This is an interview I did with Nigerian novelist Helon Habila about a year ago, November 2007. I did my MA thesis on his novel Waiting for an Angel, and was thrilled to get to interview him for Leadership newspaper.
Award winning novelist Helon Habila grew up in Gombe State. After earning his BA in English at the University of Jos in 1995, he taught at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi. Moving to Lagos in 1999, he became the arts editor at the Vanguard and wrote a novel, published as Waiting for An Angel in 2002, which won the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2001 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003. Habila has published stories, articles, and poems in journals world-wide and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. After a stint as the first Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in New York, Habila took a position at George Mason University where he teaches creative writing. He is in Nigeria from November 17 to November 24 to promote his second novel Measuring Time. In this interview on behalf of LEADERSHIP, he speaks with Carmen McCain, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, about his writing.
CARMEN MCCAIN: I was wondering what your creative process is like. Where do your stories come from?
HABILA: I really cannot say exactly, but I am really inspired by books. Sometimes I write in reaction to books I have read. Then there is also my experience: Measuring Time has a lot of that—my experiences as a child growing up. There was a time when I realised that I wanted to write about my hometown. From that moment whatever I did I viewed it through the eyes of fiction, thinking of how to represent the people I met, the things I did, the places I saw. I was thinking of them as already a part of my book that I was going to write. I was going to write Measuring Time even before I started writing Waiting for an Angel.
In both of your novels the act of writing itself seems to take on a political significance. What, to you, is the political responsibility of the writer?
Well, quite a lot, especially as an African writer. I think there is that tradition which started from the first generation of African writers. They were writing against the whole colonial system, which was very repressive, very racist, very dictatorial. They actually used to have congresses where they would discuss the best way to write fiction in a way that would address the political issues of the day. Even before that, in traditional African society, from the folk tales, there’s always a kind of moral lesson, a kind of didacticism that is seen as an aesthetic part of that story. So politics more or less becomes an aesthetic in African fiction. There are no boundaries between what is purely political and what is art. Art becomes politics and politics becomes art. So I think people like me who find themselves in that tradition, and have that temperament, that awareness of what is going on, who feel that things shouldn’t be the way they are, have a duty to speak out. It is tradition and it’s also a matter of temperament, because there are definitely writers in Africa who don’t write about politics. They write art for art’s sake, or whatever you want to call it.
Could you say more about the influences of Hausa literature on your writing?
Definitely. I grew up reading the translation of One Thousand and One Nights in Hausa and the works of Abubakar Imam, Magana Jari Ce, Ruwan Bagaja, etc. So there is that magical or folkloric representation of reality, which is very different from pure realism. I was definitely influenced by that. And before that I was also influenced by folktales told to me by women in the compound. So, these Hausa books I discovered later were almost a continuation of that story tradition with the magical elements, spirit figures and things like that.
Both of your novels deal with history. In Measuring Time, the character Mamo wants to write a biographical history. Is this one of your own goals?
Definitely, I think so. Because so much that we have is fast fading away and being taken over by the modern, I see writing itself as cultural conservation. That is exactly what Mamo’s project is, conserving the history of people…, because they were misrepresented by the [missionary] Reverend Drinkwater. If you represent what has been misrepresented, you are putting the records right. And that is what history is supposed be. Taking moments of glory, and also ordinary moments—moments of humanity, of value to the community, and putting it down in books. It doesn’t have to be about generals, it doesn’t have to be about chiefs, it could be about ordinary people, their heroism. That is the whole point of the book, that lives should be celebrated, regardless of what office or what lack of office that person has.
Newton Aduaka, the winner of the Golden Yennenga Stallion at the FESPACO film festival, is making a film based on Waiting for an Angel. How involved have you been with this?
I’m not really involved. I’m just the author of the novel. I see film as being totally different from literature. They are both narrative art forms, but they have different ways of representing their story, their subject. I trust him as an artist. I think my novel is strong enough to stand on its own, even if the movie is a bit different in some of its portrayals.
Have you ever thought of writing a screenplay or becoming involved in film?
I really want to do that some day. Some people approached me to write a movie script. I started writing it and then it became a novel! I’m really enjoying the experience. I don’t know how far it’s going to go, but I’m definitely going to go into movies one of these days. To write, or even direct, if I have the chance. The movie industry is just incredible, and I think this is the moment to get involved.
All right, thank you so much.
Thank you, you’re welcome.