“We are all travelers” a Review of Helon Habila’s Travelers – Kanchana Ugbabe, PhD

This is an important novel coming at a time when travelling has become a way of life.

Crossing borders, breaching boundaries, being born and raised in one country and finding oneself resettling in another country – these are all the realities of the twenty-first century. With ethnic, religious, communal and racial conflicts on the rise in different parts of the world, men, women, and children are pushed to seek refuge in countries not their own.  

Having been a traveller for the greater part of my life, moving from South Asia to Australia, then to West Africa, to Europe, and the United States, the life stories in this book resonate strongly with me. We read about people risking their lives to cross the Sahara, and then taking the further risk of sailing across the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies, some never reaching the shores they are bound for. There are pictures in the media of people struggling to stay on board as these dinghies topple over and many are drowned. Those who arrive on the shores of Calais or Malta face discrimination and rejection. Sympathy for the refugee has run out in these countries. There is resentment instead.

The detention centres where refugees are housed are sometimes off-shore as in Australia, sometimes in desert regions miles from civilization. The physical and psychological hardship and trauma experienced by would-be immigrants are hard to describe. There is anxiety, desperation of parents longing to settle children in crisis-free, stable societies, of children clinging to parents in strange lands. There are language problems and cultural differences to overcome. The host countries see them as a drain on their resources, the refugees encounter hostility from assumptions that jobs are being taken away from those to whom they rightfully belong.  There is rejection of the alien and the strange. As people continue to cross borders, walls and border fences go up to keep them out.

In Europe and the United States, stories of immigrants and exiles are featured daily in the media. The recent six-part documentary ‘Living Undocumented’ on Netflix draws attention to eight families in the United States from six different countries. The individuals concerned are unable to escape laws and policies of the United States as deportation stares them in the face. Through a searing look at personal stories, the psychological struggles faced by those who find themselves on foreign soil owing to circumstances beyond their control are made evident.

Traveler, nomad, refugee, exile – these are all terms that describe people whose experiences overlap as they leave their home countries for unknown territories. It has come to define the twenty-first century and its attitude to people of the world. While a traveller like me has the privilege of returning home to a place of origin, many never get to go ‘home’. Home remains a distant dream or memory evoked by speech, smells of food or artefacts.

Helon Habila, Caine Prize winner and author of the novels, Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water, has brought to us Travelers, a skilfully constructed novel that deals with issues related to immigration, exile, and the psychology of departure and destination. In each of his novels, Habila draws on contemporary issues but sculpts them with the masterly hand of the artist. The rippling effect of English poetry and the European novel on characters and situations in fiction is a favoured technique with Habila. The artist and the writer are never far away in his fiction.

The young narrator in the novel Travelers is a Nigerian living in Virginia in the US, engaged in a PhD program, he works as a Teaching Assistant while also teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to Korean immigrants in a local library. He accompanies his wife Gina who is offered an opportunity to go to Berlin for a year on a Zimmer fellowship for the Arts. The narrator’s thesis field happens to be nineteenth century African history with particular reference to the Berlin Conference of 1884. Gina is a visual artist, a portrait painter who is engaged in painting migrant-models. Her panel of paintings called the ‘Travelers’ is her assignment on the Zimmer Fellowship.

Starting with Mark, a Malawian migrant who is rejected by Gina as a model, the narrator connects with a series of migrants in Berlin and beyond. He is a traveller and immigrant himself. His own story  intertwines and overlaps with the stories of Manu, Portia, Hannah, Katharina , Karim, Matteo and others. Personal and political crises can be seen as the reason for the travelers’ leaving their home countries. Mark’s father was a Pentecostal Minister in Lilongwe. He disapproved of Mark’s predilection for the theatre and film. Mark found his way to an uncle in South Africa and then to Germany to study film. He lived with other immigrants of dubious immigration status in an abandoned church building. Mark and his fellow refugees are activists engaged in dubious acts of resistance. The narrator gets involved with Mark as he does with each of the immigrants in the book. It turns out that Mark is Mary Chinomba, a cross-dresser (was that necessary?)  At one point the police threaten to take the illegal immigrants and dump them in a facility outside the city. Mark/ Mary takes a desperate jump.

Manu is a doctor from Libya who crossed the Mediterranean with his wife and two children in an overcrowded boat and then a rubber dinghy. The boat sank, he and his wife were separated but they had made a pact to meet at Checkpoint Charlie on a Sunday in Berlin if they were rescued. Manu and Rachida his daughter arrive in Berlin. Basma his wife is washed ashore on the Italian coast with their son. Manu narrates his story. Basma’s story is told by Matteo, the Italian coastguard who rescues Basma and her son and takes them to his own home. The stories are told in multiple voices as monologues bleed into narrative in the text.

