Habila… A Life Of Writing…

Habila… A Life Of Writing…

Culled from The Guardian Nigeria

Poet and prose fiction writer Helon Habila is currently home on summer break. It ought to be a vacation but Habila’s life of writing is seemingly restless. Early last month he had return from his base in the USA — where he  lectures in creative writing at the George Mason University — staged yet another edition of his yearly creative writing workshop for young writers who converged from all over the country in Lagos. Later in the month, he was one of the star guests at the Olympics 2012 Nigeria Literature Showcase, where he joined fellow Nigerian writers based in UK and homefront to discuss the state of Nigerian Literature in the context of global literary production. Habila studied Literature at the University of Jos and lectured for three years at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, before going to Lagos to work for Vanguard newspaper as Arts Editor, and later write for Hints Magazine. His first book, a collection of short stories with the title, Prison Stories, was published in 2000. The full text with which he won the 2001 edition of the Caine Prize for African Writing was later published as a novel in the UK under the title Waiting for an Angel. He has since released two other books, Measuring Time (2003) and Oil on Water (2012). He spoke to Jerry Adesewo last week in Abuja.

On the beginning

MOST people here in Nigeria know my antecedents as a writer. I started with my first book, first published here in Nigeria, originally titled Prison Stories. It was self published. That’s basically the background. The  book went on to win the Caine Prize. Before that, my poetry had won the MUSON Prize. If you remember the 1990s Lagos scene, you may recall we used to publish stories in the newspapers because there were no publishers around then. And actually Lagos was the only place you could thrive as a writer then, with editors like Nduka Otiono, who did publish stories and poems in newspaper pages. And then of course I became the Arts Editor for Vanguard, having previously worked for the Hints magazine. That was where I did my apprentice, learning how to write; how to discipline yourself and keep your focus.


Getting published then and now

There has been a huge change in the last 10 years, since I published my own book here. Then, there weren’t any publishers as such. If you needed to publish your book, you had to go to a printer, give them your money and they’d print your book and hand over the copies to you. So they weren’t publishers in the real sense of it. I remember printing 500 copies of Prison Stories and taking them home. It was not easy to distribute, market, or review these books. With the traditional publishers, what you do is submit your manuscript and they edit it as well as publish it. Editing is a very important aspect of developing a writer, in terms of advice and technical guidance. These things are part of publishing, it is not just about printing a book and putting them in a store. The traditional publisher invests a lot of money in publicity, which I haven’t seen us do much of down here. People still call and email me to ask where they can get my book. This should not be because the publisher should be able to tell them where the books are available, through the radio, television and other platforms.

I must however commend what our local publishers for what they have done  in the last five, six years — Cassava Republic and Farafina, especially. You could call them pioneers, in that they charted the path in the post-military era’s return to publishing. What they are doing is totally different than say, what Fourth Dimension, and the vanity publishers used to do; which was just to print a book and send it to bookstores — that is if they did send it to a bookstore. However, for Cassava Republic, I think they actually go to the universities and other institutions to canvass for their books to be prescribed for students. It is a kind of proactive marketing but we still need to do a lot more.

I was talking to another publisher in Lagos of recent, Paressia Books. They are coming up with a new model, where they have agents who buy books from the publishers and go around hawking them. I think that is the way for the future. We have gone beyond traditional bookstores where people go to bookstores to pick up book. Truth is, nobody even wants to go to bookstores. When you go to bookstores in the UK or US, you can sit down for hours and flip through magazines, drink coffee and browse the internet. They are comfortable spaces. With such facilities, people will want to go there. It’s a different case here in Nigeria.

I think a lot is happening though in the publishing scene. I have seen some promising books since I came. I have seen Farad by Emmanuel Iduma; I have seen Richard Ali’s City of Memories; I have seen Fine Boys by Imasuen— all published here locally. These are fantastic developments. There is so much dynamism and vibrancy, but we need to do a lot more in terms of the content and editing. We need to either organise workshops for editors or send them out to study more.

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