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.


Fred said...

I read both the "hamadu danger" short story and his granta article. This guy can write! Free-flowing, lyrical, with nary a word-thorn to catch at my mind as I run through his prose. Excellent, really!

Sheesh, one more thing to read, but this one is a must-read.

Thanks, C.

Anonymous said...

I hear that Cassava Republic will be publishing Waiting for an Angel and Measuring time this year. I wonder when that will. He is an amazing writer. I hope his works gets to be on literature reading list. I am really really looking forward to Measuring Time.

Talatu-Carmen said...

And today a dear professor gave me a copy of Measuring Time that he'd picked up at the MLA conference in December. I am ecstatic, and I wonder what's going on with my pre-order if it is already out. Now, it will be the carrot at the end of my thesis stick. Finish thesis, can read Measuring Time (and probaby add more to my conclusion of the thesis on it.)

akagod said...

After reading measuring time I almost gave myself a crack for not having picked it off the shelf long before now. My wife had a hard time trying to get my attention while I journeyed with Habila. I hope my on-going effort to write will get close. I cant wait for his next book to be out.


Talatu-Carmen said...


Isn't it wonderful! If you liked Measuring Time, you might be interested in reading this review I wrote of Measuring Time and Waiting for an Angel.

take care,


Talatu-Carmen said...

ooops... and the link for the review is here:

Obinna Udenwe said...

In my family, we read and analyzed books together, when we read Waiting for an Angel, we felt thrilled. I wondered how Helon was able to sustain my interests in the stories, linking them together to seem like one. My dad never believed they were different stories, he said they were one story told by one person in different perspectives. We had lots of arguments when we read, Measuring Time, the work kept me thinking about my childhood. It is a work that will interest ever African - because it is simply the story of your childhood - one way or the other, a part of the story must have a link to your childhood, or your neighborhood. It has a stream of consciousness that is deep and alluring.

blcompère said...

Pure awesomeness! That is all I can say.

Oghenejabor Paul said...

A gift from God is what Helon is to Africa. Just when we thought the biggest that will emerge from Africa are the Soyinkas,, Achebe, NGUgi amongst others, behold another star rising to give us hope.Read the novel Oil on water and from the beginning to the end i never thought i dropped it for any thing. The way he told the story of the environmental injustice in the Niger Delta was captivating and also revealing so many hidden secrets as regards those actors exploiting the gift of the land. Numerous themes is revealed to address different issues in Nigeria. I take a bow.