“He said. She said.”
She said: Describe Waiting for an Angel in one sentence?
He said: I’d say its an Ode to the courage of a people who refuse to submit their freedom to tyranny, a literary voyage into Nigeria’s turbulent military era, presented in romantic, and often electrifying prose.
He said: How would you describe Habila’s style?
She said: Waiting For An Angel reads like a novel of memories. The different narrators tell the stories in a way, which seems as if, whatever they can remember at the time, then that is what is told. Therefore, the novel is not crafted in a linear fashion. There are interlocking short stories. There are memories within memory. Flashbacks. So I felt as if I was re-experiencing moments, rather than experiencing them. Habila’s style is eclectic, but what weaves it all together is the lyrical language of the novel. I thought that only a poet could write a novel such as this.
She said: Would you want to meet any of the characters and why?
He said: I would love to! Helon’s descriptive powers are phenomenal. He makes characters so real that long after reading, you still hold conversations with them in your mind. Sometimes you see a reflection of them in the people you meet everyday. Its amazing. I connect with Lomba the journalist, on a personal level, maybe because he is a poet or because of his melancholy. When I read Lomba, I saw Wole Soyinka in prison, I saw the world like only people like him see it. Nigeria, 1997: the events happening, the people, things, places – they all seemed chaotic, but when seen through the eyes of Lomba in the book, they take on a certain musical synchronism with your own experiences and you can relate with him because he brings so much emotion and meaning to it.
He said: Who is your favourite character and why?
She said: Apart from Lomba, two other characters appealed to me. Aunt Rachael and Lomba’s neighbour with the wise, wise eyes. However, Aunty Rachael captivated me. She made something of herself despite her love of “pure water.” She succeeded against the odds and also enabled others, such as her nephew and Nancy. Here’s a woman in a time of darkness, suffering from major romantic losses, yet she found a way to see beyond the misty horizon.
She said: How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately or did it take you a while to get into it?
He said: I remember when I got the book, it was at the 2010 Garden City Literary Festival in Port-Harcourt. I had listened to Habila speak in one of the sessions and I decided that I was going to get his book. I wasn’t disappointed. I was hooked at once, mostly because I have a thing for autobiographical narratives-what Wole Soyinka describes as “Faction”. Its seen in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and BinyavangaWanaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. The newest addition to the list is Teju Cole’s Open City, albeit not stricltly autobiographical, it still progresses on that same reflective dialogue with self, a sort of inquest or search to understand self and make sense of one’s environment and experiences. Habila’s opening passage in the book introduced me to Lomba in prison and the fact that he was writing a diary instantly sparked my interest.
He said: How do you think the title relates to the themes in the book?
She said: There are several different themes. Injustice, poverty; unrequited love and thwarted dreams. I felt that this passage encapsulated the title and the book:
At first I thought it was the heat that made them dream on Poverty Street. But Joshua told me that people could be dreamers even in cold weather. ‘Kela’ he said, ‘people become dreamers when they are not satisfied with their reality, and sometimes they don’t know what is real until they began to dream.’
All the characters in Waiting For An Angel are dreamers. They are waiting for a dream to come true. A protection of their hearts. They want a miracle to occur in the starkness of their grim reality, and only an angel can accomplish this miracle. Yet, they forget that there is a saying, “Where angels fear to tread.” Poverty Street existing in a time of military dictatorship is a place where angels fear to tread. So the characters are waiting, waiting, waiting for an angel to change the wretched circumstances of their lives. And the only angel brave enough to visit this place is the angel of death.
She said: What were some of the book’s theme, and how important were they?
He said: I do think that one thing that makes Habila’s book unique is its deviation from clichés and stereotypes. For one, the major theme of the book is Military dictatorship and how it affects the lives of the citizens who are forced to live in constant fear and poverty, but Habila does not address this directly. He instead focuses on the lives of ordinary people as they try to navigate through the difficulties of living under the inhibiting enclave of the military, and in this we see Lomba as a metaphorical figure, representing the most of the population who seem to be free, but are still in a type of prison from which they seek respite. Their stubbornness and refusal to remain complacent underscores “the quest for freedom” and “the hunger for significance” – underlying themes in the book, and this is very important. Whether its in Iraq or America or Liberia or Egypt, the human condition is the same, the cry for freedom is the same, the proclivity to hope even in great adversity is the same. Humanity’s hunger for freedom and significance is universal and Habila captures this brilliantly in the book. Poverty is also very pronounced thematically, and Habila’s poignant narrative helps us see the paradoxical relationship between the wealthiest country in Africa and her citizens. People are forced to queue in long lines for days just to buy petrol in a country that owns the world’s seventh largest oil reserves. Women tear down wooden bill boards to get firewood for their cooking. Girls resort to prostitution to make ends meet.
He said: If you were to give Waiting For An Angel another title what would it be and why?
She said: When I first read the title and the blurb, I thought this novel would be a love story. I thought the angel would be a woman, who would heal Lomba from the loss of his first love and support him in his choices. How wrong was I!!!
