Wednesday, January 31, 2007

thesis prayer

Oh God,
let me write not out of dread
not with tears and headaches,
and midnight allergic reactions,
for deadlines
and for people i fear.

But with joy
because i love words,
and how this novel
imagines creation,
and how my own work
helps me imagine You.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

missing naija

To the melancholy, yearning notes's of Djitnee's "Ego": "Ego, if you help me see Ego, make you tell am I don go, she no look me an so." (Reloaded Welcome Back, Naija 'n' Ghana). And Jeremiah: "Ya Allah, na ba ka zuciyata; na ba ka zuciyata; na ba ka rayuwata.... oooohhh lalalala"

And of course, Paul Play, whose video of "Forever," I just found on You Tube... I think I remember finding it vaguely annoying when I first heard it, but it quickly becomes obsessive.

It snowed about two inches tonight. The snow is dry and sparkly. Tonight, I really miss Naija

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Meme: Five things you don't know about me

Teju Cole of Modal Minority tagged me a few days ago with this meme. By the way, what does “meme” mean? I feel like it is some word that I should know. (And all who read this who feel like being tagged, consider yourselves tagged.) Despite my constant blabbing about myself on this blog, here are five things that most readers probably don't know.

1) My first trip outside of the United States was in 1988 when I was eleven years old and my family moved from Kansas to Port Harcourt. We stopped over in London and spent three days exploring the city. We visited an old auntie, a sister of my great grandmother, who had a toilet that you had to pull a chain to flush and who fed us on a rich cream almond covered cake and cucumber sandwiches. She was so proud of the cake. None of us could eat it. The five of us, my parents, my brother, sister and I wandered across London on foot, crossing London Bridge to Madame Toussaud's and watching the beefeaters outside of Buckingham Palace, but also stumbling across neighborhood cricket games, and ending up getting so lost that we had to walk for hours to get back to the guesthouse where we were staying. My brother was so tired that he lay down on the sidewalk and refused to go further. My dad ended up carrying him on his back, and I carried my sister.

My first memory of Nigeria is a tall soldier with a machine gun who escorted us through customs in the Lagos airport. At the guest house, the toilet seat was not attached to the toilet and there was a big black barrel in the bathtub. This did not bother us; it was just all part of the adventure. There were turquoise blue blankets on the two double beds. L., D. and I jumped on them, while we waited for the food to come; it arrived around midnight, a heaping platter of rice and stew and fried plantain. After her first trip to Nigeria before they brought us kids, my mother had raved about fried plantains. But when I tasted them that first night, I did not like them. I did not like them for another five or six years.

2) I was once fired from Oscar de la Renta…. Think Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada getting fired on her first day of work rather than getting sucked into the system, and that was me. I had moved to New York with my best friend from high school after graduating from college. I was young and naive, and although my style had gotten better after a semester abroad in England, I had never heard of Oscar de la Renta. I was temping while looking for a more permanent job. One morning my temp agent called me all excited that she was going to place me with Oscar de la Renta. I must have seemed unsuitably unimpressed on the phone, so she said, “You don’t know who Oscar de la Renta is? Are you serious? The FAMOUS designer????... So, can you handle phones?” “I’ve never done it before,” I said. “You’ll learn,” she said. “It’s a three week job, you’ll be standing in for the CEO’s receptionist. So, shall we do it?” “I’ll try.” I said. So, I put on my conservative blue outlet mall suit and my Payless dress shoes and took the subway to Oscar de la Renta. Models were roaming about. No one else had on a conservative blue suit. When I walked in and gave them my name, the person at the front desk gave me a good up and down look. They sat me down in an office that was to be mine for the next three weeks. I could not have a lunch break because lunch would be served by a chef. I was excited about the chef but unhappy about not having a lunch break because I was still interviewing for other permanent jobs. I had never transferred calls before. In fact, I have a mortal fear of talking on phones with strangers—probably having something to do with not having grown up with phones. So, here I was blithely answering the phone “Oscar de la ROSA. May I help you?” I answered the phone this way about five times, until someone on the other line said, “you mean ‘Renta’ Oscar de la Renta.” … Then, I ended up hanging up on some famous French designer when I tried to transfer him. The last straw was when I patched through a call to the CEO while he was in a meeting. He came out right before noon and told me I would no longer be needed. About a week later I got the editing job that I had for the next two years, and I wouldn’t have been able to interview for it if I had I still been at Oscar de la Renta…

3) The summer after I graduated from college, before I moved to New York, I worked in a junkyard in Georgia, tearing apart old computers and machines. I enjoyed it until the old man who owned the junkyard started coming up behind me while I was unscrewing things and giving me massages. So, I quit. (I’ve written a longer description of this, but I’m not sure whether or not to post it.)

4) Although I am now in a PhD programme for African literature, I actually did not read any African literature until I was around 16. Just as my dad had made our entire family take a Hausa class during one school break, he made me start reading African novels. I would bring home fantasy and science fiction and historical romance novels, neglect my homework for Jane Austen and Robin McKinley. One day my dad handed me Cyprian Ekwensi’s People in the City and Ngugi’s The River Between and said. “You are living in Africa, so you should read African literature too.” Those were the first two African novels I read. Now, I recommend books for him to read. My dad has been so influential in who I have become, in so many ways.

