Helon Habila highlights plight of migrants in new novel

Saturday February 22 2020

Nigerian award-winning novelist, poet and journalist Helon Habila

What inspired you into writing your latest novel, Travelers?
The book was inspired by my encounters with migrants in Berlin, Germany, mostly Africans, but also from other countries like Syria and Pakistan, when I lived there in 2013-2014. This was the height of the migrant influx to Europe from these troubled countries. Some of the characters in the book are modeled after characters I interviewed — you could say I wanted to go beyond the headlines and statistics and stereotypes so as to humanise them and their stories.

Migration is just a symptom of a much larger problem plaguing the regions from where people emigrate, often the root causes go further back to the founding of these countries by European powers, who ensured that these countries would remain forever disadvantaged and would remain as nothing more than a source for raw materials for the developed world. In a way, you could say these migrants have no option but to migrate, and where do they migrate to but to the colonising countries?

How did you go about crafting Travelers and how long did it take you?
Because the book is based mostly on interviews, there is an oral flavour to it. I tried to remain as truthful as I could to the voices of my interviewees, while at the same time making it as interesting as I could. As a writer, my duty is to tell stories, interesting stories, no matter how political I want to get, I have to also entertain the reader. So structurally, there is an oral flavour to the stories, and the chapters or books form fragmented sections to reflect the fragmentations that always accompany migration.

There are two or even three levels of narration here, the migrants told me their stories and I am telling these stories to the reader — in telling me their stories, the migrants were interpreting their experiences, in a way trying to make sense of it, in telling these stories, I am also interpreting their interpretation, finally the reader has to also interpret my interpretation. Migrant narratives have been told and retold from the beginning of time, as long as wars and calamities and trade and exploration have existed, as long as travel and exile have exited, migrant tales have also existed. In that sense, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are tropes already waiting for me to use — you know, like a traveller losing his or her documents, or a stranger coming to town and trying to fit in — but in using these tropes, I also have to give them a new and unexpected spin.

You write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and short stories, which is your favourite genre among these?
Each genre has its strength and its uses. Nonfiction allows me to be direct and unambiguous. Poetry allows me to be less direct and metaphoric and lyrical. With fiction, I can be inventive and playful. Of the three though, I would say fiction allows me more possibilities and varieties of ways to communicate.
With fiction, I can be lyrical and poetic and also essayistic— so fiction can do more than the other genres and that gives it an edge. But perhaps the greatest advantage of fiction is that with it, you can explore a character in so much depth, and we all know that in exploring fictional characters, you are also trying to answer personal questions that may have been bothering you, in that sense you could say fiction’s benefits go beyond mere storytelling; it is cathartic and even therapeutic.

Among your books, is there one that is your favourite?
The latest is always the favourite, until the next one comes along. It is like polygamy, isn’t it? The latest wife is always the favourite. Right now, I am all engaged with my current book, Travelers, because I think the subject matter is so relevant to what is happening in our world today. Migration and habitat loss are perhaps the most important issues of the day. I think writers and all artists should pay attention to what is going on around them and find a way to get involved in the discussions and debates that determine how our communities look at things — and perhaps one of the best ways to do that is through our works.


What are the major contemporary themes that you cover in your works?
I don’t set out looking for themes to write about. I don’t classify my books in terms of themes. I am always more interested in character. Why do people do what they do? How does society treat its less privileged citizens? Who decides what gets done, who gets what, who goes where, etc. I think if you look at my books, especially my four novels, you will find a thematic continuity that was really unintentional but is, nevertheless, very organic and seamless.

My first novel, Waiting for an Angel, is about the need to resist autocracy and dictatorship and to fight for democracy no matter the consequence — it took its cue from the prodemocracy struggles that engulfed Nigeria in the 1990s.

My second novel, Measuring Time, goes back from where the first novel begins, back into history to look at my country’s evolution from precolonial days, to colonialism and then post-colonialism and modern day party politics in Nigeria and indeed most African countries.
My third novel, Oil on Water, focuses on climate change, environmental degradation and the struggle for resource control in the Niger Delta — and you must agree that this is an ongoing issue and will be important for a long time to come.

