Helon Habila: a profile

October 2002 / The Daily Telegraph

A warm, windless September night in Nairobi, and the young Nigerian novelist Helon Habila is having his palm read by a turbaned Sikh. The Sikh, G S Vohra, is no mere passing random mystique of the street, but the chief executive of an exclusive African hotel chain. Habila, the South African-born writer Dan Jacobson and I are having dinner at Vohra’s home in the affluent but heavily fortified suburbs of the city; there is a security guard at the gate, and razor wire on the high garden walls. Inside, there is space and opulence, fine wine and Punjabi cooking.

It is a night of triumph for 34-year-old Habila. His short story “Love Poems” has just won the second Caine Prize for African Writing - the African Booker - and earlier he was guest of honour at a reception at the Stanley Hotel attended by leading business, cultural and political figures from Kenya and beyond. “But your palm, it’s a little sweaty,” Vohra tells him “You seem anxious. What’s the matter? Does the future frighten you?”

Almost a year later, Helon Habila and I meet at the central train station in Norwich, where he is about to start a two year writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia as its first writer in residence. It is a characteristic autumn fenland morning: low grey skies and a bitter wind. Habila seems subdued as we wander together through the streets, diverting to visit the cathedral. Later, on our way to the monotonous concrete campus where he will live in a flat-roofed apartment overlooking an artificial lake, he tells me how his life has been utterly transformed since we last met. Not just financially, because he is married now - Susan, his 26 year-old wife, is joining him in Norwich. They have been together for many years. “She loved me for who I am, not what I became,” he says. “She believed in me at a time when nobody else did.”

Before he won the 2001 Caine Prize, which is worth $15,000, Helon Habila had never left Nigeria. He was working as a hack writer on a “romance” magazine called Hints, mechanically producing Mills & Boon-style stories of love lost and regained. “Sometimes four a week,” he sighs. At night, he would return home exhausted and begin writing all over again. He wrote with little hope of ever finding a publisher, or of reaching a sympathetic community of readers and writers. He would often work by the light of a candle, because the electricity generator in his Lagos apartment block would fail repeatedly. He had no computer, and very little money. “In Nigeria it’s almost impossible to succeed as a writer,” he says. “You cannot earn a living from fiction. Our most successful writers are all overseas. We also have endemic corruption: to succeed you must either know someone important or be prepared to bribe.”

Yet he felt compelled to carry on, even though he was writing mostly into a vacuum of public indifference. “I was writing for myself, the kind of stories I wanted to read. To finish my book was an obsession, an act of will. I sacrificed so much. It was as if nothing else mattered.”

Habila grew up in Kaltungo, a member of Christian Tangale people in the Muslim north of the country dominated by the Hausa. His parents were poor, but were determined that all their children should be well educated. In his early 20’s, Habila moved to Lagos, which he portrays in his fiction as a cruel, unresting city of extreme loneliness and threat. His writing is full of the disaster of modern Lagos - specifically the Lagos of the years of the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha that ended only in 1999 with the return of civilian rule. He captures well the unease of life under military rule - the censorship, the menace, the fear of arbitrary arrest - and writes candidly about his own experiences as an aspirant writer forlornly seeking release for his restless energies in a corrupt, autocratic society.

Habila eventually finished his collection of themed stories or episodes (issued in Britain and America as Waiting for an Angel). They were published by the father of a friend in a limited print run of 1000 copies. Habila sent his book, in a flimsy, broken-backed edition, to London; somehow it reached Nick Elam, administrator of the Caine Prize.

The first story from the collection, “Love Poems”, was passed to the judges, who included Dan Jacobson and J M Coetzee. Habila was chosen from more than 100 entries; soon afterwards, he signed a £50,000 contract with Penguin, and received a further five-figure sum from Norton in America. For the first time in his life, he was free to do what he had never thought was possible: to travel and to write, without hindrance or restraint.