5) My parents grew up in very conservative families who were a part of the Holiness movement. Although my mother relaxed the rules on us kids enough that we were allowed to go swimming and wear short sleeves and sandals without stockings, we were raised in a very simple way. We did not grow up with television, although we did have a VCR that we hooked up to a computer monitor to watch Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang, and old Shirley Temple, and Laurel and Hardy movies. Later in high school, we were allowed to watch more daring things like Star Wars. We did not wear jewelry or makeup--a habit that lasts me to this day. (My little sister, L., on the other hand, can manage her makeup quite well.) My mom made a lot of our clothes herself. I didn’t trim my hair until I was fourteen. After a trip to the U.S. where I had acquired a very unfortunate set of bangs, my grandmother wrote my parents a letter telling them how disappointed she was that they were allowing Carmen to become “worldly.”

I did not wear jeans until I got to college. One of the things about not being used to wearing what other people wear is that it takes you a while to get the style quite right. On my first date in college, I wore a baggy pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, and I thought that I was “stylin.”(!) I finally broke down another barrier when I got my ears pierced last year. Now, I realize that there are a lot of things about earring etiquette I don’t know. Is it all right to wear the same dangly ruby-studded gothic earrings three days in a row as I did this week, or is that as bad as wearing the same sweater three days in a row?

See if you can identify me in this photo. I was thirteen. We were living in Port Harcourt, when the international school (where I later went to high school after we moved to Jos) sent down their sports teams to engage in a national competition. The students seemed so glamourous and so American to me. I was in awe of them and wanted to be like them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Night Encounter" by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Night Encounter

Coming up the stairs
Through the light drizzle
One dark night, I met him
One with the darkness
I stopped for a moment,
Frightened, tense.

He laughed gently and I relaxed
Happy to find
In spite of the gun
He was still a man

It lit the dark
that gentle laugh
In the pitch of night...

But it was only the low laugh
Of one who was soon to die.

By Ken Saro-Wiwa
From Songs in a Time of War
from the ANA website

Blogito Ergo Sum

An old friend who is a silent reader of my blog sent the following sales essay to me today. Thank you T. for bringing me back to earth! {-; And (drumroll) today's meta-blog:

I Blog, Therefore I am
Bloggers everywhere are opening their hearts to the world. Their souls are laid bare for all to see, feverishly tapped out in hypertext. Whether you're a actor-turned-writer-in-exile trying to find an audience you had once forsaken, or you're a political wonk showing people who really wields the power, blogs are the great leveler. They bring information directly to the people, bypassing the controls and filters of traditional media.

Then again, sometimes they're just the useless prattling of me-too writer wannabes with grandiose ideas of readership.

Either way, many people identify themselves with their online personas. Their entire identities are completely wrapped up in their blogs. Some of them believe that if they didn't have an open and public dialogue with the world, they would simply cease to be.

Blogito Ergo Sum. I Blog, therefore I am.

This t-shirt is charcoal with a blogger-brown button dead-center on the chest with "Blogito, ergo sum" in white. Beneath, a small reminder that you might not be as popular as you think: "Comments (0)."

(Click on title link to actually buy the t-shirt-TC... but I'm not THAT obsessed...)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Cell One" a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ok, so I've already broken the SCHEDULE two days in a row now by reading magazines after getting home from class rather than settling down to do work right away. There is a fantastic story "Cell One" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the latest New Yorker. I have to admit, despite enjoying Adichie's first novel Purple Hibiscus, I was not blown away by it. However, I've loved almost every single short story of hers that I've read. I hope she comes out with a collection of short stories at some point. I didn't end up getting to Half a Yellow Sun over Christmas break, but hopefully sometime soon...

In other news, I am taking classes in three different departments this semester, and I have a dream line-up. All of them are proving to be quite exciting. If this is my final semester of coursework, then it's a good note to end on. I wish I had more time to enjoy them. 1) The Francophone African cinema class 2) A Theory of Translation class 3) A Postcolonial literature and theory class and 4) an advanced Hausa (translation and film) class (what we [one other student and I] do pretty much consists of what I want to do). I think I will miss courses when I'm done with them.

I was hoping to do a post on the film Pièces d'identité, but the SCHEDULE proclaims that my bedtime has come so maybe tomorrow....

Image credit: from an interview on the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie website

(Update 10 April 2012): To buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fiction via my Amazon Associates account, click on the links below:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Measuring Time and FESPACO temptations

YAY!!!! Yesterday, I went into campus for the first time and found in my department box a copy of Helon Habila's new novel Measuring Time. A dear sweet professor of mine had been at the MLA conference in December and had gotten it for me. I am beside myself with joy.... Now WHERE is my pre-order that I paid for back in September, eh? Now, I have to control myself and not read it until I finish my thesis. This will be my gift to myself when I finish revising my thesis (if as planned this weekend... maybe). Then I can add in all sorts of delightful footnotes and things about Measuring Time in the afterward to my thesis once I defend it.

