Tag Archives: Habila

Chamoiseau, Habila, and Structure

5 Apr

I keep going back to the way Patrick Chamoiseau structures Texaco – the inclusion of diary/journal pages, the subtitled sections, the altering points of view – and how this structure is both completely different but also similar to the way Helon Habila structures Oil on Water.  Both structures do work in authenticating the stories Chamoiseau and Habila are telling.

In Habila’s case, the narrator is a journalist; his journey both mirrors his own personal story, as well as his journalistic discoveries. We talked a lot in class about the use of fog, how both its physical presence and metaphoric presence conceal reality from the reader and the narrator. By telling Rufus’s story in a non-linear fashion, Habila emphasizes this inability to see clearly until one moves closer to the source; but even when Rufus delves further into the story he is pursuing, there remains mystery – a “fog” – that cannot be dissipated by the truth.

Chamoiseau’s structure does similar work. While Habila uses non-linearity to his advantage, Chamoiseau uses varying techniques in order to keep the reader guessing – and to keep the reader invested in his story. I’m most struck by the diary/manuscript/journal pages, and how they are not only included in the story, but are also archived in a way as to increase their authenticity. Chamoiseau does not just drop the excerpts into the story; he chooses to label them in a way that gives the reader an informative edge. For example, on page 148, there is an excerpt from the urban planner’s notes to the “word scratcher,” archived as “File No. 6. Sheet XVIII. 1987. Schelcher Library.” This level of detail stops the reader in the dramatic present of the story and makes him or her stop to consider where this piece of evidence fits in. It is a discovery and a journey, much in the way Rufus’s story is as well.

This structure is also of special interest to me in regards to the novel I’ve chosen for my Amazon book review. Chris Abani’s GraceLand includes recipes and proverb-like epigraphs that on the one hand, seem to have no decipherable purpose in the story, but on the other hand, seem to say more about the protagonist and his family. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and it’s one I’m intrigued by moving forward for the final paper.

Boma and the Land: Bridging the Gap Between Slow and “Quick” Violence

29 Mar

Oil on Water ends with the striking description of Rufus’ imagined trajectory of Boma’s fate. Habila writes. “She’d be happy here, I was sure. This was a place of healing and soon she’d forget John, her scars would recede to the back of her mind and one day she’d look in the mirror and see they were gone” (238). Ostensibly, this is a fairly hopeful and perhaps even “straightforward” ending – at least for Boma. However, when considering her character in light of our ongoing discussions of “slow violence,” I think that this statement presents a much more sinister and nuanced conclusion.

Boma is almost an anomaly – her face provides a visceral representation of violence that is actually notably absent elsewhere in this novel. As we have discussed in class, we encounter death, decomposition, and waste constantly, but it is incredibly rare to see the full potential of violence realized – especially when it concerns people. In this way, Boma is really clearly set apart from the other characters in that the violence that happens to her is physically manifested and in a sense, “complete.” Because of this, Boma becomes aligned not with other characters, who experience forms of “slow violence,” but with the land, which is physically desecrated. We have seen this separation between the quick and decisive fate of the land and the slow and painfully “invisible” fate of the people of Nigeria now in Slow Violence and Sweet Crude, and Habila bridges that gap with Boma.

There are a few explicit parallels that between the way that Boma’s face is described and the desecration of the first village we encounter in chapter one. Boma’s face is described constantly as “burned, badly healed” (94) and a “scabrous mess” (109). In comparison, the first land that we encounter in the novel is described as a sort of wasteland, and though Habila never uses the word “scar” explicitly, he evokes the idea through descriptions of a ravaged landscape and also small physical details such as “cracks in the concrete.” It has obviously been stripped and abused, and remains (with Boma) the most obvious and compelling evidence of the violence being done to the people who inhabit it.  

In a PBS interview (see link at end of post), Habila characterizes the “worshippers” that Boma ultimately joins as “people despairing of the modern situation with all of its destructiveness.” He sees them as a representation of people being pulled in two directions – compelled into “modernity” by the oil companies, yet desperate for the past. With the worshippers, he says, he wanted to “[illustrate] the despair that people feel in contemporary times.” In this way, Habila acknowledges that the worshippers are not a “real” people – instead they are an amalgamation meant to represent the shifting, fragmented nature of the true people of Nigeria.

On the surface, it seems like Rufus expects Boma to be healed by this community – to somehow be “resolved” – but we find this is impossible because this community is fundamentally irresolute. While they wish to be Switzerland – neutral, whole, a conceptual island unto themselves – they cannot. In fact, by attempting neutrality they achieve the exact opposite, working for both sides rather than neither. Though the worshippers wish to be a site of healing, recuperation, and wholeness, they are ultimately a site of schism. It is the reason that they can’t save the land – the reason that they must live like nomads, traversing the used up, degraded environment as best they can – and the same reason that they can’t save Boma. The violence is etched on her face. Thus, the hope Rufus holds is false, because like the land, Boma is irreparably and visibly damaged, and will remain so until people like the worshippers can actually attain the peace that they wish to embody.


“We are the Delta”

27 Mar

Throughout Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, the degradation of the environment and the people seem to reflect each other.  When the Major talks to Rufus as they approach Irikefe Island, he warns the young reporter,

–Be prepared for what you are about to see.  Irikefe is now mostly ashes and rubble, bombed by the gun helicopter over there.  Not a hut is left standing…

[Rufus responds,] –What of the people?

–Most of them would still be there, I suppose.  But expect a lot of casualties, unavoidable, of course.  This is a war zone…” (166)

In this exchange, the “ashes and rubble” of Irikefe resemble the detritus of the “unavoidable” human “casualties” of the worshipers and villagers.  This resemblance between the status of the land and the people on the land transcends a mere mirroring, and instead argues for an intrinsic, inseparable link between humans and the environment in the Niger Delta.  The bond between people and the earth is most explicitly stated during Rufus’s interview with Henshaw, one of the “militants” locked up at the Major’s military camp: “–We are the people, we are the Delta, we represent the very earth on which we stand” (163).

Through its role as a nexus of the physical and living, the Niger Delta epitomizes Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).  The slow violence that Rufus observes is a gradual process, as fish, wildlife, and crops slowly die from chronic oil spills and flaring and villages, like Chief Ibiram’s,  slowly migrate from place to place in hope of an illusive better life.  But this violence is hidden in the fog of the Delta, nameless, just like the island, which the group of journalists expected to meet the militants ransoming Isabel Floode; not until page 168, when Zaq and Rufus return to Irikefe with the Major and hear the account of the violence that happened on the island before the reporters arrived that the reader learns its name – Agbuki.  This theme of namelessness is also seen in Rufus’ neglect to ask the old man and his son – Zaq and Rurus’s guides – for their names until well into their journey.  When something is nameless, whether the environment or the people living there, they are powerless, unable to tell their story of their slow violence.