Commonwealth and Caine Prize winning writer, Helon Habila has been in Nigeria for his vaccation from his US base and took time out to talk to Sunday Trust on why he is venturing into publishing and the process of publishing his third novel, Oil on Water in Nigeria.
Let's talk about the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing workshop. You have been facilitating it for three years. How would you describe your experience so far?
I think it's been good, it's been worth it. I have no complains. I know sometimes a few things may go wrong here and there but all in all, when you look at the contribution we are making and how excited the students usually are and the experience they gain from it, you find that it's worth it and you feel happy at the end of the day. You make good friends, especially with the students because we keep in touch and you do meet a lot of talented students and you realise how much talent there is in this country. It's a big privilege to be part of these things because there are many writers who could do this and one is given the opportunity to do it. I am always happy to work with young Nigerian writers because I know there's a lot that they don't have compared to others in America or Britain where you have all this sort of workshops going on at the private level. I think in Nigeria, Fidelity Bank is the only one doing that, and of course there is the one by Chimamanda Adichie who was initially part of Fidelity. These are the only workshops we have in this country and when you look at the number of people we have in this country and the talents, ambition and desire we have, so I think Fidelity Bank is doing a good job at that.
Over the past three years that you have been facilitating this workshop, what future do you see for Nigerian writers?
I think the future is bright. I've been talking to people here and there, I have learned that a number of younger writers have been going outside the country to study creative writing at the graduate level and that's a good thing because it immediately raises your game to a different level just by participating, by being exposed to writers, to publishers, to other things. Writing is an international thing, I'm not saying you cannot be a good writer here, but by being there, it helps. So for those who cannot go, that's what Fidelity and the others are doing, they bring this international writers and they manage to impart some of the things that writers over there benefit from. So there are a lot of talented people and I think they are moving in the right direction.
Your recent trip to London was to participate in the Nigeria House Cultural pre-Olympic event. How did that go?
It went well. There were lots of other events, not just panels or literature. There were music and drama and talks by people like Wole Soyinka. It was a big event. I took part in the panel event on the very last day of the panels event with these writers; Chibundu Onuzu, she's a Nigerian writer based in London and Zainabu Jallo, a dramatist. And before me, there were also other panel discussion by writers like Diran Adebayo and other Nigerian based writers. It was an opportunity for me to meet these writers and make friends with them and discuss the general situation of literature in Nigeria and to hang out and have a good time with them. I had a great time there.
Is this event an indication that Nigerian literature is actually going places?
Well, that in itself doesn't mean much but I think Nigerian literature has been going places even before this event but what it does is put it on the international stage in a way where you have Nigerians in Diaspora, because the event was designed for Nigerians in Diaspora, to talk to them and meet the writers. Most of these writers live in Nigeria or somewhere outside Nigeria in other countries and to bring them together around the Olympics time is a very good thing. The idea, most people think it's about sports but its also about cultural exchange, you know, when you bring people from different parts o the world to one venue there is always an exchange in terms of culture and I think Nigeria has done the right thing by taking that opportunity and presenting its talents there. It was a good thing.
There's this talk by Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie lamenting that American soldier are willing to go to Afghanistan while their writers are not. To what extent do you think writers influence cultural exchange?
Yeah, I think that's what literature does. By writing about your place and making your book travel. Books travel, they go to where you never expect them to end up. Look at Things Fall Apart now. Chinua Achebe wrote it when he was 28, he wrote it in Nigeria here without knowing he was going to live outside Nigeria, he just wrote it about this small Igbo village and the book has travelled. It has done more cultural service to Nigeria than the Ministry of Culture itself. So when you look at what people like Charles Dickens have done for Britain, people like Shakespeare, writing about their place and the books travel and they carry their language, their tradition, their ideas, their ethos in so many ways. So, I don't think it's about the writer himself travelling, it's about the book travelling and you never know whether it's going to travel or not. So the best thing is to write as good a book as you can and then if it's good enough, there will be demand for it and it will travel. So in a way, what Kamila Shamsie says, I don't know if the writers need to go to Afghanistan. They don't need to go to Afghanistan itself. I don't know the context of her statement. They don't have to go. They write about America and they can send the books down to Afghanistan [laughs].
Since you've talked about books, let's talk about Oil on Water, which is your latest book. It's been out for a while now. How far has it travelled?
It's travelling, it's just two years since it came out and so far it's been translated into German, it's coming out in Dutch this year, its coming out in some language in India called Malayalam, so it's travelling. It takes years for the translations. People are still translating my first and second novels. So what I want to do with Oil on Water now is to have it published in Nigeria. It's not been out in Nigeria and there's a lot of demand from people who have read reviews about it but they've never seen it.
Why has it been very late in coming out in Nigeria?
I am in the process of changing publishers, Nigerian publishers, and I am being published by Parresia Publishers in Lagos, so that's why it's been a bit slow. So, hopefully we will have it out by December this year. I am excited to be working with them, I think they are doing a good job.
Why was it necessary to change publishers?
No reason. No reason at all. I just want to move on to a new publisher. I am not totally satisfied with Cassava Republic in some ways, but it's a personal thing and I like what Parresia is doing and I am talking with them on something we will be collaborating on. I want to start an imprint, a Nigerian crime series--not that I will write them (laughs) but I will edit them, because I think there is more focus on high literature and non-fiction, you don't have the in-between, popular fiction like crime and romance and that's the breeding ground for future readers. Because the person who reads a crime or detective novel is more likely to pick up Things Fall Apart when he doesn't have something else to read. But a person who has never read fiction before will have a hard time starting with a very serious book like Shakespeare or Dickens. So if you can get that then they can go on to read serious books and this is a big market we are talking about. it has happened before in this country with Pacesetters. We started with reading with Pacesetters, that's how we started and got used to reading, because reading is an activity that you get used to.
