Nigerian-born writer Helon Habila sits in a sparsely furnished office at George Mason University, where he has just begun an assistant professorship. Habila’s digs are in a remote hallway of the Science and Technology I building, where few other teachers from the English department are housed. Other professors might have been miffed at the office assignment, but Habila is content with his bare, isolated surroundings. “It’s my cave,” he says, looking satisfied.
The privacy that Habila craves in real life contrasts with the block-party feel of his writing, in which various influences – Nigerian writers such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, colonial-era missionary writing, and Western icons such as Sappho, Shakespeare, and John Donne – all come out to play. “They are always there,” Habila says of his inspirations. “You can’t escape them. Even though they are there in the background, they always come to the fore when you least expect it. You can’t escape your education.”
The new Measuring Time, Habila’s second novel, exemplifies his omnivorous approach. In epic strokes, he follows the lives of twins Mamo and LaMamo, whose experiences reflect transitions in Africa during the second half of the 20th century. Toward the end of the novel, Mamo attends a play in his village, Keti, that depicts the arrival of Keti’s first missionary, the Rev. Drinkwater. “[Mamo] suddenly realized why the people found the play so intriguing year after year,” Habila writes. “To them the play was not about Drinkwater and his “˜conquest’ of their culture by his culture, it was about their own survival. They were celebrating because they had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs….This was their wisdom, the secret of their survival. This was why they were still able to laugh.”
Like the play in Measuring Time, Habila’s writing exposes a legacy of oppression, and the skill with which he pulls off this trick has won the 39-year-old acclaim: An excerpt from his first novel, Waiting for an Angel, won the 2001 Caine Prize, Africa’s largest literary award ($15,000), and the novel itself earned the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book prize for the African region. With Measuring Time, which Habila wrote while working on his Ph.D. at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, the author is poised to join the ranks of successful Nigerian contemporaries like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, and Uzodinma Iweala.
“The vividness of his realism is exceptional in Helon’s case,” says Jon Cook, Habila’s thesis supervisor at UEA. “That’s to say, the way in which he brings you close to the details of particular lives, characters as they interact in a specific context – in this case, the context of recent Nigeria.” He adds, “I’m convinced that he’s a major novelist in the making.”
Habila is unassuming in person: A slight man with serious eyes, he laughs easily. The first time we meet, he is dressed in a close-fitting sweater, slacks, and wingtips. But his gentle, mannered demeanor occasionally gives way to the anger that underlies much of his writing. He gets worked up when the discussion turns to the way Western reporters cover Africa: “[I]f they were to write something positive, they would find a white man there who is doing something in Africa, helping Africans, and they write a big profile of that person bringing help to Africans. You know?,” he says. “That Bono nonsense.”
Habila grew up in Gombe City in the northern part of Nigeria, a place he describes in his short story “My Uncle Ezekiel,” published in 2004 in the Virginia Quarterly Review, as “a sleepy roadside town in the savannah.” His father worked in the Nigerian Ministry of Works, and Habila had many siblings, though most of them lived with relatives in their native village, Kaltungo, in order to learn the Tangale language. Habila spent a lot of time alone with books. As a child, he spoke and read mostly Hausa and English. (His ethnicity is Tangale, but Gombe City is in a Hausa-speaking region of Nigeria.) His English-language reading list included everything from the Bible to spy thrillers to romance novels – “whatever I could find, because books were so scarce,” he says. In Hausa, stories influenced heavily by the magical tradition of Arabic literature caught his attention.
“[In Hausa literature] you find stories of spirits, a fluidity between the real world and the spiritual world,” he says. “It’s very good in that sense because it shows you the possibilities of fiction. You are not bound by the devices of realism; you can do whatever you want to do…. It gave me more freedom to imagine.”
Because he was good at science, Habila attended a science-focused secondary school, and his father encouraged him to study engineering at university. But Habila was so unhappy with the subject that he stopped going to classes and dropped out after a year. He then enrolled in another engineering course, but that, too, was a bust, and Habila left after two years and moved back home. Finally, after two years spent retaking high-school-level tests to qualify for an arts program, Habila enrolled at the University of Jos as a literature student.
That period in Habila’s life, the mid-’90s, was a time of unrest in Nigeria. In 1993, dictator Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida was displaced by Sani Abacha, his defense minister. Abacha ruled until 1998, when he died of a heart attack, allegedly while in bed with two Indian prostitutes. Babangida’s rule had been bad; Abacha’s was far worse. “Whereas Babangida used bribery and corruption to rule, Abacha used plain, old-fashioned terror,” Habila wrote in the afterword to his first novel. “There were more “˜official’ killings, arrests, and kidnappings in those five years than in all the other military years put together.” At the University of Jos, student strikes meant that classes were canceled for a full year, and Habila graduated in five years instead of four: “We carried placards; we marched; we demonstrated,” he says. “We got chased by the police; they threw tear gas at us and all that. These are the kinds of things you go through when you’re schooled in Nigeria. You can’t escape it.” But living in Nigeria during those years inspired him: “You develop a kind of hunger, an anger, annoyance – you just want to express yourself.”
