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More Nigerians need to write about insurgency – Helon Habila

Weekend Magazine: Your new book, ‘The Chibok Girls, The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria,’ to be released in November, is quite different…

Weekend Magazine: Your new book, ‘The Chibok Girls, The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria,’ to be released in November, is quite different from what you have published in the past. What is it about?
Helon Habila: As the name states, it is focused on the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. It is about my trip to Chibok and my interviews with some of the parents of the girls, and some of the girls who were able to escape. The book also looks, broadly, at religion and politics in Nigeria, especially northern Nigeria where I am from. Boko Haram is one of the most devastating experiences – to both Christians and Muslims – the country has ever seen. It is so significant that Nigeria will psychologically be changed forever because of it, just like the civil war changed our psychology. All thinkers and patriots need to start asking the question: how did we get here? How should we avoid a repeat?  This is a conflict that has killed over 20,000 Nigerians and displaced millions, and it is still going on.

WM: Other writers, particularly non-Nigerians, have written about the insurgency in the country. One of them, Andrew Walker, wrote ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’. What is different about your work?
Habila: Yes, I’ve read some of these works, but I also thought it is important that a Nigerian writes about it. At the end of the day, it is our country and whatever we say will carry more weight than what an outsider says. Andrew Walker’s book is particularly good and well researched. But I happen to be from the northeast, and my book takes a more personal approach, I place myself and my experience growing up in Gombe into the narrative in many places. For me, as a Christian from the northeast, religion and politics are really pressing and personal issues.

WM: What did it take to properly document events in the work?
Habila: It took many months of research, travelling in the northeast, interviewing many people, going to IDP camps to observe conditions there and to talk to the displaced persons, and of course reading as much as I could about the situation. But like I said earlier, most of it came from my own experience of Nigeria’s history and politics. A non-fiction book like this depends a lot on not just gathering material, but also on understanding the nuance of the material gathered, and interpreting that material, and to interpret you need to have a sound vantage point, that is where being a Nigerian matters.

WM: What do you hope to achieve?
Habila: I hope to somehow articulate the fears and concerns of the victims of this insurgency. I have come across so many people, some of them young and educated, who say the Chibok kidnapping was a hoax, a conspiracy for political ends. This is so sad and so infuriating. It is wrong to minimize another person’s suffering and misfortune just because you differ with them politically. That is unacceptable. My book tries to personify the victims beyond mere statistics in the papers. If you have been to the IDP camps, and the communities devastated by the war, seen the orphaned and homeless children, you will realize the pressing need for writing about the situation.

WM: What do you think about today’s publishing industry in Nigeria?
Habila: I think we are doing great. I call this the golden age of publishing. Indigenous companies have come up in the last ten, fifteen years, like Farafina and Parresia, and they are doing well. Cassava has opened a branch in the UK – a tremendous progress for Nigerian publishing.

WM: You self-published a section of your first book which won the Caine Prize in 2001. Will you encourage some Nigerian writers to do that, being that traditional publishing companies are few and swamped by so many manuscripts?
Habila: I self-published because that was the only way to get published at the time, especially if you were a young writer. It cost money. It meant the author did the entire editorial and marketing duties the publisher usually does. It is not an ideal situation. Writing is hard enough as it is without burdening the author with the troubles of being his own publisher. I think young authors should be patient, they should take advantage of the publishing avenues on the internet, they should build a portfolio over time and then approach an agent when they feel they have enough published works. When I self-published there were no online publishing avenues as they exist today, the Caine prize wasn’t even accepting stories published online.

WM: You have succeeded in beaming your searchlight on political and economic issues with ‘Oil on Water’ published in 2011, which deals with the Niger Delta environmental pollution. While you wrote, how hopeful were you that your work will bring some positive change?
Habila: Again, I don’t write fiction with a grand idea to change the political status quo. I just illustrate the status quo. I focus on people’s experience of whatever situation they are going through. The Niger Delta experience, I felt, was an important and unprecedented moment in our history. As a fiction writer I was trying to ask how we got to that point. I was trying to find the answers for myself even more than for the reader. A good book I think should illuminate a complex and difficult situation in the life of its characters; by extension it also clarifies and illuminates that situation for the reader.

WM: Presently, the Niger Delta region is going through turmoil with a fresh uprising by militants, particularly the Niger Delta Avengers. What’s your take on this?
Habila: I think this is going to be a recurrent problem. I think the current militants will alienate even those who originally sympathised with them. I think they should go back to the original ideas of the struggle as started by Ken Saro-Wiwa. They should read his books, especially ‘A Month and a Day.’ He sought to gain sympathy by starting a grassroots movement and by engaging the government in a peaceful and intelligent dialogue. He sought to build a coalition of local and international organisations to help make his case. All have changed. Now we have multimillionaire militants.  We have militants wantonly blowing up pipelines and killing members of the military. I don’t think that is the way to go.

WM: You jointly own a publishing company called ‘Cordite books’. What is the update on its operations?
Habila: Cordite is an imprint that will target mainly crime fiction. We had a competition and a winner, and we were going to publish our first book this year, but we have to postpone. We want to do this right. It is better to delay than to come out with the wrong book. Our new launch date is next year, around June. Right now we are focused on recruiting the right people to work with, locally and internationally.

WM: With quite a number of books to your name, what advice do you have for budding writers to get published?
Habila: My advice to young writers is, keep writing. Believe in what you are doing. It is also good to find a mentor, someone who has done it before you. But most of all, keep writing. It is hard work, but it is worth the labour.

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