As a young man, Helon Habila and a friend traveled to Lagos to meet with an eminent literary critic. The two upstarts said they wanted to be writers and asked for advice on how to succeed. Try to be topical, advised the critic. Don’t run away from the dominating issues of the day. Use them, and that way the writers would always be relevant.
Travelers, Habila’s fourth novel, follows that wisdom. It is the story of a Nigerian student in Berlin who gets wrapped up in the tragic stories of Africans seeking refuge on the continent. The very topical, very relevant novel is a must-read for anyone seeking a human dimension of the migrant crisis in Europe. We spoke while he was in New York for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Shaun Randol: How did Travelers come about?
Helon Habilia: I was in Berlin in 2013 for a fellowship. There was a boat accident in the Mediterranean, where about 300 Africans drowned. A German newspaper asked me to write about it. They wanted an African viewpoint. So I started interviewing African migrants in Berlin, hanging out with them. This was at the peak of the immigration crisis.
Their stories are just so compelling. As an African, I know exactly why they left home. I could see the reaction in Europe, the right-wing hysteria—I wanted to say something about it.
Did you know then in 2013 that you wanted to write fiction about the migration issue?
HH: Yes. I knew I wanted to do something with it. But I didn’t get a chance to do it because I stopped to write the The Chibok Girls. That book, which is nonfiction, is in a way is kind of similar to Travelers—people losing their homes through violence and having to make another home somewhere else.
But I knew I didn’t want to do another nonfiction book. Nonfiction can be restrictive because of form and the obligation to stick to facts. I wanted to be more exploratory with this book.
Tell me more about the research. Where did you find the characters?
HH: The Somali character was introduced to me by one of my friends who works for an NGO in Berlin. I asked her how I could meet people and she made the introduction. She said he’s very popular and his children speak five languages, you should meet him. He told me about how he left Somalia and went to Yemen because he didn’t want his 10-year-old daughter married off. It was a heartbreaking story, but he’s telling me the story and laughing because, he said, “I’m very lucky to be alive. I met people who died on the way.” He and his family ended up in a prison in Bulgaria for a year and he lost his son to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s a crazy story! You almost can’t improve on his story.
Or take the transgender young man in the first chapter. I met a person like that in Iowa. Hanging out with this African guy, we had drinks, very nice young guy. And then a year later I’m hanging out with a friend who knew the guy in Iowa, and he said, “Don’t you know that’s not a guy – it’s a girl.” Everybody knew but me! That was a nice metaphor for crossing boundaries—that sort of changing of identities. So I said, let me move this person to Berlin, and that’s how that character came into the story.
Most of the time when I read news about the migration crisis, it’s loaded with politics, just-the-facts, and statistics. Individuals rarely make an appearance. Your book gave me the first chance to put faces and humanity to the crisis.
HH: Many people have told me that. It’s because of the hysteria in the media. “Refugees are coming to take over everything!” We live in this crazy moment where humanity is hidden, almost as if you have to justify being human.
It’s important to see the migrants as individuals. Everyone sees them as a menace or a statistic. Nobody even sees them. For my subjects, for them to tell their story and to be listened to, I could see their satisfaction. Somebody is seeing me. I’m not just a migrant. I am a father. I have a wife. I have a life. I am this person.
But you don’t know why they’re coming to Europe. You don’t know what they gave up—their homes, their lives. Some of them were actually happy back home, but sometimes you have to leave home.
Most of these people are coming from African countries formerly colonized by the British, countries drawn up by the British without consulting the Africans. It’s as if these countries were designed to be holding pens where they dumped Africans.
Just look at documentation. You can’t travel without documents now. The document that was invented to facilitate travel has actually restricted travel. You can’t get a visa to travel to America just like that [snaps fingers]. You can’t cross national boundaries without these papers. So they’re actually restricting your travel. “We don’t want you to leave the border we created for you.”
