Monthly Archives: May 2010

Creative Writing Workshop with Helon Habila, Abuja, July 16-22 (and an earlier review I wrote on his Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time)

Helon Habila, author of Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time, and his latest  Oil on Water (publication date August 2010–but an excerpt from the novel published as a short story “Irekefe Island” can be read at the Virginia Quarterly Review), will be hosting a creative writing workshop in Abuja from July 16-22. For a chance to participate in the workshop, apply by June 20, 2010. The workshop is sponsored by Fidelity Bank. For more information about Habila’s workshop and other literary opportunities in Abuja, see the website of the Abuja Literary Forum. (UPDATE 21 July 2010: The final event, which is open to the public, will be held Thursday, 22 July 2010, 4pm, at the Abuja Sheraton.)

Helon Habila speaking at the closing ceremony for the Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop, Abuja, 22 July 2010 (c) Carmen McCain

Helon Habila speaking at the closing ceremony for the Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop, Abuja, 22 July 2010 (c) Carmen McCain

In my opinion, Helon Habila is one of Nigeria’s best contemporary prose stylists, although I may be biased as my (very flawed) MA thesis was an analysis of his first novel Waiting for an Angel. Elsewhere on this blog, I have posted an interview I did with him in November 2007 and my thoughts on a piece he wrote in Next questioning the actions of the Kano State Censor’s Board. In January 2008, I had also posted a review of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time on my personal blog, which I will re-post here:

My review of Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time

If you’ve never read anything by the Caine and Commonwealth prize winning author Helon Habila, the first thing to know is that his use of language is exquisite. The second thing to know is that he makes generous use of irony. Although he is a clearly political writer, he questions over-easy assumptions and political binaries. In his latest novel, Measuring Time, Habila continues the project he began in his debut novel Waiting for an Angel—that is to tell history through the eyes of ordinary people.

Waiting for an Angel opens in a prison setting. The imprisoned journalist Lomba is engaged in a battle of wits with the prison superintendent who is extorting poetry from his prisoner in an attempt to impress a woman. If Lomba’s story were told in a straight line, the way it might appear in his prison file, it would be the story of a failure: a student who drops out of university, who loses friends to madness and military violence and the women he loves to other men, a writer who never finishes his novel and whose journalistic career is cut short by his arrest in the slums of Lagos. However, this is not the story that Habila tells. By breaking up and rearranging the linear story of Lomba’s life, he wrests control of the narrative away from an environment-determined fate. The novel starts at the end of the chronological sequence and then circles back to gather stories of other characters in Lomba’s Lagos: a young boy banished from his home in Jos for smoking Indian hemp, an abandoned out-of-wedlock mother, an intellectual in a tragic love affair with a former student turned prostitute, the daughter of a general whose mother is dying of cancer, a disillusioned woman who runs a neighborhood eatery, a man who defies the soldiers on the night of Abacha’s coup, an editor pursued by the police who refuses to go into exile, a legless tailor who dreams of bidding poverty goodbye.

