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For five hours, we had been tutored by authors NoViolet Bulawayo and Helon Habila on dialogue and the perfect opening when writing fiction.

The fiction workshop at Ake Festival, held on November 15, had beamed a light in a dark place of writing for the participants. All 25 of us had shared a sample of creative works we could come up with in a few minutes. NoViolet challenged the group to create characters and a story from two lines followed by silence. Helon wanted to see what everyone could write with the classic opening line, “I got my things and left.”

Now, it was time to ask them questions. The plan was to find out more about publishing and preparing manuscripts, but where is the fun in sticking to a plan? Here are the questions posed by the group to NoViolet Bulawayo and Helon Habila.


What is the place of an MFA in a writer’s career?

NOVIOLET: As there are no MFA courses offered in Nigeria or Zimbabwe, one should not feel bad or shortchanged if it is unattainable. Training is important. Reading and writing are essential. Networks such as workshops are important. Do that with a serious group of friends and work with feedback. An MFA is still recommended because it is good to be within a community of like-minded people who are working towards the same goal. However, it is not necessary to go into debt if you can make it work with seriousness.

HELON:  Practice, community, and network make you a good writer not an MFA. Also, an MFA degree is not just about writing. The entire program teaches you to dig deeper into literary works as a book reviewer and appreciator.


What is your level of commitment as a writer?

NOVIOLET: Honestly, I wasn’t committed initially. My first creative class was in 2000, but I only took things seriously in 2008. Then I started reading, revising, and finding mentors. My beginning years were more about talent, but with consistent classes I started putting in the hard work.

HELON: I started from listening to stories, folktales, then reading. For the first time the world made sense and stories explained life. I remember writing my first novel, Waiting for an Angel by candlelight at night in Ketu, Lagos.


How much of yourself can you put into your work?

HELON: As I grow older, the work itself becomes more important. Books come into their own, years later. It is also about what gets you inspired. It is always easier to take incidences from your life and put in a story. If you feel you have something to say about a certain situation, go ahead and do it.

Is it bad to seek for a writer to seek validation and when do you assertively say, I am a writer?

NOVIOLET: If you want it go for it. A problem arises with if it doesn’t come. When I am proud of what I am producing,

What advice will you give to upcoming writers?

HELON:  Rather than look for an agent now, start by building a name and publish short stories in magazines. Most agents would like to see that you have published work elsewhere.

NOVIOLET:  Give yourself time and make your work the best that it can be before sending it out.



Images by Nmadiuto Uche for Brittle Paper.

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Nma rarely forgets the books she has read and attributes the reading bug to the moment she read Kofi Bentum Quantson’s two part novel, Mama Don’t Die. Ever a literary enthusiast, Nma is also a storyteller. She reveals extraordinary details in the lives of ordinary people and creates narratives for imagined stories.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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