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African Writing Archives


Helon Habila

Helon Habila

In 2002 Habila become the first African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia . In 2003, Waiting for an Angel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region, and was also voted one of the best five novels of 2003 by the Observer. After his fellowship in 2004, Habila enrolled for a PhD in Life Writing. His thesis is a biography of the late Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera. In 2005 Habila was invited by the British Council to co-edit its annual anthology, New Writing, alongside the poet, Lavinia Greenlaw. In the same year he was also invited by Chinua Achebe to become the first Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in New York. Habila joined the Creative Writing Faculty at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His second novel, Measuring Time, came out in 2007. Habila is currently working on his third novel tentatively titled, The Savage Garden.



Ramonu Sanusi

Dr Ramonu Sanusi teaches
French and African and Caribbean literatures and cultures at George Mason University, Virginia. His articles on Sembène Ousmane, Mongo Beti, Mariama Bâ, Angèle Rawiri, Régina Yaou, Fatou Kéďta, Alain Mabanckou and Patrick Ilboudo appeared in journals such as Dalhousie French Studies, Africultures, Nouvelles Études Francophones and Gboungboun. Besides his scholarly publications, he has written three novels and a poetry collection. Sanusi is currently working on a novel The Wanderer’s Trumpet, and a poetry collection Soliloques d’amour et d’autres poèmes.

Q. Can you tell us the genesis of your first novel Waiting for an Angel?

A. Certainly. I started writing it when I was a lecturer at the Federal Polytechnic in Bauchi that was between 1997 and 1999. I completed it in 2000 when I was working in Lagos as a journalist. I first self-published it in Nigeria as a collection of interconnected short stories with the title Prison Stories. Then later I republished it as a novel-in-stories in the UK with the title, Waiting for an Angel. That was in 2002.

Q. Before writing Waiting for an Angel did you ever think of being a writer?

A. Oh yes. I was always going to be a writer, all my life. I wrote two novels before I turned twenty. I was influenced quite early by stories and books, and later by my professors at university. I never really considered being any other thing but a writer. I guess I always saw the world in terms of stories, with beginnings and middles and ends, with lots of twists and conflicts – and even, occasionally, with happy endings.

Q. The story in Waiting for an Angel is well-crafted and fascinating: Can you share your motivation for that novel?

A. It is a novel about a distinct period in our history: the 1990s, or as some people term it, the military years. It is a story about the lives and dreams and hopes that were wasted by those draconian days – but it is also about some people’s determination to survive despite all that darkness. The main character is Lomba, a journalist falsely arrested by the regime. He is one of the survivors and he proves in the book that though the body may be imprisoned, the mind can still remain free. I lived through those days and I wanted to write about it, to keep it as a record of that moment in our history.

Q. How did you feel when you heard that you had won the Commonwealth Award for the said novel? What first came to your mind?

A. I was pleasantly surprised. The Commonwealth is an old and valued book prize, so it is a big honor to be on the list with the past winners. It also opens doors for one as a writer, a prize winner. Prizes have come to assume a big significance in the literary industry that for one to be taken seriously one has to have these strings of prizes under ones name. We are not even talking about marketing. Some people won’t buy your book unless they see that winner thing on the cover. I am not sure if it is all good – but that is the way the industry works.

Q. In your second and also successful novel Measuring Time which won the Caine Prize, you displayed your talent as a story-teller of modern times, drawing elements from cultural, historical and political facts of Nigeria. What led you into writing that novel?

A. Measuring Time was a novel I wanted to write even before I wrote Waiting for an Angel. I’ve always been fascinated by history, by culture, and how culture changes with time. The African culture in particular has gone through so much change since the contact with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. So the second book is a look into that, a look at the new Africa and the forces that drive it. I do this though the changing fortunes of one family over a few generations – but the main focus are the twins, Mamo and LaMamo, and their father. The story covers their lives from childhood to adulthood. Mamo is the one that becomes a historian and through his writing he interrogates the idea of history and culture. He is also a biographer and he attempts to write the story of his family and friends. It is also about the idea of power, and how sometimes culture is used as a screen by people in power in order to cling to that position.

Q. Are Mamo, LaMamo, Lamang, Haruna, Iliya, Asabar, Auntie Marina to mention a few, mere fictional characters or they did exist in real life?

