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Writer: Phakama Mbonambi, image: Stephen Voss

When Nigerian writer Helon Habila visited South Africa earlier in 2015, throngs of book enthusiasts came to see him at the Goethe Institut in Johannesburg and the Franschhoek Literary Festival in the Western Cape. In the customary intellectual dance that brings a writer closer to his readers, he was quizzed about his work, the themes he tackles, his world view and his concerns as a writer.

His South African visit was part of a residency from the Sylt Foundation, whose mission is to connect artists around the world, often through providing a quiet space to produce work. He stayed at the house of Indra Wussow, head of the Sylt Foundation, in Melville, and that is where we met on a balmy Tuesday morning.

With a clean-shaven head and wearing denim jeans, a grey sweatshirt and corduroy jacket, Habila oozed calm and friendliness. He’d carefully listen to a question before responding meticulously, fleshing out a thought and enunciating his answers carefully. Occasionally, he’d chuckle heartily as he spoke.

The city had made an impression on him by the time we met. He was grateful for the invitation even though he had been to other parts of South Africa before: “Joburg is an amazing place. I’ve never seen such a mix in terms of demographics… I was impressed by the Apartheid Museum. I’ve also been to Soweto and I saw some famous historical sites. It’s been fun – not a single day was boring.”

What about writing while in Joburg? He smiled. “I tried to write. It hasn’t been easy, I guess because of the shortness of time. There’s so much to do, so much to see. You don’t want to come to Johannesburg and stay in your room and write and then take the plane and go back. When I go back, I’ll write about what I’m seeing.”

Appearing at the Goethe Institut with Nthikeng Mohlele, a young South African writer on the rise, Habila mentioned his role in an initiative to promote Africanwriting. He has teamed up with Parresia Books, a Lagos publishing house, to start Cordite Crime Books, dedicated to publishing African crime and detective stories. The venture sounded intriguing.

“I saw the possibility of encouraging a reading culture, and also creating a means of communication between writers and readers in different parts of Africa,” Habila told me. “The tendency now is for people to focus more on what is known as ‘serious’ literature, a habit formed by our school curriculum and our focus on reading mainly for exams. So everyone reads Soyinka or Achebe or Shakespeare, or they read motivational tracts and books, but nothing in-between, no light-hearted crime fiction or fantasy, at least none written by Africans.”

Habila hoped that these crime fiction books, which should available by 2016, will offer more than entertainment, and “will get people to talk about so many things happening in our communities. The same as serious literature does, but without the burden of being too serious”.

To start, two books will come out annually. The winner of a continental competition, Blessing Musariri from Zimbabwe, will be one of the first writers published in the series. In addition to distributing in major African cities, Cordite hopes to partner with other publishers in Africa to tap into their distribution and marketing networks.  “We already have interested publishers in Europe asking to partner with us. We’ll do our best to make it available everywhere, but Africa is the focus,” Habila said.

Habila knows full well the yearning to be a writer. Born in 1967 in northern Nigeria, Habila graduated from the University of Jos, where he studied English language and literature. For three years he lectured at the Federal Polytechnic in Bauchi, a sleepy town in the north of the country. Suddenly he felt a strong desire to write. He had written creatively while at university – poetry and short stories – andhad received enthusiastic feedback from lecturers. So, he knew he had talent. In 1999, when his desire to write became too much, he quit his job and headed to Lagos. “I didn’t even resign,” he said with a chuckle. “I just took my bags and left. I moved to Lagos. If you want to be a journalist or a writer in Nigeria, you have to go to Lagos, the cultural capital. That is where you have all the embassies, all the libraries, all the cultural centres and, most importantly, all the newspapers.”

In Lagos, Habila first worked for Hints magazine before joining, in 2000, a newspaper called The Vanguardas as literary editor. He commissioned stories from fellow arts journalists and also wrote his own articles on a range of arts issues, including interviewing writers and musicians. It was a stimulating environment. He thrived in the intellectual circles of this bustling city. In private he continued to write poetry, his first love. Soon enough, he was rewarded for his efforts. “Within my first year there, I won the Music Society of Nigeria (MUSON) Poetry Competition, the biggest poetry competition in the country. So I became well known. Then I won the competition again the next year.” A new literary star had been born.

Habila credits journalism for sharpening his skill as a writer. “It helps you become sophisticated. You mingle with people. You go to all these cultural centres. You have to be a good listener. You have to be a good conversationalist. You have to know what is right, what is wrong. You become street-smart. I’m grateful for those two years in Lagos as a journalist. It really shaped me in so many ways. How to beat deadlines, how to choose your words. Most importantly I was meeting other arts editors and other aspiring writers.”

But the Lagos he found was still reeling from the country’s recent ugly history. “Military dictatorship had just ended. We were entering the first year of democracy. There was tension from the military days, when soldiers would shoot you in the street or arrest you for no reason. Writers also struggled in this repression. We had to publish in newspapers. Poems were preferable to short stories. And then we drank and discussed literature, books, democracy and other idealistic things. We drank and talked from night till morning – there was nothing else to do. People vented their frustrations through alcohol. Some of us were lucky to get out. Some, unfortunately, are still there drinking. I look back at that time with appreciation. It was like a school for me. Most of the guys are outside the country now in places like America, teaching. A whole generation left the country. We are a very scarred and traumatised generation.”

