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Helon Habila (Ngalabak)

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Name: Helon Habila Ngalabak

Pen or Nickname: Helon Habila

Date of Birth: 1967

Relationship Status: Married

Occupation: Author

GENRE: Fiction and Poetry.



Helon Habila is a Nigerian Novelist and Poet, Famous for his book “Waiting for an Angel” which received a Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best First Book) in 2003 and was also voted one of the best five novels of 2003 by the Observer (UK).


Helon Habila was born into a Christian family from the Tangale Tribe in Gombe State, Nigeria in 1967 to Habila and Alheri Ngalabak. His father started out his career as a preacher working with white missionaries, and later became a civil servant with the Ministry of Works, which meant that the family often moved around when Habila was a young boy. His mother contributed to the family income with her work as a tailor and all in all life was moderate.

Helon grew up in Gombe City, he did his Primary Education and also started his Secondary Education in Gombe but in 1982 when his Father retired from the civil service they moved to Kaltunga Local Government Area of Gombe State where he completed his Secondary Education.

After his Secondary Education he went to the Tafewa Balewo University In Bauchi (then known as Bauchi College of Arts and Science) to study Engineering as his father always wanted but dropped out of school after 2 years to focus on writing. He stayed at home for 2 years and within that period wrote 2 novels still unpublished and in 1989 his father and one of his younger brothers were killed in a car accident, an incident which appears to have informed the heart-breaking story of Bola in "Waiting for an Angel".

In 1990 he went to the University of Jos to study English and Literature, He also studied Literature at the University of East Anglia, England.


With his interest in crime fiction, Helon noticed a gap in the market as a lot of books in Nigeria were by serious literary writers such as Chinua Achebe. After that you would only find non-fictional, religious or motivational books. There was hardly any middle ground for entertainment books and that is where Cordite Books his publishing company fills the gap, producing fictional crime books.

It was in Helon's days studing English at the University of Jos that writing truely began. While in Jos he published a few stories and essays in the local newspaper, The Standard. After his university education he lectured at the Federal Polytechnic in Bauchi, from 1997 to 1999.

While in Bauchi he couldn’t write due to lack of encouragement so he decided to leave to join his friends who were successfully working at Hints Magazine in Lagos. He later moved to Vanguard newspaper, Nigeria's fourth largest paper, as Arts Editor. By then he had started work on what was to become his first novel, Waiting for an Angel.

While in Lagos he won literary prices, starting with the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) poetry prize in 2000, for his poem titled "Another Age". He used the prize money to publish his first collection of stories, Prison Stories, which won the Caine Prize in London in 2001. Habila's self-published story beat such established writers as Nureeddin Farah, Mia Coutou, and Lilia Momple to win the 2001 Caine Prize and has been translated into many languages including Dutch, Italian, Swed, and French.

In 2002 he moved to England and his book “Prison Stories” was re-issued by Penguin in the UK and Norton in the US under the new title, Waiting for an Angel. The book established him as the voice of a new era of Nigerian writers, signaling a radical deviation from the traditional Nigerian story established by writers like Chinua Achebe.

The book is an examination of the military dictatorships of the 1990s in Nigeria through the eyes of a young journalist, in an action packed sequence.


He worked as a lecturer and journalist in Nigeria before moving to England to become the African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

In 2002 he become the first African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia and was offered a Chevening Scholarship by the British Council. After his fellowship in 2004, Habila enrolled for a PhD in Life Writing in Norwich, England where he wrote a biography of the late Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera as a thesis.

In 2005 Habila was invited by the British Council to co-edit its annual anthology called New Writing, alongside the poet, Lavinia Greenlaw. In the same year he was also invited by Chinua Achebe to become the first Chinua Achebe fellow at Bard College in New York. Habila joined the Creative Writing Faculty at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His second novel, titled Measuring Time, came out in 2007 and won the Library of Virginia Literary Award in 2008.


Habila is currently working on his third novel tentatively titled, The Savage Garden and he teaches Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He also teaches every summer in the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop in Nigeria.


Year Award
2011 Caine Prize-Love Poems
2003 Commonwealth Writers' Prize-Africa category-Waiting for an Angel
2007 Emily Clark Balch Prize-Emily Clark Balch Prize
2008 Virginia Library Foundation Fiction Award-Measuring Time
2015 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize


He currently lives in Virginia, USA with his wife Susan and children


Birds in the Graveyard Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz Love Poe
Measuring Time Oil on Water The Butterfly and the Artist
The Granta Book of the African Short Story The Second Death of Martin Lango Waiting for an Angel



Article Credit: Kenechukwu Edeh

Updated 3 Years ago

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