A. Of course they are fictional characters, but I guess every fictional has an earlier life in a real character somewhere, no matter how fleeting the influence. So I did model these characters after some people I met, wholly sometimes, in bits, sometimes. A mannerism here, a gesture there, but by the end of it all, they are their own people. I always choose and situate my characters carefully. I prefer to make them round, and memorable, because I want them to remain with the reader long after he has put down the book.

Q. In Measuring Time you showed how much you care for women (female characters of your novel): would you consider yourself as a feminist writer?

A. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a feminist – whatever that means. I don’t see myself crusading for the rights of women, but I am also careful never to objectify them or to idealize them, like some writers do. I grew up surrounded by women, and I learned that they are just as human as any man, so first and foremost I present them as people, not just as women, but as people with their strengths and shortcomings and complexities.

Q. Are you trying to re-define patriarchy and some cultural ethos and all they entail considering how you attack people like Lamang in Measuring Time?

A. I wouldn’t say that Lamang is attacked in Measuring Time. Again, I am careful with my characters, I don’t make them totally evil or totally good, because in reality no one is like that. Lamang is a character that has been through a lot of disappointment, and because of that, it makes him bitter, and he dies a bitter death. He is the kind of person who never pauses to see the blessing they have, his children, for instance, and his wealth, but he pushes himself to achieve more till one day he falls, unfulfilled.

Q. Your style of writing in both Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s simple, straight-forward and storytelling writing style, say in Things Fall Apart, The Man of the People and Arrow of God: are you influenced by him?

A. I guess I am. It is hard to find an African writer writing now who wasn’t influenced in one way or the other by Chinua Achebe; he is such a huge presence. But I definitely don’t consciously model myself after him. And as you can see, my idea of the village and culture are radically different from what you have in his novels. In fact, one of the reasons for setting my story in the village is to show how false the idea of the village as a pristine, constant repository of our African values is. Time has happened to it.

Q. How would you describe your relationship with Chinua Achebe?

A. I wouldn’t say I have a “relationship” with Achebe. In 2005 he invited me to be the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College, because of that I got to live next door to him, and to work with him and to learn a few things from him. That is the extent of my relationship with him. He is a very generous and kind man.

Q. What audience are you writing for: Western or African?

A. Nobody in particular. Or let me put it this way: there isn’t an audience that I am not writing for. I write for lovers of narrative where ever they may be.

Q. I read in one of the Nigerian dailies (The Sun, I think) where you were being referred to as the new Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. Soyinka is known for being pedantic which to me, you are not. Why that comparison to him and not Achebe?

A. I really can’t answer that. Perhaps the person making the comparison has his secret criteria. But it is a big honor to be compared to Soyinka. He is a writer I admire a lot, and his The Man Died did influence me a lot when I was writing my first novel. That is one of the best prison literatures I have ever read – I recommend it strongly.

Q. Your novels were published in UK and US: Do you think that the ordinary Nigerian back home would be able to afford buying a copy? Have you taken some measures to have your books re-issued in Nigeria for that purpose?

A. Oh, yeah. My first novel was first distributed in Nigeria by my British publisher, in conjunction with Longman Nigeria. It didn’t work – like you said, the Penguin edition was just too expensive, and for over three years my book was virtually unavailable in my country, which is a painful thing for any writer. But later we were able to buy back the Nigerian rights from Penguin, for both my first and second novels. Last month both were issued for the first time in Nigeria by my Nigerian publisher, Cassava Republic. I just came back from my Nigerian book tour, which I think was a great success. We ensured that the books sold for under a thousand naira each, which is quite cheap if you compare that to other novels selling for over two thousand naira.

Q. Do your writings find their place within the black diasporic literary creation? How?

A. They are finding their place there, gradually. I live here, and so my experience is often distilled through a diasporic eye. But so far I have not made the diasporic experience a direct theme in any of my novels – I have done a few short stories on that, but not a novel, that will be in the future.

Q. During a writers’ session in Bamako (Mali) in 2005 you were the only Anglophone African writer amidst Francophone African writers. How did you feel being part of that group whose writing language (French) is different from yours (English)?

