Helon Habila is the author of the novels Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, and, most recently, Oil on Water, reviewed in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion. The novel, set in the oil fields of Nigeria—his real-life birthplace—is a memorable example of how fiction can successfully address political issues. We asked Helon a few questions about growing up in Nigeria and the challenge of writing political fiction.
Oil on Water came about accidentally. I was contacted by a film company in the UK to write a script on oil pollution and violence in the Nigerian Delta, which reached its peak in 2007. I had been to the Delta before, and as a Nigerian I was quite conscious of the topicality and the seriousness of the problem, but I had never thought of writing on it. It was just too murky, and often it wasn’t easy to tell the good people from the bad people. I told the film company so, and their reply reminded me again of how important it is to always remain engaged, of the necessity of art to always be on the side of the people. They said, If you don’t tell the story, who else will? Shell?
Of course I have written on political issues before Oil on Water—I come from a tradition of political writing. African literature has never had the leisure of being art for art’s sake. My first novel, Waiting for an Angel, was an attempt to make sense of the 1990s military dictatorship in Nigeria. My second novel, Measuring Time, is in the same tradition. But at the back of my mind is always a fear, as an artist, of reaching a point where I begin to be seen as a voice for my country, or for a certain group. To become predictable. Or I could keep quiet, turn a blind eye on the corruption and dysfunction that passes for government in my country. But I wanted to find some sort of middle ground between the two—which I think I was able to do in Oil on Water.
Art doesn’t tell people what to think, or what to believe or what to condemn. It just shows. And thankfully with a novel on pollution and violence, there is a lot to show. I tried to take the reader through the rivers and swamps and show them how this place, one of the largest wetlands in the world, is being systematically ruined, in just one generation, by man’s inexhaustible greed for money and oil. I am not blaming the government for it, or Shell, I am just showing how we all are the poorer because of what is happening there. Somehow, we are all involved.
It is a kind of detective story, as well, because I think all good novels, at the bottom, are trying to uncover something, to answer an important question, to make sense of why we behave the way we do. It is a simple structure—a British woman is kidnapped by local rebels, two journalists go into the interior to look for her. I enjoyed writing it.
Helon Habila was born in Nigeria in 1967. He is a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and a teacher of creative writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and children. Oil on Water was published in May by W. W. Norton & Company.