Tag Archives: Helon Habila

A Tale of Two Bookstores

store front display

Image courtesy Ann Arbor Review of Books

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the bookshops and wander in to see what is available by way of Nigerian literature. During a visit to London some years ago, after several explorations that yielded nothing, I finally chanced upon a lone copy of One is Enough (1981) by Flora Nwapa in a bookshop in central London. The book was tucked away at the back of the store along with a small selection of African American and erotica novels.

I picked it up, feeling a sense of its misplacement and wondered how Nigerian literature had fallen so far from its ‘Golden Era’ — that heady period immediately preceding and following Nigeria’s independence when praise for the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola and Elechi Amadi echoed in publications like the TLS and the Observer and labelled ‘timeless’, ‘universal’, ‘excellent’ and ‘bewitching’. How had Nigerian writing fallen into such obscurity?

Fast forward just over a decade — two weeks ago I found myself walking along the high street of a small English town, when the bold red and blue of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah catches my attention from the store front display of Waterstones. Next to Adichie’s new novel is Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasie (Dare we lay claim to her?) Both beckon invitingly and I draw closer, beguiled by the prominent display.

I knew that Nigerian literature, particularly fiction from the Nigerian diaspora, had picked up in the years since I futilely scoured London bookshops. But it took encountering these books on such front and centre positioning in a town with a population of 50,000 and a very small black community to realise the milestone Nigerian literature had reached over the last decade or so.

There are disparate points of view as to why Nigerian literature is – to put it simply – hot again. A school of thought would attribute it to the re-establishment of democracy in 1999. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Nigeria had been more or less in the throes of malignant military dictatorships. These regimes felt threatened by creative and intellectual expression and had made known their displeasure. Books, like Soyinka’s The Man Died(1972) were banned, writers, poets and journalists were imprisoned — publishing went into a decline.

With the return to democracy, it appears that the collective silence of self-preservation lifted, and people finally felt free to chronicle the political and economic realities of the era. This argument further explains why the majority of the works that were published immediately after that period –Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel (2002), Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus(2003), and Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004) – are full of criticism of the former establishment.

A second school is of the opinion that Chimamanda Adichie is the big bang of Nigeria’s literary renaissance. Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for several international awards and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First book and she was hailed as the protégé of the great Chinua Achebe. International publishing houses, whose interest had been piqued by the celebrated young writer, began to look more closely at works by Nigerians in the hope of discovering the next Chimamanda. Other aspiring writers, in their turn, seeing the possibility of a writing career, became more ambitious and started to aim for the international market. Supposedly, this spurred authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Adaobi Nwaubani, Chinelo Okparanta and many others.

Another argument attributes the rise of Nigerian literature to the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was established in 2000 and won by Helon Habila in 2001. With its £10,000 prize money and exposure for winners, as well as the fact that many winners debuted internationally soon after, it has provided a platform for aspiring writers to break out into the mainstream. It has further ensured that only the best from Africa has emerged — the Caine Prize winner’s list and shortlists are a near accurate touchstone of internationally acclaimed Nigerian writing. Since the establishment of the prize, Nigeria has produced five winners, including Rotimi Babatunde and Tope Folarin, the 2012 and 2013 winners respectively. And, undoubtedly, these success stories are inspiring many to the craft.

Whatever the reason behind this growth, what is clear is that Nigerian literature has recently achieved unparalleled success. With more than 250 ethnic groups and a population of 160 million, Nigeria cannot have too many voices telling its stories to the world — offering varying perspectives and a deconstruction of age-old stereotypes.

Back at Waterstones in the small English town, I give in and enter to buy both the books. Copies of Americanah and Ghana Must Go are stacked high on the ‘New Bestsellers’ table by the entrance, alongside titles by EL James and Sylvia Day. Erotica again! Democracy and Chimamanda Adichie may have promoted Nigerian literature, but apparently, it isn’t the only genre to have made that long journey from the back of the store.

