Nigerian novelist, Helon Habila, whose debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, was published 20 years ago says his writing is shifting from the political towards domestic life: ‘my attention is shifting more towards domestic issues: family, race, and so on... I am more concerned with the meaning of what it means to be a Black person in this world—a Black father, a Black son, a Black daughter, wife.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read widely growing up, out of necessity. I read what books I could lay my hands on, mostly books left lying around by my older brothers, commercial novels mostly, and the occasional classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But before I started reading books in English, I was reading story books in the Hausa language, mostly historical fiction, adventure stories in the magical realist vein. I must have also read the Bible from cover to cover because of the interesting stories. I think this eclecticism in reading material and also reading in more than one language helped me develop an early appreciation for language in general; and the diversity of formal approach in the storytelling itself made me understand early that there is no one way of telling a story, that the most important thing for an author is to make his or her story as interesting as possible.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
A book must transport me absolutely, regardless of it being fiction or non-fiction. I fell in love with reading because of its ability to take me out of my little world as a child—I was lonely as a child, so my escape was through books. I still look for this same quality in books I read, to take me beyond the merely logical and factual to a realm of the magical where anything can happen. I mean magical not only in the literal sense of magical realism or fantasy, but in terms of character as well, and setting, and lyricism, what the critic, Longinus, described as ‘the sublime’. A quality that cannot be described in words. All great works of literature share that quality regardless of what tradition they come from.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
One can disagree with a text for many reasons, for style, for theme, for content, for its argument, and still find something in it to like. I am a more tolerant reader than I used to be, I guess. I read books sometimes because I was commissioned to review them, and in that case, I make my position clear—I did that recently in my review of Dear Senturan by Akweke Emezie for the UK Guardian. I love the writing style, Emezi is a brilliant stylist, but I was turned off by the narcissism.
Before I started reading books in English, I was reading story books in the Hausa language, mostly historical fiction, adventure stories in the magical realist vein. I must have also read the Bible from cover to cover because of the interesting stories.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I’ll say Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Madel. It was recommended to me by my students, but I’ve always shied away from sci-fi and fantasy—this particular work is about time travel. An over-used, over-worked trope, I always thought. But I came away delighted and surprised and better informed. It is among the best books I have read this year. Now I can’t wait to read her other books.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
A mixture of both, I think. Which is a way of saying I have no process. One good thing about having no process is your process cannot be broken because you didn’t have one to begin with. I don’t write linearly, I write whatever part I feel strongly about at that moment; I jump from beginning to ending to middle. I am all over the place. This might have something to do with the fact that I work full-time, and I only write in my spare time, so I don’t have the luxury of elaborate planning and outlining. I just go straight to the writing.
What was your process for writing your debut novel Waiting for An Angel?
Arduous, I must say. I had no computer then, so I wrote in long hand before having it typed afterwards. Also, I wrote under candlelight because I was living in Lagos at the time and our neighbourhood transformer had broken down—they didn’t fix it for four months, and we didn’t have a generator. I had to write at night because I had to work in the daytime, so I’d come back from work around 7 p.m., rest for a few hours and begin writing till around 4-5 a.m. I was driven, you might say. I haven’t written a novel in long hand since that one, I doubt I can replicate that process.
Which part/chapter of Waiting for An Angel was the most challenging to write?
All of it, because it was a first book, and I was in uncharted territory—there was so much uncertainty. I didn’t know if it would get published, I didn’t know if people would find it interesting.
Since we are talking about Waiting for an Angel, I want to point out that this year is the 20th anniversary of its publication. I can’t believe so much time has passed. It was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton in November, 2002. I wrote it as a collection of stories first and self-published in Lagos before it was picked up and turned into a novel by Penguin in the UK and Norton in the US.
What part was easiest to write?
All of it. I was doing what I loved doing more than anything else, and every challenge came with its own pleasure, its own reward. It is hard to explain, it was as if something bigger than myself was inhabiting my body and using me to write, and nothing could have stopped me. That was how I felt.
I fell in love with reading because of its ability to take me out of my little world as a child—I was lonely as a child, so my escape was through books.
You’ve written and published three more novels since then. How would you say your writing style has changed, if at all?
I don’t know if my writing style has changed or not—perhaps I am less lyrical than I used to be. I guess that is for the readers to say. I try to be more direct now, more utilitarian, almost. I am more concerned with clarity than before—I aim for simplicity, which is harder to achieve than most people realize.
