Helon Habila: In search of Africa's angels

His fiction has taken him from Nigeria to Norwich and Washington - and it all began with romance. Katy Guest talks to a realist who dares to dream
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At George Mason University, Washington DC, the newest member of the Creative Writing faculty has just moved into his office. His shelves are empty and his walls bare, but he hates offices that are full of personal effects. All he needs are "lots and lots and lots" of books, he says. When they arrive, Washington will really start to feel like home.

Books and writing have been the core of Helon Habila's life, whether in Nigeria, Norwich or Washington. "I always lived in my imagination," he says, recalling his childhood in a small town in northern Nigeria. "I remember staying in my room all day just reading and dreaming and making up things. Living in a small town, you begin to create other places to escape." He had written two novels by the time he was 17 - now forgotten in a drawer - but had never been abroad and never dreamed that he would ever be published. That wasn't something that happened in Nigeria, especially to writers who dared to write about the politics of their troubled homeland.

He self-published his Prison Stories in 2000, having written it in the evenings after his day job on a teenage romance magazine. He had to write four short stories a week in the Mills & Boon style, and he hated it. But he realised how he could make the work more interesting. "I started playing with the romantic stories," he says. "Even though they were flimsy, silly stories, I thought, 'Let me do this character so well. Let me focus on dialogue this week.' I was honing my craft."

It worked. When in 2001 he submitted a story for the Caine Prize for African Writing, known as the African Booker, it won. Soon he was given a job teaching writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, the first African writer to do so. His first novel, Waiting for an Angel, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003 and his new book, Measuring Time (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), is already receiving rave reviews. Now, he is mentioned in the same breath as some of his eminent literary countrymen: Chinua Achebe; Wole Soyinka; Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Living in another country has brought new opportunities and challenges. In England, he arrived to a two-book deal from Penguin and a department full of like-minded colleagues. He describes the fresh joy of discussing his work with writers such as Michèle Roberts and Richard Holmes. But at the same time, he was conscious of being an outsider - outside both his new home and his country of birth. "Whether I like it or not, it impacts on your psyche," he says.

The distance from the setting of Measuring Time gave him objectivity, he says, but also made it an effort to recall the textures and cadences of Nigeria. The book tells the story of a country through the lives of twin brothers, Mamo and LaMamo, one a soldier, the other a historian. They are naive and often misguided but, just like the writer Lomba in Waiting for an Angel, they are taught and protected by older, wiser men. Teachers and newspaper editors are sources of wisdom in both Habila's novels: they are mentors, guides and, perhaps, authorial mouthpieces. But they are something that Habila lacked. His father died when he was 19, "which is maybe why I crave for that and always write about it," he says. "I think that's why I enjoy teaching. Not just to teach about grammar or sentences or craft: I teach them about life."

After teaching and living in the UK for five years, this most loyal of African writers says that we might expect a Norfolk-based novel before too long. But it will have a Nigerian perspective. He has noticed an "impatience with foreigners" in this country, and a worrying concern with immigration and "illegal aliens". He wants to keep writing about "those people who are not very well off, and the things that happen to them," wherever they happen to live. "You don't have to go to Africa, like Dave Eggers has just done, to find serious subjects to write about. You could be in paradise and there would still be injustice."

He clearly feels passionately about addressing the "serious subjects". And he hopes he is up to the task. "The process of writing, the day-to-day thing when you come to your computer and begin to write, I find that really scary," he admits. "I guess the moment you sit down and begin to write, you get lost in it. It even surpasses your expectations: that's when the joy comes in. But I always have to drag myself to the computer".

Above all, Habila feels a responsibility to write books that do justice to the country he grew up in. He regards Soyinka as "a great lesson for people like me. Most writers would have given up by their seventies. Certainly given up on Nigeria. But not Soyinka." He won't give up himself, and fully intends to return to live, and perhaps set up an independent newspaper. "That's the only homeland you have," he says. "It's up to you to invest in it, to make sure it becomes the best it can be."

This tradition of Nigerian writing, from Achebe through to Ben Okri and onwards, is one that Habila feels proud, and sad, to be a part of. "Writers like me call ourselves the third generation," he says. "There is a continuity in thematic issues and fixations from Achebe, at the start. We are obliged to continue in that tradition because those issues are still relevant now. The first generation would have hoped that those issues would have changed in 2007: they wrote because they wanted a just and democratic society. But I am optimistic that things will change.

"Africa is entertaining a more democratic phase now. This civilian government in Nigeria looks like it knows what it is doing and where it is going. It is addressing root issues like corruption."

If successful, April's elections will be the first time since independence from the British in 1960 that Nigeria has made a transition from one democratically elected leader to another. The country has suffered a series of corrupt leaders and military coups. It is the largest exporter of crude oil in Africa, but its citizens seldom see the benefits - even the electricity supply is erratic, at best. "How hard is it to make electricity?" he says, angrily.

What upsets him even more, though, is an image of his homeland that he has found in the West. In Waiting for an Angel, Lomba is told by a woman at a party: "You really must try and get arrested - that's the quickest way to make it as poet. You'll have no problem with visas after that, you might even get an international award." I refer him to the words of the Ugandan writer, Doreen Bainganawho: "Sometimes I wish my life had been more tragic. This is because my audience expects me, as an African writer, to regale them with tales of hunger, war and catastrophe." He agrees.

"There is a tendency, especially in the West, to look at African writing as all about war and famine and refugees," he has found. "When they think about Africa they expect someone to be dying. But literature is supposed to show you life in a more balanced way. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a murderer, ambitious; but he loves his wife, he is a general, a hero. It takes more effort to make a character round, but it makes him more compelling. And Africans are just like any other people: happy, sad, optimistic. If readers don't want to see people laughing, then they should read other people's novels."

Despite his occasional despair at what he sees in his country, he wishes people would see the world in a more rounded way. I ask him how he feels when he sees British newspapers carrying stories of cash for honours and police inquiries. "It is interesting when you come from African society," he says, carefully. "You hear how your country is reviled. In the Transparency International report, Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. They... stigmatise us as less than human. But when you come to societies that accuse you of that and you come across the same thing... It makes you realise that people are just people, and there is injustice everywhere."

If this proud, political, African writer is to write a Norwich or Washington DC novel, we shouldn't expect it to go easy on his adopted countries. He passionately believes that it is his duty to keep worrying away at injustice - wherever he might find it. Having spent his childhood in Nigeria dreaming of a world beyond his village, now Habila's ambition is grander. "I dream of writing a true novel. There have been great novels about Africa, but I want to write a book that would define a whole tradition, like a landmark." Whether the foundations of this landmark will be built in Nigeria or Norwich only remains to be seen.


Helon Habila was born in the north of Nigeria in 1967 and studied at the University of Jos. He lectured in Bauchi from 1997-99 and self-published his first collection, Prison Stories, in 2000. "Love Stories", from the collection, won the 2001 Caine Prize, and grew into Waiting for an Angel, which won a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. He taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia from 2002 and has edited, with Lavinia Greenlaw, the British Council anthology New Writing 14, and, with Khadija George, the African fiction anthology Miracles, Dreams and Jazz. He is a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review, and now teaches creative writing at George Mason University, Washington DC. His second novel, Measuring Time, is published by Hamish Hamilton