As a child growing up, Helon Habila’s father wanted him to be an engineer, but he preferred to read Literature. He had his way eventually. Today you can’t discuss contemporary Nigerian literature without mentioning his name. “My father was not let down by my choice of career. He wanted me to read Engineering, but that did not mean he didn’t respect my choice to be what I wanted to be,” he tells Sunday Sun online from the US.
Habila is both a poet and a fiction writer, but it seems he has gravitated towards prose, evident in his last two publications. Has he given up poetry? “ No,” he replies. He still writes poetry, and hopes to bring out a collection soon. “I am talking with my agent about that. It is harder though to publish poetry than prose, even if you are an already published author. Most publishers prefer to publish prose because it sells more easily than poetry,” he remarks.
It took him about five years to publish his latest offering, Measuring Time (2007), after Waiting for Angel (2002). Habila says so many factors contributed to the delay. “One being that it is a bigger and more ambitious book than the first one,” he says. “Another being that I was still trying to adjust to life in the UK, and it took me a while to enter a full writing mode. Following the publication of my first novel, and the critical success it got, it was rather hard to settle down to writing because of all the media attention and travel. Also, my two kids were born in that interim. So I was really busy.”
Measuring Time, which is on sale now worldwide, is about many things at once. Habila explains that it is a love story, a look at our contemporary history, and also about the main character’s ambition to live despite having a terminal illness. He says, “The two main characters are the twins, Mamo and LaMamo, and the book basically traces their life paths after they are separated at the age of 16. The younger twin travels the continent in search of adventure while the sickly elder twin remains home and becomes a sort of low scale intellectual celebrity. The story focuses mainly on the elder twin.”
Habila has won a number of literary prizes both in the country and outside. These include the MUSON Poetry Prize, Commonwealth Prize and Alfred Caine for African Writing. “They are all good, and they were all landmarks in my career as a writer,” he says.
The Muson Poetry Prize kind of got him an entry into the Lagos literary circles, and, of courses, the 50,000-naira prize enabled him to self-publish Prison Stories, the precursor to Waiting for an Angel. The Caine Prize launched his international career. “But the most exciting prizes are the ones I haven’t even won yet, the ones waiting to be won,” he declares.
When his Prison Notes came out, a reviewer in a Nigerian newspaper described him as the new Wole Soyinka, especially in terms of deployment of diction. “It is a great honour to be compared to Wole Soyinka, he is a writer I respect greatly,” he says.
Habila first made a name in Nigeria in journalism, but he has chosen a career in literary scholarship, like most Nigerian writers abroad. Does he think literary scholarship makes it easier to enhance his creative engagement than journalism? “I have always been a literary scholar even when I was a journalist,” he begins his answer.
“So journalism was basically one of the hats I wore on the way to where I am now, a hat I am really proud to have worn, and I must say I am still wearing it since I still do pieces for papers at home and outside. I think journalism is even harder than writing fiction, given that as a journalist one is in the eye of the whole world and there just isn’t any room for error. It requires courage, and integrity, and discipline, and a certain amount of sophistication. Journalism taught me a lot, and I would recommend it to any young man who wants to get on in the world of letters to start from there,” he says.
In a recent article he wrote, “Is this the year of the Nigerian Writer?”, he described this year as the year of Nigerian writers, citing Achebe’s Man Booker Prize and Chimamanda’s Orange Prize, as well as the recent offerings by Biyi Bandele, Helen Oyeyemi, Ben Okri, among other Nigerian writers based abroad, as major indicators; but no mention was made of the efforts at home. That tends to suggest that contemporary Nigerian literature is based abroad as being said in some quarters of Nigeria’s literary establishment. Is it really, or is it a question of a disconnect with the home literary scene?
Habila has an excuse to make. “My excuse is that I am not closely in touch with the scene at home to talk about it with authority – so I only talked about what I knew, the books I have read. I don’t think my essay in any way suggested that there is no writing or writers working at home. It’d be rather silly to assume that, don’t you think?” he asks.
Until 2006, he was an Achebe Fellow at Bard College, New York, USA. How was the experience like? “I had a great time working with him,” he is talking about Chinua Achebe. “He is a very wise and informal person, down to earth. One lesson I learned from my year at Bard College is that it is possible to be great and humble at the same time.”
Habila graduated with a 2.2 at Unijos, and today his name rings louder than those who made 2.1. What’s in a degree? Habila says he didn’t go to university to make a 2.1 or a 1st Class. “I only went there to be a writer. Believe me, if I had wanted to make a 1st I’d have done so. I went to university a bit late, I was 20, I think, so I knew exactly what I wanted, and I was lucky to meet the right friends and teachers to put me on that path. It was perhaps the best moment in my life. I felt the awakening of confidence and powers in myself that I didn’t know I had before.”
It has been said that Nigerian writers based abroad make a mockery of their country by pillorying it in their works according to their publishers’ demands. What does he think of this allegation? What’s his primary audience as a global writer? Habila finds this hilarious. “All I can say is that those making such comments are ignorant of the way publishing works. Writers are not sat down and told what to write; they write what they want to write. At least I do. If all I want is to please my publishers, then I don’t think I’d be writing what I am writing now –I would be writing airport bestsellers with lots of sex and violence.”
Against the background of the recent call for Nigerian/African writers to be steeped in the culture and history of the people by Chinweizu in order to write an authentic African literature, what does he think is the place of cultural valorization in new Nigerian/African literature as against realistic evocations? Says Habila, “Well, there is a lot of sabre-rattling and finger wagging from the essentialists – you can’t escape that.
But if you ask them what is an ‘authenticate African literature’ they couldn’t tell you. They wouldn’t recognize it if it spat in their face. Chinweizu and his essentialist posse condemned Clark, Okigbo and Soyinka as imitators of western writers, yet today critics put the same writers up as models for younger writers wanting to write ‘authentic African literature’. Art follows no rules, art is kinetic, art sources its materials from far and wide. Provinciality only diminishes it.”
Habila recently came back from a reading in Frankfurt, Germany. He has others in Washington and Maryland in the months ahead. What does he find thrilling about these international readings? “Well, I just returned from Frankfurt and it was fun talking about African literature to people who don’t know much about it. Everywhere I go there is a genuine desire to discover the new writings from Africa, from Nigeria. This is a great moment in our literature, I think,” he replies.
His friend, Binyavanga Wainana, has advocated e-publishing for African writers. Habila differs with his position, because the problem with e-publishing is that it is so temporary and ephemeral. “People will always prefer to hold books in their hands, to write marginalia, to lend it out, to borrow. There is also the problem of not there being enough computers and access to the internet in Africa – so these are some major hindrances to e-publishing,” he says.
If he has to make a pick from his oeuvre, which of his works would he consider dearest, as Achebe did by choosing his Arrow of God? “I’ll say my favourite is the one I am working on now” is his reply. “I’ll advise you to order in advance,” he suggests. Won’t you?