And the politics in those countries are not working, because colonialization was going to make sure it wouldn’t work. The countries were created to fail; they were never created to succeed. They are just going to forever be these areas where they will take resources. They will be perpetual sources for Western companies and industry to use. That’s the truth.
Why call the book Travelers? I ask because travelers connotes agency, maybe even recreation. But your characters are forced to move against their wishes or will.
HH: I’m trying to use the word in a provocative way. There are different ways to travel. With travel, the first thing that comes to mind is buying a plane ticket and traveling comfortably. We never think of migrants as traveling, but they’re traveling.
I also wanted to avoid the common handles associated with them. Migrants. Refugees. Sometimes those words are pejorative, used to put people in a certain box. They are refugees, or they are economic refugees, actually means they are undesirables.
I didn’t want to pigeonhole the book. I want readers to think after reading the book—what does travel mean? Why do people travel in different ways? Why do some people travel in first class and why do some people travel by boat? Are they less human for traveling one way? Is there a reason why people are traveling that way?
Seventy million people all around the world are traveling, trying to make a new home for themselves. This is the most defining event of our times.
You have a migrant story. Do you see yourself in these characters? Does it put your traveling in a different light?
HH: Yes. You get to see how lucky you are to travel in this way, to be a professor in America. I left my country, Nigeria, because I was invited by the British after I won a literature prize. I was invited to the University of East Anglia to study my PhD. Then I got the invitation from Chinua Achebe to become the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College. And then I ended up teaching in George Mason University. So there’s that aspect of travel.
But we all have something in common, and that’s what I wanted to point out. There are other kinds of travelers in this book who are not migrants. The main character is a student—he’s also traveling. We have in common the loss of home and trying to make a new home in a strange country, where you are a visible outsider. The psychological pain of giving up your home and trying to fit in is not easy. You have to adjust to the food, the language, the culture. And you’re always going to be an outsider in some ways. You’re never going to be a native.
What interests you about the migrant story?
HH: The psychology is what interests me. Like one of the characters in Travelers, the poet from Zambia who left home voluntarily and doesn’t want to go back. There’s that extreme, where you leave your country and you don’t want to hear about it again. They embrace their new place with so much passion they hate their home country—they don’t want to go back.
Then there’s the other extreme, where they miss their home and there’s too much nostalgia, and they keep pining for their homes. It’s a trauma.
Either extreme is a way of dealing with it—either by pining for your home or trying to get away from it. It’s a dissociative mechanism you develop to evade dealing with being in a new place.
For a writer, contact with place is important. If you lose it, it can be a bit hard psychologically.
One of the characters in Travelers says, “What is the point of art if not to resist?” Do you agree?
HH: Yes. That’s the way I approach art. It’s more and more important for art to become a form of protest. That’s the only thing we have as artists. Our voice. Our art. We live in this world, and the idea of living in an ivory tower is not going to work anymore.
When you look at America, for instance, and the system of government we have, government policies affect us. Artists do not live in a vacuum. Politicians affect you and your very productivity as an artist. So you have to speak out. You have to protest.
And of course, as an African writer, this is nothing new. We have that tradition of writers always being a part of the political sphere. It’s not strange. It’s accepted. It’s the way art is seen.
But here in the U.S., there is some discomfort with the notion of art being too political. I’m comfortable with being called a political writer. I think artists should resist.
Is there something you’re searching for?
HH: I was talking to my agent the other day about strategizing for the next book. I told her I want some success. She said, “Helon! You’re a successful writer! What else do you want?” I said, “I want more.”
Why do people leave home? Because you feel that the next place you live will be better than where you left. Some people think they’ll be happier if they go somewhere else.
The point I’m trying to make is—there’s always something else you think you’d be happier with. I left home thinking I want to be a writer, thinking I can’t be the kind of writer I want to be in Nigeria because of all kinds of restrictions. So I thought I’d go to England or America and be that kind of writer. I’m never 100 percent satisfied.
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