A. It was fun. I made lots of friends – Waberi, Mabanckou, Khadi, Melanie, etc. I couldn’t speak any French so they acted as my interpreters. It was my first time in Mali, and at a Francophone writers’ event. They are such fun loving people, and very philosophical and methodical in their approach to literature. It also made me take more interest in Francophone literature, up to then I only knew the obvious ones: African Child, Ambiguous Adventure, Mission to Kala etc – but I discovered that there is a new and vibrant corpus of work being done by younger writers, very much like the one in the Anglophone world. Unfortunately most of them are not in translation, the few ones that are in translation are only issued by small university presses, but I think with time they will become mainstream in English and find a wider audience. This state of things is such a sad one – we are divided by the accident of language. You find that Nigerian readers know more about American and English literature than they do about literature from Benin republic, or Senegal, just because of the language gap. This is an area that our local publishers need to look into, there is a potential market there.

Q. Waiting for an Angel was translated into French by Elise Argaud and she did a great job. Is she translating Measuring Time as well? Do you have plans to translate your novels into other languages besides French?

A. She has actually finished translating Measuring Time and it will be out sometime next year. Waiting for an Angel is out in many European languages including Italian and Dutch and Swedish etc.

Q. What frustration do you encounter as a writer?

A. The usual – not enough time to devote to my writing. Initially, before I got published, it was the anxiety of not knowing whether I’d ever get published. The writing scene is such a big and complex universe, with lots of good and bad things happening. The best a writer can do is to keep doing what he knows best, to write as honestly as possible, never to be swayed by the ephemeral glitter, the shallow praises, to always keep an eye on history, on posterity.

Q. Are you currently writing another novel? If yes, when will be out?

A. Yes, I am working on a short novel I guess. I exhausted all my energy on the last one so this is going to be much shorter. I have almost finished it, so it should come out in a year or so.

Q. You are now at George Mason university teaching in the Department of creative writing. What are your new challenges?

A. Yes, I got here in January, 2007, and it is almost a year now. It is a big change from being a fellow at the University of East Anglia with nothing to do but write full time, to now teaching full time. It is quite challenging, but others are doing it and I am getting used to it gradually. It is fun to work with young talented writers – I teach them, but I also learn a lot from them. They are full of ambition and ideas.

Q. What other projects do you plan to initiate at George Mason University besides your teaching activities / creative writing?

A. I am working on a few things at the moment, but I can’t talk about them yet.


Interviewer's Notes

Helon Habila was born in the North Eastern region of Nigeria - in Kaltungo, Gombe Sate. He grew up in Gombe town where his father worked for the ministry of works. His primary and some of his secondary schooling were done in Gombe, but in 1982 his family moved to Kaltungo when his father retired from the civil service. Helon Habila completed his secondary education in Kaltungo in 1984. He spent a few years trying to read engineering at the Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi, and at the Bauchi College of Arts and Science, but after two years he dropped out and turned his mind to being a writer. He spent two years at home and in that time he wrote two novels, still unpublished, and in 1990 he went to the University of Jos to read English. In 1992 a chapter from one of his novels was published as a short story in an anthology, Through Laughter and Tears. While in Jos he published a few stories and essays in the local newspaper, The Standard. After his university education Habila became a lecturer at the Federal Polytechnic in Bauchi, from 1997 to 1999. His ambition while in Bauchi was to write, but he soon discovered that he couldn't be a writer in Bauchi due to lack of encouragement. And so he decided to leave Bauchi to join some of his university friends who were now quite successful at Hints Magazine in Lagos, Nigeria's cultural capital. He later moved to Vanguard newspaper, Nigeria's fourth largest paper, as Arts editor. By then he had started work on what was to become his first novel, Waiting for an Angel.

While in Lagos he won a string of literary prices, starting with the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) poetry prize in 2000, for his poem titled "Another Age". He used the prize money to self-publish his first collection of stories, Prison Stories, which went on to win the Caine Prize in London in 2001. The winning story, "Love Poems", is about a young Lagos journalist, Lomba, who is imprisoned by the Abacha dictatorship while out on a routine assignment. While in prison Lomba tries to stay sane by writing love poems to imaginary lovers. The prison superintendent discovers the poems and presents them to his girlfriend as his own, and from there a strange relationship developed between Lomba and the superintendent. Habila's self-published story beat such established writers as Nureeddin Farah, Mia Coutou, and Lilia Momple to win the 2001 Caine Prize. In 2002 Prison Stories was reissued by Penguin in the UK and Norton in the US by the new title, Waiting for an Angel. The book established Habila as the voice of a new generation of Nigrian writers, signaling a radical departure from the traditional Nigerian story established by writers like Achebe and others. The book is an examination of the military dictatorships of the 1990s in Nigeria through the eyes of a young journalist. Most critics agree it is one of the best debut works to come out of Africa.

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