Toni Kan In Conversation with Helon Habila -“I write when I feel like writing”

Toni Kan: State your name for the record

Helon Habila: My name is Helon Habila, I am a writer, author of Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, Oil on Water and the current one is Travelers.

T.K: Thank you. How did you become a writer, what was the spark?

H.H: There isn’t just one thing, it is a combination of many things but I think it came from reading. I started reading, enjoying books, began to make sense of the world through books even though I never met a writer when I was growing up, I just encountered books. Read literature in the university and started writing books from then on.

T.K: Before uni, you grew up in the North, where we think people don’t have access to books. What kind of books did you start off reading?

H.H: First of all, it is a falsehood to say people didn’t have access to books in the North, there were lots of books but maybe not literary books, so I grew up reading the books kids my age would read at the time, James Hadley Chase, detective books, Nick Carter and once in a while you found books by African authors like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Festus Iyayi, Ben Okri, so we just took whatever we could find, we didn’t discriminate because books were scarce, like you said, so we read widely, and that also helped with your understanding of literature, because you don’t have one model of writing so you take a bit of all of them, and I think it enhances your understanding of literature more, once you have unrestricted reading.

T.K: So once your interest in books were sparked and you decided to be a writer, what’s the process for your writing? Do you write in the morning or afternoon, do you travel or need to be secluded?

H.H: I don’t have a process as such, even though I believe in process – I tell my students to write even if it’s once a day, have a fixed time for writing but I really don’t do that because it is complicated to have a process. So I write when I feel like writing. I don’t write in my house, most times I go to the library, we have a very nice library where I live, so I got there to write, and I also write in bed, at night, when it’s quiet, and my mind is kind of at rest. But I write whenever I can write.

T.K: So when it comes to writing say for example, Oil on Water, or Travellers, is it an idea, or a quote, I mean, how do you know that this is a story worth pursuing?

H.H: With each book, the process was different for me. I think with Oil on Water, what sparked the initial interest for me was that I was approached by a film company and they wanted me to write about the Niger Delta, and this sort of triggered my image of it. The subject was of course, kidnapping, they wanted it to be like a kidnapping story. So, that started that. But with Travellers, I was in Berlin for a fellowship and I interviewed a lot of migrants. It was from their stories that I formed characters, because I wanted to go beyond the façade, beyond the stereotypes you see in the papers, I wanted to present them in totality as human beings, so it started as characters, with the people, physical travellers, travelling and I wanted to understand the story behind the travel.

T.K: Why the interest in migrants and why the interest in their travels? Why not about their lives in Europe, why about their travelling in particular?

H.H: For so many reasons actually, because I have lived outside my country so you can say in a sort of way I am an immigrant, even though of course we have the way language is being used to classify migrants – refugees, migrants, economic migrants, expatriates, (when we go there, we are migrants but when they come here, they are expatriates), so, the interest in that is because it is so topical. And it is such a politically sensitive matter. And I usually have this thing with my books, I start off with really topical issues, then take the reader behind the banal stereotypical topicality and I examine it and flip it to show you how complicated it is. So, I wanted to kind of show the complications. There isn’t just one kind of traveller or one kind of African, and it has become so politicized in America and Europe, especially with the rise of migration, there’s almost a kind of dehumanization and sometimes, people get lumped into this group. People just assume that because you are black and travelling in Europe, that you are a sort of migrant or running from your country. So, I wanted to show that there isn’t one kind of traveller. In my book, there are professors, doctors, PhD students, and there are economic migrants as well. So these are false categories I think that people make.

T.K: So for this story, when did journalism become fiction?

H.H: Most fiction has some basis in real life, even though some people like to pretend that it is pure fiction but most people’s fiction have their basis from real life. I don’t pretend that mine isn’t based on real life, so I actually embrace it, and go on from there to make it as interesting as I can, because I believe stories should have the same immediacy as stories in a newspaper page, or headline but when you read it, it takes you a bit farther and takes you to places you never would have thought of, if you didn’t read it as fiction.

T.K: Thank you.

H.H: You are welcome.

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