Now here's a terrible temptation. I am in a Francophone African cinema class (with a Quebec cinema comparative element), which I already LOVE. My next post will be on the fabulous film that we saw yesterday, Pièces d'identité set in the DRC and Belgium and directed by Dieudonné Ngangura Mweze. Well, my professor will be going to FESPACO at the end of next month, and he says there is a certain package deal (not too bad a deal, actually) for plane tickets to Ougadougou, meals, and hotel expenses for the entire week of the film festival. He invited those of us in the class who could raise the money to come along with him. I am SOOOOO tempted. SOOO tempted. I am not floating in money, but I did recieve an extra fellowship this year that I had put into savings for this summer... and if I don't end up going this summer to Nigeria, then.... But, no, I can't afford the time, not with four classes, a thesis to defend, a prelims list to put together, a conference to present at, etc. etc. No, not this year. But FESPACO comes every two years. Maybe at some point I could even drive. Burkina Faso borders on Niger and Benin. I bet from Kano it wouldn't be more than a two day drive, even with borders to cross, maybe even one day. Anyone want to plan a road trip in two years?! {-;

In the meantime, I WILL plan on going for the weekend to the Montreal Film festival in April. That's another option he gave us, and which seems a bit more realistic... if we can find some cheap hotels... Anyone know of any?

Monday, January 22, 2007


This is my plan to get me through the next semester. Because of a new departmental funding rule that seems to have been created over the break, if one recieves four years of funding (counting fellowships coming from the outside) then one will not recieve any more funding from the department(ie. TA-ships) after the fourth year. I am in my fourth year. Although, I have only actually recieved TA-ships from the department for one of those years, I have recieved other forms of fellowship funding for the other three years. Therefore, I have determined to be extremely serious about finishing not only my thesis this semester, but also my minor coursework, my French-for-reading-knowledge exam, and my preliminary exams by the end of the summer. I have also applied for another grant for next year, but if I don't get it, I will not return to Nigeria this summer as I had been planning but will study for and hopefully pass my prelims by August, then return to Nigeria in October or so.

That means that I need to finish my thesis revisions by the end of January and prepare to defend, complete grant applications at the beginning of February (and a conference paper for a conference I [probably foolishly] submitted to last semester), keep up with four classes, form a dissertation committee and a prelims reading list, and begin a French for reading knowledge class near the end of the semester.

I did not make New Years resolutions this year because I never keep them anyway, but these are my new semester resolutions. 1) be in bed by midnight, 2) get up in the morning by at latest 8am, turn on the computer and begin to work, 3) no internet or email until an hour before I have to leave for my class. (This means weaning myself from excessive blog-reading.) If I am expecting an urgent email, then I will check in the morning but will give myself a 10 minute deadline. 4) Return home immediately after class (depending on when class gets out) and write until 7pm. 5) After 7pm, read for class and do any homework. (Hopefully, I'll just have final papers and not a lot of midterm stuff.) 6) On my days off (Friday and Saturday), I will pretend like I have a 9-5pm job in revision of the thesis, with a one hour lunch break. (That worked well for me this weekend). 7) Somewhere in there, I need to fit in duties like cooking. With God's help it will all get done.

Unlike last semester, where I felt traumatized from the very beginning, I am looking forward to this semester. I'm enjoying my revisions. I'm looking forward to all of my classes. I will refuse to get obsessed and upset about things I have no power over (like departmental politics) and those things that I do have power over (roommate politics; excessive blog debating.) I will focus on doing what I have to do to get done.

This morning, I found that I was holding my breath as I wrote. I have to remind myself to breathe.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


This is one of my favourite photos from this summer, despite all my film having been semi-ruined by airport X-rays. (sniff)
This is Scorpion, a Hausa film actor who acts thugs. If 'yan iska appear in a film, it is likely Scorpion will be leading the pack.
He also was also extremely sweet, as is, I think, nicely captured in this photo. The puppy was an extra on the set of Albashi 3, directed by Abbas Sadiq. On the set of 419 -2 (directed by Sherrif Ahlan) after he "robbed" me at gun-point(gasp... yes, i was the victim of both 419 and armed robbery... in the film) he took me aside and told me I needed to start charging people a lot of money. He said that people were starting to write me into scripts and he didn't want me to be taken advantage of. Fresh-faced amateur and researcher on fellowship that I was, I demurred. But I appreciated his thoughtfulness. Maybe, I'll take his advice in the future....

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Minor Surgeries

5pm, 28 January 2007

The surgeon was a beautiful young woman, with thick black hair caught back in a bun at the nape of her neck, large green-brown eyes with long mascara coated eyelashes, full rosy cheeks. Bent over me, she looked like one of Renoir’s young mothers. When I went in for the first examination in December, her hands on me were like those of a masseuse, strong, capable, and empathetic.

It was an in-office procedure, and she did not put me to sleep—only numbed the area in the lower right breast where she would make the incision. “This is going to really hurt,” she warned me, inserting the needle. That was the only time that my body tensed up, my hand balling into a fist. But it wasn’t bad. No worse than a yellow fever injection—where you feel the medicine coming in once, then twice, an echo of fire. After that, I relaxed, my eyes lightly closed. I halfway wanted to open them, see what instrument made that electrical sound that sounded almost like a constantly zapping electric fly catcher. After a few minutes, she said, “Say something, so that we know you are still with us.” She asked me about my program—what I was studying. I responded, but I felt like being quiet. About respecting this parting of my skin, this opening up of my body under a stranger’s hands. And they seemed to understand why my replies were so brief, why I was silent. The nurse asked the surgeon if she had been out sledding with her little boy in all this snow. The surgeon said, no, that she had been up until 5am with another surgery, but had gotten a little sleep before coming into work this morning.