Each character is traumatized by the experience of crossing borders. ’They are here for a new start,’ says the narrator, ‘not to re-create or hold on to the past. The water they all crossed to come here has dissolved the past.’(83)

Karim Al Bashir’s story takes him back to the post-Siad Barre years of unrest and conflict in Somalia. The Al-Shabab bombings followed soon after. Karim leaves Mogadishu with his wife and three children. They travel through Yemen, Syria and Istanbul spending a few years in each country. His wife stays in Turkey while he, accompanied by two sons travels to Bulgaria and on to Munich in Germany.

Juma’s story unfolds in the form of a letter written to the narrator and his lady-friend Portia after the British immigration services try to deport him. When that fails, he is kept in a detention centre at Gatwick. His letter is an answer to the narrator’s question, ‘Why did you leave Nigeria?’ Juma was a teacher in north-eastern Nigeria. His school and village were attacked by the religious extremists, Boko Haram and he was forced to flee. His journey of desperation took him to Cameroun, then to Niger, he travelled across the Sahara to Libya from where he joined a group to cross the Mediterranean for Europe. The boat sank. When he was rescued, he found himself in Greece. From there he made it to Calais in France and then to Germany. A dangerous ride on the underside of a lorry enabled him to gain entry to the UK.

The narrator decides to stay on in Berlin while Gina returns to the United States. His marriage has collapsed and the divorce papers have been signed. He travels to Switzerland with Portia who arrives from Zambia to unravel the mystery of her brother’s death in Europe. The tragic story of Portia’s brother David, his departure from Zambia, his journey to Mali and his marriage to Katherina in Switzerland unfolds. Standing beside her brother’s grave Portia muses: ‘What drove him, what did he seek, so far away from where he was born? Why so restless, and was he finally at rest, here, in this foreign place? No wonder philosophers and poets always describe life as a fever, a burning raging fever from which we all seek relief.’(157) By the end of the novel the narrator has decided to accompany Portia to Lusaka where she teaches in her mother’s school.

An interesting variation on the theme of exile presents the backstory of Portia’s father James Kariku, a professional exile. ‘Exile was his life. The return killed him’(139). He was a Resistance poet for whom exile was a way of life. Portia says that her father had sought his passion in ‘activism and exilic delusions’ (157).

Helon Habila’s protagonist/ narrator is a well-read young man who makes frequent references to other writers. From Dante’s Inferno to Kafka to Knut Hamsun to Dostoevsky and John Donne and Mathew Arnold, the narrator draws on literature of the past. Habila also has the ability to locate his characters in definite places which give the reader a feel for geographical spaces described in the book. The Gorlitzer Bahnhof, Vogelstrasse, the George -Grosz Platz are part of the Berlin landscape, a google map description that  is presented at each instant. The council flats on Boswell street in London are described with great detail-  ‘balconies littered with satellite dishes and children’s toys- plastic cars and bikes too big to store indoors and too new to throw away…’(240)  We follow the narrator and Portia through Abbey Wood: ‘We passed a Waitrose, a curry shop, a laundromat…and finally we were facing a cluster of council houses behind tall birch and elm trees somewhere off Abbey road.’  Gina and the narrator meet briefly in a restaurant in Chantilly not far from Dulles airport we are told.  They announce to each other their intention to go their separate ways. ‘Gina ordered a salad, I ordered the sea bass with asparagus’ (247). The reader is curious for more details. What kind of salad did Gina order? What did they have for dessert? Did they have wine with their meal?

Gina too is a traveller. She travels to succeed in her career as an artist. Paris, Venice, Berlin, Dresden are all on her route to success.

A peripatetic life is something many readers in the twenty-first century can identify with. We are all travellers, exiles, refugees, fleeing war and persecution, leaving home regions to settle in far off territories. Economic disasters take us to more prosperous countries. The young cross deserts and oceans to make a life in distant and even inaccessible countries. They leave a past behind, they can seldom  reconstruct that past. They forge a future, however fragile,  different, and difficult it might be. The Germans may want to rebuild Dresden after the Second World War. ‘Not all of us have that luxury of a past,’ says the narrator, ‘My history doesn’t offer me much in that respect. Once I got past Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, there is nothing else but the plantation and after that the insurmountable Atlantic. So I have learned to look forward, to embrace the new and to shape my future. I find it weird, this clinging to the past.’ (248)

Perhaps this is what Habila is exploring in the novel, the past that is home versus the uncertainty of the future. How do the travellers (refugees) negotiate the hazards of their journey, the psychological underpinnings that tear you away from the past and launch you into an uncertain future?

Helon Habila teaches creative writing at George Mason University, Washington D.C. Besides fiction, he has published a non-fictional work on the Chibok Girls and has edited several anthologies of new writing.

(Review of Travelers – Helon Habila  (W.W Norton & Company, New York, 2019), 295 pages by Kanchana Ugbabe, PhD, (University of Jos, Harvard University, Fordham University)

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