Tag Archives: Helon Habila

Making Time Spectacular: the slow, violent journey from Conrad to Habila

29 Mar

What made me feel the most excited about Helon Habila’s ‘Oil on Water’ was the fact that for me, this book marked a clear departure from “classic” post-colonial literature (in particular, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’) towards writing that is far more grounded in the modern, multiple realities of post-colonialism as they exist today. Where the concern in the past was always the colonizing power of the center over the periphery, as well as the role (and use of) dichotomies and unsustainable positions, it can be argued that the concern of the modern post-colonial novel is with the newer forces of colonization, whether it is the privatization of public resources or environmental degradation brought about by the new colonizers: multi-national corporations, engaged in the age old post-colonial hunt for resources.

In a blogpost written for Nieman Storyboard, Rob Nixon points out effective storytelling techniques for approaching the issues raised by the slow violence of systematic environmental degradation or by association, socio-political corruption that has the most deleterious impact on populations that live on the periphery of society. Nixon places importance on these techniques by underlining the need to make unspectacular time spectacular, in order to create an impact on the reader.

For many of us I’m sure, the parallels between ‘Heart of Darkness’ (HoD) and ‘Oil on Water’ began with the opening section of Habila’s novel, which clearly situates the plot as a memory, recalled by the narrator (Rufus) in much the same way Marlow recalls the story he tells his companions as they wait for the tide.  In addition, this same retelling includes references to the role of fog, literal and metaphorical, that accompanies both first person narratives:

I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions.

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air.

Previously, we analyzed the mention of fog in Conrad’s HoD as a tool used by the author to convey not only the confusion felt by the white colonizer in attempting to navigate the “dark continent”, but also to describe how moving from the center (England) to the periphery (the African continent) within HoD constituted what Fabian described as a “denial of Coevalness”

Habila in ‘Oil on Water’ however, does not focus on the issue of center-periphery to arrive at a new discourse as much as he focuses on highlighting how the process of uncovering the truth about a situation (here, the kidnapping of James Floode’s wife) moves from a place of false assumptions and platitudes (physically– Nigeria’s urban centers, metaphorically conveyed by Floode’s own attitudes– “you people”– as well as the out-of-placeness of the Lagos journalists) through a “fog” of lies and corruption, towards the final truths revealed to the narrator by multiple voices— Isabel Floode, the kidnapped victim,  being just one– which are situated in Nigeria’s deltaic periphery, namely the island of Irikefe.

One of the storytelling devices Rob Nixon puts forth in his ‘Slow Violence’ is the use of “powerful analogies”, which Nixon suggests is effective when calling attention to the slow and violent fall-out of an occurrence of  environmental degradation. In addition, Nixon goes on to refer to the importance of rejecting “conventional narrative frameworks”, of telling stories “no one else can tell”, of “re-configuring big stories on a human scale”  and of using “striking” imagery.

Habila achieves all these approaches in ‘Oil on Water’, even while in some instances riffing off of Conrad’s HoD– there is a journey by boat undertaken; there are parallels drawn between the two primary characters, Rufus and Zaq, in a way that is similar to those drawn between Marlow and Kurtz; there is oil where Conrad had ivory, and the mysterious character who is overcome and changed forever by living with the natives is not Kurtz but Isabel Floode. There are also parallels between the light and the dark, the aforementioned fog, and the use of the first person narrative.

What I have come to appreciate most about Habila’s techniques and content is that unlike Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an effort to “write back” with regards to the implications contained within the text of Jane Eyre and thereby was limited by this approach, Habila uses Conrad’s HoD as a jumping off point, linking to it in his writing only for the purpose of illustrating ways in which Nigeria is still being colonized in our supposedly modern and informed world. By doing so, I feel, Habila has successfully pointed out the still-relevant need to study and speak of Post Colonialism in new ways, bringing it out of (reflective, passive) literature and into the active world of International Development, non-renewable resource hunting and environmental degradation, while still having written a literary work that can hold its own comfortably in the Post Colonial canon.

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The Bigger Picture

29 Mar

Oil and Water is an admirable novel. One of the chief obstacles in presenting the story of the Niger Delta to a global audience (OoW has truly reached a global audience, being translated into many languages) is turning staggering information regarding environmental damages and human casualties into something understandable on a human level. One of Habila’s achievements is creating a narrative that avoids a simple and obvious binary while providing a vivid description of the hard truths about the region, achieving a political (and moral) goal through a seemingly simple first person narrative.

Mirroring the author, Rufus is set in motion by the kidnapping of Isabel. Henshaw admonishes him for focusing on the kidnapping, “Is that all you want from me, to tell you whether some foreign hostage is alive or not? Who is she in the context of the war that’s going on out there, the hopes and ambitions being created and destroyed? Can’t you see the larger picture?” The quote could be read as the author questioning himself and opening the novel to bigger ideas than the search for the kidnapped woman or perhaps instructing the reader to not limit themselves to a surface level reading. Rufus pieces together the larger picture by gathering nearly everyone’s story, from militants, to villagers, to Saloman. Only the delta villagers are presented as noble or completely helpful. No others–not the militants, the military, or the existing newspapers–are spared at least a somewhat unflattering presentation.

Rufus’ journey paints a bleak picture, one not lacking in complexity. One of the best bits of writing is when one of the captive militants says, “We have a slight problem, that’s all. Each of us is here for a different reason.” The delta not only suffers from the conflict between the militants and the oil company (and, by proxy, the Nigerian military) but also from the different militant groups who counterintuitively have different goals and operate in different ways, none of them less harmful to the villagers and the land than the other.

Kathleen rightly points out the novel’s ambiguous ending and how that ties into the idea that there is no satisfactory solution for the situation in the delta. I believe the ending also purposefully veers away from Isabel as a sign that Rufus has seen the larger picture. The real purpose of Rufus’ journey was to chronicle everything he had seen, from the damage to the land to the hypocrisy of the Professor (“everything we do is for the people”). Isabel’s fate was never that important after all.

I would remiss to not also mention that in addition to a solid event plot story, Habila creates powerful and evocative images. The worshipers trying to wash the blood spots from their robes and the dousing of a man in oil are unforgettable. Occasionally, the author provides bits of wisdom such as “educate yourself and you will see the world in a different way,” but avoids making OoW overtly didactic.


Last semester, Marionne Ingram, a holocaust survivor and author, spoke with my creative nonfiction workshop. Her goal in writing was inspire humanity to avoid repeating the atrocities she had witness but her method was not to produce work that was prescriptive to akin to an op-ed but to chronicle the atrocities as accurately as possible and thus leave the reader with no option but to reach the conclusion she desired. Habila has produced a similar result with OoW. Unlike the holocaust, however, his own native tragedy continues to this day.