“you can’t take 10 African writers now and identify a single theme common in their work. There’s more diversity”

The horror of those days are captured in Habila’s Caine Prize-winning story Love Poems, about journalist Lomba, who is imprisoned during the military days for doing his job. This story came from his first collection, Prison Stories. These were expanded and published in 2002 as Waiting for an Angel, his first novel. “Most of the stories in Waiting for an Angel are about friends of mine who were arrested. Some were killed. You’d get arbitrarily arrested and newspapers shut down. It was a dark time.”

Later Habila moved to England and then the US, where he teaches creative writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

His second novel, Measuring Time, came out in 2007. It tells the story of a family and community in northern Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. The tale offers a sharp critique of the socio-political order in the country through the story of twins Mamo and LaMamo, who lose their mother at childbirth and are united in their hatred for their father, who represents failed national leaders. The book also touches on the themes of responsibility, colonialism, historiography and education.

His third novel, Oil on Water, published in 2010, looks at the devastating effects of the oil economy on the local population in the Nigeria’s Delta region. Two journalists are recruited to find the kidnapped wife of a British oil engineer. The book, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) is being adapted into a film, with Habila involved in the production.

Habila has also edited The Granta Book of the African Short Story, an anthology of African short stories. On top of that he writes occasional book reviews, usually on African books, for The Guardian in London.

While his three books have been largely set in Nigeria, in his forthcoming novel Habila plans to place his Nigerian characters in Europe. “Maybe because I have been outside and I have a story about people like me living outside Nigeria,” he said.

In fact, the change in locale signifies a larger milestone in African literature. In telling human stories that transcend the national and the political, contemporary African writers – often chided by traditionally-minded critics for being too ideologically independent – are keen to place their characters in different lands. They are generally referred to as third-generation African writers. Their creative flowering can be traced back to the 1980s and 90s. The present, which so much output across the continent, is certainly a golden age.

According to Habila, attempting to define an African novel or African writer is slippery, if not redundant. “The African novel came out of a certain vision of Africa and politics, a certain idea of pan Africanism and all that, which we don’t have now,” he said. “The commonality of history we used to share during the struggle for independence is not there anymore; most countries are independent and are pursuing different destinies. So there’s the fracturing of the idea of Africa itself and, consequently, the fracturing of the idea of the African writer or the African novel.

“With the generation of Chinua Achebe you could take 10 writers and pick up a theme running through their work, but you can’t take 10 African writers now and identify a single theme common in their work. There’s more diversity.”

All this diversity can also be attributed to writers working in or being linked to a continent that is fast developing and fast urbanising. More and more, African literature would have to reflect urban characters who are uncoupled from communal living and are in the city, “responsible for their own actions, rising or falling because of their own effort”.

Over the years, Habila has won adulation and prizes, but he refuses to let success distract him from his work. “I’ve always been a level-headed person. It’s not as if I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I come from regular folk. We always had to work with our hands. My father didn’t go to university, but me and my brothers – seven of us – did. It shows how much he valued education. There was no playing,” Habila said. “Of course, with a level of success, it’s easy to lose your focus. I like writing. It’s not going to be easy to sidetrack me from writing.”

Teaching creative writing at varsity leaves him with little time to write, but he thoroughly enjoys grooming young talent. He makes full use of breaks between academic terms to speed up his own work.

Otherwise, when there’s a little gap in his schedule, he can be found writing at the library. “I don’t like total silence [when I write]. I like to see people coming and going. I’d go to the library in the morning and stay there until afternoon. It’ll just be my computer, maybe a couple of books, my phone and my coffee, and then I write.”

He may live in the US, but Nigeria still remembers one of its favourite sons and holds him in high regard. “I get good reviews from Nigerian reviewers. Whenever I go to Nigeria I do readings and people come; it’s always fun. People write me emails and constantly remind me where I come from and that they still remember me,” he said.

Habila’s host in Johannesburg, Sylt Foundation head Indra Wussow, is an active editor and translator and another admirer of his work. : “What I love about Helon’s work is how he combines the precision of language, a very reduced form of poetry, into a text that also celebrates a lot of journalistic features. That ability makes him unique in his generation.”

As a parting shot, I ask Habila if he would consider moving back to Nigeria to teach. “Yes, of course, I would love to give back in any way I can. I used to run summer workshops in creative writing for over three years in Lagos and Abuja. To move back permanently? I used to want to do that and would even feel guilty that I am not in my country, helping the young to grow,” Habila said. “I don’t worry too much about that now. There are many ways to give back. One of them is what I am doing with the publishing company.

“I try to do my part. I’ll need our leaders and politicians to start doing their part as well before I’ll feel comfortable to go back and live permanently there.”

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