Season of Crimson Blossoms
by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Cassava Republic Press, 2017
In Season of Crimson Blossoms by the Northern Nigerian writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim an older woman falls in love with an impetuous and aggressive younger man. Their union challenges her conservative culture and values, and brings a different meaning into her life. This is the plot of a classic melodrama. It is almost another retelling of Douglas Sirk’s classic 1956 film Written on the Wind. But the novel offers something fresh and exciting. Season of Crimson Blossoms is notable in its use of traditional plotting to examine the contemporary moods of Northern Nigeria.
The story follows Binka, a matriarch of a family diminished by political and social upheaval. She has raised her children according to tradition. Her life changes after her home is robbed at knife point. The assailant, Reza, returns. And the two begin a fractured and transgressive relationship.
The novel is very funny. And Ibrahim has a great sense of picking up on the silliness of contemporary Nigerian culture (endless political intrigue, telephone headsets under hijabs, and the lavish gold chains of music videos) alongside traditional squabbles (food that tastes better cooked in a wood fire, superstitions around uttering names). He has a terrific ear for dialogue, and obviously adores the quirks and fancies he skewers in satire.
Not just a retelling of Written on the Wind, this novel presents an expansive and cinematic vision that transforms as it describes. The gift of the Hollywood language, for better or worse, is the gift of the possibility of a globalized culture.
Melodrama has always been central to the American narrative language. In 1998, the film critic and scholar Linda Williams wrote about the difficulty of teaching Greek tragedies to American students: tragic fate is inevitable and not related to wrongdoing. The morality of Hollywood comes across as clearer, and certainly less ambivalent. These melodramas have roots in the 19th century bourgeois novel of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Henri Balzac, as well as in the cabaret theater of horse and buggy scenarios. So the language of melodrama has a certain American aspect to it.
Melodrama is defined by a kind of pathetic excess or solipsism. This provokes the same catharsis as traditional tragedy but does not seek grounding in “reality” or the “real.” One of the most interesting aspects of the ironic melodrama is the way that a bold and capital letter annunciation of a cultural truth inevitably makes that truth absurd. So that the language of certainty is undermined even as it is spoken. Melodrama is not ingenuous or devoid of sarcasm; it does not purport to describe reality, rather to evince an emotional response towards a certain end. The solipsism of melodrama reveals some of the knots in our language culture, even as it tightens those knots. In the words of pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us: solipsism, bathos, kitsch.
One of the most essential elements of this novel is the way it normalizes desire. For a culture that lives by very traditional and formal modes of address, this is not nothing. Thanks to Ibrahim, the story of Binka is not something dark and unspeakable, but, however ineffable, essentially common. Desire is that thing that moves our bodies through the world and it’s with us as long as we live.