Date and Time
Jul 15, 2019 6:30 pm
14th & V
Helon Habila, the multiple award–winning author of Oil on Water and The Chibok Girls, contemplates the journeys of African migrants in Europe in his moving new novel, TRAVELERS (W. W. Norton; June 18, 2019; $25.95 hardcover). From Germany and Switzerland to Italy and France, Habila’s exploration of the migrant refugee experience through the lens of a Nigerian-born scholar examines the concept of home in the context of those who cannot return to theirs.
When his wife is awarded the prestigious Zimmer Fellowship, the scholar, struggling to finish his doctoral dissertation, relocates with her from Virginia to Berlin. Gina, his American wife, is working on a project painting the portraits of African immigrants while he explores the city, teaches an English language class, and prepares to research his dissertation. It is through Gina’s project that the scholar first meets several African refugees and learns why they had to leave their countries, and why they can’t hope to return.
The scholar begins to spend his days with Mark, a young film student from Malawi. He meets Mark’s friends, a group of artists and political radicals who are squatting in an abandoned church. After a day of riots, the church is raided by police and Mark is arrested. Worse still, his visa has expired. He is sent to a detention center while his girlfriend and the scholar do what they can, with the aid of a lawyer, to free him. Through the lawyer, the scholar learns that Mark is transgender. Born female, he was disowned by his father when he began to identify as male, and left Malawi in search of a place where he could be his true self.
Manu, one of Gina’s subjects, left Libya under very different circumstances. He fled the political turmoil with his family in search of safety but seeks it still. He lives with Rachida, his daughter, at The Heim, a tumultuous refugee center in Berlin. A doctor in Libya, Manu now works as a bouncer at a Berlin nightclub. Every Sunday he goes to Checkpoint Charlie, an agreed-upon meeting place, hoping to find his wife and son, who were separated from him when their boat sank in the Mediterranean.
A while later, the scholar meets Karim and his son Mahmoud on a train from Zurich to Frankfurt. Karim tells him of Somalia and the places they’ve been in the twelve years since leaving their home. Their road has taken them through Turkey, Syria, and Yemen; nowhere was home, nowhere was safe. Finally, Karim decided he must take his sons and settle in Europe, then send for his wife and daughters. Three years have passed since he came to Europe, and he hopes Germany will be the place they find a home.
After the scholar disembarks the train, he realizes he’s taken Karim’s bag by mistake. In a desperate attempt to get his own bag back—after all, it does contain his passport and green card—he jumps on another train on the same platform, not realizing that it is bound for Italy and deportation camps in Sicily. All the stories of the people the scholar has met, their tales of strife, tribulation, and hope, converge as he stares through a deportation camp fence at the sea, envisaging his own journey as a Nigerian immigrant and pondering where his home really might be.
TRAVELERS is a breathtaking novel of the migrant experience in Europe. Compelling, and often heartbreaking, TRAVELERS is arguably Habila’s best work of fiction yet.
Helon Habila is the author of three previous novels, including Oil on Water, which was shortlisted for the Orion Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and one book of nonfiction, The Chibok Girls. He studied literature at the University of Jos in Nigeria and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, UK. He was named the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College. During his fellowship, he wrote and taught at Bard. He teaches creative writing at George Mason University and lives in Centreville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.