African Writers: Meet Helon Habila
Helon Habila is one of the most exciting writers from Africa.
The Dublin Quarterly
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First published: March 2, 2006
Not many people have names that are as interesting as his; that is with the same initials. In 2001 he was swept onto the international literary world scene when he won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing for his story Love Poems, taken from Prison Stories, Epik Books, Lagos, 2000. At that time he was a relatively unknown prose and poetry writer but he had definitely earned his stripes as a writer. Proving that he was a writer to be reckoned with, he later received a Commonwealth Writers Prize-Africa Region, Best First Book for his book Waiting for an Angel (Penguin, 2003) in 2003. He also won the MUSON Poetry Prize in 2000.
Prose and poetry writer Helon Habila was born in November 1967 in Nigeria. He has worked both as a lecturer and a journalist in Nigeria. His father started life as a preacher with European missionaries, and then he later became a civil servant, working with the Ministry of Works. As a result Habila and his family, which included seven siblings, moved around the North Eastern towns of Nigeria a lot. Although he went to a science secondary school, Habila had a voracious reading appetite. He hungrily read whatever he could lay his hands on: fiction, poetry, history, religion, science textbooks. With time he learnt to make psychoanalyses of all the major characters and he still keeps the notebook he wrote in when he was fifteen. He knew that early in life that he was going to be a writer.
Habila studied Literature at the University of Jos and lectured for three years at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, before going to Lagos to write for Hints Magazine. Extracts from his collection of short stories, Prison Stories, were published in Nigeria in 2000 and he was the arts editor for the Vanguard Newspaper. He was a Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia from 2002-2004. His new novel, Measuring Time by the publisher Hamish Hamilton Ltd is forthcoming and he is currently a Chinua Achebe fellow of Africana Global Studies at Bard College, New York, USA.
Helon Habila is an astonishing young man who does not crave for the spotlight, nor for the ceremonial fanfare that his name creates. He was the youngest of all those who made the final shortlist of 2001's Caine Prize and the least exposed of the lot. While many of the other writers on the shortlist were all published in mainstream anthologies and journals, Habila's was the only one whose entry was self published. He demonstrated that a good writer is not always found in conventional journals or publications, although the tides have changed for him now. He is now an internationally sought after writer. When I interviewed him in November 2005, I found him to be extremely charming, humble, down-to-earth and refreshingly honest with his observations and comments. Habila may not consider himself as a teacher, but I learnt a lot from him through my interaction with him.
Helon Habila: Winner 2001 Caine Prize.
Image Source: www.cca.ukzn.ac.za
Jane: You won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing for Love Poems. How beneficial do you think the Caines Writers Prize is to Africans?
Helon: Any prize or any organization which tries to promote our writing and enables our writers to fulfill their dreams is immensely beneficial. Of course the Caine Prize has had its share of criticism. Among other things it's been called paternalistic, patronizing, neo-colonial etc. I am not a spokes-person for the Caine Prize, but if you condemn the Caine Prize on these bases then you'll also have to condemn the Commonwealth Prize and the Noma and so on even The Booker. Almost every prize has its politics; the artist must learn to look beyond that. Like they say: life is short, but art is long.
The story of the way you had your story submitted for the Prize is very intriguing. It spells determination and creativity. For the sake of our readers, could you please briefly tell us how you managed to have your work submitted to this coveted Prize?
Well, I thought one of the entry conditions that says a story must only be submitted by the publisher, not the author, has failed to realize that most publishing in Africa is self-publishing. I self-published my collection of stories, and if I were to obey that rule then I wouldn't be eligible for the Caine Prize, and so I pretended I was the publisher. I sent the required 12 copies of my book to the judges, on behalf of the author, as it were. And when they eventually wrote and told me that my story, Love Poems was on the short list and that I'd have to come to London for the final selection, I calmly replied: 'We'll inform the author of this wonderful news. We pray that God will guide the judges in their final decision.' He did guide them. I won.
That is such an amazing story. How has winning that Prize changed your life?
It has changed my status from a self-published writer to a writer published by Penguin in Britain and Norton in America. I was fortunate to have won the Caine Prize at a time when the organizers were actively promoting it, I was the second winner. So I benefited from that enormous initial publicity campaign.
You also won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) for Waiting for an Angel (2003). You are described as one of the most exciting young African writers. How does this make you feel?
At the time of the winning it felt great, it was all so new, so flattering. But with time you realize it really doesn't mean much, it doesn't in any way make writing the next book easier.
You are now a celebrity in the literary world. Do you feel a certain pressure to behave a certain way and has this changed you in any way?
I don't know about the celebrity bit, but one does feel the pressure initially. We wouldn't be human if we didn't. You must realize that most writers are not good with publicity, and they'd rather be in their study interacting with a blank page than be at parties or press interviews. So it was quite daunting at the beginning. There I was, just arriving from my lonely, anonymous life in Lagos to all that hoopla in London. Every morning there'd be a phone call or an email from yet another journalist asking for an interview. But with time one gets used to it you realize that there will always be prize winners, the publishers and the press will always be on the hunt for the next big name. If you are wise you focus on your writing, on what you ultimately want to achieve. Everything else is a bubble, believe me.
Who were your literary idols when you when growing up?
I studied literature so there were lots of them. Each writer had his own attraction, his own point of excellence. Henry James, Chinua Achebe, Stephen Crane, Shakespeare, JM Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, Kamara Laye, Abubakar Imam etc. Generally I am drawn to those writers that have a social vision, that show a certain level of political commitment.
When did you start writing? When did you know that you were a writer?
