will, thankfully, be made available at theMagunga Bookstore. Soon.