While the form of Waiting for an Angel reflects the frenetic beat of life in Lagos, the small town setting of Habila’s second novel Measuring Time allows for a more meandering pace. Mamo and LaMamo are twins growing up in the middlebelt town of Keti, and they hate their father, a womanizing businessman with political ambitions. They hate him for breaking their mother’s heart before she died giving birth to them, and they hate him for his long absences and his neglect. The twins’ simultaneous desire for revenge and quest for fame ends in their separation. When LaMamo runs away in search of adventure as a mercenary soldier, Mamo’s sickle cell anemia forces him to stay at home, spending more and more time in his imagination. The narrative of Mamo’s day to day life in Keti is rhythmically punctuated by adventure-filled letters from LaMamo as he travels around West Africa. Mamo reimagines events in Nigerian history: the poet Christopher Okigbo did not die in Biafra but instead lay down his gun to travel around Africa with Mamo’s Uncle Haruna. LaMamo enacts Mamo’s imagined story, becoming a soldier-poet who reports from the Liberian war front, and his words capture the spiritual horror and the boredom of war as it is rarely recorded in international news. The twins long for the other: while Mamo imagines adventures beyond the borders of his small town, LaMamo constantly searches for reminders of home in foreign lands.
The narrative of Measuring Time is frequently interrupted by folktales told by Mamo’s Auntie Marina, letters from LaMamo and a professor in Uganda who becomes Mamo’s mentor, excerpts from the memoir of the first missionary in Keti, his wife’s diary, and colonial reports, and the oral histories told by other characters. One of the most remarkable aspects of Habila’s prose is this inclusion of multiple genres alongside a continuous pattern of tributes to preexisting literary works. In Waiting for an Angel, he borrows the character of the prison superintendent from Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and gives him some of the associations of the folkloric dodo, a dim-witted monster who is often outwitted by the youth he kidnaps. Throughout the rest of Waiting for an Angel he references writers as varied as Ayi Kwei Armah, Ousmane Sembene, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Franz Kafka, John Donne, and Sappho. Similarly in Measuring Time, he bundles together Plutarch, Christopher Okigbo, William Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Alex La Guma, the Arabian Nights and Faust legends, as well as references to oral tales and Nigerian video films. The effect of these competing voices is to open up the boundaries between his fiction and other fictions and historical accounts that lie outside the novel. The illusion of a smooth, progressive, and abbreviated history, such as the Brief History of West Africa that is brought to Lomba in prison (as the Letters of Queen Victoria had been brought to Soyinka in prison) is a false one. Habila’s fictional histories play a function similar to the colonial history the Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in which the district commissioner writes only a paragraph on a man who has been the subject of Achebe’s entire novel. Habila parallels Achebe’s fictional colonial text in Measuring Time with the missionary text A Brief History of the People’s of Keti by Reverend Drinkwater.

It is with these “brief histories” that Habila’s project in both Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time becomes clear. Mamo is determined to write a history that does not “cut details” as the colonial histories had—a history that tells the stories of “individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer” (MT 180). The traditional ruler’s story he has been hired to write, Mamo states, is “simply a part of the other biographies…. [that he would] 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 Mamo’s subsequent “biographical history,” he writes of his father the failed politician, and his aunt the divorced wife, placing their stories alongside the less than glorious history of the mai, the traditional ruler, of Keti. Every story has its own place alongside the others. When LaMamo returns with a revolutionary fervour reminiscent of Ngugi’s Matigari, the separate lives of the twins blend and become one—LaMamo’s panAfrican experience and his soon to be born child are given into Mamo’s safekeeping and for recording into Mamo’s history of Keti.

Such a history is not merely a radical rewrite of racist colonial histories but an empathetic window into the lives of even the unpleasant characters. The characterization of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel follows Soyinka’s original caricature, but the man is given a more complex psychology. He is a man grieving for his dead wife, a father of a young son. As Lomba realizes when he meets the superintendent’s girlfriend, “The superintendent had a name, and a history, maybe even a soul” (WfA 37). While in Measuring Time, the sleepy-eyed traditional ruler of Keti and his evil vizier take on the typed characteristics of folktale or a video film, most of the characters in Measuring Time are treated with complexity and compassion. When LaMamo calls the old widows who had pursued their father all his life “shameless old women,” Mamo reminds him that “they weren’t so bad… People are just people” (MT 343). And although the missionary Reverend Drinkwater may have misrepresented the history of Keti, his family has become a part of the history of the town. The missionary’s daughters, now old women, live in Keti, tending their parents’ graves. Although they are not Nigerian, they belong in Keti. It is the only life they have ever known.

This concern with multiple perspectives on history is behind what at first glance might seem to be an editorial flaw in Habila’s two novels. When reconstructed in both novels, time doesn’t quite add up. According to the chronology given in “Mamo’s notes toward a biography of the Mai,” the number of years between the installation of the first mai by the British and the current mai should be about thirty two or three years, yet the time period is stretched from 1918 up to the 1980s (MT 238-240). The year-long planning period for the celebration of the mai’s tenth anniversary seems to turn into three. Similarly in Waiting for an Angel, the time between Lomba’s stay at the university and his imprisonment seem much longer than the actual historical tenure of Abacha’s regime. He supposedly meets and falls back in love with an old girlfriend some time after he becomes a journalist. Yet, two weeks before he is arrested (after he has worked at the Dial for two years), another girlfriend, with whom he has lived for a year, leaves him. The times between the two love affairs don’t quite seem to add up.

