On Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s ‘Dreams and Assorted Nightmares’ – Olukorede S. Yishau

Writers are heartbreakers. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, winner of the 2016 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, breaks hearts with ease and feels cool about it. You need to read his NLNG-prize-winning piece ‘Season of Crimson Blossom’ to understand that this guy, who is also Features Editor at Daily Trust, is at home with telling tales that make people howl or misty-eyed.

His latest work ‘Dreams and Assorted Nightmares’ establishes his place as a pro in shattering hearts into pieces; it also shows him as one who derives excitement in weaving tales that wrap around the reader and suck out all their emotional juices. In ‘Dreams and Assorted Nightmares’, endings are always sad and tear-inducing.

With his pen, Ibrahim is as cruel as life is most times. Take this story titled ‘Maroro’s Masterpiece’, for instance. It is about a painter named Abba Maroro, whose philandering is second to none and has bastards scattered in many a home in Zango, the crazy settlement Ibrahim created to tell his otherworldly tales. This story is a sad song; the only happy part of it that even his disappointed wife has no choice but to admit is that “the bastard sure knew how to paint”.

Courtesy Masobe Books

From this very punchy first sentence, ‘Maroro’s Masterpiece’ arrests and detains you till its end: “It was inevitable that my father Abba Maroro would meet his end at the hands of one of the men whose wives he had been having amorous congresses with.”

Maroro’s son is the narrator, and his disappointment in his father oozes throughout the tale. He recalls their mother saying: “He has broken my heart so many times there is nothing left to break anymore. I stayed all these years, hoping he would change, that he would see how much I used to love him.”  

Ibrahim’s knack for nicely building up tension shines through in each of the twelve stories in this collection. He grows the tension like a master of suspense and when he lands, it is usually with a thud that is heart-wrenching.

In this collection, Ibrahim explores how love dies, how a man becomes a slave of his phallus, how a son is unable to reciprocate a mother’s love because of mental illness, how religious brainwashing can turn a man into a monster his family struggles to understand, how a daughter has no choice but to toe her mother’s dirty path, how the quest to be a mother can run a woman mad, how a couple’s dream of having a son as crooked as them failed and, ultimately, how in a city, everybody battles one problem or the other.  

The resolution of the crisis in each of the stories comes with the joy of unravelling a puzzle. Take ‘Naznine’, for instance, where an otherwise happy couple is torn by the wife’s frequent miscarriages, which are so much that she decides not to try again. Then one day she tries her luck one more time and she becomes pregnant and carries it to term, but the experiences of the past have made them less prepared for the baby. In the end, it turns out their non-preparedness is not ill-advised.

Imagery is one of this book’s strongest points. Sampler: “When he knelt by Naznine, he heard her humming ‘River Lullaby’. He peered into the bundle in her arms. The pale-faced infant lay swaddled, a stillborn marble angel in the powder-pink shoes Naznine had forced on its little feet. She cooed at the baby and tried to coax an engorged nipple into its mouth. At that moment, he knew he had not only lost a child but a wife too.”

Ibrahim’s ‘wickedness’ shines through ‘A Book of Things Remembered’, a tale narrated by a sister and her brother. Anisa, the sister, takes the first shot in a diary she is keeping to explain the state of things to her bedridden mother. Their father has teamed up with extremists, first in Afghanistan, and later with local terrorists. He has become a stranger to them so much that when he appears at their doorstep one day, they struggle to understand him. He soon proves right their fears about him when he forces himself on Anisa, an act that turns fatal when Salisu (Anisa’s brother) decides enough is enough and plunges a knife into his neck.

‘A Very Brief Marriage’ is one of the very brief stories in this collection and it is one story that is bound to generate discussions. Is there a future in a marriage in which the husband leaves his wife to be killed or raped by armed robbers? What should a woman do in this situation? Will the family of the man be right to plead with her to forgive him? As a father of a daughter in this situation, what will your reaction be? These are thought-provoking questions that this story will, most likely, generate at book clubs and book readings.

‘Sajah’ is another story that is at once amusing and sad. It is about a man who is well over 40 years before he can save up to buy his first car. When he eventually gets the car, he treats her like his beloved and looks at her like the love of his life. He adds the icing on the cake when he chooses to give the car a name and holds some form of the christening ceremony. But, trust the heartbreaker called Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he soon puts their affair asunder. His wife falls sick, his shop goes up in flame and things become tight and his beloved car ‘Sajah’ has no choice but to become someone else’s.  

The author will also break your heart in ‘House of the Rising Sun’, a story about a woman whose Air Force pilot husband’s aircraft is shut down by Boko Haram and the authorities deny him so as not to “let those bastards have the moral victory”. Her husband’s death is not the only cross Ibrahim imposes on him; he also saddles him with a son who is not in control of his mental facility.

This absorbing, stirring collection also has a story that is told entirely in posers. Imagine a 13-page-long story told entirely in questions. In ‘The Weight of Silence’, a friend visits her once-upon-a-time best friend in a hospital, where she is unconscious, and recounts their past, including revealing facts hidden to her. You need to read it to find out how Ibrahim pulls it through.

Zango, the place where all the stories in this collection are set, is not only a setting; it is also a character on its own: dark, mysterious, deadly, and vivacious. In it, you struggle to look for saints, almost everyone is flawed. Even pastors and imams and marabouts are not powerful enough to exorcise the demons controlling this town, where the tradition is to say someone’s leaf has fallen when he or she dies. The concluding story examines the idea of a life tree and the possibility of people dying when their leaf falls from this tree, but by the time you get to the end, you just discover that you just have to wait, in eternity, to see if this is true.

It is not only Zango that interconnects the stories; some characters feature in more than one, especially Abba Maroro, Audu Kore and his wife Maimuna Dajjaj, the mad seer and Zaki, Audu and Maimuna’s son.

With this collection, Ibrahim has delivered a body of work with a poet’s discipline, constructing merciless sentences, but couching them in beautiful prose that, in one breath, is haunting and, in another, profound. All thanks to Zango, Ibrahim has told tales that we all can relate to as well as those with fable-like touches.

It is hard not to feel for the men, the women, the boys, and the girls in this collection because of the burdens they have to bear, at times because of themselves and sometimes despite themselves.

This moving portrait of broken people will be worth your time.

Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In The Name of Our Father’.

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