So, in 1999, Habila moved to Lagos, Nigeria’s cultural capital, to begin his writing career. It was a good time to be a Nigerian intellectual: Abacha was gone and the new government was pardoning some political prisoners. But the hero of Habila’s first novel endures the old, bad Nigeria. Waiting for an Angel, which Habila began writing soon after he graduated from college, follows Lomba, a journalist and aspiring novelist in Babangida- and Abacha-era Lagos who is sucked into campus strikes and civil unrest. In one scene, a character named Helon Habila appears at a frantic literary party during the worst anti-intellectual purges; he vomits off a balcony and then politely introduces himself to Lomba. Habila’s actual life in Lagos, which began several years after his fictional appearance there, was somewhat calmer: He started out writing short stories (“Cheesy, teenager kind of stuff”) and political columns for a romance magazine, and later he got a job as the literary editor of a newspaper.
Akin Adesokan, a Nigerian novelist and critic, met Habila in Lagos after he edited one of Habila’s book reviews for the Lagos Post-Express. “I was editing an arts page…and he sent in a review,” says Adesokan. “I just read the first sentence and I said, “˜Wow, he’s a writer. Wow, who is this?’…He later told me that it was his first review.” Adesokan adds that despite Habila’s lack of professional experience, the review exhibited “a great deal of confidence about putting letters together – beyond the plodding or the routine or the run of the mill…. [T]here’s a [high] level of commitment to art that I see in his writing.”
Habila worked on his first novel at night, writing in longhand and then coaxing his friends to help him type it, print it, and publish a round of 1,000 copies. When the excerpt from Waiting for an Angel won the 2001 Caine Prize, the $15,000 award, and the recognition that came with it, allowed him to leave Nigeria with his wife, Susan, and take up a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, which claims to have the top creative-writing program in Britain. It seemed to him like the appropriate cap to his years of work. “I was prepared for it, I was expecting it,” Habila says. “It was not an overnight success.”
At UEA, Habila worked with teachers such as Cook and Richard Holmes, a biographer of Coleridge who encouraged the fascination with biography that fuels much of Measuring Time. “Helon was reading a lot; he was engaging in conversation with people,” says Cook. “And those conversations, those readings, fed into the writing of Measuring Time….[His time at UEA] expanded his sense of the historical range of his narratives.”
“I think my writing would have been different if I hadn’t lived outside of Nigeria [and] seen things and detached myself from that immediate environment that I write about,” Habila says. “Some people might think it will remove the anger from your voice, remove the power and the immediacy. But I don’t see things being like that. I think there’s more maturity and understanding in my second novel than in my first novel, because of that distance.”
Habila wrote Measuring Time in England, but he had already begun a gradual migration across the Atlantic, beginning with the Chinua Achebe fellowship at Bard College in 2005 and 2006. He learned about an opening at George Mason last summer, and after he applied, the process moved quickly; Habila and his family moved to Fairfax shortly after the beginning of the year, and he jumped right into teaching: “Arrived Friday, had class on Monday,” he says.
Measuring Time took four years to write, during which time Habila says he “suffered” to assemble its complex narrative. (His two children, Adam and Edna Alheri, were also born in that time.) The scope of the novel is huge. While Mamo’s twin brother LaMamo runs away to be a child soldier in Liberia, eventually joining up with Doctors Without Borders, Mamo, the physically weaker of the two, stays in their village and becomes determined to write a history of Nigeria from the Nigerian perspective. Through LaMamo’s letters, the novel explores the extreme violence of civil war; through Mamo’s academic endeavors, Measuring Time peels back layers of Nigerian history.
The novel, like Mamo’s writing, addresses easy assumptions about Africans. When Mamo mails an essay about a local missionary to several history journals, one, a Ugandan publication offers to publish it immediately. A London magazine, on the other hand, declines to publish but offers a codicil: “[I]f you have other pieces that address such issues as the AIDS scourge, or genital circumcision, or other typical African experiences in a challenging and progressive way, we’d like to take a look at them.”
“I’ve come across that every day,” Habila says. “The moment you mention Africa, it’s as if you’re switching a kind of button in their minds, and all they think about is starvation, poverty, war, dictatorship. But there are people living there every day.”
Habila is currently working on a biography of Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera. “He’s politically very different [from other African writers],” Habila says. “He’s not what we would call the Pan-Africanist Nationalist kind of fiction [writer]…where you have that excessively pro-African point of view, that whatever is African is good, whatever is not African is bad. Marechera is not that kind of writer – he’s clearsighted, he gives blame where blame is due. He’s totally without sentiment in that regard.”
But just because most of his subjects are African, Habila says, that doesn’t mean he’s not open to being read by Westerners – provided they don’t only want to hear about “typical African experiences.”
“I always say that I write for lovers of story, wherever they happen to be,” he says. “Whoever enjoys stories is going to enjoy my book. Because it’s just a story, basically.”
Habila reads on Thursday, March 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Karibu Books, Pentagon City Mall, Arlington; call (703) 415-1118 for more information.