Placing the novels side by side gives a hint to what Habila is doing here. In Waiting for an Angel, Habila gathers up historical events that happened along a spectrum of ten years and bundles them into the space of a week. Although Nigeria is kicked out of the Commonwealth in November 1995, in the novel, a week after this event, Dele Giwa, the editor of Newswatch Magazine, is assassinated by a parcel bomb on the same day that Kudirat Abiola is assassinated by gunmen. Of course, historically, the two activists were killed ten years apart: Dele Giwa during the Babangida regime in October 1986 and Kudirat Abiola during the Abacha regime in June 1996. The quickening rhythm of disaster in this chapter of Waiting for an Angel parallels the last quarter of the Measuring Time in which Mamo falls into the hard-partying lifestyle of corrupt politicians, religious riots break out, and the quiet town of Keti goes up in flames. Time here is not a mathematical iambic pentameter that can be measured with a clock, but a living fluctuating force that lags behind and loops around to find the stories of multiple characters. It reminds me of the way time acts in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or in oral tales and epics. It cannot be diagramed into a dry progression of events such as those found in A Brief History of West Africa or A Brief History of the Peoples of Keti but instead can only be mediated through the memories of those who experienced it. In his afterward to Waiting for an Angel, Habila acknowledges the liberties he has taken with the chronological order of events, “[N]ot all of the above events are represented with strict regard to time and place—I did not feel obliged to do that; that would be mere historicity. My concern was for the story, that above everything else” (WfA 229).

Mamo’s story of Keti, like the story of Lomba in Waiting for an Angel, becomes in miniature the story of Nigeria—not that it can represent all the complex and multi-faceted stories of the nation, but that it offers an example of what can be written: the individual stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Habila layers his work onto that of older writers such as Achebe and Ngugi who rewrote colonial history in their early works, and joins other contemporary Nigerian writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole whose writing seems similarly concerned with providing entry points into historical events as lived by ordinary people. Measuring Time ends with the performance of a play by church women’s group, both celebrating and mocking the appearance of the missionary Reverend Drinkwater into Keti history. Mamo realizes that through their caricatured performance, they are telling the story on their own terms, invoking a way of life much older than the colonial encounter: “They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs: they had done this before when they first met the Komda, and many times before that in their travels and migrations, in times earlier than even the oldest among them could remember. This was their wisdom, the secret of their survival. This was why they were still able to laugh… each generation would bring to this play its own interpretation” (MT 382). This at root is the power of Habila’s work—the ability of humanity to laugh in the face of tragedy—the ability to undermine stories that have been told for you by telling them yourself.

Plagiarism (of me) in the Vanguard and the DG of Kano State Censor’s Board speaks out.

I’m still backlogged on a lot of blog posts, bear with me. I will post soon on the Zuma Film Festival, the Savannah International Movie Awards, and the NAISOD press conference.  But this morning, when I opened up this Vanguard article by Benjamin Njoku, “Our Grouse with Kannywood – DG, Kano Censorship Board,” (also found here on AllAfrica.com) it sounded curiously familiar.  While most of the article is an original piece outlining the director general of the Kano State Censorship Board’s “grouse with Kannywood,” the first three paragraphs are directly plagiarized from a piece I wrote (with the help of Nazir Hausawa and Ahmad Alkanawy) back in January 2009 and published first on my blog, then republished in NEXT, at Chimurenga Online, and at Pambazuka News. I thought I’d post immediately, half out of pique, half because the article is actually relevant to my research.

Here are the first four paragraphs of Njoku’s article:

Until three years ago, Kano used to be the home of a thriving film industry in the Hausa language. Hausa language ‘video-films’ are similar to the larger ‘Nollywood’ film industry but are stylistically different from their southern counterparts, with most films including song and dance sequences influenced by Indian films and hip-hop music videos.

