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  • Behind the Headlines
  • Jennifer Wenzel (bio)
Oil on Water. Helon Habila. W. W. Norton. 239 pages; paper, $14.95.

In the 2001 Caine Prize-winning short story (later expanded into a novel, Waiting for an Angel [2003]) that marked Helon Habila's emergence on the Nigerian, African, and international literary scenes, his protagonist recalls some important advice. "The quickest way to make it as a poet," he is told, is "to get arrested": the resulting visibility will mean an end to visa troubles and maybe even "an international award."

In addition to the Caine Prize, Habila won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for Waiting for an Angel in 2003, a feat that he repeated in 2011 with Oil on Water—without even getting arrested. The protagonist of Oil on Water is also a young, aspiring writer (a journalist, rather than a poet) concerned with how to make it—how to nose out a "perfect story" and convey its "greater meaning," and how to land that story on the front page with a gripping headline "an inch high...that compels the most indifferent reader to stop and pick up the paper."

Oil on Water's Rufus never ends up in jail, but he is repeatedly detained in makeshift camps by both Nigerian soldiers and militants in a contemporary, oil-ruined Niger Delta landscape so punishing that it rivals actual incarceration. Rufus's professional desire to prove himself as a journalist becomes a literal matter of life and death when he confronts soldiers' and militants' hair-trigger suspicions about his identity, his camera and reporter's notebook having sunk in oily waters in the first of many harrowing encounters with armed men.

Along with his idol, a once-legendary reporter named Zaq, Rufus travels through the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta on the trail of what he senses could be a perfect story: the kidnapping of the wife of a British oil company executive. Rufus finally finds the woman and hears her tale, which is at once surprising and bourgeois-banal. While he's poised at novel's end for journalistic glory surpassing that of his mentor, readers can't help but wonder whether Rufus has missed the real story, or several even. One militant asks him,

Is that all you want from me, to tell you whether some foreign hostage is alive or not? Who is she in the context of the war that's going on out there, the hopes and ambitions being created and destroyed? Can't you see the larger picture?

The answer is both yes and no—Rufus remains focused on finding Isabel Floode, but through his first-person narration, readers also get a broader view of the human suffering and environmental degradation behind the headlines.

Habila dramatizes the familiar tension between socially minded idealism and careerist opportunism that inheres in the journalist's reflex of reaching for a camera or notebook in the face of violence or heartbreak. For Rufus, this tension is excruciatingly personal: as a journalism student in Lagos five years earlier, he sat at dinner with Zaq and jockeyed with his fellow students to make up the cleverest headline for an imaginary story at the very moment that an oil fire blazed through his home town, destroying his family and disfiguring his sister, Boma. Rufus's pursuit of Isabel Floode is implicitly driven by a fear that his best work is already behind him: his "only claim to fame" is the article that he wrote about that fire and posted online before landing his first job as a reporter.

Yet Habila also juxtaposes idealistic notions of the journalist's duty to witness history in the making with a peculiar co-optation of that function in the Niger Delta. Journalists are enlisted as pawns in a high-stakes game played by kidnappers and oil companies that want verification that their employees are still alive before shelling out a ransom. (Indeed, this is the initial purpose of Zaq and Rufus's journey.) Taken to secret locations, journalists are subjected to militants' "long speeches about the environment and their reasons for taking up arms against the oil companies and the...


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pp. 13-14
Launched on MUSE
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