If I had to choose a title, I would call it, “The Misty Horizon.” This title comes from the story of Joshua and Kela.
One Saturday, Joshua took Kela to the beach…
Joshua pointed straight at the misty horizon and said somewhere on the other side lay America. He said if the vast ocean were magically shrunk into a tiny brook, or a narrow river, we could be staring at some beach on the American coast –New York, perhaps. He said the world was not as big and incomprehensible as some people would have us believe. He said everything lay within our grasp, if only we cared to reach out boldly.
I feel that there is some truth in the last statement, especially if one’s destiny is tied to greatness. However, the reality is that the world is set up in such a way that there will always be people who struggle until the day they die. Usually, these are the people born in areas of deprivation. Ordinary citizens. Life for them is a misty horizon. What goodness is there for them seems to always be out of their reach. Lomba reached out boldly. So did Joshua. So did Osikutu. So did James. They wanted only freedom in different ways, yet freedom was somewhere in the misty horizon. A thing unseen.
She said: Were there any particular quotes that stood out for you? Why?
He said: Yeah, lots of them! The book is almost a library of quotes and poetry. I like this one particularly:
“I was aware of the curious eyes staring at me. I closed mine. I willed my mind over the prison walls to other places. Free. I dreamt of standing under the stars, my hands raised, their tips touching the blinking, pulsating electricity of the stars. The rain would be falling. There’d be nothing else: Just me and rain and stars and my feet on the wet, downy grass earthing the electricity of freedom.”
This is awesome! The Imagery is powerful!
He said: What part of the book resonates with you the most?
She said: The second chapter! Angel. The story of the fortune teller, who “listens to the waves for tales of other shores.” He said, “Youth. That is one thing the waves never return to us. Once lost, it is gone forever.”
The fortune teller and the words he uttered tapped into something deep in me. It made me remember what caused the fracture of the African world. The lives that were never returned to Africa. The lives that would one day become me, a woman born in the West Indies. And what of those the waves did not take? They learned there is no doctrine of human equality or equal justice. “Centuries of this produced the amazing outcome: Blacks became their own worst enemies.”
So Waiting For An Angel, a novel about military dictatorship is also a novel about cause and effects. It is about the flow of time. The wave of history. The cause: Slavery. Colonialism.It could be argued that Colonial rule in Nigeria was a model of dictatorship. The effects…we see it everywhere and read it here.
Another issue that was also striking for me, in this chapter, was the fate of three young Black men: death, prison and mental health issues. (Although, it was not until the third chapter we learn about Bola’s fate). This speaks clearly to what it means to be a Black man in this world, especially a young Black man born into areas of deprivation. Lives dictated to by gang leaders or the police. Lives dictated to by the politics of the time. Although this is a Nigerian story, it is also a story within a wider Black collective story. The names could be changed…and it could be a Jamaican story about the years of political violence in the 80s. Therefore, one does not need to go to the fortune teller to know the fates of the Black men between the ages of fifteen to twenty five, who make up the warrior class. As Haki Madhubti states: “Black men are born potential victims.” Victimhood usually comes in three ways. Homicide. Prison. Mental Institutions. These three paths were vividly portrayed.
She said: What is the significance of the title? Would you have given the book a different title? If yes, what is your title?
He said: The title, Waiting For An Angel is hopeful as well as prophetic. It represents the aspirations of a people subjected to inhumane living conditions, whose rights are blatantly violated and whose voice is taken away. But the voice can not be totally taken from a people, somehow in their silence and fear, they regroup, and reclaim their voice, even though they pay a harsh price for this. They pay the price because of their stake on hope, on an unyielding belief that somewhere in the horizon, an angel will hear them and come to their rescue. Now this Angel, you could say, is a leader who can articulate their collective aspirations and bring them to life, but more significantly, it is an allusion to Democracy, a solemn declaration of hope, a prophetic stance which largely reflects the general feelings of Nigerians pre-1999 when democracy finally came to stay. It is this hope that keeps them from going totally insane, that keeps then moving forward. It is that sense of waiting for something better that is the thin line between humanity and bestiality and we see in the book that whenever people get the feeling that . So I would say Habila did justice to the title, but if I were to rename the book, I would attempt to capture the same feelings that Habila did in different words.
He said: Do you think Helon Habila accomplished what he set out to do with this book?
She said: I believe that Helon showed that Lomba was right. One of the ways to express radical intellectualism is through the novel. An article can be written today and gone tomorrow. A novel however lives on. It can be resurrected, fifty years from now or a hundred years from now, if the author was one who thought ahead of his time. A novel can be an historical statement that is more real than historical facts. Helon’s power was to weave together fiction with faction. And we will never forget.
Meserette Kentake and Chidi Ugbe.
Chidi Ugbe is the Editor of The Emerge Review, an online magazine for African literature and writing. The Emerge Review aim to bring you news and reviews of the latest books from emerging and established authors all over Africa.