Award-winning author Helon Habila wears many hats. An accomplished writer of three acclaimed novels, Habila is also a professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University. However, his most recent and intriguing role might be his post as editor of Cordite Books, a crime-centered imprint of Lagos-based Parresia Publishers. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Habila about Africa’s literary landscape, genre fiction and urban life.
Akinyi: In 2001, you won the Caine Prize. In the thirteen years since, four other Nigerian authors have won the prize. In 2013, four out of the five nominated writers were Nigerian. Why do you think that Nigerians so frequently dominate the African literary scene? Does it all boil down to the sheer size of the Nigerian population or is something else at play?
Helon: Well, you know a friend just wrote to me and said that Nigerians might as well have their own separate prize since they continually dominate the Caine Prize. But it’s not that they’re better – it’s just that they’re more populous. There are six or seven Nigerians to every other African. It’s just common sense that there will be more Nigerian winners.
I don’t want to sound overly selfish, but Nigeria is a unique country. It has a lot of stories, a lot of conflicts. They say conflicts produce great stories. Nigerians are also a people who hustle a lot and who don’t rest on their laurels. They like to push. That’s likely to also be a contributing factor.
Akinyi: You’re certainly right. When you have a lot of people with a lot of stories to tell, they will produce great art, great literature.
Helon: Exactly. Nigerians also travel a lot so they are exposed to the world in a way that makes them want to push things.
Akinyi: How has Nigeria’s tumultuous history affected your own writing and the way you view the world?
Helon: One of the main reasons I went into writing was the desire to feed my mind. I grew up in a time of so much injustice, when the politics were just so dysfunctional. I grew up in the decade of military dictatorships. I was born in 1967. Since I was a kid, all I saw was military rulers and military governors. The first time I saw democracy in action was when I was a teenager in the early 1980s. But what I was used to seeing was primarily military dictators and military injustice. There was something inside me that wanted to rebel against that and reject that. Writing and reading gave me the avenue to express myself and to comment about justice and injustice. It was a way of protest.
Sometimes I want to step away from that. I want to reject that and write about happier things, more neutral things or focus on character, etc. But I just can’t. I’m beginning to be at peace with that and accept it more and more. I am beginning to seek out subjects that are topical and more centrally about justice and injustice. I want to reject injustice, oppression, and exploitation – things that really get me angry. In a way, they inspire me to speak up.
Akinyi: What kind of books did you grow up reading?
Helon: All sorts of books. I read simple children’s stories, mostly folktales, as well as novels in the vernacular, in Hausa language. Because I grew up in Northern Nigeria, I grew up reading Nigerian novels in Hausa language in particular. Of course, things like the African Writers’ Series. Also the Pacesetters Series, popular Pan-African fiction that was mostly crime stories set in cities about urban lives. There is always a conflict, if you notice, in urban settings. There are always issues of class, of power and powerlessness. In a way, that stayed with me and has become a recurring motif in my life. I read literature for my first degree, so I read all the books of the British system as well – everyone from Dickens to Shakespeare.
Akinyi: Would you say that the Pacesetters series during your childhood really sparked your interest in crime fiction?
Helon: Yes, but it wasn’t just me. It was a whole generational thing. People my age growing up in Africa grew up reading books by authors like James Hadley Chase, a British writer who writes your typical cheap throw-away crime stories set in America. For some reason, he was very popular. Every household had one copy of a James Hadley Chase book. It was just about crime – people killing each other, detectives solving crimes and speaking bad, American English. In a way, that was how my interest in crime stories started. Of course, eventually I moved onto more conventional crime writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and the Nordic writers. Detective fiction has always been my guilty pleasure.
Akinyi: How did you decide to start Cordite?
Helon: For some time, I had thought about starting a publishing company with crime as its focus. I’m not a crime fiction writer. I’m a literary writer. But I read crime fiction and I know that there is a hunger for it. When you go to Nigeria, people want to be serious literary writers like China Achebe or Wole Soyinka because these are the books that they grew up reading in school. They are the books that are available, that they are encouraged to respect and to write exams on. After that, there is no middle ground for entertainment. The other options are mostly non-fiction books, religious books, or inspirational books. When people travel, they have access to more middle-ground entertainment but there are very few indigenous writers who are writing that kind of fiction in Nigeria. But I began to ask myself why people don’t write that when there is a population hungry for entertainment, for the kind of fiction they can read on a bus ride. For instance, people will hardly read Shakespeare or Ngugi on the bus, but they can read Harry Potter and similar books in that setting. You can miss sentences without losing the essence of the book. But with writers like Soyinka, you don’t want to miss a sentence because if you miss one word, you can miss the whole key to the book. But if you create middle ground readers, they are more likely to graduate into reading more serious fiction. Reading becomes a habit.
Akinyi: I think that sometimes we set genre fiction apart from the grand novels by elders like Achebe, Soyinka, wa Thiong’o. Do you think that there are any common elements that genre fiction shares with more lofty literature?
Helon: I think so. They’re all novels, for one. They’re all foreign art forms that came to Africa through colonialism. What makes genre fiction different from literature with a capital L is the handling, the language, the use of imagery, and the deployment of the elements of fiction like metaphors and plot structures. There are some things that are accepted in genre writing that are not accepted in serious literature. Take an element like deux ex machina, where the writer resolves a plot without putting the character through the psychological rigors and mental process of solving that problem. To put it more simply, the aim of genre writing is to entertain. It’s something you can read then throw away. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t talk about important things – about crime, justice, and power. It talks about things you see in the newspaper. About things that people see every day. The difference between genre fiction and serious fiction is in the handling. There’s Oedipus Rex, one of the classic Greek plays, which is a quintessential crime story – a man kills his father and marries his mother. How you handle it is what turns it into a classic or into genre. At the base, at the bottom of it all, we have the same material that we can take based on our training and understanding of fiction. The value that we add to it is what makes it genre or serious fiction. I’m not saying that genre cannot be serious. There are writers who have taken genre fiction to levels you would associate with serious fiction or with literature with a capital L. More and more, you find people fusing genre with serious fiction. For example, Doris Lessing, who recently died, wrote a lot of fantasy fiction but turned it into serious literature. Eventually, my prediction is that there will not be any high or low literature. There will just be Literature.
Akinyi: Earlier you mentioned the natural connection between crime fiction and urban settings. Do you think that there is going to be a growth in interest in genre fiction as African cities grow?
Helon: Genre fiction lends itself to urban settings more easily. I’m not saying there aren’t any crimes in village settings. Nii Ayikwei’s Tail of the Blue Bird takes place in a village. But with urban settings, you have a certain anonymity and hunger. There are more forces that push people towards breaking the law than in village settings, where the shame and stigma of committing a crime might hold you back. In the city, people lose their reservations and inhibitions. The hunger to survive makes the city more amenable to crime.
In Africa, cities are urbanizing rapidly. That’s why there is a growing market for such fiction. People want to read about their lives and about what happens to them. Books explain to you what’s going on. That might explain how the quintessential English novel emerged. With the rise of the city, the English civilization required order. The novel teaches you what to do – how to eat, how to use cutlery, how to dress, how to talk. That’s what the novel did at that time and that’s how it became popular. That’s what we are witnessing now in Africa. People want to know what the city is all about.