Helon Habila is a Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, Virginia and the author of four novels: Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, and Oil on Water. In this interview, he talks about his latest novel, Travellers, the One Read Book of the Month for June.
One Read: How do you feel about Travellers as the first One Read Book of the Month?
Helon Habila: I think it is a bold and innovative way of promoting Nigerian and African writing. We need such initiatives and I am pleased my book is first in the series, the canary in the mine, as it were. From what I can tell so far, the response from readers has been great
Do you have a favourite character in Travellers, and if so, who?
I can’t say I have any particular favourite character. I like them all. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time and I feel I know them so intimately, their motivations and predilection, it makes it hard to have a favourite
What message are you trying to pass across with this novel?
I don’t believe in “messages” as such. Every reader will take away what they want to take away from the book, and that will ultimately be my message to them. But, if there is a message at all, it will be about empathy, the need for us to see the other as a human being, not just a statistic or a nuisance.
How has Travellers been received by readers so far?
So far so good. The reviews have been good. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to travel to festivals and readings because of the pandemic, and so I wasn’t able to get that instant or live feedback. But I hear good things from people who have read the book and understood what I was trying to do. This book is a bit different from my other books, not just in its foreign setting, but also in form and style.
Who do you write for?
I can’t say this is who I write for. One doesn’t write for just one set of people. I write for whoever enjoys good writing, whoever cares about what my stories focus on. As an author you just write the best way you can and hope for the best.
What makes a good story?
A good story humanises us. A good story leaves us with an enlarged view of the world, it takes us out of our comfort zones, away from our preconceived notions and beliefs, and pushes us to a place where we are uncomfortable, and in the end we are happy we took that journey with the author and with the characters.
What is your writing day like?
I write when I can, or when I am inspired to write. I don’t have a fixed time or place for writing. I just know that my mind is sharper in the mornings, but I am often too lazy to wake up early to write. So, it is complicated.
Any thoughts on the challenge for writers in the new COVID-19 reality?
Things will never be the same again. The biggest change, I think, is in the interaction between author and audience. After being alone for years trying to write a book, most authors are happy to go to festivals and meet their audience face to face. Covid has changed all that. I think somehow this will affect the way we tell stories, and how we read stories, but, it is too early to tell.
What do you think is the role of the creative in Africa today?
The same as the role of the creative anywhere: to be the best we can be. To tell truth to power. To resist whatever seeks to limit us as human beings. To push the envelope, to be an agent for change.
What do you hope One Read readers take away from Travellers?
I hope the reader enjoys the story, first and foremost. It is not a sermon, it is a story and stories should entertain. After that, I hope I was able to make them see others as they see themselves: just people trying to make it through this life with as little pain as possible.
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Travellers is available at the Ouida Bookstore.