I started writing seriously when I was eighteen or so. I had been withdrawn from the university and I was at home for two years. It was a lonely period which was perfect for me. I read and wrote I wrote two novels in two years, and lots of romantic poems. Eventually a chapter from one of the novels was published as a short story in an anthology. Being a writer I think is more about personal conviction than being actually published. At that time I felt I was a writer because writing was the only thing I wanted to do, and I knew deep inside that I was willing and capable of doing whatever it took to become a writer, so, in effect if not in fact, I was a writer.
You write very beautifully Helon and you certainly have a mastery over the English language. What inspires you to write? Are you one of those writers who follow a strict writing regime?
Thank you. But I write out of desperation. I really can't write until I reach a point where I absolutely have to write. I admire those writers that put down a certain number of words each day before breakfast, whether it is raining or shining. I wish I could do that, I have tried, but I am unable to. Once I have reached that point of desperation though the words come effortlessly, something seems to take over and everything falls into place.
I know that you write poetry and prose. Are any of those mediums a favorite or do you love both literary babies equally?
I make my living from prose, but I find that I get more joy from writing poetry. There's something about the formal strictures of verse, the narrow elbow room in which one is compelled to maneuver that is so challenging, and when it works, so satisfying.
Well your poems can certainly woo any woman, as seen in this except below. This one-which you attribute to one of your characters Lomba in Love Poems-is tremendously beautiful.
Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila.
Image Source: www.amazon.com
When I hear the waterfall clarity of your laughter,
When I see the twilight softness of your eyes,
I feel like draping you all over myself, like a cloak,
To be warmed by your warmth.
Your flower petal innocence, your perennial
Sapling resilience – your endless charms
All these set my mind on wild flights of fancy:
I add word unto word,
I compare adjectives and coin exotic phrases
But they all seem jaded, corny, unworthy
Of saying all I want to say to you.
So I take refuge in these simple words
Trusting my tone, my hand in yours, when I
Whisper them, to add depth and new
Twists of meaning to them. Three words:
I love you.
By Helon Habila
*This particular part of Love Poems is an excerpt from the novel, Waiting for an Angel published by Penguin, London.
Helon: Thank you.
What do you think are the challenges for most African writers?
What we lack is the basic enabling infrastructure, like publishing and reviewing and finally an audience. Our governments are not doing enough to encourage the literary culture. When they talk about culture they mostly mean half-naked women shaking their behinds before distinguished guests. And so books and songs are pirated with impunity, no one cares about the author's moral rights. I mean, the government doesn't have to give writers a handout, that's not what we are asking for, all we want is a certain level of encouragement. Unlike most other industries, the culture industry cannot work successfully without some level of governmental patronage, it is not possible.
As a person of Ugandan descent, I find that many times I have to deal with Idi Amin-the Ugandan dictator comments. You know I find that all that they know about the country is the fact that Idi Amin was once its ruler. Do you go through that with the dictator-General Abacha as a Nigerian or any other stereotypes?
People always have these comments, these stereotypes, some out of ignorance, some out of mischief. But I don't let people decide for me what to write on, or what to think. I write about things that I feel strongly about. I lived under Sani Abacha, I saw the great evil he perpetrated I wasn't told about it, I witnessed it, and so I made it the main preoccupation of my novel. I try as much as possible to approach things from a historical perspective, to ask myself why things are the way they are, and if they have always been that way, and how, if possible, the individual can live through the hard times with hope and with dignity. Because that's what distinguishes us from other creatures, hope and dignity. Without the international oil companies to back him up Abacha wouldn't have lasted as long as he did, to commit as much atrocities as he did. Without the injustices and insupportable hierarchical structures created by the colonial system there wouldn't have been an Idi Amin.
Being a writer myself, I know that success in the literary field comes with its own share of trials, tribulations, rejections and obstacles. What was your experience in this regard?
There have been plenty but they are all a learning process. I don't complain. I never expected it'd be easy.
Helon Habila with Austin Clarke-an award winning African Canadian writer.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other African writers?
I am a shrub among the poplars, striving for more light, for more sap. I am trying to do what I can, the way I know best, and I hope with some dignity. If anyone finds that admirable, or sees anything worth emulating in me, well, great.
What do you think is the future for African writers? Do you think more people will be reading African authors?
I think the future is great. This is a new age, a new generation albeit with its own challenges and limitations but African writing has made great in roads since the days of the African Writers Series, when our authors had no agents, when they had to write on certain determined 'African' subject matters. I guess most of the hard work has been done for us by the first and second generation writers. How far an African writer can go now depends on individual talent and ambition.
At your young age, you seem too far from the finish line. What else would you want to achieve at this point?
Helon Habila and that is LKJ of course - Linton Kwesi Johnson.
More on LKJ...
Too far from the finish line sometimes I feel I haven't even stepped on the starting line yet. There's so much to do. But I take it a step at a time. At the moment I have just finished my second novel. I have started work on the third, while also trying to complete a PhD on Dambudzo Marechera.
What is the beauty of a black woman in your experience?
Someone like my wife, I guess. Physically attractive, smart, and with a sense of humour oh, and she must love music. It is very important.
Because apart from books, I think the next thing that gives me the most pleasure is music. I love alll sorts of music, from African High-Life, Afrobeat to Delta Blues to Hip hop. I love discovering new music every day. I love discussing music - so I guess my ideal woman should be enthusiastic about music too.
Any other recent developments we should know about?
Other recent developments that I am proud of are: I recently worked on two anthologies and both will be coming out this year, so it is going to be a busy year for me. The first is an anthology of New African Voices, which I co-edited with Kadija Sesay and it will be published by a South African company, Panmacmillan, in June; the other is the British Council's New Writing Vol. 14 which I co-edited with Lavinia Greenlaw and it will published by Granta. Both books will be out in June. Finally my second novel, Measuring Time, will be out in October.
So much more on the Web on Helon Habila, including...
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First published: March 2, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.