One can disagree with a text for many reasons, for style, for theme, for content, for its argument, and still find something in it to like.
Your most recent novel Travelers is about immigration and migrants’ stories. What motivated you to write about this topic?
The most direct motivation was my interaction with migrants in Berlin when I was living there in 2013/14. Meeting them and listening to their stories directly, for the first time, as opposed to just reading about it in the papers or watching it on the news, elicited a very visceral reaction in me. You realize how much inequality and injustice there is in the international order, especially as it regards migration and travel. There are over 70 million people in the world today who are in exile or refugees or who are simply undocumented, living outside their home countries and at the mercy of whatever host country they happen to be living in at the moment. With environmental precarity and wars and so on, these numbers are rising every day.
Africa, Asia and other global south countries are the victims of this inequality—sometimes this is a result of corruption and ineptitude from their own governments, but mostly it is a result of predatory and exploitative policies by multinational corporations and so-called developed countries, going back to colonialism. I guess my book tried to go beyond mere statistics and criminalization of travel to show the individual stories and even the heroism of these migrants, who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. We can’t keep blaming the victims for daring to take their fate in their own hands.
What’s the most interesting feedback you received about this book?
I get lots of feedback at readings from people who identify personally with the stories in the book—anyone who has ever lived outside his or her own country, who has ever found himself or herself at the mercy of strangers, who has had to reinvent themselves and to rediscover what home meant, would understand what the book is about. However, one feedback from my former professor at the University of Jos stood out. She basically taught me all I know about creative writing; and she told me how much the book touched her, and how she was moved to write a long review of the book—one of the most in-depth and insightful reviews of the book, I must say. She is Indian married to a Nigerian and has lived most of her life outside her home country. That meant a lot to me.
You also write poetry. What’s something simple but surprising about poetry?
For me, there’s always something magical about poetry—it is the purest form of expression, like music. I still can’t will myself to write poetry, I can do that with prose, but poetry comes only when it wants to. I have to be inspired, otherwise forget it.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
That 70 per cent percent of writing is reading. The best readers make the best writers—you can tell from a writer’s work if they read or not. In that way writing is an incestuous affair, writing inspires more writing. You have to keep abreast of what your contemporaries are writing, and with what those that came before you wrote. You have to read everything in your own tradition, and most of what is outside your own tradition.
One good thing about having no [writing] process is, your process cannot be broken because you didn’t have one to begin with.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I think any book we meet at any point in our growth as writers and thinkers is timely—there’s nothing like discovering a book too late. The right book will always meet you at the right time—that’s what I believe anyway. I can’t remember what author said that books have souls residing in them, the souls of the authors who wrote them and the souls of every reader who read them and commented on them: these souls guide us, they form an ever-growing community that inform the next book.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I have a pile of books by my bedside that I browse through before going to sleep. The regulars are poems by John Donne; Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault; James Baldwin. I am enjoying the collected essays, Out of the Sun, by Esi Edugyan, the Canadian writer—this is from a lecture series she gave. She is very engaging and intelligent on the subject of race and art and storytelling.
As for my own writing, my attention is shifting more towards domestic issues: family, race, and so on, and away from overtly political issues which formed the bulk of my earlier work. I am more concerned with the meaning of what it means to be a Black person in this world—a Black father, a Black son, a Black daughter, wife, husband. I guess like most people I am simply exhausted by politics, and one begins to realize that there isn’t much one can do to change people’s minds about political things.
What are you currently working on?
A novel about a father and his daughter, tentatively titled: Fathers, Daughters and Lovers. You can’t get more domestic than that. But of course, the real world is always out there waiting to intrude. It is a matter of balance, I guess.
I am more concerned with clarity than before—I aim for simplicity, which is harder to achieve than most people realize.
Question from Yinka Adegoke: When do you accept that an idea or concept you had in mind to write will definitely not work?
It happens all the time—more times than I can count. Any writer can tell you their computer is full of abandoned projects and story ideas. It is part of the process. Some ideas might just not be ready yet—the book I am working on right now, I’ve been working on it, on and off, for over 14 years. I had given up more than once only to return again. Now, suddenly, everything makes sense and I know exactly where I want it to go. With some stories, we may not be wise enough or experienced enough to tell them at the point of inspiration. We have to wait for the right time—or we have to have the humility to accept that they are just not ours to tell. When the right time comes, you will know, and then the story will flow effortlessly.
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