This month, we interview Nigerian author, Helon Habila, who recently won the 2015 Windham-Campbell prize for fiction. Habila is both a poet and prose writer. He has won several important poem writing competitions, including the Music Society of Nigeria (MUSON) national poetry award for his poem “Another Age” in 2000 and 2001. His short story, Love Poems, won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing, while his novel, Waiting for an Angel received the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region.
Habila is also the author of Oil on Water (2011) and Measuring Time (2007) and Waiting for an Angel (2002). In addition, he has edited several anthologies, including the British Council’s New Writing (2005) and The Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011).
Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I had a happy childhood. I was born in my hometown of Kaltungo, in Gombe State, but I grew up in Gombe, the capital, itself. Gombe was a very small town in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up. There really wasn’t much to do apart from go to school and come back. Two important things helped me get through the tedium of childhood, I discovered books and films. The video player had just been discovered then, the Betamax and later VHS, and only few people had them. We didn’t so we used to congregate in a friend’s house to watch films, mostly Indian Bollywood movies. For some reason they were the rage when I was growing up. There were also Kung Fu films. We also used to sneak out to the cinema when we got a bit older. When I look back to my childhood that’s mostly what I remember, films and books.
I read somewhere that your initial ambition was to study science at university. Is that true? What made you switch to writing?
It was my father’s ambition for me. He wanted me to be an engineer, and I did give it a shot, up to introductory level at the Tafa Balewa University in Bauchi, but after the first year I had to throw it away. I stopped going to lectures. Instead, I would spend the day in my room reading anything but my textbooks. So, I failed my exams and I had to return home and start all over again. I had to re-write my O level exams, but this time in the arts. I passed my exams and went back to university, this time the university of Jos. My father was very patient with me, and looking back, I appreciate that very much. Unfortunately he died the very year I got my admission to the university of Jos.
How long have you been writing and what was your first big break – the moment when you realized that this is something you were really good at?
The very first time I realized I was good at writing? Well, there are two levels of being good. The first is when you are convinced, on your own, that you are good, with no external validation or affirmation. This is almost worthless conviction because how can you really know you are good if you haven’t been tried and tested? The second level is, of course, when you come up against a certain set of standards or come before qualified judges and you pass their test. In writing the judges are called editors and critics.
My first time was in my first year at university. I had, of course, written short stories and poems, but had nothing published as yet. I have a friend, David Njoku, who was like a walking encyclopedia on popular culture at the time. He could tell you what song was number one at what time for how long, etc, etc. So, one day we sat down and I began casually asking him questions about rap music, what song sold the highest copies, what rap song won the first Grammy, and by the we finished I had a long essay on rap music. I took it to the office of the local newspaper and gave it to the editor who took it and waved me away. He said he would read it when he had time and get back to me. He said it was not likely they’d publish it that week. It was a Friday. I walked out, feeling a bit deflated. I was waiting for a taxi when I heard an excited voice calling me. I turned, it was the editor. He was waving my essay excitedly. He had read the first page and he had already decided he was publishing it the next day. That was external validation par excellence.
Where do you get ideas for your novels?
From real life, I guess. I love politics a lot, so all my stories try to interpret or re-envision dominant political events, especially those that affect the ordinary person. With Oil on Water I was invited by a film company to write a film script, but the more I researched for the film, the more intrigued I became with the subject matter. I realized I had to write a novel on it, I had to tell the story of the ordinary person in the Delta who bears the brunt of the injustices of the oil extraction industry. I feel that as writers we have to be engaged with the culture and the politics, and we have to try to influence it even as it influences us. We are a part of everything around us. Our gift is to transform the ugliness and the terror into art, to help our readers make sense of it. To show that it is not all meaningless and senseless, that our suffering has some long term meaning even if it might not be apparent at the moment.
Describe your creative process. Writing in This Day, Toni Kan recalled a conversation back in the 1990s, in which you talked about writing one of your novels in your head, long before you actually wrote it down. Is that how you work?
That is how I work, and I always assumed that was how every writer worked. My stories are like puzzles I carry around in my head, for years, and then when it all finally begins to make sense, I then begin to put it on paper. I am an obsessive sort of person, once I sink my teeth into a problem it consumes me and I have to resolve it by writing about it.
How do you make time to write, given your other commitments?
When I have to write, I find the time to do. Of course it gets harder and harder as life gets more complicated with family and work and other obligations. When I can’t write at home I go to the library. I am a big supporter of the American Public Library system. I don’t know what I’d do without them. I feel like I should be paying rent at my local library. They see me go there every day as if I was going to the office, they have no idea who I am or what I do. I sit and write and I go home.
The Washington Post recently wrote that you were surprised at winning the 2015 Windham-Campbell prize for fiction. Is that so? Why?
It was a surprise because you don’t compete for it. You are nominated anonymously, and then a panel of judges selects the winners. Throughout the process you are not contacted or notified. They only contact you if you win. This year there were over 60 nominations, I believe, from which me, Teju Cole and Ivan Vladislavić emerged as the winners in fiction. Up to now I have no idea who nominated me, but whoever it is, I am grateful.
Even before the Windham-Campbell prize, you were already an internationally recognized writer with numerous award-winning novels and short stories to your name. What has been the response to your success back home in Nigeria?
Lots of good wishes and congratulations. I was surprised by the outpouring of messages on email and twitter and facebook. For two nights I had to turn off my phone when I was going to bed. It just kept pinging every minute or so. I felt so humbled, once I almost broke out crying for all the goodwill and good wishes.
Do you visit Nigeria often? How much has the country changed from the time you lived there as a young writer and journalist in the late 1990s?
I go to Nigeria almost every year. So much has changed from when I lived there, trying to become a writer. A whole new generation of writers has emerged and I am just impressed by how well they are doing. There are many publishers and publishing companies now, and I am happy for that. My only complaint is that there are more writers than critics. Everybody wants to be a writer, nobody wants to do the heavy lifting of reading the books and commenting on them. In my time (I feel so ancient using this phrase, in my time) we all did a bit of everything. We were each others’ critics. We used to have spats in the papers over comments and reviews. We need to bring that back. What you have now are sound bytes on twitter and facebook pages; that is what passes for critique now.
In your introduction to the Granta Book of the African Short Story (which you edited), you used the term ‘post-nationalist’ to describe the current generation of African writers. What makes this generation different?
Well, I made it quite clear what I meant in the essay. I refer mainly to this generation that is so different in many ways to the earlier generation who saw themselves as writing the “African” novel, and who saw themselves as ushering in a new pan-African dawn in literature and also in politics. This concept is almost meaningless now. The politicians, the internet, international travel, all sorts of deracination are challenging and interrogating the idea of national borders and boundaries, and rendering obsolete the idea of the “African novel” or the nationalist novel. The Achebe-Ngugi model of the African novel was always rooted in a deeply political and nationalist agenda, which are now glaringly dated. This is the post-nationalist generation.