The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived–not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.
-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
This month we travel to the Niger Delta, and I am thrilled to talk with Helon Habila, the mind behind the novel Oil on Water, Travelers, and other great reads.
About Oil on Water
Set in the Niger Delta, this story has journalists uncovering a kidnapping as well as exposing the two worlds of oil: rich barons taking what they want while contaminating waters, destroying villages, and killing animals and plants vs. those who are on the other side of the equation, living in fear, without clean water and healthy fish and livestock. Arisen from the latter side is an animist cult with a militant leader. Habila’s novel seems to also looks into the capability of journalism to effect change. The author’s descriptions bring the reader into the story. Reading from Canada, I felt I walked into the sad streets of Niger’s Delta region, and my heart broke.
About the Niger Delta
The delta consists of nine states in southern Nigeria, fed by the Niger River, on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. This area has three major deltas (western, central, and eastern) and is home to one of the highest density-packed populations in the world: around thirty million. Nigeria is not only West Africa’s largest producer of petroleum but is sometimes called “Oil Rivers” due to the fact it was once a major producer of palm oil.
According to Stakeholder Democracy, some of the largest problems in the area are energy poverty and access to energy, poor democratic practices, oil spills and gas flaring, poor governance and service, land clearances and displacements, and subjugation of women. It is a place that has big oil revenues that do not benefit the residents. According to Commonwealth.org:
Before, the Niger-Delta ecosystem contained one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet in addition to supporting abundant flora and fauna, arable terrain that could sustain a wide variety of crops and trees, and more species of fresh water fish than any ecosystem in West Africa. But the adverse effect of oil exploration and exploitation has destroyed the glowing pride of nature in the region. The contaminated ecosystem has crippled the livelihood of the local people who take pride in fishing and depend on land for survival.
Fiction writers often write about what they’ve observed and are concerned about, sometimes not even on purpose initially. What I’ve found is that authors who tackle environmental subjects in fiction write by impulse naturally. Fiction speculates about and mirrors the world around us, and when ecological/social systems fail, writing about it comes organically.
Chat with Helon Habila
Mary: Thanks for the time, Helon. My first question is one you may have heard before: What compelled you to write this novel, and how have you experienced the tragedy of “oil and water,” which, as they say, do not mix?
Helon: The novel came about not really by design, initially. I had just moved to America from the UK in 2007 when I was approached by a film company to write a script for them for a movie on the Niger Delta uprisings. 2007 was the peak of the kidnappings and militant protests against oil company pollutions of the environment and the government’s collaboration in it. Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hanged because of his outspoken environmental activism about a decade ago. And so, I wrote the draft film script for them, but during my research I had come to realize how important the subject of environmental pollution was, and I knew the script hadn’t done the subject any justice. Besides, the novel is my primary medium and I felt I could say more with fiction than I could with my film script which wasn’t under my control, really, at the end of the day. The script was the director’s to change and modify as he wanted, and I knew that his primary focus was not the Niger Delta environment; it was more about the kidnappings and the conflict.
Mary: The novel is a page-turning mystery, but it’s also wild with descriptions of the natural landscape, both its beauty and horror, as so many aspects of the Niger Delta have been destroyed. I couldn’t get over the many references to death of fish, polluted rivers, and blood running into the water from death. Two questions really: Do you think it’s important for authors to consider our natural world and do you often write about this, whether in fiction or nonfiction?
Helon: I had written about the environment in poems and in other less extended forms before, but Oil on Water is the first extended work I am doing on the subject. Of course authors and all writers should write about the environment if they have the opportunity and also the inspiration. Right now we are engaged in a sort of attritional war with the fossil fuel industries, their propaganda machines, and their paid politicians in government. Climate change is all around us; the science is indisputable The ice caps are melting, the glaciers are melting, and in ten to twenty years some countries will become uninhabitable because of severe weather conditions. Most of these countries will be in the underdeveloped world, meaning in Africa and Asia. Most of the increase in migration and refugee movement is because of climate change and loss of livelihood resulting from that. In Nigeria, we are already experiencing severe floods and desertification at unprecedented levels. The incessant clashes between nomadic herdsmen, who are being pushed further and further south because of loss of grazing grounds for their cattle, is proof of this. Even the Boko Haram conflict in the northeast can be linked to the shrinking of Lake Chad, which has shrunken by about 90 percent since the 1960s, and which used to be a source of fishing, irrigation, and transportation for people around the lake. And yet, the Nigerian government still doesn’t have any coherent policies in place to address these emergent crises. That’s why writers and anyone, really, with any sort of platform, should be talking about the imminent dangers of climate change. We must never let those who run the extractive industries and their propaganda machines tell us what to think.