“Oh,” I thought. “She’s cutting me open with only a few hours of sleep.” I guess doctors know how to do that sort of thing. Underneath their voices were the other sensations, the stiffness on my right side where they had placed the long tough sticker (after it was all done and I was peeling it off, the surgeon told me was a “grounding pad” so I wouldn’t “be electrocuted”), the pushings and proddings, brief pressures on my numbed flesh, the constant electric sound, skkk--skkkk-skkk.

“Is it a laser?” I asked, eyes closed. That’s just the “cutter,” I thought she said. Later when I talked to my mother (back in the States for a few weeks) on the phone about my grandmother’s surgery yesterday to remove skin cancer, I realized that she had been saying “cauter.” I felt a brief electric shock twice and she gave me more numbing medication.

“It’s a fibrous tumour—what we thought from the ultrasound,” she said as she worked to remove it. “Can I see it when you are done?” I asked. “Sure,” she said. And in what seemed like no time, I opened my eyes, and she was holding it up with some tweezers. A large smooth white oblong mass. “Oh!” I said. “It’s so big!” I had been feeling it for about five months. I knew that it was bigger than a “marble,” but it hadn’t felt quite that big. When they had said “fibrous” to describe the growth, I had imagined a tough mass of fibers, something like a rough light brown ball of hemp or a hairball, that they’d have to wash the blood off of. This was white and smooth, like a slug, or a piece of fat, with only one streak of blood across it. “No,” she responded, “this is fat” and held up a smaller piece of floppy white tissue. That’s the only time I felt vaguely nauseous. I would have liked to have just spent some time examining the lump—this foreign mass that grew in my body; but, then, I suppose it’s good that they are sending it off somewhere. I tend to get a little too obsessed by things like that. When I was ten, I took to pulling out my eyelashes and my hair because I liked to inspect the roots.

And then, she was sewing up the incision with a tiny curved needle that she held with tweezers, pulling so tightly that I could feel my numbed skin rising up with the thread. I looked down and saw the not-quite-straight cut about an inch long. It was longer and rougher than I had imagined. And that is when I started shaking. After putting on a clear waterproof bandage that she told me to keep on for two days, the nurse dropped the tumour into a bottle of formaldehyde to be sent for testing. (They are 98% sure it is benign; I just wanted to have it taken care of while I still had insurance.) And that was that. I put back on the roomy sweatshirt I had worn for the occasion, and went out to my roommate who had waited for about an hour. “It was bigger than I thought,” I said. When I held out my fingers to show her the approximate size, they were shaking so badly that I’m not sure she could see what I meant. Once we were in the parking garage, my teeth began chattering. “Are you cold?” she asked. “No,” I said. “I’m just shaking.”

Once back home, the shaking stopped. I called my mother and took a long nap. It still hasn’t started hurting, and I really have no excuse not to be working on my thesis. Let me get back to it.

Last night, I dreamed that a new edition of Waiting for an Angel came out, with new stories added so that my analysis in my thesis did not work, and I had to start over, surgically removing that which no longer belonged and adding in new analysis. I’m certain that I’ve had this dream before.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Brief Biography of Helon Habila

Here is another bit that I've excised from my introduction, but which I am keeping in an appendix. Any corrections or comments welcome.
[NOTE: updated 10 January 2008]

Appendix 3:
A Brief Biography of Helon Habila:
Helon Habila[1] was born in 1967 to a Christian Tangale family in Kaltungo, Gombe State, in the northern middlebelt region of Nigeria. His father, Habila Ngalabak, started out his career as a preacher with white missionaries, and later become a civil servant with the Ministry of Works, which meant that the family often moved around when Habila was a young boy. Habila’s mother contributed to the family income with her work as a tailor. Habila completed his primary and secondary education in the city of Gombe. According to the introduction of his interview with Helon Habila “Everything Follows,” Frank Bures notes that Habila’s skill in weaving stories was noticed early on by his teachers: “In his fifth year of primary school, his teachers … took him to various classrooms to spin his tales for the other kids.”

In the introduction to his short story “The Night of the Monster” on the Crossing Borders African Writing website, Habila describes the very first influences on his own storytelling ability, noting that that his “first encounter with fiction was oral, not textual. I grew up in a tenement house with about six other families, and in the nights our mothers would gather all the children, more than a dozen of us, and tell us stories… I can now see the influence of those stories in my fiction—I like compelling story lines that grip you, like the ancient mariner, and force you to listen.” However, after learning English at around age seven, he “never stopped reading.” The third of seven siblings, Habila describes himself growing up as “the outsider, watching, unable to fully participate. (I am the only one in my family who is not fluent in my mother tongue). I grew up reading anything I could lay my hands on…. I was going to be a writer, and that was it.” His early influences he cites as the Bible in Hausa and English and later in his teenage years Western classics such as Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Henry James, Dickens, and so on. (Habila, Introduction “The Night of the Monster”). In an Encompass Culture interview hosted by Susan Tranter he claims that his literary idols range from “Shakespeare to Soyinka. I am always open to impressions and ideas. The beauty of the novel is that it can absorb as many styles and philosophies as one cares to throw into it, and it gets the better for it.” The authors he still hears “ringing in my sentences and opinions, are Stephen Crane, Achebe, Ngugi, and Shakespeare.”
Although he had fallen in love with stories and literature at an early age, he initially attempted to follow his father’s dream for him to become an engineer, enrolling at the Bauchi University of Technology and then the Bauchi College of Arts and Sciences (Bures and Habila). However, his studies did not interest him, and he finally returned home “directionless and despondent.” He confided to interviewer Jason Cowley “‘I had no idea what I would do or what would become of me,’ he says. ‘I used to quarrel so much with my father.’” In 1989, while still at home “holed up in his room, reading and writing,” (Bures and Habila) Habila’s father and one of his younger brothers was killed in a car accident, an incident which seems to inform the heartbreaking story “Bola” in Waiting for an Angel.

