Everything Follows: An Interview With Helon Habila

Frank Bures

In Waiting for an Angel, one of your characters says, "In this country, the very air we breathe is politics."
Exactly. Because the African societies—almost all African societies—are in a formative stage now. Our rulers are not what they should be. Our economy is not what it should be. So we cannot afford to write escapist kinds of literature, going back seventy years, eighty years. We have to put all our resources into shaping our future. There is no one to do it for us. You have journalists; you have columnists. But what will last is the novel. It's going to be there for hundreds of years. It's going to be a document that will reach our children.

If I were a kid from the Nigerian country-side and I wanted to go to Lagos to be a writer, what would I want to do? What path would I want to take?
The easiest way, if you want to do that, is to become a journalist. Because most of the writers in Lagos are journalists. So you will get to meet them. You have to join the writers' body called the Association of Nigerian Authors. They have meetings, and that's where you see all the foreign writers who come to the country. They give talks. And whenever there is a competition, that is where you get to hear about it. And they publish anthologies of writing from new writers almost every year, so you are lucky to get your work published in it. That's also where you are likely to hear opinions about your writing, because you show it to people there who are aspiring writers like you. The competitions are very, very important. Once you win a competition, it sets you slightly above other people there. You tend to get interviewed by these journalists in the literary columns, and people take you more seriously. And maybe your work will be published in an anthology. Then you are a published writer, and you start going from there.

And you won two competitions at the same time?
Two in one year, and one the following year.

You came across this book Aspects of the Novel, which you say became your bible. What did you get out of that book?
Everything. Everything. After reading that book, I really decided I wanted to be a writer. I just loved everything. And the examples—so many books mentioned. I was impressed by the amount of books cited there, and that this guy must have read all these books. And then I started thinking, "Let me try to get these books." Because the books he used are the best from English literature.

Do you remember which ones?
Henry James, Dickens, even some French writers and Russian writers. So I said to myself, "Let me just get these books and read them." So I started gathering some of them, the ones I could get in Nigeria, and reading them. That was before I went to university. But what that book taught me was just about the whole craft of fiction—from characterization to point of view to everything. And when I went to university, on the first day of our fiction class, I was just looking at the lecturer, because the text for the course was Aspects of the Novel. And I had read it cover to cover. And at one point I was quoting from the book and she said, "Wow." She was amazed.

You said that literature opened you up to the idea that life could be different from what you saw around you.
Yeah. Life could be more meaningful. You see, literature is ordered. You have your beginning. You have your middle. You have your ending. You have your story. You have your plot. Everything follows. Everything falls into place. If we could actually make our lives like that, life would have more meaning. I know life doesn't follow a plot. But imagine if you try thinking like that, following the example of literature, dispensing with whatever is not necessary in our lives, knowing that if we go outside this line we should follow then the story is going to be destroyed. Our lives are going to be destroyed. We could just go, doing what is necessary, what we have to do, dispensing with whatever is not necessary, like a good story. Then we live a happy life. We have a good moment at the end.

In England, is it different to be in a place where the power of the written word is not so much that it can endanger your life? Where it's just…
Just "literary activity." Yeah. It's very different. And it shows in the literature here. Their books are mostly about domestic affairs. This husband divorces his wife. This person leaves home and doesn't come back and the children grow up without a father. Whereas in Africa, you can define our literature as mainly political. So the writers here are more relaxed. There's more freedom here. There's more latitude to do what you want to do, say what you want to say. And I think there's a danger here of forgetting one's origins, one's roots, if one stays here too long. So one needs to keep in touch with one's roots all the time, to keep going back. It confirms to you that what you are doing is right.… But the good thing is that there are a lot of African writers here, from all parts of Africa.

What do you think the Caine Prize could do for literature in Africa?
You know, there has been a lot of debate in Nigeria, among my friends, among poets and writers there, about whether this prize is really good for Africans or not, or whether it's a kind of patronizing prize given to Africans by the colonial masters, based on their idea of what African literature should be. But I see that as bullshit. We have to be realistic. The situation back home is very dire, very difficult. Writers need any break they can get now. Nobody is giving us any chances. The writers who made it, like Wole Soyinka and Achebe, they're not helping anybody; they're not introducing us to the publishers. Nobody is making any headway. The Commonwealth Prize is different. The NOMA Prize is different. They are for published works. But with the Caine Prize, you can enter with a story in a journal. It's going to the grass roots. It's going to the young writer who has nothing going for him. If you look at the winners over the past few years, they have been writers who are unpublished. Writers like me. Before me it was Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese housewife. We need that kind of thing now, because the publishers are not there. If I was in Nigeria now, if I hadn't won the Caine Prize, I don't even want to think of where I would be.

One of your characters says, "There is so much we can't understand, because we are only characters in a story and our horizon is so narrow and so dark." Is the way so dark now?
No, I think it's better now. All over, especially in Nigeria. We are real people now. We are not just characters in a story now. We don't live by the whim of the author. We can actually turn our lives now. We can actually think for ourselves culturally. We can hope now. There is hope.

Frank Bures is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. He writes for Tin House, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. His profile of Elizabeth Gilbert appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.