Mary: Thank you for this. I totally agree with everything you said. Your novel seems to represent, in part, what is really going on in the oil industry in the Niger Delta, but also perhaps in many regions around the world. Has this area changed since the publication of the novel almost a decade ago, and are there any groups besides militants working on restoring the area?
Helon: The problems of environmental pollution and extraction are pretty much the same everywhere in the world—it is driven by the greed of a few at the expense of the majority. It is the same in America, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. The change I see in Nigeria is more incremental than dramatic—perhaps the biggest change is that there is less open violence and conflict like you had ten years ago. The government and the oil companies have managed to reach a sort of accommodation with the rebels and the communities, one of them being the government paying the militants—most of them unemployed youths—some sort of stipend so they can lay down their arms. I think activists are relying now more on the courts and the international legal system rather than on violence, and that is the way to go. The companies can now be sued in their home countries rather than in Nigerian courts, which cannot always be relied upon. The activists are learning how to engage the multinationals and to beat them at their own game.
Mary: Good to hear. Journalism plays a part in the story, as the main character Rufus (and his boss Zaq) are both not only reporting on the kidnapping of an oil baron’s wife but also investigating the crime in the sense that they are hired to ensure that she, Isabel, is still alive. Do you think that journalism can effect change? I would imagine that any sort of creative storytelling, especially investigative pieces, often inspires empathy from the reader.
Helon: Yes, structurally I was using the form of the detective novel. A kidnapping, a ransom demand, an investigation, and finally a release of the victim—or not. The journalist is my detective, in this case. But really the focus of the novel is more about the journey the journalists take in search of the kidnappers, and what they experience on the way. In that sense, this is more of a road novel, with a loose and deliberately episodic plot structure. My aim is to show the reader, through the eyes of Zaq, and especially Rufus, the devastation wreaked upon the these communities by the activities of the extractive industries–the polluted rivers, the gas flares, but especially the violence and insecurity and the sheer injustice of it all. I want to reach the reader indirectly, to subtly work on his or her emotions and sympathies before they know what is happening.
Mary: Just a short note about dengue. I have both written and read about this disease as sort of a trope/indication of climate change literature. This is coming from me, in Canada, and what I’ve read about how vector-borne diseases may move north in future years due to warming climates and mosquitoes moving north. But in Niger, are you yet seeing more dengue or new strains of it?
Helon: I can’t say much about dengue—I am not an expert on disease. But take it as a metaphor, or a trope like you mentioned, for all the changes and catastrophes climate change will unleash on the us in the near future. No community is safe, even though the poorer countries will be first to be impacted, in the end everywhere and everyone will be affected.
Mary: Finally, are you working on anything else right now?
Helon: Well, my fourth novel, Travelers, just came out. Interestingly, and I didn’t plan it that way, I think it is a sort of continuation of the theme in Oil on Water. Travelers is about African migrants leaving their countries for Europe—we all know some of the reasons driving these migrants out of their countries, it is wars and conflicts and loss of habitat, and most of it caused by the activities of multinational corporations who specialize in destabilizing governments and starting conflicts so they can more easily exploit local resources, just like in the Niger Delta.
Right now I am working on a novel I have been working on, on and off, for the past fifteen years. Some novels you have to wait till you are ready. I feel I am ready now.
Mary: Thanks so much sharing so much with our readers. I will read Travelers next! Looking forward to your next novel.
About the Author
Helon Habila is the author of three previous novels, including Oil on Water, which was shortlisted for the Orion Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and one book of nonfiction, The Chibok Girls. His new book is Travelers (W.W. Norton, June 2019). He studied literature at the University of Jos in Nigeria and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, UK. He was named the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College. During his fellowship, he wrote and taught at Bard. He teaches creative writing at George Mason University and lives in Centreville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.