Habila, Helon 1967- (Helon Habila Ngalabak)

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Habila, Helon 1967- (Helon Habila Ngalabak)


Born 1967, in Kaitungu, Gombe, Nigeria; son of Habila and Alheri Habila Ngalabak; married; wife's name Susan; children: Alheri Edna. Ethnicity: "Tangale." Education: University of Jos, graduated 1995. Politics: Liberal. Religion: Christian. Hobbies and other interests: Taekwando, history, biography.


Office—Department of English, George Mason University, Robinson A 487, 4400 University Dr., MSN 3E4, Fairfax, VA 22030. Agent—Curtis Brown Literary Agency, Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, faculty; University of East Anglia, writer-in-residence; Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, Nigeria, literature lecturer, 1997-99; Vanguard (newspaper), Lagos, Nigeria, arts editor.


Caine Prize for African Writing, 2001, for "Love Poems," the opening section of Waiting for an Angel; Africa Best First Book Award, Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2003, for Waiting for an Angel.


Waiting for an Angel, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 2002, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.

Measuring Time: A Novel, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.

Some sources cite author's name as Helon Habila Ngalabak.


Growing up in Nigeria in the 1970s, Helon Habila began reading to escape the world around him. His native country had suffered from one political disaster after another over the course of his lifetime, leaving Habila with little hope for the future. At the same time he discovered the power of books, Habila was mastering the art of storytelling so well that his primary school teachers took him around to the other classes to tell his tales. After high school he enrolled in an engineering course, to follow in his father's career path, but Habila dropped out after one year. He was unsure of what to do with his life, but a copy of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel gave him the inspiration to return to literature and "offered him a map to a new life in which he was a writer," explained Frank Bures in an interview with Habila for Poets and Writers Online. He found his way back to college, this time studying English at the University of Jos.

After college, Habila got a position as an assistant lecturer at a university in Bauchi, Nigeria. While there he wrote a draft of a novel, eventually titled Waiting for an Angel, an interwoven collection of short stories about a young journalist, Lomba, working in Lagos during the 1990s under the oppressive rule of General Sani Abacha, Nigeria's dictator. The book opens with Lomba in prison secretly writing poetry with forbidden pencil and paper and moves back and forth in time, ending with the events leading to his arrest. It captures the story of how an apolitical student trying to make a literary career for himself is drawn into Nigeria's struggle for freedom. Not all of the chapters are narrated by Lomba; some are written in the third person and others by a high school student named Kela, who lives near Lomba in Lagos's depressed Poverty Street quarter. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised Habila for painting "an extraordinary tableau of Poverty Street, bringing their sounds, sights and smells to life with his spare prose and flair for metaphor." Similar praise came from New Statesman contributor Matthew Jennings, who observed that "Habila invests these remarkably real characters with compassion, fear, humour and love. They are driven by powerful moral convictions, undeterred by the inevitable consequences of their actions—jail, beatings, humiliation and the destruction of all they own." In a profile for the African Writers Abroad Web site, Habila explained that what inspired Waiting for an Angel "was that I lived in that time and saw how young people were suppressed. It was very bleak and a very bad time for young people. I was one of them. So writing that book was purgation for me. Just trying to get that weight off my chest."

When Habila found a notice for the Caine Prize for African Writing he posed as his own publisher and submitted the first chapter of his novel. It won the prize. Soon thereafter his book was published in Britain and his career was launched to significant acclaim. Guardian writer Maya Jaggi hailed the book as a "powerful" first novel, adding that "the novel's artistry is manifest in the mordant strength and clarity of its language, and its compelling structure." In the Spectator, Francis King wrote that the "texture of [Habila's] writing is exhilaratingly fresh and springy." King concluded that Waiting for an Angel is a work of "radiant promise."

Habila's follow-up book, Measuring Time: A Novel, addresses the recent history of Nigeria through the eyes of a family living in a small village. The story features Marne and LaMamo, twin boys who have been raised by a strict father and their aunt in the absence of their mother. The boys separate as teens when Marne runs off to become a soldier. He eventually meets a woman and settles in Liberia. LaMamo, however, remains at home, where he tends to his ongoing illness (he suffers from sickle cell anemia), and aspires to become a writer. He ultimately is hired as secretary and official biographer to a local politician. Through LaMamo's eyes, the reader gets a look at the political turmoil of the time and the way his own changing opinions affect the way he sets out to write the leader's biography. Lisa Rohrbaugh, in a review for the Library Journal, dubbed the book a "flawlessly written tale of life and love," as well as "powerful, gripping, and poetic without becoming sentimental." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews found that Habila's efforts result in "an unusually rich and rewarding novel, which in its (many) best pages becomes something very like a native African Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Denise Simon, writing for the Black Issues Book Review, acknowledged that the book has its flaws, but concluded: "Habila has taken his writing to the next level. He's a natural storyteller and readers should enjoy this well-written, thoughtful novel."



Black Issues Book Review, January 1, 2007, Denise Simon, review of Measuring Time: A Novel, p. 40.

Booklist, January 1, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Waiting for an Angel, p. 847.

Bookseller, September 6, 2002, Benedicte Page, "Young and Angry in Nigeria," p. 26.

Economist, July 28, 2001, "Prison Diary," p. 77.

Guardian, October 26, 2002, Maya Jaggi, "Out of the Shadows."

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2006, review of Measuring Time, p. 1146.

Library Journal, November 1, 2002, Ellen Flexman, review of Waiting for an Angel, pp. 128-129; December 1, 2006, Lisa Rohrbaugh, review of Measuring Time, p. 110.

New Statesman, November 25, 2002, Matthew Jennings, review of Waiting for an Angel, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly, December 9, 2002, review of Waiting for an Angel, p. 61.

Spectator, November 23, 2002, Francis King, "Black Days in the Evil Sun," p. 67.


African Writers Abroad,http://www.africanwritersabroad.org/ (May 15, 2003).

Poets and Writers Online,http://www.pw.org/ (May 15, 2003), Frank Bures, "Everything Follows: An Interview with Helon Habila."