Isn't it amazing that for a country of over 150 million people there is a dearth or publishing houses?
Yeah, yeah. But when you look at our recent history, the military era was kind of anti-intellectual. It actually waged war on intellectualism. So it was a systematic way of destroying dissent by making sure that publishing companies do not operate. Before our very eyes, newspaper houses were burnt down, newspapers would be seized and burnt, editors would be arrested, lecturers hounded. It was an anti-intellectual culture that we are just beginning to emerge from. But I think we've done well in just ten years. I think we have publishing companies that are really doing well like Parresia, like Farafina and Cassava Republic, I think there are a few others also doing some good work. As long as there is demand for books you will continue to see publishers emerging. But I don't think it's enough to publish books, they need to be more creative in selling books. You need to push them, you need to put aside some money for promotion. People have been coming to me to ask me where they can find my first two novels and I tell them but my publishers are here in Abuja but nobody knows where the books are. So it's not just enough to put the books in a bookstore, you have to go on the radio, have promotion, you have to keep talking about books, you have to make books exciting. That's what happens in other countries. In Britain you could go to a grocery store and them, if you buy a certain amount of grocery they give you a free book. That's how you promote books. You just have to think outside the box.
You talked about anti-intellectualism and the military destroying publishing and newspaper houses; is that why you chose to make your lead characters in Oil on Water journalists?
I have used journalists before. I have used them in my first novel, Waiting for an Angel and like i did there, it's just a matter of convenience in having a way of exploring my story. It's a detective story in a way. There is a kidnapping and they sent journalists to go and make sure the kidnapped person is alive and then there will be negotiations and ransom but there is complication along the way. So that's the framework for detective fiction but it's a literary fiction in terms of it's unpredictable ending and also in terms of language and other things. But i think journalists, I have always seen them as very brave, who are society's eyes and ears. They are also witnesses. I know that in Nigeria things are not a hundred percent as they should be but the condition under which they operate, the opposition they face, so I always try to talk about them, I always try to make my characters journalists. Any society that develops has to have a very good media system. When you look at the US and other western countries, they [journalists] are the ones who put the checks and balances. What's happening in Nigeria is appalling when you look at the way the politicians behave and there's no one to talk to them. Sometimes we name them and shame them and put it on record for posterity. That's what the media is doing and I always try to portray that in my writing.
Does this have anything to do with your background as a journalist?
Yes, in a way I kind of learned a lot about what the media could do by working as a journalist first hand, so it's not just some kind of romantic or idealistic perception of what journalists can do. I have seen those who have affected change by just being journalists.
And the focus on the Niger Delta, why did you choose to write on that region?
I actually didn't choose to write on that. It was accidental actually. I was invited by a movie company in the UK to write a movie script on the Niger Delta, so that's where I started researching. In Nigeria at that time, we were looking at the Delta issue as a kind of regional issue. We were not feeling the impact in the centre. But when I started researching, I realised how central the issue is to our country and then it became not just a national issue but an international issue and we needed to speak about it. It's also very sad to see the Niger-Delta people trying to capitalise on that and try to claim that it's just their issue, trying to benefit from it, trying to claim the market about being the victim, it's just unfortunate. I will always talk about national issues, I can even talk about issues in India if I feel there is injustice in it because it is a human issue.
The book has been described as Conradian in approach. Was that what you had in mind when you set about writing it?
No, not really. But you know it's a favourite description by people when you have a river and a boat in Africa and it becomes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but if you want to flip it and look at it as a journey into the heart of darkness perpetuated by Europe and the US, then they become the heart of darkness because it's only a dark heart that can inflict this greed and total disregard for nature and destroy things that we cannot create and it will take hundreds of years for the environment to get back to what it was. This people are actually counting on our silence so they can continue what they are doing, so those of us who know what it means and have the platform, we have to talk about it. It's not only in the Niger-Delta. It's in the Amazon and in other parts of the world. This people have become a parallel government.
You came to limelight by winning the Caine Prize in 2001 and now a Nigerian has won it again. There have been several Nigerian winners over the years. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, four Nigerians. Me, EC Osondu, Segun Afolabi and now Rotimi Babatunde. It's a good thing. You know they say the more, the merrier. I think now we have more Nigerian winners than any other country because it's been ten years and we have four winners from Nigeria. We are kind of stamping our presence and our wealth of stories and cultural diversity. I think Nigerians will keep on winning because we have so many talents here and it's just incredible. So that's why I wish the government will just realise that. What we have done on our own is more than a lot of government institutions have done for us. We just sit down in our rooms and write out stories and carry the name of this country to international level. So I think the government should support creative writing, promoting the books in so many ways.
This your venturing into publishing, is it a way of giving back to the society or is it something you've always wanted to do?
I've always wanted to do it. I like books, i like creating books, I like propagating books, I like everything about books. Of course if I wanted to make money, if I were only thinking of making money, I would just buy property in Abuja and watch it grow but I like books and I think the only way out for us is through education. There is no society that has reached anywhere without massively investing in education. The only way out of ethnic and religious bigotry is education and Nigeria, we've reached a level of reckoning all around the world but there are so many [Nigerians] that are left behind. When you go to the rural areas, there is so much poverty there where only the rich are getting richer, the educated are getting more sophisticated and the poor are increasing. When you look at people building fences to keep out the masses, the only thing they need to do is to educate the people so they will have something to do and not have to go and kill. Countries like the US and Britain pay people to attend classes and make good grades.