The Five-Minute Interview: Novelist Habila Joins English Faculty

Posted: January 4, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

The new year is getting off to a busy start for Nigerian-born novelist Helon Habila. Not only has he recently relocated to the United States to join Mason’s English Department faculty, but his second novel, “Measuring Time,” makes its hardcover debut on Feb. 1 in Great Britain and, two weeks later, here in bookstores closer to his new home.

But such busyness is hardly new to Habila. In recent months, he has been putting the finishing touches on his doctoral dissertation at the University of East Anglia, a critical biography of the late Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera; juggling visa issues for his move here; preparing to teach his spring semester course, Postcolonial African Literatures; writing short stories for the BBC; and tending to a recent addition to his family: his son, Adam, born in May.

“I’ve had to sharpen my waking-up-at-2-a.m. skill,” says Habila, “and my diaper-changing skill, too, which had all gone rusty since I last deployed them on my daughter Edna, who is now 3.”

In the midst of all that, Habila took some time for a short interview, in which he was asked to complete the following sentences:

My proudest moment as a writer was … when I got my first book deal with Penguin [for “Waiting for an Angel”]. That was back in 2001. I felt as if at last my effort was being validated. At last my work could be disseminated; I could share my creative effort with others.

If I weren’t a writer, I would be … an athlete, I guess. I love competitions; I love the intense period of preparation and not knowing what the outcome might be. That’s a lot like writing a book.

The book that’s had the biggest influence on me is … “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by García Màrquez. I read it in my teenage years, and I can still remember staying awake all night to read it. He presents a worldview that I totally identify with, one that’s similar to that in the African folktales I grew up listening to. Although I do not write in the magical tradition myself, Màrquez’ style helps me understand that nothing is impossible in fiction. One simply has to be bold.

When I’m teaching, my chief goal is … to make the student understand that what he or she is investing in is a long-term project. He or she is learning for life, and that it takes something more than straight As to prepare for life. I want to be a mentor, not just a teacher, I guess.

I’m very good at… spotting students who are serious and working with them to achieve their goals. I feel happy when I come across such students. It is like a blessing.

In a nutshell, my philosophy is … with motivation and enthusiasm, no goal is impossible to achieve.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter “Not Just Letters.”

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