Finally, my current book, Travelers, is about African migrants in Europe. Today in the world, there are more than 60 million migrants, some escaping wars, some looking for economic opportunities and so on — this is the biggest human migration since the Second World War.
You could say it is the single most defining event of our time. It is pertinent then to ask: Why do they leave their countries, why would a mother leave her country and her home and put her child in danger crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean to get to Europe? Some would tell you she is greedy and reckless.

But perhaps the answer could be traced back to what my third novel talked about — loss of habitat due to the exploitative activities of corporations like Shell and Texaco and others like them who destroy our environments and instigate conflicts in our communities, thereby rendering these communities uninhabitable and forcing the locals to seek refuge in Europe and other countries.
We can also trace the reason for these migrations back to colonialism and how it basically created our countries in a way that would ensure they would always remain in conflict and divided and easy to exploit by corporations and Western governments. This is what I write about.

Why do you find letters and writing exciting?
It allows me to express myself. I have always loved reading, and thinking. When you write, you are in conversation, not just with your reader, but also with the writers whom you have ever read, with the writers who in every little way have influenced you.

What keeps you going as writer?
The next book, the next idea, the next challenge. Every new book is different. I am involved in humanity, like John Donne [an English scholar, poet and soldier. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets] said, what happens to others also affect me, so writing is my way of expressing myself about what goes on around me.

What would you have been if you were not a writer today?
I really don’t know. All I can say is that I am lucky to be in a profession that allows me to do what I like the most. I can’t imagine myself in any other profession. The monetary returns may not be much, but the psychological satisfaction is immense. I think it is Graham Greene [an English novelist regarded by many as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century] who once asked: How do people who don’t write or engage in any artistic endeavours cope with the daily madness and confusion that is all around us? How do they stop themselves from going crazy?

What challenges have you encountered in your work?
All sorts. Every stage of a writer’s development comes with its own unique challenges. When you are an aspiring writer, you worry if you will ever be published, or get an agent or finish that first book; then with the second book, you worry if you really have it in you, if the first book was just a fluke; with the third novel, you worry that you may not be that relevant any more, people are not that excited about you, they are on to the next thing. The most important thing is to keep reinventing yourself; to believe in what you are doing, to involve yourself in the most important issues of the day and to try to be part of the great debates of our time, and to do it in innovative and interesting ways.

What is your greatest professional achievement to-date?
I guess my collective work, everything I have written so far. Each is important in its own way. But I guess it is up to the readers and critics to decide what my greatest achievement is. In a way I feel as if I am just starting, I have so much more to achieve. So, ask me again in a decade or so.

Who are the people that have influenced you the most in your professional career?
There are too many to list. All the writers I have read, who have written before me.
The first generation and the second generation. But I must also mention that my contemporaries are perhaps the greatest influence on me.
They keep me on my toes and I think we are in a kind of dialogue all the time, trying to interpret the same conditions in our own different and unique idioms.

Who is Helon Habila?

Background. Helon Habila was born in Kaltungo, Gombe State, Nigeria in November 1967. After studying English Language and Literature at the University of Jos in Nigeria, he moved to Lagos in 1999, where he worked as a journalist for the magazine Hints and the Vanguard newspaper.
Literary works. Habila’s first collection of short stories, Prison Stories, was published by Epik Books in 2000.
Love Poems, one of the stories in this collection, received the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001, which catapulted him onto the international stage.
Habila’s first novel, Waiting for an Angel, came out in 2002. It went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (Africa Region).
His second novel, Measuring Time, came out in 2007. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and it won the Virginia Library Foundation Prize for fiction, 2008.
In 2010, Habila published Oil on Water, a genre mixing environmental political thriller, which has become an international bestseller. Oil on Water was nominated for many awards including, Pen/Open Book Award (shortlist, 2013); Commonwealth Best Book, Africa Region (Shortlist, 2012); The Orion Book Award (shortlist, 2013).
In 2015, Habila won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Literary Achievement.
His non-fiction study of the terrorist attack that resulted in the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria titled The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria was published by Columbia Global Reports in 2016.
Family. He currently teaches creative writing at George Mason University in Virginia, USA. He divides his time between his native Nigeria, and the USA where he lives with his wife and three children.