Younger Nigerian writers have better chances than we had
– Helon Habila
By Chuks OLUIGBO
Helon Habila, poet, author, and Creative Writing teacher at George Mason University, Virginia, the United States of America, was born in Kaltungo, Gombe State, Nigeria, and was educated at the University of Jos and University of East Anglia, England. His first novel, Waiting for an Angel, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for New Writing, and his second novel, Measuring Time, won the Caine Prize. Recently, Helon, who was also the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College in 2005, was in Abuja, Nigeria for the week-long creative writing workshop organised by Fidelity Bank Plc, and he spoke with Chuks OLUIGBO.
You started here in Nigeria before you moved to the United States. What has the experience been for you, the period between your starting point and where you are now? What has it been like?
Well, it’s been very interesting, that’s one way of looking at it. I think it’s been very interesting. There’s been a lot of challenges; there’s been a lot of happiness; there’s been a lot of sadness here and there, disappointments and successes. But it’s been interesting; that’s the best way to put it. It’s been a long journey, you know, like you said, from Bauchi, where I was teaching, then to Lagos, Hints Magazine, then to Vanguard, then to London for a fellowship, then PhD, and then moving on to America to do the Achebe fellowship and then to start teaching there. So, it’s been three continents, you know, lots of movement; it’s almost as if one has gone the farthest from home in terms of distance that one could go. And of course there is family, children, and all of that. Another way of looking at it is that it has been a moment of growth, you know. There is the physical distance, and there is the mental distance, and then there is growth. One has kind of grown in terms of one’s profession; in writing, one has learnt a lot because of the exposure and the people one met on the way: teachers, fellow writers, one has learnt a lot from them. So, it’s been quite interesting, and one has grown older too, physically. And one has become wiser in so many ways, and one has learnt to appreciate what one has, where one comes from, and to respect one’s culture, one’s history in so many ways. so, it’s been good..
I know this is not the first time you are holding a workshop with a group of young people, teaching them how to fine-tune their writing techniques. Looking at it now, do you think that writing in Nigeria has any hope? That young Nigerian writers can still make it, and maybe get to the point where you are now? Is there hope?
Yeah! I think their chances of making it are even better than mine at that time when I was still coming up, when I was an aspiring writer. We have a democracy now, even though it is not where we want it to be. But basically, things are freer now. There are actually indigenous publishing companies that publish, places like Cassava Republic, places like Farafina, you know, there are more of them. There weren’t any when I was trying to get published in 1999, 2000. So, it was bleaker, plus there was a dictatorship then; you couldn’t think; you had no freedom; you couldn’t do what you wanted to do. But now I think it’s much better. Now they have models, you know. I think there are people like Chimamanda who have done it; and if you want to look at men, there are people like me who have done it, people like Biyi Bandele, and so on. So, they can actually not say that they can’t do it because it’s not been done, or because it’s impossible. They have exemplars, they have people who have done it, and we started from here. It’s not as if I was born in America or London, no; or I wrote my book there, no. Actually, I lived here and I wrote it here and I got it published here. People like Tricia are even living here now and they’ve won Commonwealth prizes. So, I think things are better than they were, and any other person who wants to do this has no excuse not to achieve, or not to go as far as the skies, if that is what you want.
Ok. So, looking at the short stories you have gone through from this group and the other groups you have handled, what can you say about their writing?
You know, it’s good. They are all at a stage where, what we are looking at now is not perfection; we are looking at promise, and then we work with that and kind of polish it. Writing is very very hard, you know. But I think, as a teacher, one understands that what one is looking for, like I said, is promise, and one understands how hard it is for young people here, either because they are not exposed, either because they have not read a lot of writers, either because they have not had the chance, or even some because maybe they did not have a degree in Literature or English. Some are medical doctors, some are accountants, and all that; they all come from different backgrounds. So you just learn to be patient, not to be too hasty in judgments, and to always know that a writer can get to where he wants to if he works hard at it. That’s why I keep emphasising to young people: keep hard at it; writing is hard work, it’s like any other thing; it’s like making a table or like riding a car. You keep practising, the more you practise, the better you get. That’s my belief, you know. That’s how I look at writing, and that’s what I keep repeating in all the workshops I’ve taught. But Nigeria has talents, there are young people, and what I like is energy, their willingness to listen to you, to trust you, and to work hard. Sometimes we go late, sometimes we stay there all day, and the young people they don’t complain, you don’t know where they are coming from, they have their challenges and difficulties but they are always there. So, I’m impressed.
You talked about Farafina and Cassava Republic, and the rest of them. One problem around here too is that sometimes you see that they want to publish only people who have made a name; they are not looking at these younger people, and that is one aspect of discouragement that younger writers actually get here. Is there any solution? Is there any way the problem can be solved?
I see what you are saying, but also you look at it from the point of view that these publishing companies are just starting; most of them are owned by young people, entrepreneurs; they are not like multinational corporations, they don’t have the money that some publishers have. So they have to play safe, they have to be cautious, they have to go for sure things, and I think the more they do that, the more established they get, then they will begin to diversify, you know. You don’t just start a business and start doing everything at once. You’ll have a plan. Maybe the plan is like: for the first five years we publish these established names, and when we are established, then we move on unknown writers. They may have their plans, but I do understand; they are being cautious. And they need to be if they want to grow; you don’t want them to start to just open and then disappear or be over-ambitious in trying to discover young writers. If they publish ten known writers and publish one unknown writer, I think they are doing something. So, I think they will get there eventually.
You’ve written in Nigeria; you’ve also written in the Unites States. Comparatively, how do you weigh the two sides?
Well, one thing with Nigeria is, for so many reasons you are at home. Your mind is at ease because you are in a familiar place; you are not scared of anything. By scared I mean you are not a stranger; you know what to expect because you are born here; this is your natural environment. But when you leave here, you are living in an alien environment; no matter how long you remain there, you are a foreigner in a way, you are also a stranger. That’s the difference in the first place. The second difference is that there, the conditions are more amenable; conditions are more helpful. The infrastructure is there, you can send your stories to magazines, you can get books in the library, you can do research, there is always light for you to write. So, in that materialistic, physical sense, it is easier there, but here, the consolation here I think is more psychological, you know exactly where you are. They have benefits, both of them have their benefits; I can’t say one is better than the other; they all have their own benefits.