Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Helon Habila and Rewriting History

Here is an exerpt from part of my thesis on Helon Habila's novel Waiting for an Angel . Even though, I added the stuff from Measuring Time this morning, I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut it out or at least break it up (ie. my advisor's wise observation that I tend to distract myself with too many analogies...). Posting it on my blog keeps it in existence somewhere.... Here I am talking about Habila's use of intertextuality, but I think I sidetrack myself with the discussion of Measuring Time and placing multiple stories side by side... maybe not... maybe I need to just move it somewhere else.

Similar to the passage in The Man Died, where Soyinka requests books from the library, the character Lomba also requests books from the prison superintendent, who is extorting poetry from him. “He wanted Wole Soyinka’s prison notes, The Man Died; but when it came it was A Brief History of West Africa” (29). In openly referring to Soyinka as he also does in the words of his student demonstrators, Habila acknowledges the setting—as if he is in the same set that Soyinka reflected in his memoir, on which a different play is now being acted out. The actual events recorded and made into symbols by Soyinka are re-used by Habila. During his sojourn in prison, Soyinka devoured a dog-eared copy of the Letters of Queen Victoria, a seemingly ironic reference to the imperial past in which history is defined in the person of the queen and her perceptions of the colonies rather than by the experiences of the “natives” of those colonies. Similarly, the substitution of A Brief History of West Africa for Soyinka’s prison memoirs requested by Lomba not only ironically refers to the scene in Soyinka’s prison notes in which he had requested books from the prison library but also reinforces the idea of living in a story written by someone else. The title A Brief History of West Africa evokes images of colonial texts in which the story told of West Africa is that of the Victorian-era European explorers like Richard Burton and colonial governors like Lord Lugard, (Blog Note: or like this... heehee) as well as the critiques of novelists like Achebe on this telling of history.

At the end of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as the District Commissioner thinks of including the story of Okonkwo in his book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, he considers writing a whole chapter on Okonkwo. Then he thinks better of it. “Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details” (TFA 209). Achebe is, of course, ironically commenting on the effrontery of the colonizer who will write only a paragraph on a man whose story has been the subject of Achebe’s entire novel. The history that the colonial officers in Achebe’s Arrow of God read in order to “understand” the people they are ruling is this same book, in which the author has been so disciplined in subverting individual stories to his own narrative of “pacification.” In “cutting out details,” the author reinforces the idea of an authoritative version of history. The details, the individual stories, have no place in the narrative of the colonizer. As Habila illustrates with his inclusion of A Brief History of West Africa being substituted for the harrowing and detailed account of Soyinka’s imprisonment, neither have these individual stories any place in the narrative of the military dictatorships that followed official independence.

Similar to Achebe, Habila gives the details of the lives of ordinary people, those which would not normally be considered part of a larger history. Much of the power in the way he presents these ordinary lives is the way he references other literary works, indicating that not only are there multiple voices within his own novel but that his novel is only one of many novels voicing out protest against oppressive structures. In his second novel, Measuring Time, Habila’s character Mamo envisions a “true history” of Nigeria, in which “if the historian could capture these ordinary lives, including their recollections of their own family’s past, then he might come close to writing a true ‘biographical history’ of a nation; for when we refer to a nation, are we not referring to the people that inhabit that nation, and so isn’t the story of a nation then really the story of the people who make up that nation” (Habila, Measuring Time, 180). In Mamo’s subsequent attempt at this biographical history, he writes the history of his father the failed politician, and his aunt the divorced wife, alongside the less than glorious history of the mai, the traditional ruler, of Keti. Every story has it’s own place alongside the others. Mamo says: “I want to make the Mai’s biography simply a part of the other biographies I told you about…. [that] I will eventually compile to form a biographical history of Keti. That’s what history really is, people and their lives, no matter how we try to manipulate it. It is the story of real people with real weaknesses and strengths and… not about some founding fathers and … even if we want to write about the founding fathers we shouldn’t privilege them, we should place them on par with other ordinary folks…” (225).In his first novel Waiting for an Angel, Habila does much of Mamo attempts to do in his biographical history, placing the story of the inglorious prison superintendent alongside the stories of the imprisoned writer, the brilliant student turned prostitute, and the young boy from Jos exiled from his family for smoking hemp. Just as Mamo discovers the inherent weakness of the “powerful” Mai when he writes his history, Habila reveals the way the superintendent may be overcome by showing him as “just Man. Man in his basic, rudimentary state, easily moved by powerful emotions like love, lust, anger, greed and fear, but totally dumb to the finer, acquired emotions like pity, mercy, humour and justice” (41). The character of the prison superintendent is perhaps one of Habila’s most obvious appropriations from Soyinka’s prison memoir. It is as if the prison governor from The Man Died has been transferred to Lomba’s prison. (And I go on to illustrate this with quotes in which I illustrate the similarity of voice... but I imagine the blog reader will have been long ago exhausted by the length of this excerpt...)


Teju said...

Exhausted? Not at all. Brevity is for the weak.

I realize now, as you point out, that Helon's concern is very much with history, about who writes it, who has the right to tell a people's story. It's a vital project.

I love the way you've connected Achebe and Soyinka to this analysis. The line is continuous.

Talatu-Carmen said...


Thanks. Yes, I throught this was important as I was working on Waiting for an Angel. When I read Measuring Time, I was convinced of it. Now trying to see if I can tweak my thesis here and there to reflect the history focus--but perhaps I should just leave it alone! lol.

Sumaila Isah Umaisha said...

Thanks for this insightful review. I hope you will be there when Habila tours Nigeria this month, 17 to 26.
And thanks for listing my blog here. Beautiful blog you've got here!