After the deaths of his father and brother, Habila enrolled in the English BA programme at the University of Jos. There, he thrived. And there he met his friend Toni Kan, a young man from Delta State who had a similar interest in literature and writing. The two young men entered into a friendly rivalry that pushed them further in their literary pursuits. Professor Kanchana Ugbabe remembers how the two students would often come to her office after class to talk and borrow books. Helon Habila was the quieter one, she said, while Toni Kan was more outspoken, but the two young men seemed to spur each other on. In his article “Another Age” in Granta, Habila describes how “each of us wanted to be the first to achieve literary glory. We went in for the same BBC competitions, then hid the rejection slips from each other, claiming our manuscripts had been lost in the post” (152). Shortly after Kan won an essay contest which garnered him a six-week trip to England, in 1992 Habila’s published his first short story “Embrace of the Snake” in an anthology of Nigerian writing, Through Laughter and Tears edited by Chidi Nganga(152). However, after the two graduated from the university in 1995, Habila relates that Kan’s life seemed the more glamorous. While Kan moved to Lagos to work for a magazine and soon became a literary “star,” Habila found more prosaic work at the Federal Polytechnic in Bauchi, where he lectured in English and Literature from 1997 to 1999 and published the biography Mai Kaltungo.

In 1999, at Kan’s invitation, Habila moved to Lagos and became a columnist and editor in Kan’s romance magazine Hints. (Blog Note: More on Hints as experienced by Kayode Ajala here.) He went on to become the arts editor at the influential newspaper the Vanguard and became involved with the Lagos chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors. It was in 2000 in Lagos that he began to receive serious attention for his literary writing. His poem “Another Age” won first place in the MUSON (Musical Society of Nigeria) Festival Poetry Competition in 2000 and his short story “The Butterfly and the Artist” won the Liberty Bank Prize. His poems “Birds in the Graveyard” and “After the Obsession” were published in the collection of poetry 25 New Nigerian Poets, edited by Toyin Adewale and published by Ishmael Reed. It was also in 2000, that Habila self published his collection of short stories Prison Stories and submitted the opening story of the collection “Love Poems” for the Caine Prize for African Writing, a substantial prize awarded for “a short story by an African writer published in English” (“Rules of the Caine Prize 111). Frank Bures relates how “When the Caine Prize committee wrote back to tell Habila’s publisher that he’d been shortlisted, he replied anonymously. ‘Thanks for your mail. We’ll let the author know immediately. We hope that God will guide the judges in their choice’” (Bures and Habila). After winning the 15,000 pound prize, he received a book contract with Norton to publish the collection of short stories as the novel Waiting for an Angel. The novel, which came out in 2002, went on to win the 2003 Commonwealth Literature prize for the best first novel by an African writer. Since publication of Waiting for an Angel, Habila has been at the University of East Anglia in Norwich England where he was awarded a writing fellowship for two years and where he is currently doing PhD work on the life of Dambudzo Marechera. He has also been a fellow at the University of Iowa International Writing Program, a Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in 2005-2006. Currently, he teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University. His second novel Measuring Time was published by Norton in February 2007.

Here is a link to my November 2007 interview with him that was originally published in Leadership on 19 November 2007 and republished in the DailyTrust. Here also is my review of both Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time.

(Update 10 April 2012) To purchase Helon Habila's books through my amazon associates account, click on the following links:

[1] The information in this brief biography has been gleaned from multiple sources: Toyin Adewale ed., “The Poets,” 25 New Nigerian Poets. (Ishmael Reed: Berkely, 2000). Jason Cowley, “To finish my book was an act of will.” 26 July, 2001. Guardian.,3858,4228260-103680,00.html Downloaded 29 April 2006.; Frank Bures and Helon Habila, “Everything Follows: An Interview with Helon Habila.” Poetsand Writers. 2006. <> Downloaded 2 September
06.;Helon Habila with with Susan Tranter, “Helon Habila.” Encompass Culture. Downloaded 14 March 2006.; Helon Habila, “Another Age,” Granta. 80 (2002): 147-154.; Helon Habila. Introduction. “The Night of the Monster.” Crossing Borders: New Writing From Africa. British Council<> Downloaded 2 September 2006.; Helon Habila. Email to author. September 6, 2006; “Biographies,” Timbuktu, Timbuktu: A Selection of Works from the Caine Prize for African Writing. Jacuna: Durban, 2002. p. 109-110.; Professor Kanchana Ugbabe. Personal conversation with the author. University of Jos, 21 August 2006.

