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BU Celebrates African Fiction Tomorrow

Nigerian Helon Habila on globalization, politics, and the novel

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Helon Habila is one of four contemporary African writers taking part in a panel discussion and a reading celebrating fiction from Africa on Wednesday.

Helon Habila is heartened by the growing popularity of emerging contemporary African novelists in the West.

Coming from a nation that has produced many of the world’s great writers, including Chinua Achebe and 1986 Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist is also a poet and winner of many awards, among them the 2001 UK-based Caine Prize for African Writing. Formerly a journalist in Lagos, now a creative writing professor at George Mason University in Virginia, the 42-year-old Habila, author of Measuring Time and the forthcoming Oil on Water, will join a diverse group of four African writers at BU tomorrow for A Celebration of Contemporary African Fiction.

A panel discussion at 4 p.m. kicks off the celebration, and at 7 p.m. there will be a reading and reception. Habila will be joined at both events by Caine Prize winner Henrietta Rose-Innes of South Africa, Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana, and Zimbabwean author Bernard Matambo. Nigerian writer E. C. Osondu, another Caine Prize winner, will moderate the panel discussion, and Senegalese percussionist Lamine Touré will open and close the program, which will also feature a performance of traditional African dance by BU’s Kenti Wala Ensemble. Cosponsored by the BU-based literary journal Agni, the University’s African Studies Center, the African American Studies Program, and PEN New England, the event marks the release of The Agni Portfolio of African Fiction, which contains work by Habila, Rose-Innes, Baingana, and Matambo. Agni appears online, with biannual print editions.

Habila’s novels reflect Nigeria’s cultural tapestry and tensions, its politics, and the legacy of its civil war. But they are much more than that: brimming with colorful characters and urgent detail, they transport us to the world in which Habila came of age. BU Today spoke with the novelist and poet about Africa and African writers in a changed world, how stories are born, and the necessity of politics in his work.

BU Today: Are there more Africans writing today, or is it that their Western audience is growing?

Habila: I think there’s a growing awareness of African writing, but the writing has always been there. It’s not as if the African novel is just being invented; Africans writers have won three Nobel prizes. But now, more than before, you have young writers publishing first and second novels who live outside Africa. So that is one reason why you find greater awareness. And there’s the Internet, so there’s more buzz around. Whereas before nobody would know about this work except for a few cognoscenti, now people talk about it. And people are more interested in other people now. What globalization has done is increase the focus on other people who before were just on the margin. People feared an American imperialism when it came to writing, but instead you find an awareness of other cultures—a kind of democratization of other cultures.

Do your books have a wide audience in Nigeria?

I like to think I have a big audience there, that I’m known in Nigeria. I return as often as I can. The last time was last summer; I was there to teach a creative writing class. It’s amazing how much Nigeria has changed. There’s a reality show called Big Brother Africa, and absolutely everyone is obsessed with it. That, and soccer.

Is there a surge of young writers in Nigeria today?

Yes. We’re surprised by the number of submissions to contests—hundreds where there were once just a few. It shows you the increasing demand for writing, the desire to publish, and a wider awareness of literature.

What writers did you read growing up in Nigeria?

I read all sorts of writers, both local like Achebe, Soyinka, and Ben Okri, who we read in school or outside of school. There was also the British curriculum, with classical writers like Shakespeare and Dickens. I actually did my senior essay on Toni Morrison. And we read detective stories for pleasure—Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew. I finished the whole Nancy Drew series when I was 11 or 12. It just shows you the eclectic nature of reading that we had. And books were scarce, so we read whatever we could find—Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins. We were just indiscriminate.

Do you draw on real people you’ve known for your characters?

I do. It helps, because you have all the information, you throw it in from life. It doesn’t mean that you don’t modify and change things. It’s easier than creating just from zero—it’s like a model. I also use myself, not just other people. But they all develop into their own characters.

Would you consider your books political?

To some extent, yes. There’s an awareness of justice and injustice, issues of power and powerlessness, and people who are marginalized. It’s always an awareness of the political; I’m very conscious of that.

There are so many wonderful Nigerian writers. Does their work share certain characteristics—is there a Nigerian sensibility?

Yes, I think there is a kind of political awareness in Nigerians, mostly because things are not going very well. You cannot be unaware of things not being the way they should be, and that becomes a subject for you to write about. It’s a way of expressing your anger, your disappointment, while not being too prescriptive or analytical. If you compare a Nigerian writer with an American writer, then you understand what I’m saying. In America, you wouldn’t concentrate so much on politics; they’re not as dominant in the culture. Of course there are politics in the West, but the anger is not on the same level.

How well informed are Americans about the Nigerian civil war or the nation’s culture?

Not very. Of course you meet people who are specialized, who teach African issues, so they know about these things. But in the general public, people might be vaguely aware of something called Biafra. You see that Americans get their information from CNN, not from books, and this media tend to tell you what’s happening right now, so there’s more emphasis on, say, Congo or Rwanda. But they only know about the Nigerian civil war in 1967 if they’re doing research. I don’t blame them; they don’t have to know more. It’s just the way it is; you learn to accept it, understand it, or ignore it. You don’t get annoyed.

Do you write with the awareness that you’re teaching readers about Nigeria and its history?

Yes; it’s my understanding of what a novel does. It doesn’t just talk about characters, but how they live. If you pick up Charles Dickens, you understand what was going on in London at that time—you have the political, you have the historical, you try to explain the situation and build up the action, and you can’t do that without all the background. I’m definitely conscious of that. I’m interested in history, and I like to examine my characters in the context of history. I try to talk about the forces that brought them there. It makes the reader understand that the characters aren’t victims; they just happened to be there. All good art should do that, whether it’s cinema or a novel.

Tell us about your new book, Oil on Water, about the Niger Delta, and how it came about.

I was contacted by a film company in London; they wanted me to write a movie script for them, and that was really how the novel started. I had never planned to write a novel on the Niger Delta, so I started reading about it. We parted ways because they decided to have their own writers, who they could control. It was so different from a novel—they tried to determine what I was going to write. I continued working on it as a novel. I investigated and read about the area, about the injustice and the destruction of the environment, and thought, this is worthy of a novel. The people were so helpless, the government was sometimes indifferent. You have to understand that things wouldn’t have come to that stage if the government had done its duty. It’s so bad now—one of the most important wetlands in Africa is destroyed—and the government is letting it go. When you look at the BP spill recently in the Gulf, something of that magnitude happens almost every year in Nigeria, and there’s indifference. My whole novel is trying to dramatize that, to picture the little man.

Do you go back and forth between poetry and prose?

It’s mostly going forth towards prose. I still haven’t published my collection of poems. What made my writing poetry possible was growing up in Nigeria, where it wasn’t easy to publish anything and the only thing you could publish was poetry because of all the contests. And I wrote it at that age when you’re so idealistic and so passionate, it’s so right for writing poetry. I find I write poetry less than I used to, maybe because I have so many contracts, so much to do, that it kills the poetic impulse in me. When I compare the process, poetry is more spontaneous in that I can’t control the process; it comes when it wants to come. But with prose I can will myself to write.

A Celebration of Contemporary African Fiction panel discussion is at 4 p.m. tomorrow, November 10, at the African Studies Center, 232 Bay State Rd., fifth floor. The reading begins at 7 p.m. at the Photonics Center auditorium, second floor, 8 St. Mary’s St., and will be followed by a reception. Both events are free and open to the public. More information can be found here. Visit Agni’s Facebook invite here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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