15 November 2005

Nigeria: Writing Sets You Free


Nairobi — Mr Helon Habila, a Nigerian novelist who won the first Caine Prize for African Writing was in Kampala to attend the African Writers Conference. He spoke to DAVID KAIZA about the future of writing on the continent

African writing has been seen in colonial terms. We have Franco-African writing and Anglo-African literature. How then can one talk of "African literature?"

We are Francophone and Anglophone writers. We are hybrid people. We can't just cut out this colonial experience from our lives like it never happened.

Is English our language?

Ngugi wa Thiongo said you can't write in English; that you can't honestly express African experience in a foreign language. But we are still writing in English.

So time has answered his question. Nobody needs to go back and tell him he was wrong.

But how African is African literature when it is written in English?

English has gone beyond the English people. It is the language we use to communicate. No one novel or writer can give you all the answers.

Is it your feeling that African writers have been looking for a theme?

I don't think writers sit down to say, "Let's write about this."

Maybe in West Africa you have conflict in Sierra Leone. People write about that and you have a common theme. People like Achebe, Ngugi and others of their generation had their different experiences. East Africa had longer contact with the West and that determined the kind of novel that emerged from the region. Ngugi talks about land issues in his novels because the British took land in Kenya.

Some non-African writers such as V.S. Naipaul have described African literature as thin. Do you agree?

J.M Coetzee is also on record as saying that African writers are merely interpreters of Africa to foreigners. My view is that we are interpreting because we were misrepresented. Colonialism is not an easy experience. People have to come out of it and begin to see the world afresh, which takes time.

What Naipaul implied was that African literature is not serious

He is a very cynical person. He has said the same about India, but it does not mean he is right. I don't think African literature is thin. Africans are looked down upon. The international media is very harsh on Africa. But African writers are trying to show a different picture.

As a young writer, what is your relationship with the older generation of writers?

I read literature at school so it was not hard to get into the writing mode. As Africans, we are all storytellers. But a new writer takes time to gain confidence.

Do readers compare you to accomplished writers such as Soyinka?

I don't force myself to write up to anybody's standards because I have to be good to survive as a writer. I know good quality literature so I try to write what is good.

Your novel, Waiting for an Angel, has been described as startlingly new and exciting. How did the idea come to you?

I don't know how it came. I just wanted to interpret what was happening in my society. I decided to use the image of the prison, which was like what we were going through. We were all in prison even if not physically.

How do you react when a book is completed?

You are exhausted. It is like being tortured. Writing is not fun. I was writing from midnight to three o'clock in the morning since I had a day job. It was not easy. I didn't even have a computer.

Was it easy for you to get published?

The publishing situation in Africa is appalling. Publishing firms are few and far between and the readership is not really as it should be. I had to publish the book myself.

But you then won the Caine Prize for African Writing and things became better

I won the Caine Prize and got a publishing contact with Penguin in Britain and the US. The book talks about the relationship between a warden and his prisoner. The warden has absolute power over his prisoner, but has inadequacies in expressing himself and has to rely on the very person he is in a sense oppressing. That sounds like the story of leadership in Africa. That is the point I was trying to make. I am happy you got it. I just wanted to show how powerless an African is while trying to be an intellectual. You are powerless, deprived and exploited by the people in power.

Looking at your book, one wonders who it is that really has the power.

Writing is powerful and empowering. It sets you free. That is why there is resistance to people who express themselves in writing. Through his writing, the writer changes the way the world is seen.

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