Dem call am Human Rights.

Article 13
Everione naim get right to go anywhere wey e wan go, weda na to go see im friend o, or to go anoda town o, or to travel comot for where e de live to anoda place. Dat na im own palava.
Everione naim get right to comot im kontri if e wan go to anoda kontri and make e come back if e like, e no concern anybodi.
Article 14
Everione naim get right to go anoda kontri, wey e like to tell dem say im wan live for dat kontri, sake for say dem de look for am for im own kontri or dem won arrest am for im kontri, wen im no do any bad ting.
But if dat person really do bad ting o, for im own kontri and e come run comot to wan go live for anoda kontri, sake for say di goment of im kontri de look for am, di goment of di kontri wey e run go, no go gree at all, at all o. Even sef, di meeting of di whole world wey we de call United Nations, say dis ting no good at all and dem too gree say if person do bad ting for im kontri, e good make im eye see wetin e de look for, as e do di bad ting for im kontri.
Article 15
Everione naim get right to say na any kontri wey im like, im go call im own.
Nobodi fit talk say di person no get right to belong to di kontri wey e like or if e like make a say im no wan belong to im kontri again, na anoda kontri im wan belong to. Make dem say e no fit change to di kontri wey e like and make e call im own.

An exerpt from the Nigerian Pidgen version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Prison Stories and Waiting for an Angel

(From part of the introduction to my thesis that I am considering cutting out)
My connection to Helon Habila’s novel Waiting for an Angel goes back to the time before it was a “novel” published by that name. In November 2001 I attended the 2001 Association of Nigerian Authors Conference in Port Harcourt. It was there that I first picked up a copy of Helon Habila’s collection of short stories, Prison Stories, a slim paperback with the black and white image of a barbed-wire spiked wall wrapping the front and back cover. In opening the book, the image flattens out so that the reader physically opens up a space in the prison walls and peers behind/between them. When I read the collection of short stories, it was the first piece of Nigerian literature I had read in which I immediately recognized the setting and identified with the urban characters. Calling it a “fractured novel,” I went to every bookshop that I knew of in Jos trying to persuade them to stock it. For the two years I was in Jos from 2001-2003, I was not successful. Ironically, the only place I was able to find additional copies of the book to give my friends was in the international airport in Lagos on my way out of the country. I was thrilled when I found out from Professor Kanchana Ugbabe, who had taught Habila at the University of Jos, that the collection was being published by Norton as a novel the next year. In the novel the editor James pessimistically maintains that the people of Nigeria won’t buy books because they are too poor to afford them and too illiterate and too busy trying to stay out of the way of the police to read. While this judgment is cynical, my experience attempting to find copies of Prison Stories in the city where Habila had completed his first degree in English ironically echoes the difficulties of publication in Nigeria. The publication by Norton, which while making the novel more accessible to a wider Western audience, also does not overcome this difficulty. Habila himself notes (FIND ARTICLE) that upon returning to Nigeria, he had to hand carry a lot of the books to make them available and that they were only available for about N1,000. [BLOG NOTE: Sadly, the book is also difficult to access in bookstores in the U.S. I went into a bookstore in Duluth, GA, a suburb of Atlanta, last week wanting to purchase it as a Christmas gift for T. and her friend Z. But the Barnes and Noble employee looked it up in the system and told me that it was not available in any of the bookshops in the area... of course, they could order it for me...]

Now four and a half years later in 2006, as I write my MA thesis on Prison Stories turned Waiting for an Angel, my reading of both volumes informs my interpretation of the texts. In this thesis I will suggest that, like the image on the cover of Prison Stories, the text opens up the porous borders between the world of the characters and the world of the writer and/or reader. By looking at the self-published collection of short stories as well as the novel published by a large Western corporation, I hope to examine the ways in which Habila’s story escapes the bounds of the text and into a larger context. [OVERLY SIMPLISTIC--WORK ON] The uneasy existence of the story in two different versions, one published in Nigeria and one published in London and later New York, highlights the liminality of the story. In the last paragraph of Habila’s afterward to the novel Waiting for an Angel published by Norton in 2002, he defends his appropriation of historical events that have not necessarily been “represented with strict regard to time and place,” saying that “[m]y concern was for the story, that above everything else” (Habila 229). Habila’s concern with the story, in fact, is a concern with multiple stories, as is evident in his initial naming of his self-published volume. Yet those multiple stories, read together, become the building blocks of a larger story that makes up the novel. The back cover text of the first collection notes that “Prison Stories is an unusual collection of organically related stories depicting the exploitative relationship between the ruler and the ruled in Nigeria of the 1990s.” I suggest that this concern with the relationship between “the ruler and the ruled” is influential in the shape that the narrative takes. It is not one authorized story, told by the ruler, but instead multiple “organically related stories” that open up spaces in the larger story, blur the boundaries between fiction and “reality." [AGAIN, OVERLY SIMPLISTIC, WORK ON] The cover art of the two editions I analyze here contribute to this ambiguity. In reading Prison Stories, readers physically open up the image of the prison walls when they open the book suggesting the power of the story to transcend imprisonment. In my 2002 Norton edition, the cover art suggests a transition similar to the transition in title. The image on the Norton (American edition) cover is of a young man framed in a large clouded sky evoking the motif of natural imagery which play a salvific function throughout the novel. Both titles and both images[1] are significant in interpreting the spaces explored in Habila’s transitory text: the prison walls have been opened up by the writer/reader to the open space of sky, out of which the angel will descend.