Updated version of article published on Wasafiri Blog on May 28, 2013

Author Q&A Series: Helon Habila


Helon Habila is the author of ‘Oil on Water’, ‘Measuring Time’, and ‘Waiting for an Angel’. His books have won him both The Common Wealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. A professor at George Mason University’s Graduate Creative Writing Programme, Habila talks, here, about being wary of strangers bearing anecdotes, bad poetry, and the return of Lomba and of Christ…

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

If I wasn’t happily married I’d say Hagar from Waiting for an Angel. She is described as being very beautiful. And she is a prostitute. But, since I am happily married I’ll say Lomba from the same book. I am thinking of doing a sequel to Waiting, so I’d like to prepare him for all the heartache coming his way, and to let him know there will definitely be a happy ending.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Bad poetry, mostly. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare, and trying to do rhymes. Recently a girl I used to know showed me a poem I wrote for her and I was amazed at how bad it was. I just hope she doesn’t put it on facebook.

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

A random guy in a bus in Lagos. He was really enjoying the book; it was Waiting for an Angel. When my friend who I was with told him I was Helon Habila he didn’t believe it.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

It has to be 100 Years of Solitude by Marquez. When you look under “kick ass” in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of that book. I still haven’t read another novel that has quite wowed me in the same way.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

Only one?

Achebe or Soyinka?

Now you are trying to get me into trouble – I think I’ll be justified if I say I like them both equally since their styles are very different. I like Soyinka for his poetry. Ogun Abibiman is perhaps the best work of poetry you can ever read by any author.  Achebe I like for Things Fall Apart, it is an inspired work.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Are you kidding? Any fool can sell a million copies, but winning the Nobel is like being touched by the gods. It is a gift.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

Very hard to answer this one. But I’ll have to go with a sustained career of good books. I think it takes time for most artists to grow and to master their medium, but once they do, they never falter. And even their minor works will still show their promise and ability. You only really understand an artist when you consider his/her whole corpus, not just one single book.

Best perk of being a writer?

It teaches you to think, and to express yourself clearly.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Complete strangers keep trying to tell you their life story, or their family history, or some anecdote about their colourful uncle, when all you want to do is to have a polite conversation, and maybe compare notes about kids and after school programmes. They just think they have to say something smart or learned. It is very tiring.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I really don’t read my own reviews.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

That it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. You have to grind, just like in any other profession. Only the most committed succeeds in the end.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

Actually I noticed my spelling is getting wrose these days. The computer is making us all lazy. But my punctuation is impeccable. So, I’ll say 4/5 for spelling and 5/5 for punctuation.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

The list is long. But to pick one: Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially since I’ve been known to quote lines from the book in conversations.

What is your guilty reading?

I used to read the venerable Dame Barbara Cartland – but that was a long time ago.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Time. It gets harder to find time in between the myriad compelling demands one has to contend with every day. Between work and family, the day is gone before you are even properly awake. My advice to young writers: if you really want to have a crack at this, don’t marry till you are at least 40, have your first, and only, child at 45, then maybe, just maybe, you will have a fair chance of success.

And the most pleasurable?

It has to be the perfect sentence. When you write the perfect sentence, you will know. No one has to tell you, and that is its own reward. If you are lucky to achieve that in the morning, the rest of your day will just be glorious. Nothing can go wrong.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

I’ll have to say lack of commitment. I don’t mean this in an ideological, didactic sense. But a book has to show a high seriousness, an awareness about people, about its socio-political milieu, couple that with the requisite aesthetic awareness, and you have me.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

I don’t know – maybe a whip wielding Christ to once again clear the commerce ridden, money worshipping society we live in.

What’s next?

Sometimes I feel as if I haven’t even started as a writer. I am as eager about writing as I was the first day I decided to become a writer. Writing has taught me to think, and to question concepts that I’d otherwise accept as given.

Read others in the Author Q&A series