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.


Fred said...

I should talk, but many extraneous details in this. Feels like it could be tighter, less stumbling:

... goes back to the time before it was a "novel" (why in quotes?) published by that name (why the need to point that out?)

In November 2001, attending the 2001 Assoc... sounds clumsy.

The thing about opening the book opens "physically(?)" the space in the prison walls is interesting, needs rewriting to evoke a sharper image. ...

Crikey, look at me critiquing a master's candidate! Ignore at will, please! I'm a dipshit.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Hi Fred,
no problem! {-; That's why I'm probably going to cut this entire section out, but I wanted it to still exist somewhere so I posted it here. But, you're right the clumsy bits, the wordiness, all that is stuff that will hopefully improve in the revision process.

thanks for the comments.

Teju said...

I love this, it's like a new literary form: thesis with notes. I love the way you've included all the asides.

Perhaps "Pale Fire" has found its rival at last?

Talatu-Carmen said...


You are too kind. I'm actually thinking of cutting this part out, but perhaps I shan't. The background I give here is why I am writing about the novel. It's more than an intellectual study to me--it has become deeply personal. And perhaps that's why it's so hard to get far enough away from it be able to view it objectively--why it is so agonizing to rearrange and revise. But perhaps now that I'm leaving family and going back to my little solitary room with the snow falling outside, i'll be able to focus.

Talatu-Carmen said...

BTW, thanks for the Pale Fire tip. I, unfortunately have never read Nabokov, but as I read reviews of Pale Fire, I see how it relates to Waiting for an Angel. Wish I had time to read it and make a reference to it in the thesis. But I think my advisor shall slaughter me if I make even one more extra-textual reference. I apparently have a weakness for making lots of outside analogies to the neglect of the text itself.

Texter said...

hello: thanks for sharing. your personal interest and investment comes through and it is a nice read. I think it would be a shame to get rid of all of the personal anecdote regarding your history with the novel, although if you are concerned about Supervisor, perhaps you can put it in a "Preface" so the Intro gets right to your thesis since that might be the issue. Now for the "tough love" !! :) --->the section toward the end -- I quote: "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]" Ok, you yourself note rather baldly that you need to work on this. I think this is part of your thesis. Thing is, I want to know more about those "organically related stories" -- are they all equally important? Are all weighted equally in the narrative? Are there any that are dominant and others that are subsumed or dismissed by the way the narrative is told?
Go forth, take risks! Good luck - you will complete a marvelous thesis.

Talatu-Carmen said...


thanks so much. Your point about the relationship between the stories--whether there are some that are dominant and subservient--is a good one. Originally, I had not focused on that as much, but the other day I went through and structurally diagramed the layout and found an interesting pattern in narratorial voice, which maybe I'll explore later here.

I also think that the seed for interpretation of the rest of the novel can be found in the second chapter "The Angel," in which the marabout interprets the future (implying that the reality they live in is like a text that has been written for them) but at the same time notes the importance of the multiple levels of reality. So, really, by showing them their futures, he doesn't lock them in but empowers them to find liberation in the multiple layers of reality. I'm saying this badly right now, but that is one of the major points I'm hoping to make in the novel. How on one level the populace is locked into the story told for them by the military state, but on another level, they are able to find liberation. In my interpretation, this chapter is central.

As for the other stories, I do need to think about their relationships to the whole more. All along, I have disliked the story "Alice" and I feel like it introduces some disjunctures that don't quite match up with the other stories. Perhaps some of this is because it was an addition to the original collection. But, there is also a lot of rich stuff there too...

Anyway, thanks for your comment, it has gotten me excited about revising again. It's good to hear fresh perspectives... and it's good to have encouragment to proceed boldly forth...

Fred said...

Of course, you know you will have to publish your thesis here afer you've submitted it, don't you? After all, I will need targets for my shotgun! ;-)