Nigerian award-winning novelist, poet and journalist Helon Habila’s latest novel Travellers is a rich mosaic of African migrant experiences.
The novel is an encounter with those who have been uprooted by war or aspiration, fear or hope. It examines the lives of self-willed exiles, refugees and economic immigrants alike.
Habila’s exploration of immigration centres around the life of a Nigerian graduate student who accompanies his wife to Berlin, where she has an arts fellowship.
Detached from his usual life, the man discovers unexpected connections as he hears the stories of a Malawian transgender film student seeking authenticity, a grieving Libyan doctor, and a Somalian shopkeeper trying to save his young daughter from forced marriage.
The 295-page novel that is divided into six books is structured around the places and events in the life of the man. It was launched in June.
Habila spoke about his work.
Among your books is there one that is your favourite?
The latest is always the favourite, until the next one comes along.
It’s like polygamy, isn’t it? The latest wife is always the favourite. Right now I am engaged with Travellers.
The subject matter is relevant to what is happening in our world today. Migration and habitat loss are perhaps the most important issues of the day.
You write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and short stories, which is your favourite genre among these?
Each genre has its strengths. Nonfiction allows me to be direct and unambiguous; poetry allows me to be less direct, metaphorical and lyrical.
With fiction, I can be inventive and playful. However, fiction allows me more possibilities and varieties of ways to communicate.
With fiction I can be lyrical and poetic and also essayistic — so fiction can do more than the other genres and that gives it an edge.
But perhaps the greatest advantage of fiction is that with it you can explore character in more depth, and we all know that in exploring fictional characters you are also trying to answer personal questions that may have been bothering you.
In that sense, fiction’s benefits go beyond mere storytelling, it is cathartic and even therapeutic.
Travellers is about African migrants in Europe. Today there are over 60 million migrants, some escaping wars, some looking for economic opportunities.
This is the biggest human migration since the Second World War. It is pertinent then to ask: Why do they leave their countries? Why would a mother leave her country and her home and put her child in danger crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean to get to Europe?
Some would tell you she is greedy and reckless. But perhaps the answer could be traced back to what my third novel Oil and Water, about loss of habitat due to the exploitative activities of corporations like Shell and Texaco and others like them who destroy our environments and instigate conflicts in our communities.
We can also trace the reason for these migrations back to colonialism and how it basically created our countries in a way that would ensure they would always remain in conflict and divided and easy to exploit by corporations and Western governments.
This is what I write about.
Habila’s first collection, Prison Stories, was published in 2000.
Love Poems, one of the stories in the collection, received the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001.
His first novel, Waiting for an Angel, came out in 2002, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (Africa Region).
His second novel, Measuring Time, came out in 2007. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and it won the Virginia Library Foundation Prize for fiction in 2008.
In 2010, Habila published Oil on Water, an environmental political thriller, which has become an international bestseller.
The book was nominated for many awards including, Pen/Open Book Award (shortlist, 2013); Commonwealth Best Book, Africa Region (Shortlist, 2012) and The Orion Book Award (shortlist, 2013).
In 2015, Habila won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Literary Achievement.
His non-fiction study of the terrorist attack that resulted in the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria titled The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria was published by Columbia Global Reports in 2016.
Habila was born in Kaltungo, Gombe State, Nigeria in November 1967. After studying English language and literature at the University of Jos, he moved to Lagos in 1999, where he worked as a journalist for the magazine Hints and the Vanguard newspaper.
He currently teaches creative writing at George Mason University in the US. He divides his time between Nigeria and the US, where he lives with his wife and three children.