One of Nigeria’s biggest novelist and poet, Helon Habila was in Abeokuta for the just concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival.
Sabinews’ Lucia Edafioka caught up with him during the festival where he talked about African literature, writing and contemporary Nigerian writers.
Sabinews: We keep having these conversations at book festivals about the place of the African writer and the issues that affect writers. What do you think African writers should be most concerned about?
I don’t know, maybe they should write better? There isn’t just one thing to focus on, but I think writers should try to capture the times in which they live because this is what they know, what they experience, the way they are, for themselves and for their readers. For me that’s what I do. I can’t really say this is what we should do, but for me that’s what I find every important. As a writer that’s what drives me, to capture these times to make sense of it, to interpret the times in which I live
Sabinews: Ken Saro-Wiwa said, ‘You cannot have art for art’s sake. This art must do something to transform the lives of a community, of a nation.’ When writing do you work with this idea?
I always do that, I try to, I don’t like to be too political, and I also don’t like to shy away from being political. I think books should always try to do something to shed some light to change a few things, but who is to say what book is going to change what? First and foremost it’s to make it a good book, very entertaining, try to be serious about it. I always try to choose a subject matter that is of high seriousness. I don’t just write about frivolous things, in that way my story might make a difference, or try to engage in that discussion. I don’t shy away from important conversations. I think every writer, every artist is obliged to do that. I think that is what Ken Saro-Wiwa was saying. Although he was more of a politician, I am less so, but still art I think should always focus on important questions.
Sabinews: Does writing about issues really help?
Of course, discussion always helps, conversation always helps. It is when you keep quiet about things that it becomes more sinister and dangerous so we need more books on issues, topical issues. It illustrates, it sheds more light on what is happening there and when you read about something, you talk about something. It is demystified, and people are not as ignorant about it. It always helps.
Sabinews: Very often people look at the new generation of writers and judge them below standards; do you agree?
I don’t know what they mean by below standard. No, I don’t agree, I don’t come across contemporary Nigerian books as much as I want to, but there have always been bad writers and good writers in any generation. These are just the ones that stand out. The good ones always stand out and we look back and think that, oh Things Fall Apart is so good; all of them must have been good. Do you know how many people wrote and didn’t even get published same time that Chinua Achebe was writing? There must have been tons of them, so always one or two books will stand out. They are always good writers and bad writers in every generation so I don’t know what they are saying about being below or above standard. They had their bad books; so many books have been out of print from that generation because they are bad, some of them stand the test of time that is how it works.
Sabinews: Do you read contemporary Nigerian writers?
The ones I can get, some of them are not available outside the country. I read Chigozie Obioma, I reviewed the book in the Guardian. I also read Igoni Barret and reviewed his book so when I come across them I read them.
Sabinews: How old were you when you started writing?
I was writing poetry in my room, in my home town, reading Shakespeare, writing love poems. I was like 15/16 that’s when I started writing consciously and I finished my first novel when I was 17. It didn’t get published its still there but I completed my first novel beginning to end when I was 17.
Sabinews: How many books do you own?
Oh, I have lots of books, a few thousand.
Photo Credit: Victor Ehikhamenor