[1] The British Penguin edition has a cover photo of a broken and empty chair. The hard back Hamish Hamilton edition shows a cityscape of Lagos at sunset.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Interview with Helon Habila at

An interview with Helon Habila that I just found through my google alerts.
In the meantime, the revisions on my thesis on Waiting for an Angel are going very, very slowly... sigh...
Photo Credit:

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Here are my first impressions of The Book of Not

by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I'd welcome a dialogue with anyone else who has read this book. (Warning: spoilers ahead)

Dangarembga, Tsitsi.
Oxfordshire: Ayebia Clarke, 2006.

I’m trying to figure out whether my disappointment in this novel is that of a literary critic or merely that of a reader who had loved Nervous Conditions
and identified with the forceful yet ambiguous narrative of the main character Tambudzai. Perhaps it is unfair to impose my own expectations of a sequel so long awaited on the author, but this is the sequel I had imagined: Tambudzai continues at the Sacred Heart academy, does well, receives a scholarship to study in England, and discovers in exile the regretful, cynical voice with which she narrates both novels—finding too late that in her desire for advancement in the European world she had lost her connection to family, to history, and to herself. In the second novel, I imagined, she would begin to retrace her steps to find what she had lost. In any case, I expected that I'd still like the plucky yet imperfect narrator, whatever obstacles she may have to overcome.

This is not what happened. Instead the hints at selfishness and the craving for acceptance that we see in Nervous Conditions (her lack of grief over her brother’s death, her relief to get away from the homestead, etc) develop into a character who, by the end of her first person narrative in The Book of Not, is thoroughly un-likeable. Tambudzai dreams of greatness—greatness being that which will propel her ahead of her classmates, to a position where her family have no option but to be proud, a position in which she can have the vengeance of success to hold over her disapproving mother; she will demonstrate to her white classmates and teachers that she is capable of surpassing them. Although Tambudzai is clearly capable of achievement, her frustrating desire to please, her suppression of her rage, results failure. Tambudzai’s interest in school has little to do with an actual interest in what she is studying but with honours, awards, and exam results. Nervous Conditions is a Dickensonian bildingsroman tracing the successes of the homestead girl who had the support of a benevolent uncle, an optimistic structure ironically undermined by psychological loss of self a la Black Skins, White Masks. In The Book of Not, Dangarembga systematically tears down Tambudzai’s accomplishments achieved in Nervous Conditions. The trajectory of the narrative is a steady descent into lower and lower levels of a self-negating hell.

Like Nervous Conditions, the story is told through Tambudzai’s unreliable first person narration, yet there are fewer moments of tenderness here. The author doesn't seem to like her narrator very much. Dangarembga takes a particularly bitter swipe at Tambudzai when she comes back to the mission on vacation and finds her subdued cousin Nyasha reading Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat. Although Tambudzai has been attempting to memorize the complete works of Shakespeare for her exams, she displays an aggressive ignorance of African literature, saying, “[Nyasha] was reading a book she had not bothered to share with me, which rather than being revolutionary seemed to be about agriculture for it was called A Grain of Wheat, written as far as I could see by someone like poor Bongo in the Congo, a starving Kenyan author” (117). Not only is she ignorant of Ngugi’s work but she disdains the efforts of the other African girls to speak Shona together: “These seniors were planning to spend the entire evening trying futiley to turn back time by speaking Shona! Just imagine! Inviting a mark for refusing to accept which language was allowed and which was not when you were as far as the sixth form!... I was not going to identify with a group that spoke in the only language, out of all the ones that were known at the school, which was forbidden” (169). Success for her is in becoming what she is told to become, in rejecting that which is African to embrace that which is European. To speak Shona is to be out of date, to be insubordinate. Having had her early rebellion over using the white girl’s toilets beaten out of her, she no longer questions any rules placed upon her. This is the point where I miss the fiery character Nyasha, who plays only a peripheral and sedated role in this sequel, and whose blunt observations might have provided a balance to Tambudzai's desperate self-delusion.

The history of Zimbabwe here presented is bitterly cynical. The book opens with Tambudzai’s disjointed, almost incoherent, description of her freedom-fighting sister’s leg being blown off and her uncle Babamukuru being beaten by the villageres for being “not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces” (6). This opening accounts for the terror the elite African students as well as the white students at Sacred Heart feel for the Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Tambudzai locks away her memories of her sister’s leg, until her classmate Ntombi comes to weep in her room about a baby cousin being drowned by “terrorists,” because “[t]hey said my aunt is feeding terrorists… Yes, she talked because of what they did to the baby. But it was too late. My little cousin was broken, just broken!... Then my aunt killed herself, because when it’s like that, you’ll never live… No one is alive!” (172). In an initial reading it is hard to tell whether the “Rhodesian” army or the “Zimbabwean” army has committed these atrocities. Tambudzai’s pain is so deep that she tries not to think about it at all.