A sex scandal in 2007 involving a leaked cell phone video of a Hausa film actress, Maryam ‘Hiyana’ Usman, having sex with her boyfriend Usman Bobo, instigated a change in the leadership of the Kano State Censorship Board. The board had been instituted in 2001 after the implementation of Islamic Sharia law as a compromise measure between the film makers and the government.

The censorship board enabled the films to continue being made but with some restrictions on dress and interaction between male and female actors.

Following the sex scandal, the incumbent director general of the Kano State Censorship Board, Abubakar Rabo Abdulkareem, formerly commandant of the hisbah, was appointed in August, 2007, to arrest the ugly trend. Since this administrative change, controversy has continued to trail the industry as there have been alleged multiple arrests and acts of intimidation against the film industry and related entertainment businesses in Kano.

Now here are the first three paragraphs  of my piece, as quoted from NEXT:

Nigeria’s northern city of Kano was until last year the home of a thriving film industry in the Hausa language. Hausa language “video-films” are similar to the larger “Nollywood” Nigerian film industry but are stylistically different from their southern cousins, with most films including song and dance sequences influenced by Indian films and hip-hop music videos.

In August 2007, a sex scandal involving a leaked cell phone video of a Hausa film actress Maryam “Hiyana” Usman having sex with her boyfriend Usman Bobo instigated a change in the leadership of the Kano State Censorship Board. The board had been instituted in 2001 after the implementation of Islamic Shari’ a law as a compromise measure between the filmmakers and the government.

The censorship board enabled the films to continue being made but with some restrictions on dress and interaction between male and female actors. (The Kano State Censorship Board is a separate entity from the National Film and Video Censor’s Board which files and gives ratings to all films made in Nigeria. Hausa filmmakers are required to submit their films to both bodies if they want to sell their films in Kano State.)

[....] [Paragraph four deleted in Njoku's piece, he continues on to paragraph five.]

Following the sex scandal, a new director general of the Kano State Censorship Board Abubakar Rabo Abdulkarim, formerly commandant of the hisbah, was appointed in August 2007. Since the administrative change, there have been multiple arrests and acts of intimidation against the film industry and related entertainment businesses in Kano.

This is not the first time I have been plagiarized. A piece I wrote under a pseudonym was rather humorously mangled in a local government-funded paper (I didn’t make any public noise about it because I had written under a pseudonym) and several other pieces were taken without attribution on ModernGhanaNews.com and other such sites. Similarly, my photos posted on this blog, on flickr, and other internet forums are regularly published without attribution. But this is the first time, I have been plagiarized in such a respectable paper by an entertainment journalist I have, myself, quoted (with attribution) in my academic work. I am flattered that my piece I wrote a year and a half ago is still felt to be well written and relevant enough to open a new article (with a few edits and moving around of phrases), but, as most writers are, I am also irritated at having my words taken with no attribution and at the subtle changes made to the text to imply that the “ugly trend” of being arrested is somehow the fault of the filmmakers and separate from the authority of the Kano State Censor’s Board.

And, of course, what I am experiencing is common to many other journalists. I have several journalist friends who have complained about their words being stolen and used without attribution on online publications, and I daily read newspapers with “culled” stories from international news sites, some with attribution, some with none.

My grouse on having my words plagiarized being stated, if you’d like to hear more of DG Rabo Abdulkarim’s “grouse on Kannywood,” read on to the “original material” in the article, with the usual accusations against Kannywood (amongst many others) that

five percent of their immediate concern is to copy other people’s works at a cheap rate.

yeah, that’s apparently not too unusual in other media either…

In other recent news on the Head of the Kano State Censorship board, apparently Rabo Abdulkarim was involved in an altercations with filmmakers in Kaduna after he made accusations on Radio DITV in Kaduna about Hausa filmmakers making blue films. For more information on the gathering of filmmakers who challenged the head censor on the premises of DITV, read Al-Amin Ciroma’s article “Showdown with a Censor” published in Leadership on 18 May 2010.

