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An interview with Helon Habila

With this year's now announced, Mildred Kiconco Barya interviews Helon Habila, the 2001 winner of the prize.

Helon Habila was born in Nigeria where he worked as a literary editor and lecturer. His first novel, Waiting for an Angel (Hamish Hamilton, 2002), won the 2003 Commonwealth Prize for best first novel, Africa region. His short story, Love Poems, won the Caine Prize in 2001. His second novel, Measuring Time, was published in 2007. Habila co-edited the British Council’s New Writing 14 anthology with Lavinia Greenlaw, and Dreams, Miracles and Jazz Anthology of Short Stories with Kadija Sesay. Habila was the Chinua Achebe Fellow in Global Africana Studies in 2005–06.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Why do you write?

HELON HABILA: Writing is what I have always wanted to do. It is the way I make sense of the world around me, in narrative form. This way everything has its back story, its complications, and hopefully its denouement.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: At what age did you start writing creatively?

HELON HABILA: My first attempt was at 17, and I was actually able to publish a chapter from what I had written as an independent short story with the rather improbable title, 'Embrace of the Snake'. That was my first sally as a writer, and I can't describe to you how great it felt, at that age, to have that documentary evidence, that proof of your status as a writer.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Describe your writing journey.

HELON HABILA: It has been a long road, and when I look back sometimes I am surprised at how really long it is. Of course there have been detours, and pauses, but I have always been able to maintain my focus because really writing is the only thing I enjoy doing, the only thing at which I am good and confident.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What are the thematic concerns in your writing?

HELON HABILA: I really don't know. I don't think any writer can tell you these are my themes – I can only say these are the themes I have touched upon so far in my career, I don't know what themes I will explore in the future. Writing is a journey, and as with most journeys, there is growth, and change, even accidents.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What inspired you to write Love Poems?

HELON HABILA: I was inspired by my history, and my country's history. I was at a point in my life when I had started to experience what I'd call an awakening, political, and also artistic, and there was that desire in me to comment on events happening around me. Everything came together. There was so much anger in me, and hunger, and frustration, and I am glad I was able to let it all out in that story.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How did you know about the Caine Prize?

HELON HABILA: Through the Association of Nigerian Authors, in Lagos. There was a notice on the wall, calling for entries, so a year later I entered.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What was your initial response when you won the Caine prize?

HELON HABILA: I was happy definitely – but there was so little time for reflection, everything moved so fast. I was so fortunate to have a completed novel at the time – I had initially self-published it as a story collection.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What has been happening or not happening since winning the Caine?

HELON HABILA: So much. At the moment I am in America, teaching Creative Writing at George Mason. So, three continents: Africa, Europe, America. Like I said, it has been a long road.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to rewrite your submitted story what would you change?

HELON HABILA: I guess you mean the Caine Prize winning story. Nothing. Not a comma.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How often do you revise or redraft your stories?

HELON HABILA: Very often. As a rule, the more you rewrite, the more sense your story makes, the better it gets.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Apart from writing, what else do you do and why?

HELON HABILA: I am a father and a husband. That's really all I have time and energy to do after writing and teaching.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Forty years from now where do you see yourself?

HELON HABILA: Dead, probably. I am in my 40s, and if I lived 30 more years, I'd consider myself blessed. So, forty years hence, I hope to be dead and famous.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your best quote?

HELON HABILA: 'Hope for the best, expect the worst, life is a play and we are unrehearsed'. I don't know who said that, or if they said it in those exact words, but it is my favourite quote. It keeps me on my toes.

MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What genre do you read most and why?

HELON HABILA: Fiction, of course, to size up the competition, and poetry, to sharpen my vocabulary, but recently I am turning more and more to biography. There is so much to learn from the life of those who have done what we are striving to do. I learn from their triumphs and their failures that there is nothing new under the sun.

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