“I’m a very rich man, certainly in Nigeria, which means that ‘all eyes are on me now’,” he says, quoting the rap star Tupac. “Writers send me their manuscripts; girls call me up or send emails. I’m always being invited to give talks or attend different functions. Whatever I do and say, wherever I go, people write about me. I have lost my old anonymity.”

There is another problem, too, which might be contributing to his sombre mood of today. “Winning the Caine Prize means that I’m under intense pressure to produce another book, to produce something good. People keep asking what I’m doing next, what I’m going to achieve ... But I’m demanding achievement from myself. I’m more prepared, and I have the time. Anyway, I do my best work when under pressure.” He pauses, and then adds, as if to convince himself: “I know I can do it.”

Those who know him well, such as Nick Elam, who has travelled with Habila in both Britain and America, have no doubt that he will become a major writer. “I have watched Helon grow and mature with nothing but admiration,” Elam told me. “We recently attended a Caine Prize event in Washington D C. and he impressed everyone there with his confidence and accomplishment as a public speaker and with his charm. He could not be a better ambassador for the Caine Prize, or for African writing.”

“Love Poems” is the story of a young journalist called Lomba, who is arrested and imprisoned following an anti-government demonstration on which he was reporting. One day the prison superintendent, a brutal near-illiterate, visits Lomba to ask if he would write some love poems, which he then claims as his own, sending them to his more educated girlfriend. Soon Lomba is struggling for inspiration, though he wants nothing more than the freedom to write, and so from memory begins adapting great works of poetry, while all the time sending covert messages to his female reader: “Save my soul, a prisoner.”

Lomba is the main character in Waiting for An Angel. Sometimes a story is written from his perspective; at other times, he is a mere background presence, glimpsed in the shadowy margins of the narrative of another person’s life. Through the experiences of Lomba, Habila revisits painful episodes in his own life - such as the death of his father and one of his brothers, Mikah, in a road accident, and the suffering of an old university friend who was imprisoned and tortured for shouting anti-government slogans.

Arriving on the campus, we are taken to the flat where Habila will live. It is small and cheerless, the heating system is inadequate - but, as he says, “it’s ideal for privacy and for the writing life”. His success means that he is now financially responsible for his entire extended family back in Nigeria, but especially for his mother and nine siblings. “If one person succeeds in an African family, it means the whole family has succeeded,” he says. He is tall, strong, with a high forehead and large penetrating eyes. “You must lift up your family with you. I shall have no problem with sending money home for school fees, or whatever. That’s my duty.”

He is uneasy about the prospect of living away from Nigeria for the first time, and about being apart from his mother. “But I have all I need here to be a writer here in Britain. I couldn’t make a living in Nigeria. There’s no readership. People don’t buy books for pleasure, as they do here.”

Habila is planning, while in Norwich, to write a novel incorporating the last 100 years of Nigerian history. His father fought for the British army during the Second World War and also during the Nigerian civil war, from 1967-70, and he wants imaginatively to recast his father’s experiences in an “epic narrative” about the traumas of post-colonial nation building. Habila is a liberal optimist about his country, which, in truth, is an unhappy construct of more than 250 distinct ethnic groups and languages. The tensions between north and south, between Muslim and Christian, between Hausa and Igbo, are real in Nigeria; but, he believes, if given a period of stability and good government “the people of my country would eventually settle into peaceful coexistence.”

In the taxi to the train station on his way back to London, Habila reflects a little on the journey of his own life: the death of his father that helped “to awaken” him from prolonged late adolescent indolence; his early struggles as a student and as a journalist in Lagos, the years of oppression under Abacha, and then, his life-transforming success. But it is the future that preoccupies him most, the expectation and the uncertainty of it all. “Do you remember that night with the Sikh in Nairobi?” he asks, shifting uneasily in his seat. “I often think about what he said. The situation I find myself in is so different from anything I could have ever imagined. The environment, the people around me - everything has totally changed. Perhaps that’s what he saw in my hand: that coming change and anxiety.”

With that, Helon Habila springs out of the car. It is growing dark and I watch him as he hurries towards the station, an African in East Anglia who knows that all eyes are on him now.