11am Press Conference for Sani Danja’s new organization NIGERIAN ARTISTES IN SUPPORT OF DEMOCRACY, Bolingo Hotel, Abuja, TODAY

I’ve been travelling and I’m backlogged on posts for about a month (including posts on the Savannah International Movie Awards and the Zuma Film Festival), so I’m going to start with the latest first and work my way back:

Kannywood star and founder of NAISOD Sani Danja at the NAISOD Press Conference, 10 May 2010 (c) Carmen McCain

11am Press Conference for Sani Danja’s new organization NIGERIAN ARTISTES IN SUPPORT OF DEMOCRACY, Bolingo Hotel, Abuja, TODAY

Last week while hanging out with Kannywood artistes who had come to Abuja for the Zuma film festival, I went with some of them to meet up with Kannywood superstar Sani Danja. While there, he told me about an initiative I’ve heard rumours of for some time but which I had heard no details on until this point. Sani Danja told me that the political conflict in Kano between the film industry and the government has instigated him and other artistes from Kannywood and other parts of Nigeria to become more politically involved, resulting in the formation of an organization, Nigerian Artistes in Support of Democracy (NAISOD). His vision is to create a platform under which artistes from all over the country, not just the north, can 1) advocate for themselves and protest the sort of arrests etc going on in Kano, 2) more generally support democracy a) through non-partisan support of candidates (from any party) they think will support democracy in the upcoming elections, b) through creating awareness, internally (rather than externally through NGO’s etc) motivated, about other social issues such as HIV awareness or peace building. Danja felt that with the influence artistes have through their large fan base, that it was their duty to become involved in more creating social awareness. For more information on the organization, see their website: www.naisop.org

Sani Danja and other artistes in the organization are holding a press conference today, Monday, 10 May, at 11am at the Bolingo Hotel, Abuja, close to the Ship House/U.S. Embassy. I am not involved with the organization, but, as researcher/freelance journalist thought that the idea of artistes forming organizations to be vocal about political and social issues both an interesting and a potentially quite positive development. Of course, there are concerns here: How will the organization keep itself accountable from supporting the highest bidder? Is it possible/positive for an organization made up of many artists to speak with one voice in support of political figures? What criteria will they use for support of their candidates? Must every artiste involved in the organization be in support of a single candidate? There is a certain amount of fuzziness in the goals, which could make it difficult for them to take bold action.  However, democracy in general is a work in progress, as is any fledgling organization. I am generally quite skeptical and cynical about celebrities and their social causes, especially as regards Hollywood celebrity’s obsessions with Africa. But in the case of Nollywood and Kannywood, I think such indications of social awareness and feelings of social responsibility from within is actually a positive development. NAISOD may not end up being the most influential organization, and there may be others that come up, but artistes, whether we as critics like it or not, actually have a huge fan base and a great amount of power to speak to that fan base. More than anyone else, filmmakers and musicians probably have the power to propel the “masses” into action. As such, I think that it is useful to publicize ventures like this, as well as to give constructive criticism that will help artistes become more precise and effective in their goals.

I will try to put up more information after the press conference today.

Phone dead, Friends, please send me your numbers…

[UPDATE 2 MAY 2010: A computer whiz on Zoo Road was able to help me retrieve my contacts from a virusy phone. The messages are still stuck there, but with my contacts I'm all good. Thanks to those of you who sent numbers and added contacts that I didn't even have before!]

This morning my phone woke up, decided life wasn’t worth living, and committed suicide (ie. turning itself off and refusing to allow itself to be turned back on), taking with it all 400+ of my contacts and 1000+ text messages. Not a single number or message remained on my SIM card when I put it into my new (as of this evening) phone. For those of you who know me in real life and have my phone number, please send me a text with your name so that I can save it in my phone, or if you don’t have my phone number but want me to have your contact info, you can send me an email or write a comment in the comments section, which I will not publish (if you have commented before don’t do this, because wordpress automatically publishes people it recognizes as having commented before). I’m hoping that the numbers will be able to be retrieved from my old phone, but, since there are none on my sim card, I’m not optimistic.

Thanks.