Despite the struggle for freedom from white rule, the new Zimbabwe, which has emerged by the end of the narrative, mirrors the old. Language is cloaked in political correctness. At school, the girls are "consumed by ... terror" that they might inadvertantly break the school rules about physical seperation between the white and black students. If a black girl should accidentally touch a white girl in an assembly queue "looks of such horror flooded their faces at this accidental contact that you often looked around to see what horrendous monster caused the expression, before you realised it was your person" (58-9). This history is countered with hypocritical inter-racial hugs between the co-workers at the end of the story. But under this shallow familiarity lurks the old racist structures. Tracy, the white student, who knowingly stole Tambudzai’s trophy for the best 0-levels in secondary school, becomes Tambu’s boss. A white copywriter praises Tambudzai’s advertising copy for a hair straightening product and then takes the copy as his own, going on to win a company prize for the text. (The hair straightening product represents the continued structures of idealizing Europeans ideas of what is good, under new leadership. And Tambudzai’s ability to write sentimental copy about it demonstrates her imbrication in these mental structures.) Tambudzai’s dreams are crushed over and over again. She is the ultimate victim. Although she gets the best O-level results in the class, a white girl gets the prize, while Tambudzai goes unacknowledged. Upon becoming a senior, she chooses to focus on math and science, yet because of her race she is not allowed to attend the national boy’s school the other girls from Sacred Heart attend for the science classes. She is left trying to make sense of the sciences from the handwritten notes of a white classmate. Despite hours of study, she miserably fails her A-levels.

The reader sympathizes with her victimhood, until it becomes obvious that Tambudzai is unwilling to take any action to protest these inequities. She seems to almost aggressively seek a silent martyrdom in pursuit of her own interpretation of unhu, “that profound knowledge of being, quietly and not flamboyantly; the grasp of life and of how to preserve and accentuate life’s eternal interweavings that we southern Africans are famed for, what others now call ubuntu, demanded that I consoled myself, that I be well so that others could be well also” (103). Despite her resentment of racist rules which segregate bathrooms by race, she volunteers to knit socks for Rhodesian soldiers in the fight against her “elder siblings,” to comfort the children of a farmer killed by the “elder siblings,” to ensure that she is viewed favourably by the administration. When Tracy is announced the winner of the prize for the best O-levels, most of the girls know it is a lie because they saw Tambudzai’s results. Yet, when her classmate Ntombi urges her to go talk to the headmistress, telling her that she will come along with her for moral support, Tambuzai refuses and silently sits through the award ceremony in an agony of self-mortification. When the white copywriter takes her out for coffee to inform her that he will be stealing the credit for her “brilliant” advertising copy, she deludes herself that it is a sacrifice she must take for future credit. When he receives an award for the copy, she resigns the job, but she does not even take the satisfaction of claiming her rights in her resignation, but lies that she is quitting to get married.

Much of Tambudzai’s problem is the suppression of her rage: she accepts the position given her by the whites, while taking out her aggression on those who have not achieved her level: the chirpy secretary, her vengeful mother at the homestead. Indeed, although Tambudzai has spent her whole life trying to get away from the bitterness her mother represents, Tambudzai has become exactly what she resents about her mother: she is consumed by bitterness, passive-aggressive vengeance, self-defeating negativity. Like her mother, she is so eaten by self pity that she has no friends, nothing that she enjoys except her own martyrdom.

By the end, the reader has become wary. Even Tambudzai’s smallest goals must be viewed with suspicion, since it is obvious that she is to be allowed not even the smallest of triumphs. At the end of the novel as Tambudzai takes an account of her failures, she realizes that “I had forgotten all the promises made to myself and providence while I was young concerning carrying forward with me the good and human, the unhu of my life. As it was, I had not considered unhu at all, only my own calamities, since the contested days at the convent” (246).
The question I had after plowing through this swamp of self pity is whether Tambudzai, whose cycle of self-imposed goals for recognition, victimhood, and aggressive self flagellation repeats again and again with little new insight, has remained an interesting enough person to warrant the 250 pages Dangarembga spends on developing her voice?
Note: 9 December 2007
Today I googled reviews of The Book of Not and came across these three reviews by Helon Habila, Percy Zvomuya, Helen Oyeyemi.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Rasuwar Ahmed S. Nuhu

I came to a library to get onto the internet to blog about my stay in Podunksville, Georgia, where my sister works as an emergency medical technician, and where I came to get away from the world to get some writing done for a couple of days.
But when I opened my email, I had a message about the death of Ahmed S. Nuhu. Inna lillahi wa inna Ilaihi raji'iun. Allah Ya jikasa. Allah Ya Rahamma masa. Allah Ya sa ya huta.
Ahmed is pictured here with his wife Hafsat, who is an actress in Hausa film industry. Ahmed, who is originally from Jos, was one of the biggest film stars in the Hausa film industry. I did not know him terribly well, but I chatted with him several times. He was extremely nice. I liked him a lot. I'm also, of course, a fan of his many films.
He was killed in a car accident on January 1 on the road to Azare in Bauchi state. I'm a little too sick to my stomach to write anything else. Oh God, how can we continue to bear all of this death? It keeps coming and coming and coming, and each time it punches the air out of us. How long? How long? When will it end?
See also this article in Hausa from VOA