Mason Professors Give Nigerians Writing Instruction—and an Outlet

By Jay Patel

George Mason University creative writing professor Helon Habila grew up in Nigeria, and the stories of his country helped shape his writing. Now he returns the favor by spending summers teaching creative writing in his native home.

Mason writing professor Helon Habila at the final . Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank.

Mason writing professor Helon Habila at the closing ceremony of the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop. Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank of Nigeria.

For the past three years Fidelity Bank of Nigeria has asked Habila to participate in the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop in Nigeria. “In Nigeria, there is no degree being offered in creative writing. This is one of the only ways aspiring writers are able to take workshops,” Habila says.

In addition to teaching, Habila has a large role in the organizing, marketing, and executing a great deal of the workshop. “The bank has its departments that do all these things, but I prefer to go over it to see that they have the right idea.”

Habila says his main task is to invite the cotutors who will teach with him over the course of the workshop—two instructors from anywhere in the world. In 2012, he decided to introduce nonfiction and poetry classes to the workshop, in addition to the regular fiction classes that have been taught in previous years. Habila chose fellow George Mason creative writing professor Sally Keith as the poetry instructor.

Mason faculty Sally Keith (in red), Helon Habila (far right), and others from the Fidelity Bank International . Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank.

Mason faculty Sally Keith (in red) and Helon Habila (far right) with others from the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop display the anthology of student work. Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank.

Habila and Keith, who met at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, had been friends long before joining the creative writing faculty at Mason. “Sally was really, really good, and the students were so impressed by her,” Habila says.

The American publishing system is almost nonexistent in Africa, and that’s why Habila feels strongly about bringing writers and voices to the forefront who might otherwise go unheard. “There is a need, and this is a good moment for me to contribute in that way,” he says. “Imagine a situation where you have hundreds, thousands of writers who have no way of assessing their work or getting in touch with editors. This is one of the ways, perhaps the only way, that most of them have for doing that.

“There is a huge demand for these workshops,” he adds. “We get between 500 to 1,000 submissions.”

Out of those submissions, 30 writers are selected to attend the workshop, with Habila personally going through each of the final applications. The workshop lasts one week, and the bank pays for room and board. The only thing the students provide is transportation.

About 300 writers applied for space in the writing workshop. Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank.

More than 500 Nigerian writers applied for the 30 spaces in the writing workshop. Photo courtesy of Fidelity Bank.

The workshops are not all that different from how Habila and Keith run workshops at Mason. “We guide them with readings lists, comments, feedback, critiques on their stories,” Habila says. “At the end, we have a grand closing ceremony and invite the media to come take pictures. It’s quite big.”

The students themselves come from all walks of life and very different backgrounds, but they all share a love of writing. “Maybe a few students had the experience of being in a workshop before, but most of them hadn’t,” says Keith. “They were very eager and really wanted to make their poems as good as they could.”

The poems, though, ended up being quite different from some of the poetry Keith has seen produced in the United States. “The poetry was more often political and also formal, with a greater sense of tradition through song,” she says. “In the United States, there tends to be many more references to popular culture.”

For Habila, helping writers from his native country grow and succeed is a deeply personal act. “It matters so much to him,” Keith says. “Helon keeps pushing the bank to do more and more, and to get Nigerian and African writers’ attention. He is very passionate about this.”

And Habila is getting the bank to do more for these students. “Last year we published the first anthology of stories from the workshop,” says Habila. “This might be the only avenue some of them might have for publishing their works. It is also a way for making them feel like they’ve achieved something.”

Though there is a possibility that the workshop might not be funded by Fidelity Bank in the future, Habila is hopeful that the workshop will continue by finding funding through other means or getting a university involved in sponsoring the workshop.

“It’s very moving to see young people working in another country,” Keith says. “I wish there were some opportunity for Mason to sponsor an exchange or fellowship for a young Nigerian writer.”

The rewards for this workshop far outweigh any of its moments of stress or frustration, Habila says. “It’s a lot of work, but it is worth it.”

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of the English Department newsletter, Not Just Letters.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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