Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 November 2020
Helon Habila's 2018 Presidential Address to the African Literature Association conference seemed to confirm what some literary critics have suggested about his 2010 novel, Oil on Water: it is not a political text – or, at least, not political enough. Balking at the label of ‘environmental activist’ that has hounded him since the novel's publication, Habila reiterates throughout the address that he has an ‘instinctive discomfort at being defined and classified by [my] subject matter’ (‘The Future of African Literature’ 154). In this case, Habila's subject matter is the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region in south-eastern Nigeria that has endured unabated drilling since 1958, producing upwards of 300 oil spills per year, in addition to 35 million tons of carbon dioxide and 12 million tons of methane from natural gas emissions (Watts 196). Curiously, Oil on Water does not shy away from these environmental facts. As Habila's protagonists, the Port Harcourt-based journalists Rufus and Zaq, travel throughout the Delta in search of Isabel Floode, a kidnapped British woman, they witness first-hand the widespread environmental degradation, indigenous displacement, and increasingly violent competition for limited resources that have come to characterize the region. Their experiences in the Delta, however, are framed through a detective story, a genre Habila finds appealing because it is ‘a form that is the least political’, one that ‘make[s] the reader believe this is pure entertainment, nothing more’ (‘Future’ 160).In using the detective genre to distance himself from the text's potential political claims, Habila positions himself within a new generation of African artists, including Dambudzo Marechera and Taiye Selasi, who argue that African writers should not bear the responsibility of functioning as their respective nation's conscience. In doing so, Habila not only questions a hallmark of Nigerian literary production – namely, the writer's duty to ‘bea[r] witness to Nigerian social conditions’ (Griswold 3) – but also contextualizes his anti-activist stance in a longer, and as yet unresolved debate about the relationship of the African writer's politics to aesthetic forms.
While postcolonial ecocritics have not criticized Habila's aversion to activism per se, they have taken issue with the role of witnessing in Oil on Water, suggesting the novel pays insufficient attention to the oil industry's transnational reach.
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